Springtime in Ulukhaktok

4/30/2012 9:17:05 PM

Springtime in Ulukhaktok


There are few places in the world quite like the Canadian Arctic in the springtime. Although the weather may still be cold and windy, there's enough warmth in the small Inuit community of Ulukhaktok in the Northwest Territories to welcome a ragtag team of polar bear researchers and make us truly feel at home! Since our arrival we've had a stream of friendly locals dropping by to say hello and offer guidance based on their wealth of traditional experience.

Inukshuk near the village
An inukshuk near the village.

Tradition still reigns supreme in this place: teams of dogs wait patiently on the ice for an inland hunting journey and locally harvested fur outerwear provides protection from the relentless arctic wind. You can't pass anyone in town without a friendly wave and hearty hello. I used to wonder how these towns persevere through the long, dark winters, but I'm now certain that it's the spirit of the people themselves that light the days between polar sunset and sunrise. From the handcrafted art at the local co-op to the (what should certainly be) world-famous muskox pie at the inn, Ulukhaktok is the true diamond of the Northwest Territories. 

When we touched down last Thursday it was my first time setting foot on arctic soil. I'm a new graduate student studying under the guidance of polar bear expert Andrew Derocher at the University of Alberta. Ever since I was a child the enigmatic wilderness at the top of our world has drawn me in. It has always seemed to me that this vast landscape is the last true frontier—the final holdout of the Wild West, the last empty space on the map. All that being said, getting here can be tough and it has taken a graduate position studying polar bear stress responses to changing sea ice conditions to finally bring me this far north. It is one thing to see the pictures and watch the videos, but I finally found the true essence of the Arctic standing atop a coastal bluff overlooking the Amundsen Gulf. Somewhere just over the horizon is the rest of mainland Canada ... but for now, it may as well have been the other side of the planet—the peace, quiet, and solitude of this place is palpable. 

Can you spot the polar bear?
Can you spot the polar bear? It's difficult to find a white bear in a white landscape.

Having waited a couple days for the weather to clear, we were anxious to get out over the sea ice and spot a few bears. Our project calls for the deployment of 10 GPS collars on female polar bears here in the North Beaufort Sea population. Spotting polar bears from the air is tougher than you might think! Imagine trying to pick out a stationary white bear against a bright snowy landscape speckled with bear-sized chunks of ice. It takes a keen eye! Often, when you can't spot a bear you can rely on following its tracks. These massive animals and their broad paws don't exactly move subtly through soft snowdrifts. With the right conditions, tracks remain fresh and you can be fairly confident that the animal is just up ahead. We haven't been so lucky, though. The region hasn't had much fresh snow in a while and the snow that is out there has preserved every track laid down in the last couple weeks. It takes a lot of expensive helicopter time to follow an old track and this often doesn't result in a capture.

That being said, with a little bit of perseverance we have tracked and sampled a total of eight bears! Of those, four were females and we fixed them with GPS collars. (We're only able to put collars on female bears because the collars slip off male bears—their heads are as big as their necks.)

My first bear capture is an experience I will never forget. These majestic animals have a charisma that can never be completely reproduced in pictures or film. Walking from the helicopter toward a tranquilized bear is both unnerving and awe-inspiring all at once. It's a tough feeling to describe ... but standing next to such a large, temporarily subdued polar bear in the middle of the bleak landscape of the sea ice is a one-of-a-kind experience. Polar bears may inspire different feelings in different people, but I believe they universally command respect from anyone traversing their habitat.   

 Patrick with a tranquiized bear
Graduate student Patrick Mislan.

We are down for a few weather days as the wind has whipped up and the clouds have rolled in. We hope to get some fresh snow to cover up the old tracks and make tracking easier on our next sunny day. With six more collars to go, we need to have a few successful days while we still have enough money to fly.

Wish us luck!

Photos copyright Patrick Mislan.

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