Two Days, 284 Polar Bears

8/3/2011 5:00:00 AM

Two Days, 284 Polar Bears

A polar bear rests near the sandy shore of Hudson Bay.After a mostly restful sleep our crew greets the day with peanut butter toast, bananas, and fruit bars. After breakfast and a quick cabin cleaning we're off again, loaded into the helicopter to count polar bears. From York Factory we continue along the coast to the east, now heading toward Ontario. The flat coastline changes gradually but surely over the distance we travel. Up near Churchill I noticed more rocks and hard soil. Down here on the south end of the bay, tidal flats seem to be made of mud and other unstable ground. Grasses fill the void between waves, mud, and trees, and sometimes this gap looks to be miles wide.

The land below has very few signs of a human presence. As we near one of the goose camps, four-wheeler tracks can been seen in the river bottoms and soft soils but other than the odd object tossed up on land by the waves and tides, this land is desolate and beautiful.

Polar bear in water
Spotting a polar bear in open water is easy. It's far more difficult to find polar bears when they're hidden in vegetation.

After departing camp, the counting begins again, "single bear, a mother with two cubs" and so on can be heard through the headset. I've been assigned the difficult task of finding polar bears in the willows and long grasses because I'm sitting on the side of the helicopter that's opposite from the coast. Being the new guy I feel I have to earn the respect of these veteran bear spotters, and the only way to do that is to be sure I don't miss a bear and that I find all the hard-to-spot animals covered by brush. So as we fly the coast I don't spot the most bears, but I do find the hard ones.

You're probably thinking to yourself, how hard can it be to spot a white bear surrounded by geen foliage from a low altitude? Difficult, would be my response. The huge white bears seem to have a knack for hiding and perhaps that's how they've become successful in the animal kingdom. The tundra foliage grows thick and most animals that don't want to be seen aren't seen; they're hidden by leaves and thick willows.

Map of Western Hudson Bay Polar Bear Locations

Time moves fast when you're having fun and flying in a helicopter counting bears is no exception. Before I know it we're at the Ontario boarder and at our turn-around point. After a quick loop around an island we head inland and for home. As we fly away from the coast, our destination Gillam Airport 225 miles away, I can't help but notice the untouched beauty below us. The meandering streams and shallow rivers that have spent thousands of years cutting through the soil, creating the snakelike path to the bay, the wildlife carrying out its day without the presence of humans, and the seemingly endless amounts of trees that stretch from the horizon to the left and the beach somewhere to the right. I hope to be back someday, perhaps on foot or in a canoe to get a closer look at this wild territory.

In the end we counted 284 polar bears waiting along the coast of Hudson Bay for the ice to freeze. Little do the polar bears know that billions of humans to the south, east, and west are slowly affecting their way of life. Little do most of the people to the south, east and west know that they're affecting the polar bear's survival on this planet by emitting CO2. The sea ice the polar bears of Hudson Bay need to survive will not return for at least four months. Over the ice-free period each adult bear will loose on average 2.2 pounds per day. That will be 280 pounds by the time it's all said and done. Luckily for them, most of the bears we counted appear to be in good condition now. November or December—when freeze-up finally comes—will be a different story.

Photos ©BJ Kirschhoffer.

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