I am up for sunrise. With coffee in hand, I walk the passage to the dining room to see if the sun is even starting to rise. By 7:15 folks are beginning to dribble into the lounge. An arctic fox runs along the side of the building and is gone before you can say “Where is the camera?”. Clearly the fox is travelling faster than I am this morning.
I don my many layers for the first time today and head into the compound just as the sun becomes an orange strip about the blue earth and the dining room windows lose their transparency to a coat of orange and silver.
Then, in this glorious setting things begin to go wrong. Amidst a flurry of mittens and hats, I was trying to manage two cameras with two lens and a tripod. I might have known that I was doomed before I started but alas I seem to have to learn by experience. Had I only gone in for breakfast when I was called I would have missed seeing my tripod topple over in the wind and my new teleconverter turn into something that resembled a slinky. I gathered the pieces, cradled the camera in my arms and went in for breakfast. The converter was long past anyone wanting salvage rights. It was fittingly… toast!
After clearing the fog from my glasses and regaining my composure, I put the 400mm lens back on my D3s (….read really expensive Nikon camera… ) and turned it on. It sprang into action capturing my favorite image from this entire adventure — the view of the dining room with everything in focus! I was still good to go. Despite being elated that the camera and lens were functioning, I knew that the teleconverter could only be brought back to life by an insurance company.
I came to Seal River to walk with the bears, to observe them and to photograph them. To share their space is a unique and inspiring experience. It probably isn’t for the faint of heart but I find the risks can be minimized and the adventure takes me to a different place. It allows me to see the world differently and I seek out that type of experience when I travel.
By 9:30 we have slipped out of the gated compound and are out walking and watching with our guides. It is cold but the wind is soft. The ground has a light dusting of snow that gives definition to the fox prints, ptarmigan tracks and the diverse markings left behind by a troop of homo sapiens.
We are half way to the landing strip when the staff is alerted by radio that there is a bear at the lodge. We watch the water and wander. The bear eventually heads our way. He is between us and the lodge. I guess we are not very interesting, or he isn’t very hungry even though he hasn’t had a good meal since spring. He nestles down with his back to us and the wind. Clearly it is not his priority at this point to entertain the troops.
There must be something about us or perhaps there was another bear in the area that he could sense but that we were oblivious too for he would lay on the tundra, snuggle down to a comfy position, close his eyes and then without apparent cause lift his head and put his nose in the air. Something catches his attention and instantly he is on his haunches with his back to us and his face to the bay. He is up. As he stands in silouette my head says “Oh Canada, we stand on guard for thee” but he may having been thinking danger or “snack” …I will never know.
Watching is mesmerizing. Every step our bear takes seems purposeful but automatic at the same time. He lays and gnaws a caribou antler and then tries to stare us down. When he sticks out his tongue, which seems to go on forever, he grabs our interest. A yawn and then a slow motion roll onto his right side brings his gigantic paws into the light as they dangle over his lolling tongue. Click Click Click. Amazing. He poses and with great patience seems to say…” oh no, more tourists.” A couple of more yawns. Another mighty roll. Yoga in the snow. A full body stretch. He heads back towards the lodge. We do to. Our patience has been rewarded.
As we retrace our steps, back along the shore we watch the sea ice suspended on the rocks at low tide. The tendrils of seaweed are layered on the sea floor. The walking is slippery; the earth spongy under foot.
Lunch awaits — tomato soup, ham type sandwiches, and very yummy butterscotch squares. Even with all the exercise involved with lugging the camera equipment out on each walk I am sure to gain weight on this expedition!
After lunch we are off again…this time across the taupe and orange tundra, striped by red lingonberries and hills of Labrador tea. The lingonberries, distant cousins to cranberries, leave a red tinge to our footprints and are evident on the soles of the bears as they walk the tundra, squishing them at every step. These berries are tart, small and juicy, and apparently are filled with natural pectin and preservatives. They can be kept for months at room temperature by simply placing them in jars of water with a little sugar. No cooking required.
The walk is over rough terrain. The hillocks and ice present challenges. We walk gingerly and in single file, noting the ptarmigan and fox tracks in the new snow. The sun glares on the ice making it shine like silver. We sight a bear, then two, far off among the low tide rocks. They are such solitary creatures constantly engaged in walking meditation or what scientists call walking hibernation. Fresh scat tells us we are not far behind a big bear. All eyes are on the rocks, waiting for something to move. It is really hard to give directions in this environment. “Just to the left of the big rock” is really not that helpful. We follow the bears but decide against heading to what is believed to be a whale carcass grounded on the tide.
We turn back in the general direction of the lodge which is visible in the distance far across the flat tundra and climb a hillock to what was once a camping site for native people. Rocks appear to be set in the classical pattern of tent circles and other rock wells that could have been traps for wild animals or ancient ”refrigerators”. Black lichens cling to the rocks and the ground is covered with tiny plants. I’m reminded of the northern joke that says if you are lost in the forest, just stand up. Although the real snow is yet to come, the oranges and golds created by the already fading light dance on the greys of the dying grasses and are accented by the small drifts that huddle against the boulders.
Eventually we wander over to Swan Lake. This fresh water lake is frozen over and the sun is turning the exposed ice silvery-gold. We stop to play and watch the sun work its magic. The sky is turning golden and there are deep shadows in the snow.
It’s time to head home. Our shadows are long. The tundra is orange and brown and gold. As we near the lodge, the sun is dancing off the rocks exposed by low tide and the ice plates are translucent. Time for hot drinks and aahhhh… a shower.
Andy does a slide presentation on the bears that includes the gestation process and the favorite foods of polar bears — ring seals and belugas! He also notes that the process that has sent fresh water from the Churchill River down to the river that runs thru Gillam has changed the ice formation patterns and ultimately the location of the bears. Fewer are now at Churchill and more locate near York factory as the ice forms sooner there. Those who den north of Churchill do so in the peat on the edge of lakes rather than in snow caves. Winds from the north drift over the openings in the peat, providing protection while the mothers give birth and care for their young. The coys stay with their mothers for about 28 months. Females weigh approximately 700 pounds but males can reach 1200 pounds and be 11 ft from nose to tail. Bears, which are marine animals are forced ashore in the spring with the melting of the ice. In November they return to the ice to feed on ring seals. They have an exceptional sense of smell but have hearing and eye sight equivalent to that of humans. Although our current experience of seeing the bears in the early snow is indeed amazing, we are told that a bear in a field of fireweed in the arctic summer is worth the trip!
It looks like we may be lucky and get a clear sky tonight and an opportunity to see the aurora. Mike Beedell, our expedition leader, provides a refresher on shooting the northern lights and then we head to bed. The night staff, who get up regularly to stoke the fire and check for bears, will knock on doors if the aurora is visible. ….no matter how late or early it may be. Hopefully we will be up again soon.
Update 11:50 pm: I’m just in from nearly an hour and a half of shooting the northern lights. There were millions of stars visible and the air was very crisp. It took my breath away. The camera is now in its plastic bag so the condensation will hopefully be on the bag and not in the camera but I really want to look to see how my images turned out. I think I may have got it right this year!! Orion was looking down despite the fact that the constellation was very low on the horizon so I know Doug was looking out for me. The big dipper was in between two great swaths of green. Wow!… Pretty much covers it! Now it is time to go to bed for real!