The following blog post was written by Henry Kacprzyk, Curator of Reptiles & Kids Kingdom at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium. Henry led a group of 16 people to Churchill, Manitoba, Canada on an expedition to observe polar bears in their natural habitat and learn about the incredible wildlife and ecosystem there.
I just returned from one of the best animal experiences someone could hope to have, seeing Polar Bears on the Subarctic tundra of Churchill Manitoba, Canada. Having worked with polar bears at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium, I have always been fascinated with their beauty, strength, and immense size. This trip allowed me to get as close as possible to these Kings of the Tundra in a very unique way.
But I am getting ahead of myself. When planning a trip to Churchill, a small town of less than 800 residents situated on the Hudson Bay, you realize there is no easy way to get there. No roads go into the town. A train can be caught from Winnipeg, Manitoba, but we decided instead to fly in by charter plane. 16 people from the Pittsburgh area coordinated their trip through the Pittsburgh Zoo and Frontier North Travel. Our two-hour flight from Winnipeg had us landing in the Churchill airport on Sunday, exposing us to our first real taste of winter for the season. We were all prepared for the elements because if you hope to see snow bears, you better expect a little snow. Our expectations of seeing polar bears were quickly realized, when we boarded a retired school bus to take a tour of the town Churchill. We never made the tour because we came upon three polar bears within a five-minute drive of the airport! Two of the bears were playfully wrestling, while the other walked in from the shoreline. At first, we were over 100 yards away, but soon enough they were within several feet of our bus, putting on a show that none of us could have imagined. At times, it seemed as if the one bear was going to climb up the side of the bus, but our diver quickly turned on the bus ignition to deter the bear. As you can imagine, we managed to take some fantastic photos of the bears, as well as pictures of ravens and the elusive snowy owl. The whole event lasted for about two and a half hours and for most people, this itself would have been worth the trip. But we had much more to come.
The next day had us scheduled for something I have always fantasized about: dog sledding on the tundra. Most people are familiar with the Iditarod, the 1049 mile dog sled race that lasts 10 to 17 days. We participated in the slightly shorter “Idimile”. A team of dogs pulled us around a snow covered course, beginning and ending at a warm cabin (and a hot teepee). The experience catapulted us into the Arctic experience. Before snow mobiles, dogs were the lifeline for transportation, hunting, and survival. We now all had a better understanding of what that meant to the Northern inhabitants of the tundra.
Monday afternoon had us preparing for the main event, a trip on the Tundra Buggy to the Tundra Buggy Lodge. Through the efforts of Margie Marks, the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium’s Curator of Conservation Education, arrangements were made for our group to be chaperoned by Carolyn Buchanan, wife of Robert Buchanan, the CEO of Polar Bears International. Her experience, coupled with that of our guide Scotsman David Reid, gave us a unique view into the world of the tundra. David Reid has been living in the Far North since 1989, having arrived in Canada as an employee of the Hudson Bay Company. Since then, he has established his own company Polar Sea Adventures, taking small groups on tour of the extremes of the Arctic. His company was instrumental in the production of the award winning television series Frozen Planet, helping plan the travel logistics in both the Antarctic and Arctic. We were most definitely travelling with experts of the Arctic, helping us understand the interconnection of life in this harsh environment.
Our hour and a half ride in the Tundra Buggy, a kind of Winnebago on steroids, gave us an idea what our next few days would be like. A propane fired furnace heated the bus cabin, large windows could be opened for picture taking, and the huge tires (costing $7000.00 per tire) lifted us just out of reach of inquisitive bears. We docked with the Tundra Buggy Lodge and were welcomed to individual sleeping berths, which included the wonderfully warm wool Hudson Bay Blankets. Besides the sleeping areas, the lodge had a dining area and a lounge. Like the Tundra Buggy, the entire lodge was lofted by huge tires. This allowed the lodge to be relocated at different times, to minimized tundra impact.
The meals were welcoming after a day on the tundra, served hot and delicious. Our buggy drivers acted as our wait staff upon arrival. “Buggy Bob” our driver was multitalented, having been a zoo keeper for many years at the Assiniboine Zoo in Winnipeg. Coincidentally, I recognized him from a cartoon strip that he was featured in back in the late 1980’s, when his zoo was planning to host an Animal Keeper Conference. He was very surprised that I made the connection as we have both aged. Buggy Bob rounded out our guide team, we were ready for the first day out on the tundra.
Our days on the tundra provided us with many polar bear encounters, including a mother and cub. In all, we saw at least 50 polar bears over three days. These bears gather outside of Churchill in anticipation of ice formation on the Hudson Bay. The fresh water of the Hudson River empties into the Bay and freezes before the sea water, giving the polar bears the earliest opportunity to feed on ringed seals, their main diet. The bears haven’t eaten seal since late June and they are quite hungry by November. Amazingly they wait patiently, wrestling and playing while awaiting the big freeze. In time, the entire Hudson Bay will freeze, serving as a hunting platform for the bears as well as a breeding habitat come March. Without sea ice, polar bears cannot survive. The locals agree that the ice is forming later and later possibly reflecting the trends of global warming (or, to be more politically correct, climate change).
Of the entire list of things that really make a trip enjoyable, at the very top must be your companions. We had a great group of people, each unique and all bringing out the best in everyone else. There was much discussion of where “We” can go next. Stay tuned. With this trip being such a success, another Zoo-sponsored trip will surely be planned.
If you have any ideas where you would like the Zoo to lead a trip, please let us know. We would be happy to be part of your next adventure.