So this is without a doubt, my strangest dance of the year! I was inspired by the polar bears we saw on the subarctic safari my daughter and I went on in beautiful Churchill, Manitoba in Canada during Polar Bear Week, October 30 - November 5. Churchill is known as the "Polar Bear Capital of the World" and during this time is home to more polar bears than humans (about 900 humans and 1,000 bears)! The bears are drawn to this area on the Hudson Bay in the fall as it is one of the first areas in which ice freezes due to the proximity to fresh water from the Churchill River (fresh water freezes faster than salt water). The bears wait patiently for the ice to form so they can go out onto it and hunt for seals, find mates and raise their cubs. Sadly, due to climate change, the ice is forming later and later each year! The polar bear hat I'm wearing in the video was a gift from my daughter who also filmed the dance which was blessedly brief - she couldn't video while wearing gloves, so her hands were freezing in the subzero temperatures!
The polar bear in this video that inspired my dance walked right up to our tundra buggy and stood up on the side of it. He also walked underneath the outdoor viewing platform and looked up at us through the grate! We were close enough to touch him, but we weren't stupid enough to do so! It was an amazing experience to lock eyes with an apex predator in the wild like that! Our guide estimated he probably weighs 1,000 pounds and his feet are about 12 inches wide! They function like snowshoes and are perfect for walking across the snow and ice.
The tour company we chose is Frontiers North Adventures and our safari lasted four days. In addition to the tundra buggy rides to see the bears, we also went dog sledding with Wapusk Adventures, enjoyed presentations by Indigenous members of the community, visited the Itsanitaq Museum and historic sites and viewed the various art installations around town, including several large murals painted by local artists.
We saw over a dozen bears on our two days out on the tundra and were delighted to see them in action, not just dozing in the snow! We watched a female stalk a seal from the shoreline and actually jump into the water in pursuit. Unfortunately, the seal swam too far away and she gave up the chase after a few yards into the water. Another highlight was watching two young adult males sparring or "play fighting" with each other. They do this to gauge their strength for springtime battles when the fighting is more serious as they compete for mates. And of course, watching a mother with her cub following close on her heels brought many smiles. At one point, when the mother was lying down, the cub snuggled up close to her and draped its head over her side. Our expert guide, Duane Collins, told us the cub had already spent one season out on the ice. They nurse for two years, at which time they will be as large as their mothers!
In addition to the bears, we also saw a red fox, arctic fox and ptarmigan birds.
One of our stops on the tour was the headquarters of Polar Bears International which is an environmental agency devoted to the study and preservation of polar bears. They have a research buggy on the tundra where they collect data and are working on better methods of tagging the bears to monitor their behavior, etc. Some of the PBI scientists talked with our group about the impact of climate change on the bears and urged us to get involved in advocacy efforts. Seeing the bears in their natural habitat really gave us a better understanding of the challenges they face due to their dependence on the seals as their primary source of food.
The Polar Bear Alert System in Churchill does an outstanding job of keeping both people and bears safe as they coexist in this very special place. There is a huge emphasis on safe practices and we felt we were well informed about the need to be vigilant and aware as we walked about the town since the bears frequently do wander into town. We were told not to be outside very early in the morning or after 10:00 PM, and to be careful not to walk too close to buildings since we might turn a corner and have a surprise encounter with a bear. We were there on Halloween and the volunteer firefighters, the alert system staff and the police were out patrolling so the kids could safely do their trick-or-treating!
I'm not a huge fan of cold weather and probably would not have chosen to go to Churchill had it not been for my daughter whose idea this was! She loves the bears so much, and I'll always treasure this special mother/daughter adventure! Being there also reminded me of my father who passed away in 2012. He shared my daughter's special affinity for polar bears, telling me many times how beautiful and majestic he found them to be and how worried he was about their future. I'm so grateful for the opportunity to see the bears in such a magical place and pray daily for their well-being. I'm also inspired to continue to vote for leaders who will enact legislation to protect our environment and to take whatever actions I can to help slow the impact of climate change. I have to especially consider the carbon footprint I am leaving by flying to places like Churchill while keeping in mind that tourism is also important to the local economy there and seeing the bears close up motivates one to want to protect them. Such a complicated and achingly beautiful and fragile world we live in!
The following is a land acknowledgement statement from the "Tundra Times" which is a magazine published by Polar Bears International:
"Our work in Churchill takes place on the traditional lands of the Cree, Dene, Inuit, and Metis peoples, within Treaty 5 territory. We honor and respect the Treaties that were made and are thankful for the knowledge, contributions, and wisdom of our Indigenous partners. We dedicate ourselves to moving forward in a spirit of collaboration and reconciliation."
And my own personal land acknowledgement statement:
"My home is located on the traditional land of the Snohomish peoples, one of the Coast Salish tribes of the Pacific Northwest. I honor and respect their legacy of love for this beautiful land and am grateful for their ongoing presence and contributions."
What about you? How do you feel about eco-tourism? What magical places have you visited and what wild animals, birds or other creatures are found in the place where you live? Do you have any special memories of seeing wildlife close up in their own habitat? Who were the first people to live on the land where you currently reside?