Thursday, March 12, 2009

I Wrestled a Polar Bear!

Alright....I exaggerate! I have never wrestled a polar bear and funnily enough I have not seen a polar bear for about ten years or more. I lived in the arctic for 8 years and saw a polar bear only once during that time from a distance on a boat trip. My close encounters with polar bears occurred in the sub-arctic environment of Churchill, Manitoba years earlier. If you've read my bio you will remember that I trained as an archaeologist and anthropologist. These have always been the disciplines dearest to my heart. I was happiest digging with a trowel in my grid "square" slowly, meticulously unveiling history one tiny piece at a time or sitting sipping tea with Aboriginal elders as they told stories woven in time and tradition. It was this love and interest which drew me up to Churchill.
I was young and eager to test my theory that archaeology was my niche. I joined all the Canadian archaeological societies I could. It was in a newsletter from the Manitoba Archaeological Society which drew my attention to a volunteer position with an excavation in Churchill. The excavation was that of a Hudson Bay trading post known as "Old Fort Churchill". That summer I was on a plane for the first time in my life heading north! Ever since I guess my gaze has turned northward.
As Canadians know, and many across the world have discovered, Churchill is the "Polar Bear Capital". It is the perfect spot for these magnificent creatures to catch the sea ice in the fall and a perfect landing location as the sea ice melts in the early summer. Mothers den there and the Churchill garbage dump has become heaven on earth for this animal's "seal-lacking", days of famine. Polar bears go almost 4 months without eating...well without eating seals which constitute their primary diet. The summer diet is truly one of starvation. This is why the Churchill garbage dump is so alluring. I imagine this was also what made our cabin so enticing.

The excavation site of "Old Fort Churchill" lay across river from the Churchill town site. Across the Churchill river, through muddy tidal flats, and over rock mounded taiga. Travelling back and forth each day was not feasible. We were dependant upon tides and time would be wasted. Though we stayed at the Northern Studies Center on the town side we also had the use of a cabin on the opposite side of the river. The cabin belonged to a local hotel owner. It was a beautiful log cabin with a spacious living room, two bedrooms, a large dining room and kitchen. To the back of the cabin was an indoor washroom not yet in service and a back mud room leading out to a back porch and the beloved outhouse! If not for the bars on all the windows one might imagine it some rustic resort. Yes, bars on the windows to keep out unwelcome visitors of the large, white-furred variety.
Having no running water at the cabin we chose to stay at the Northern Studies Center every 3 to 4 nights. This allowed us to restock our supplies, bring in new excavation volunteers and more importantly refresh with a real shower. The Northern Studies Center was an exciting hub of activity. An old military bunker at the time it was rather institutional and not particularly cozy but meeting a gamete of scientists from Climatologists, and bee researchers, to polar bear biologists and photo plankton micro-biologists more than made up for the inconvenience! I remember feeling the flutterings of academic opportunity and intellectual possibility. My summers in Churchill marked a coming of age, a turning point in my life which I will always cherish and will never forget.

One of those vivid memories I will never misplace. It was my first encounter with a creature so majestic my breathe was knocked from me with awe stricken wonder. The morning was thickly foggy. We had just arrived on the shore opposite town and after pulling in the skiff began stickily working our way through the muck and mire in our customary hip waders (truly fashionable in the north). As we rounded the path leading to our cabin the assistant archaeologist leading the way stopped suddenly without explanation . I had been with the team for several weeks by this time having been hired a week after coming up as a volunteer. I walked up to the assistant looking askance at him then turning my eyes to mimic his view. There, at first hard to make out through the whiteness of the fog, stood the polar bear in front of the cabin. Magnificent in his immensity. Polar bears exude power, strength.
I do not know how long we stood in awe. Time seemingly stood still in that moment. I took in every movement of the bear as I squinted through the fog and he lifted his nose to sniff the air. We knew instantly we had to go back, back to the shore and the abandoned skiff before the tide went out and we were stranded with a potentially dangerous animal. The silence and reverence of the experience was vanquished by the bantering of a volunteer railing about the inherent danger and stupidity of someone stopping in just such an situation to snap photos as his camera clicked insipidly. "I wish I was shooting with something other than a camera" he laughed as we rolled our eyes in disgust. We finally relegated everyone to the skiff and were soon out on the water again. Helicopters were sent out to scare off the bear.
Our return to the cabin revealed the unbelievable power of the polar bear. The bear had literally bent the bars on the large front window and jumped through landing on the antique exercise bicycle sitting in its path and crushing it. He proceeded to pounce on the couch breaking its legs and then headed for the kitchen. After scavenging the kitchen he somehow managed the impossibility of squeezing through a tiny back window. We looked with wonder on chewed wooden spoons and food containers imprinted with bite marks as we cleaned the kitchen the best we could amidst the slivered wood from torn cupboards. Outside the front of the cabin was an ingenious food cache. The cache had been dung into the ground enabling the permafrost to keep food chilled. The hole typically covered with a heavy paletted lid had been ripped open and the heavy iron wrought ladder leading down had been bent under the weight of the bear.

The residents of Churchill are probably less exhilarated by the sight of a polar bear. They have become accustomed to the bears. They may present a danger and a nuisance but they are also embraced as a part of the culture of the community! Tourists and scientists from all over the world visit their town thanks to the bears. Though the population may seem to be thriving to those who must bar their windows the polar bear is in serious danger. There are diverse reasons for this "endangerment" but the most significant of these factors is that of climate change. Climate change and global warming may be only words to many. Phrases scientists use to frighten us into action. To the people and animals of the north these words are not meaningless! The effects of climate change on the ice and ice formation in the north is so significant that Inuit elders can no longer trust their traditional knowledge of ice to ensure safer hunting and travel. Polar bears can no longer trust their instincts to find food in safety and in adequate time on the ice flows. Drilling for oil and gas, toxic chemicals such as PCBs and DDT are other leading factors threatening the polar bear.

Our government has been slow to act. Two-thirds of the world's polar bear population lives here in Canada! The polar bear is "a species of concern", "at risk", but not considered by our government strictly "endangered". The threats to the polar bear constitute a threat to not only that species but other arctic animals and the aboriginal people who rely on the land and the animals for subsistence and a traditional, more healthy lifestyle!
Another excellent source of information is the David Suzuki Foundation website!
(I always say WWSD, "What would Suzuki Do?")

No comments:

Post a Comment