Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Polar bear season

Bears typically come onto land in June, which is when the Hudson Bay has broken up considerably. Once on land, they are fattened up from eating seals and fish all winter and tend to lie low for the summer. However, once fall rolls around, the bears’ food reserves are getting low, and it is not easy for them to hunt on land, as they are more of a marine mammal than anything. This is when they migrate to Cape Churchill from their disembarking points (wherever they chose to leave the ice floes as they melt in the spring – they stay on the ice, to hunt seals for as long as they can). Cape Churchill is a piece of land geographically set-up in such a way that the ice forms here before anywhere else in the vicinity. The polar bears are eager to get back onto the ice and start hunting again. Cape Churchill is not far from the town of Churchill, so it is not surprising that all the enticing smells coming from town result in curious bears and a high density of these white furry visitors as well!
I returned to Churchill in October to work for North Star Tours as a bus tour guide and shuttle driver for “bear season”, which essentially runs from early October to late-November. It was a short work-term, but an extremely busy one! I worked literally 24-7, on-call. It was tiring, but exciting. Driving a little white mini-bus, I saw ample wildlife and met lots of interesting tourists from all over the world.
Essentially, my job was working alongside tour organizers such as Natural Habitat and Frontiers North, both which required shuttles to their tundra vehicles: Great White Bear and Tundra Buggy Tours, respectively. I gave these groups a tour of the town and area, as well as individual travelers (not part of a formal tour group). Churchill has a lot going for it, above and beyond the bears, which is I elaborated on to a point on my tours. I learned a lot from the questions people asked me, my colleagues who have worked for North Star for several years, and from personal observation. Nearly all the people were wonderfully friendly and excited to be in Churchill, which was encouraging for me and gave me the extra push for the last week or two of my high-energy job. It took some determined driving in some treacherous conditions (near zero visibility, ice and snow drifts), getting stuck a few times along the way… but I made it through in one piece!
On a particularly snowy afternoon in early November, I was digging my bus out of a snow drift when I made an unexpected find: a little black puppy in the middle of the road! Seeing she was shivering and so young, I gathered her up in my arms (with her almost getting hit by a car in the meantime), and brought her into the staffhouse I was sharing with three roommates. We gave her the remainder of a caribou bone, which she attacked with fervor. Not sure what to do with this hungry black mutt, I found out later on that day that she was from a litter born under a house, not far from where I was living. Seeing a potential bleak future for this sweet creature, I decided to keep her, and with help from a roommate, named her Kona; Cree for “lots of snow.”
Kona proceeded to accompany for the rest of bear season on some of my shuttles. She was very popular among the people who traveled with us, but preferred to curl up on my lap and sleep while I drove to our destination. She was excellent company while waiting some cold nights for a Great White Bear buggy to return from its evening tour, and an angel with everyone who wanted to kiss and ruffle her soft puppy coat. People looked forward to seeing Kona and I, their dynamic driver and companion!
She may have been well-behaved on the bus, but she certainly was trouble in the house! Aside from the usual puppy behaviour of crying, chewing things and having accidents, she thought it humorous to snatch each of my roommates’ underwear on several occasions and run downstairs for all to see! She also had a tendency of taking off upstairs and leaving a mortifying steaming “surprise” for each of them in their rooms, before I knew what was happening. She also managed to find a squeeze bottle of purple paint, which she squirted all over our carpet in the middle of the living room… Needless to say, everybody learned to keep their doors shut while Kona was loose in the house!