October 20, 2011

PART 3: Looking into the Eyes of a Big White Bear

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

This morning we woke up bright early to wind and rain! I don’t know if I’ve ever experienced such strong wind.  The way the wind was pushing around the Tundra Buggy Lodge made it feel like we were on a boat.  It definitely gives me an appreciation for both the animals and plants that call this harsh environment home.  

First up in the morning was a Skype session with Dr Steven Amstrup, PBI’s Chief Scientist.  Right at the end of our Skype session, a small female subadult (polar bear that is age 3-5 and has yet to reach sexual maturity) decided to make an appearance and steal Dr Amstrup’s thunder.  We went outside in between buggies to try and get a better picture and noticed she was very skittish.  Seeing a skittish bear around a Tundra Buggy is always a good sign because it means the bear has yet to become accustomed to humans.  Amid trying to get that perfect shot, I put down my camera for a second and just looked into her beautiful eyes and immediately got lost. What a beautiful animal I had standing in front of me! I felt so privileged to be here and see polar bears in a whole new way.  There were no white bars or plexiglas windows between me and this bear, just open tundra (and high winds).  This is their world, we’re just living in it.  After minutes of marveling over her, she eventually hunkered down, in some low-lying shrubs, with her butt to the wind to stay warm.  Since polar bears carry most of their fat in their rear end and belly, we have learned how to judge their condition based on the shape and size of their rear.  We judged this female to be of average condition, what is to be expected of polar bears at this time of year, when they’ve been fasting for 4 months already.  

Skyping with Dr Amstrup

Getting lost in those beautiful dark eyes

Shaking off

We then headed out on the Tundra Buggy, travelling on roads made by the Canadian and American military during the cold war.  I have no idea what idea what direction we were travelling in because I have no mountains to my east for reference like in Anchorage.  After a drive, a Tundra Buggy breakdown (we had to abandon ship and jump on the Teen’s buggy), a couple more polar bear sightings (bringing the total to 7 different individuals so far) and a snowshoe hare trying to stay dry, we headed back to the lodge for yet another Skype session, this time with Dr Andrew Derocher, a Professor of Biology with the University of Alberta.  He has done years of research on the South Beaufort Sea polar bear population in Alaska so it was very especially interesting to hear about his research.  The night ended with a presentation from John Gunter, CEO of Frontiers North Adventures, the company that gratefully donates the lodge and Tundra Buggies to PBI during leadership camp and while polar bear scientists are in town. 

Male sleeping and trying to stay dry in the willows outside the lodge

Arctic hare

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