THE POLAR BEARS AND THE TUNDRA
By Martha Burkard
?When the Europeans first came to the Arctic, they were awed by its immensity, appalled by the harshness of its climate, intimidated by the seeming barrenness of the land, and occasionally enthralled by the wealth of its wildlife.? Author unknown
A one-hour helicopter flight over the Arctic tundra provided one the opportunity to view this seemingly barren land and its wildlife up close. As we criss-crossed the tundra in search of animals, we were lucky to have spotted three moose and five polar bears. The moose were munching on the remains of the summer grasses. Our first bears were nestled in the scrub willows asleep. Later we saw another bear stretched out on the snow. A fourth bear was seen walking nonchalantly across the snow, while the last poor bear became startled from the noise of the helicopter and began to run.
Helitour Companies, which operates in Churchill, is governed by the guidelines of the Nature Conservancy, which is to protect the animals and their environment. Helicopters must maintain a given distance, so as not to frighten the animals.
The one exception to this rule is if a polar bear appears to be in danger and needs care. The bear is tranquilized and air lifted to the Polar Bear jail. He/she would usually be there for a week or two. They are tagged and checked for other health conditions, and when ready they are tranquilized again, and airlifted to a remote area on the tundra. The Natural Habitat Helitour flight was a wonderful introduction to Churchill?s Polar Bear Adventure.
When Churchill and Polar Bears are mentioned in the same sentence people may give you a blank stare; then the question, ?Where is Churchill??. Churchill, with a population of 1,000 plus or minus, depending on the season, is located in the Arctic?s western coastal region of Canada, some 700 miles north of Winnipeg, the capital of the Province of Manitoba.
This remote grain town is situated on a narrow strip of land surrounded by water, the Hudson Bay on one side and the Churchill River on the other.
According to archeological history, human habitation has existed in this area for at least 4,000 years. Long before the Europeans landed in the area, Native Inuits and Indian tribes often camped along the Churchill River. Here the tribes traded their goods, in effect establishing a trading network, which would later serve the fur traders from Europe.
The current location of Churchill was first discovered in 1612, when the British explorer Captain Thomas Button sailed into Hudson Bay hoping to find the Northwest Passage to the Orient. However it was Henry Hudson that first discovered the Bay in 1610, which he named for himself.
In the past 400 years, the areas surrounding Churchill have been home to the Hudson?s Bay trading post, a British Fort, and an astronomical observatory (1768). In 1942, Fort Churchill was established as a joint Canada-U.S. military installation and in 1957 the first weather rocket was launched from its testing range.
However, it was grain that ultimately created the town of Churchill. The Canadian Prairie Provinces needed a western seaport in order to ship grain to the world markets. In the late 1920?s, the Hudson Bay Railroad and the Port of Churchill, with a grain storage facility, were constructed. Today Port Churchill, with its international harbor, transports tons of its ?liquid gold? grain to all parts of the world. The harbor is one of the country?s busiest even though it has a short shipping season from July to late October.
When the bay begins to freeze, the town of Churchill becomes a tourist attraction; it proclaims itself the Polar Bear Capital for the World. Hundreds of people from all over the world come here during October and November with great anticipation of seeing one of nature?s wondrous animals.
In late summer the polar bears begin their northerly winter migration toward the coast. By late autumn anywhere from 600 to 1,000 bears congregate between the Nelson and Churchill Rivers waiting for the bay to freeze so they can begin their annual hunt for the Ringed Seal pups. This is the largest concentration of polar bears in the world. Churchill?s close proximity to the bears? winter migration route and to one of the largest polar bear denning areas makes this an ideal place to see polar bears.
Polar bears are thought to be solitary animals that will avoid contact with other bears except during mating. This is, however, the only time of the year when male bears will tolerate each other?s presence.
On our first adventure out on the tundra, we encountered a pair of male bears in a ?mock-fight?. Two were standing on their hind legs wrestling while pretending to bite one another, finally knocking each other down onto the ground with their massive front paws, ending their play. Both were exhausted, one walked away and the other laid down on the snow to rest. This ferocious looking play-acting activity helps prepare the young bears for the hostile environment of the pack ice.
In order to see the bears up close, we traveled over the vast tundra in a specially-built vehicle called the Tundra Buggy. The body of the buggy is like a bus set on top of massive tires designed to travel over the rough tundra and sea ice. The passenger compartment and a viewing platform provided one a safe, warm, and comfortable way to experience the bears and other animals up close.
Polar bears are naturally curious animals. The next bear we encountered was a large adult male that wandered over to our Tundra Buggy. After sniffing the side of the buggy he decided to investigate; standing on his hind legs he placed his forepaw on the side of the buggy, while pressing his nose against the driver?s window, then pushing against the side causing the buggy to rock. This lasted a few seconds, but did provide us with much added excitement. This curiosity and playfulness stops once the bay freezes. They return to their solitary way of life as they travel over the frozen bay in search of the Ringed Seals.
With digital cameras and food aboard we traveled in style while in search of the polar bears and other arctic animals.
THE FAUNA OF THE ARCTIC
The number one animal in the arctic is the polar bear. The information presented in this article is to help you appreciate this unique animal.
Polar Bears have two layers of hair; the outer layer of glossy guard hairs over-lied with a thick, woolly under hair. Beneath the hair and skin are 2 to 4 inches of subcutaneous fat. This provides insulation and buoyancy for the bear.
Polar bear fur appears to be white. It is not. The individual surface guard hairs are transparent, clear tubular pathways, which conduct the sun?s ultraviolet rays off the bear?s fur down on to the bear?s skin where it is converted into heat/energy. The ultraviolet light is reflected and scattered off the fur giving the appearance of its being white. In summer their fur has a yellow hue, thought to be the result of sun oxidation. Because of the bears? black skin, they lose very little of this absorbed energy.
Polar bear males measure between 8 and 11 feet in height, from nose to tail. They have short tails and small furry ears. Males grow until they are eight years of age and may weigh from 1,100 to 1,300 pounds.
Females grow until they are about four years old and attain maximum weights of 660 pounds.
The musculature structure of these bears is well developed, particularly in the hind legs and neck.
Massive forepaws are larger than the hind paws and are oar-like in shape. These forepaws are used as flippers and their toes are partially webbed; both of these characteristics increase their efficiency during swimming. They are excellent swimmers and can swim up to 60 miles without resting.
The soles of the feet are covered with dense pads of fur for better traction on the ice.
When alarmed, a bear can break into a run with a top speed of over 30 miles per hour. However, they over-heat quickly and must cool down by lying on their stomach, stretching their body out on the ice or snow.
They are intelligent, with excellent eyesight, hearing, and with a sense of smell that allows them to detect a seal more than twenty miles away.
Polar bears are carnivorous with their diet consisting mostly of sea mammals such as the Ringed Seal. The stomach of an adult bear has the capacity for more than 150 pounds of food. Bears may go weeks without eating, living off its fat reserves before hunting another seal. In summer when food is scarce, they will dine on anything edible, including berries and plants.
Female polar bears mate for the first time at 5 or 6 years of age. If fertilization occurs, the tiny embryo will divide several times, then free float in the uterus until September when the embryo is finally implanted in the uterine wall.
Although polar bears may construct temporary winter shelters to escape severe weather, it is only pregnant females that den for any extended period. Bears that do not make dens may enter a physiology state called ?walking hibernation? in which they remain awake and active.
Beginning in mid October or early November the pregnant females begin to dig their maternity dens into the snow banks on south facing slopes near the coast away from the harsh winds of the bay. In December or January a mother may give birth to one to four cubs, but usually twins. During a given winter as many as 100 pregnant females den in this area, emerging in spring with between 150 to 200 cubs.
The cubs at birth weigh about 20 ounces and are born blind. The cubs remain in dens with their mother until late March or April where they grow quickly on the fat rich milk of the mother. They stay at the den entrance playing and getting acclimated to the outdoors while receiving hunting lessons. When the cubs finally leave the den they weigh 22 to 33 pounds. Cubs continue to nurse until they are nearly two years old, and are between 24 to 28 months old before the mother leaves them on the own.
Some of the other animal species that have adapted to the harsh arctic climate include the Caribou, Moose, Arctic fox, Snowshoe hare, Musk ox, and Snowy owl.
We were fortunate to have seen the white and red foxes, a Snowshoe hare and ptarmigans (grouse of northern regions having feathered legs and feet and plumage that changes from brown to white in winter.)
THE FLORA OF THE ARCTIC
The Arctic has two of the world?s most diverse ecosystems: the taiga or boreal forest, and the tundra. In Canada, the boreal forest refers to the southern part of the forest, while the taiga is the more barren northern area with fewer trees. Canada?s boreal forest has more than 90% of the country?s remaining forestland of pine, spruce aspen, poplar and larch trees and represents 25% of the world?s intact forests.
The boreal forest is a crucial breeding habitat for more than 30% of North America?s population of birds, and home to many species of animals, plants and insects.
It is the tree line that separates the taiga/boreal forest from the tundra. Tundra comes from the Finnish word tunturia, meaning barren or treeless land. `
There are areas where the taiga/boreal forest and tundra merge and intermingle, a barren area may occur deep in the boreal forest, while an oasis of trees may be found in the sheltered tundra valley far north of the tree line.
The arctic tundra climate can best be described as harsh winters, low average temperature, little snow or rainfall and a short summer season. The plants that survive in this environment are influenced by permafrost, a permanently frozen subsoil below the ground. In the summer when the ice begins to melt, the water can only penetrate the ground surface soil, the remaining water will form bogs and ponds. Bogs and ponds are a major source of moisture for the various plant-life on the tundra.
With the tundra being so close to the North Pole, the summer days are 24 hours long, with a temperature rarely above 50º F, just enough to thaw the surface ground.
Because of the short summers, 6 to 10 weeks, plants that live in the harsh permafrost soil adapt to the weather by being small, close together and tend to reproduce through vegetation division rather than by pollination. The plants grow close to the ground for protection against the strong winds and the cold temperature. Some plants that grow in the environment include mosses, lichen, short shrubs, sedges, grasses, flowers, scrub birch and willow trees.
Other flora found in the sub-arctic are the various berries; Bilberries (a wild blueberry), Bog Cranberries, Bunchberries, Crowberries, Lingonberries, and the Cloudberries, a member of the Roseaceae family. There are minute orchids with flowers the size of a baby?s fingernail and the miniature rose relative, Arctic dryas, or Dryas otopetala The flower has eight, sometime ten, egg-shaped white petals and lance-shaped sepals. In spring this perennial shrubby ground cover can also be seen growing on the sand dunes near the beach, inland alongside the shrub willows, and in the boreal forest.
There are hundreds of different native plants that live in this harsh landscape; however, in late October there was little evidence left of these summer plants. Patches of dried grasses were peeking through the snow while some of the golden yellow and orange leaves of the scrub willow still clung to their branches. The vivid cranberry red and golden colors of the Bearberries? leaves were still visible.
An example of the diverse ecosystems can be seen in the population of the insect species. In the boreal forest there are 10,000, while only 500 species live on the tundra.
AURORA BOREALIS, THE NORTHERN LIGHTS
Our last night out on the tundra we were lucky to see the Aurora Borealis or the northern lights. Aurora Borealis means ?dawn of the north?. Churchill sits in a zone where the heaviest concentration for this activity in the world can best be seen, weather permitting. The lights began quietly with the appearance of a faint glow, then they intensified in size and color, seeming to dance across the night sky. The night we were there, the colors were yellow-green. It was spectacular, like the entire trip. This seemingly barren land, its wildlife, and the northern lights made this a truly thrilling adventure.
Martha Burkard, Rose/Shakespeare Gardens Docent
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