GRIN & PO­LAR BEAR IT

Broth­ers turn fa­ther’s trapline into eco-tourism des­ti­na­tion

Winnipeg Free Press - Section F - - FRONT PAGE - By Kelsey Elias­son

SNOW crys­tals swirl around tripods and over-sized parkas. A thin line of cam­eras and over-sized lenses stretches across the frozen lake. A few hardy pho­tog­ra­phers stand ready, shuf­fling in their win­ter boots, wait­ing to fill mem­ory cards at a mo­ment’s no­tice. Be­hind us, four off-road vans com­prise the sec­ond line of de­fence. Lenses, vans and ea­ger stares are all fo­cused on a non-de­script snow­drift. This is a sub­arc­tic stake­out.

In­side that snow­bank, a po­lar bear tends her two young cubs nestling in their win­ter den. The cubs have known noth­ing of the out­side world, only the warmth and safety of their den. Their mother has not eaten in eight months, she is ea­ger to get out on the ice. The cubs, for their part, are OK with stay­ing in­side. At least, we think they are in­side.

Watchee Lodge lies south of Churchill, some 65 kilo­me­tres by rail. Of course, as the train drops you and your gear off in the early arc­tic dawn, it might as well be the moon. Lug­gage is quickly loaded into wait­ing vans, armed with rub­ber tracks and re­in­forced sus­pen­sion. Snow kicks up as we head to­ward one of the most im­por­tant po­lar bear den­ning ar­eas in the world.

This is the only lodge in the world where you can pho­to­graph ‘new­born’ cubs emerg­ing from the den. Abo­rig­i­nal-owned and op­er­ated, it is one of the most sought af­ter des­ti­na­tions for pro­fes­sional pho­tog­ra­phers. It has been 20 years since Mike and Mor­ris Spence de­cided to con­vert their fa­ther’s trapline into a tourism busi­ness.

Mike ex­plains, “The po­lar bear in­dus­try re­ally ex­ploded in the 1990s in Churchill. There was a lot of op­por­tu­nity. We al­ways knew that there were moth­ers and cubs in this area (their fa­ther, Jarvis Spence’s trapline), es­pe­cially Fletcher Lake.”

“Me and Mor­ris talked about it and fig­ured we’d give it a go.” He pauses and laughs, “We asked the old man for per­mis­sion. He said he thought we were crazy!

“Our first clients were from France, a fam­ily trip. No one had ever done this be­fore. We loaded ev­ery­one into Bom­bardiers (half-track ve­hi­cles with skis for steer­ing) and headed out. We were re­ally in­vent­ing the wheel while we were driv­ing.”

There is a real sense of fam­ily pride, of north­ern pride, at Watchee. From a ‘crazy’ idea to an ex­clu­sive eco-tourism des­ti­na­tion, the Spences have kept it as a fam­ily busi­ness. Mike’s fam­ily runs the lo­gis­tics out of Churchill. Mor­ris is teach­ing his son, James, to be a po­lar bear tracker. Most ev­ery­one work­ing at Watchee is from Churchill.

Mike’s brother, Frank, is our guide for the week. He ex­plains, “Our fa­ther come up from York Fac­tory, he grew up trap­ping down there. Af­ter it shut down (in 1957), he got a job at the Port of Churchill. It wasn’t re­ally un­til the mil­i­tary moved out and Jarvis re­tired that he got a chance to spend real time out here.”

“(Watchee) used to be an old Navy com­mu­ni­ca­tions base. The build­ings were get­ting wrecked af­ter the mil­i­tary pulled out, so Jarvis took them over.” Frank pauses, “He loved com­ing out here, trap­ping beaver, muskrat, marten. It was more about be­ing on the land. That was just in his blood.”

As it turned out, the Hud­son Bay coast was home to one of the most im­por­tant po­lar bear birthing ar­eas in the world. Each year, ap­prox­i­mately 100 to 150 fe­males give birth to cubs. They range from the Nel­son River to Cape Churchill with most ac­tiv­ity cen­tred on the Owl and Broad Rivers (and Jarvis’ trapline). Some of the first po­lar bear re­search projects took place at Fletcher Lake, just east of Watchee.

By early Oc­to­ber, preg­nant fe­males bur­row into the peat banks of the sub­arc­tic lakes and creeks. Even­tu­ally, the north wind drifts snow over them and, by Jan­uary, they give birth, usu­ally to twins, each weigh­ing only one kilo­gram. They grow quickly and by late Fe­bru­ary, they are ready for the roughly 40 kilo­me­tre jour­ney to Hud­son Bay.

Franks ex­plains, “Its pretty amaz­ing when you think about it. She hasn’t had a seal since maybe June or July. Now, she has to worry about the cold, about wolves, about ev­ery­thing. We’ve even seen her stop, pick up her cubs and give them a ride.” You can here ad­mi­ra­tion in his voice.

The weather chan­nel flick­ers as Mor­ris gath­ers the group for a morn­ing brief­ing. He is a pretty straight­for­ward guy; the room grows quiet as he speaks. “We were track­ing two fam­ily groups south of the den. You guys will head to the den while me and Amuck (Al­lan Oman) head south and try to pick up the tracks. There are a cou­ple wolves around too so that might have pushed her back to the den.” He pauses, “The weather is not on our side but we’ll do what we can.”

Mor­ris ends with a quiet “So that’s it,” def­i­nitely not “Any ques­tions?” We have the plan for the day, it is what it is; na­ture is in con­trol out here, we’re all just along for the ride.

The ‘track­ers’ are this enig­matic com­po­nent of Watchee Lodge. Mor­ris and Amuck spend their days scout­ing dens, search­ing for tracks or, prefer­ably, a fam­ily on the move. They ap­pear and dis­ap­pear through the day, dis­tant rid­ers of an arc­tic spaghetti west­ern. The stunted, ragged spruce add to their whole ‘larger than life’ ef­fect. Each time they ar­rive, they cre­ate a stir. Amuck’s dark eyes peer out of his fur-trimmed parka while Mor­ris’ frozen mous­tache is pho­tographed over and over again.

Track­ing is a tough busi­ness. Mor­ris ex­plains, “You can lose the tracks very eas­ily, as big as she is, she doesn’t leave much of a print at the best of times. There’s times you are just look­ing for a nail mark. Scratches. That’s how hard the snow is.”

“It just takes ex­pe­ri­ence. In the early years, it was frus­trat­ing some­times but you learn. You get a feel for it.” He adds, “Wher­ever she takes us, we’ll go.”

Like his fa­ther, Mor­ris makes his living at the Port of Churchill. He is one of the few year-round em­ploy­ees. “Be­lieve it or not, this is my hol­i­day. I just like do­ing it, be­ing out on the land ev­ery day. Cold or not, it’s a lot of fun!” “Bear!” Frank jumps up, his round eyes go wide as he spots a black nose pok­ing out of the snow drift. He points through the wind­shield and em­phat­i­cally re­peats, “BEAR!”

There is a bit of a dra­matic pause as we process the word. It has been a long wait for this mo­ment and no one can quite be­lieve its hap­pen­ing. We’re all a bit mes­mer­ized.

Frank is now vis­i­bly frus­trated by our slow re­sponse. “She’s out!! She’s out!”

Awak­ened, pho­tog­ra­phers tum­ble out of the ve­hi­cles and join ‘the line’. The ‘shot’ now has her head fully out of the den, sniff­ing the crisp out­side air for the first time in months. Cam­eras are clicked back to lenses, snow shields are un­zipped and bat­ter­ies clicked into place. Ma­chine gun trig­gers go off, up and down the line, as the fe­male emerges to rub her­self on the snow, clean­ing her yel­lowed fur.

She rolls and bathes, pur­pose­fully stretch­ing in the arc­tic af­ter­noon. Even­tu­ally, she re­turns to the den to fetch her cubs. You can hear her lip smacks and chat­ters as she lit­er­ally tells her cubs its time to come out. First, one head ap­pears then, af­ter a pause, a sec­ond emerges.

This is the first time they are see­ing the sun; their first fresh arc­tic air, their first steps ‘out­side’. At first, the be­wil­dered cubs stay close to mom, soon cu­rios­ity gets the bet­ter of them. They climb the tiny trees, fall and roll, chas­ing each other, chas­ing spruce tips, chas­ing their tiny tails. They jump back up to gnaw on the gnarled spruce.

The fe­male paces and even­tu­ally digs a day bed. She set­tles into the trees, back to the wind, ready to nurse. She snaps a quick com­mand and the cubs break away from their wrestling and glee­fully join.

The line has grown quiet; only clicks and whirs, an oc­ca­sional ec­static moan is heard as the light hits the fam­ily ‘just right’. The sky melts from pas­tel blue to pas­tel or­ange as the cubs re­sume play, their mother con­sid­er­ing the long jour­ney ahead.

The clicks and whirs dwin­dle as dusk set­tles. The young fam­ily watches un­der a pale and full moon as the line packs up and we head back to the lodge. Soon, the day’s images will be down­loaded and Adobe’s Light­room will ad­just and am­plify. Files will be zoomed, checked for ‘soft­ness’. But what­ever the mem­ory cards say, only a hand­ful of peo­ple will ever get to share th­ese first mo­ments of a po­lar bear’s life. For now, the van is si­lent and all that is left is an over­whelm­ing sense of grat­i­tude.

‘Be­lieve it or not, this is my hol­i­day. I just like do­ing it, be­ing out on the land ev­ery day. Cold or not, it’s a lot of fun!’

MARCO URSO (WWW.PHOTOXPLORICA.COM)

BY KELSEY ELIAS­SON

Pho­tog­ra­phers are trans­ported to po­lar bear dens by off-road 4x4 vans out­fit­ted with rub­ber tracks and re­in­forced sus­pen­sion.

Above, a po­lar bear fam­ily rests in a ‘day bed’, a tem­po­rary shel­ter from the north winds.

KELSEY ELIAS­SON

Mike Spence spends the sea­son at Watchee track­ing po­lar bears and scout­ing dens.

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