Arctic, Expeditions and Travels, Science

Polar Bears and Roadless Tundra

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We left Coral Harbor on Wednesday afternoon to find knot habitat in the interior portion of Southampton Island. We left town with three ATVs and a truck on what we hoped was a new access road to knot habitat. The road out of town had always existed, but only went about 10 miles to the Kirchoffer Falls, a wonderful feature seen mostly by residents and the modest number of people who visit the island. Recently the town extended the road, but oddly no one we could find knew how far it went or if it was passable. Ostensibly, it had been constructed to access better fishing sites on Duke of York Bay in the northwest part of the island. But as far as we could tell, it had been completed only half way. This would have been just short of the knot habitat on the northwestern section of the island, but enough for us to reach the habitat in the central portion. So the central site was our goal.

The truck crossing one of four rivers on the way to camp

The truck crossing one of four rivers on the way to camp

Another river crossing (with our ATVs) on the way to camp

Another river crossing (with our ATVs) on the way to camp

One of our many concerns is polar bears. Southampton supports one of the densest bear populations in the Canadian Arctic. The bears spend most of their year on the ice hunting seals, but as the ice breaks up they come ashore to lay low until the ice and seals come again. The most dangerous time on the island is the summer, particularly the end of summer before the ice forms and after the bears have used up fat reserves they stored up during the previous winter and spring. In previous years, we encountered bears several times while working in the southern portion of the island – with one nearly walking into our cook tent. Most of the time, however, we were never in any real danger.

Red-throated Loons

Red-throated Loons

The team at work

The team at work

To reduce the chance of fatal encounters with polar bears, the Coral Harbor Hunters and Trappers Organization (HTO) requires those going out “on the land” or into the tundra to take an Inuit bear watcher, an experienced hunter who will discourage or kill an attacking bear. One wouldn’t want the bear watcher to kill the bear, not only because it’s better to use bear poppers (firecracker shotgun shells) or rubber bullets, but because it would cost the visitor (not the bear watcher) a $5,000 fine. We originally intended to do without a watcher because team member Mark Peck brought his gun, and we are all veteran wildlife folks with 9 years of experience in bear country. But then we spoke to Louisa at the HTO, who reminded us that without a bear watcher, the killing of an attacking bear would cost $10,000. We eventually opted to go with a bear watcher, bringing the team up to 6 intrepid souls.

Josh, our Bear Watcher, on the right with his father Solomon and brother in law Joey

Our Bear Watcher Josh on the right, with his father Solomon and brother-in-law Joey

Four hours after leaving Coral Harbor, we reached the point where we would have to depart from the road and traverse out into the roadless tundra. We decided to stay in a nearby hunting cabin for the night and depart the next day.