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 sub-Arctic stakeout.
Inside that snow bank, a polar bear tends to her two young cubs nestled in their winter den. The cubs have known nothing of the outside world, only the warmth and safety of their winter den. Their mother has not eaten in eight months, she is eager to get out on the ice. The cubs, for their part, are okay with staying inside. At least, we think they are inside.
Watchee Lodge lies south of Churchill, Manitoba, about 64 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 the waiting vans, armed with rubber tracks and reinforced suspension. Snow kicks up as we head towards 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 aer destinations for professional photographers. It has now been 20 years since Mike and Morris Spence decided to convert their father’s trap line 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, 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 fam 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 100-150 females give birth to a new cohort of cubs. They range from the Nelson River to Cape Churchill with most activity centred on the Owl and Broad Rivers (and Jarvis’ trap line). 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 sub-Arctic 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 hear admiration in his voice.
The weather channel flickers as Morris gathers the group for a morning briefing. He is a 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.’ 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!’
Frank jumps up. His round eyes go wide as he spots a black nose poking out of the snowdrift. 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 it’s 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 mother 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 back into place. Shutters open 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, aer 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 and an occasional ecstatic moan is heard as the light shines on 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 Light room 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.
Kelsey Eliasson is an artist, writer and polar bear guide who divides his year between the Yukon and Churchill, Manitoba. Since 2006, he has run the polar bear blog, www.polarbearalley.com