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Special: Wild About the North

Nunavut Walrus on Islad Beach
by Michelle Valberg

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Life on the Beach

Nunavut Walrus Flock to Island Beach
by Michelle Valberg

Experienced photographers will tell you that the end of September is typically known as a precarious time of year for land and sea travel in the Arctic. Diminished daylight, erratic weather conditions combined with the unpredictable but natural behavioural traits common to all animal species, can and often do frustrate one’s best attempts to get memorable wildlife shots.

So it was then, that thoughts of possible conditions continued to toy with my imagination. Residing in the forefront of my mind on leaving Ottawa for the North to Hall Beach, Nunavut, were the small five-day window and near zero expectations (seriously augmented by hope) I had that I would successfully capture good images of “bull-dog beautiful” walruses.

Contrary to my diminished expectations however, karma did manage to smile this trip choosing yet again to be on my side. The weather and light conditions along the famed Foxe Basin waters near Hall Beach were terrific, near perfect, if not ideal. What luck! I had arrived North, prepared for the worst, only to be blessed with the best.

On our approach to the island not far from town, the sight of thousands of walrus covering the island’s beach was breathtaking. Some were energetically swimming in the water, while others, numbering in the thousands, snuggled real, real close as if they were cold and would freeze should they ever separate. Walrus are truly peculiar beasts, both strange looking and beautiful at the same time, prone to emitting the strangest of sounds, sounds that defy description. As for the smell of walrus?

Well, that’s just plain awful. No doubt about that!

And here I was, one seriously enthralled, but tiny, human being, standing one moment, crouched the next, mere feet away, caught deep in the wonder of nature’s reality — Arctic reality. My own humble psyche found itself bathed in the odd eerie sounds of the herd, my body positioned eye to eye with walrus bulls that easily weigh in at a remarkable 2,000 lbs. I gazed at their unique faces and marvelled at their wrinkled skin, only to realize once again how incredibly lucky I was this day to find myself “up close and personal” photographing this astonishing northern mammal.

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Just In Time?

Polar Bears Wait for the Freeze

Each year the polar bear populations that inhabit the Kivalliq region of Nunavut, migrate south into northern Manitoba to birth their cubs. To the uninitiated, it would seem their sole purpose is to enthrall visitors from all over the world in the sub-Arctic barrenlands surrounding Churchill, Manitoba, Canada. To complete the migration cycle every November as the weather changes, the bears become restless while waiting for the expected winter freeze of Hudson Bay. The ice allows the polar bears to return to feed on seals in their northern winter habitat in Nunavut.

If nature’s seasonal schedule is properly on track, the freshwater rivers near Churchill flowing into the saltwater expanse of Hudson Bay freeze first. Fresh water freezes more quickly than saltwater allowing the bears an avenue to get onto the Arctic ice to head northward. The Churchill area in particular is a well-known waiting ground for the bears. For those fortunate enough to visit Churchill in November on a Tundra Buggy viewing tour, experiencing polar bear behaviour – safely – up close – in their natural environment, is an unforgettable experience.

While females polar bears in the circumpolar regions farther north will often birth and first nurture their cubs in dens of drifted snow, in the sub-Arctic Churchill populations, the pregnant females shelter in earthen hammock-like canopies in the taiga (sparse boreal treeline growth).

Male bears do not hibernate, preferring instead to remain active over the winter to hunt what they can and roam vast distances in the Arctic. They are believed to be the only mammal capable of surviving four to five months without food. Even with climate change now showing signs of disrupting their normal patterns of behaviour, by-in-large, Canada’s polar bears are healthy and flourishing, according to Inuit sources and the wildlife biologists that study them.

Polar bears are crafty, resourceful hunters with voracious appetites capable of finding sufficient food sources to build the stores of energy necessary to face the long winter trek northward across the Arctic ice.

They are also immensely powerful and efficient, known to deftly smash through the thickest of ice at the faintest whiff of a nutrition-laden ringed seal’s breathing hole, or any proximity of seal at all, on or under the ice surface.

Still, there is a great deal of discussion and concern expressed about the negative effects of climate change on the migration patterns and overall health of polar bears. When we arrived at Churchill in early November this year, for a Tundra Buggy tour, there was no ice on Hudson Bay, just open water. Our tour guides confirmed that the weather was much warmer than usual. There was no ice in sight anywhere. Naturally, the unseasonal temperatures and their effect on Canada’s iconic polar bears became a topic of discussion in our group. More than once, concern was expressed about the health of the bears, as they waited longer than expected for the bay to freeze to complete their migration north.

It was on our fourth day on the tundra, that the afternoon skies darkened and a northwest wind built strength by the hour. The bears intuitively hunkered down to weather the incoming storm. By nightfall, 80 km/hour winds were whipping across the tundra as the temperature plummeted to -39° Celsius with the wind chill. The following day the temperature was -40° Celsius and we saw the first signs of ice. By the next day, the ice was in!!

When we were leaving the tundra to return to Churchill, we were fortunate to see three healthy, happy bears head out onto the new ice, providing our group, another lasting visual metaphor for what the bears annual migration to the Churchill region is all about — the wait for the ice to form so they could hunt seal again.

This was truly a happy ending to my Churchill visit to observe and photograph polar bears. After much concern that the delayed freezing of Hudson Bay would interfere with the natural migration north, this was proof once again, that nature will impose her own will, regardless of what we humans would wish, or think, or do. For those of us on the tour at least, we were much relieved that the natural cycle of the seasons and instinctive movements of the bears had seemingly at least, begun once again.

[Editor’s note: By mid-December this year, the sea-ice had (still) not formed to allow the bears to venture out onto Hudson Bay. Their need for sustenance before winter fully set in, led them to wander too near, or sometimes right into several of the Nunavut communities along the Kivalliq coast. Whale Cove, Rankin Inlet, and others, reported many sightings of foraging bears, some dangerously close. While not entirely unusual, hungry bears looking for food in towns and hamlets is definitely not a good thing – an unsafe, and entirely unwanted interaction that could result in dire consequences for humans and bears.]

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Nunavik Muskox

Long abandoned socio-economic program still a success
Text and photos by Heiko Wittenborn

About one million years ago “umimmaq” (the bearded one), in Inuktitut, roamed the vast steppes of Northern Asia along with the woolly mammoth. Part of the bovine family of land mammals, muskox are one of the oldest species still living and flourishing.

A fascinating, Arctic animal, muskox will stand resolutely, seeking no shelter of any kind, even against the harshest winter weather. A survival challenge of another kind exists when these prehistoric looking beasts find themselves vulnerable to wolf predation. Upon recognizing a threat the herd will form a defensive circle. The youngest, those most at risk, are protected within.

Muskox became extinct in the Arctic regions of Russia and Scandinavia as a result of their circumpolar redistribution following the ice age. In the late 1800s they were wiped out in Alaska due to over-harvesting for hides and meat. In the early 1900s only a few scattered populations remained in Canada’s Arctic and eastern Greenland.

Finally protected by the Canadian Government in 1917, the decline from harvesting continued until the 1950s and only about 1,000 animals remained. Since then, more complete protection has assured an increase of the muskox population throughout the central Arctic. Today there are naturally occurring populations only in Greenland (about 20,000) and in northern Canada.

The animals will often be found on exposed hillsides where wind has eliminated snow cover, exposing lichens and any available grasses. Most of Canada’s now-estimated 85,000 animals populate the vast open terrain of Banks and Victoria islands, while a smaller population numbering approximately 15,000 roam the mainland Northwest Territories to the south and areas of Nunavut to the east. It is interesting to note that no muskox are found on Baffin Island.

Nearly 50 years ago, in an effort to boost socio-economic development in the Nunavik region, the Quebec government initiated a bold experiment. In August 1967, around Eureka on Ellesmere Island, 15 young muskox were captured. These 15 captive animals were to be domesticated. Under the animal’s long straggling guard hair, which appear to be in a constant state of moult, fine under-hair known as qiviut is found. Qiviut is the Inuit name given to the hair – claimed by many to be the finest and warmest wool in the world.

Nunavik Inuit planned to use the soft, fine qiviut to make warm clothing and incorporate the meat from the animals to supplement meagre diets at a time when the migratory caribou populations were very scarce in the region.

In 1973, three calves (offspring of the original 15) were released near the small community of Tasiujaq. They were then transported to their new home, an experimental farm located at Old Chimo, close to present-day Kuujjuaq, Nunavik’s largest community. But after more than a decade, once it was realized that the husbandry attempt had not produced the desired results, the last remaining animals were released into the wild. In August 1983, the Old Chimo experimental farm closed and a total of 52 animals were released at a few carefully selected sites downriver and in the Leaf Bay area near Tasiujaq.

A 2005 Québec government survey determined that Nunavik’s muskox population exceeded 2,000 head. Local and regional Inuit organizations as well as the Québec government recently decided to allow a controlled muskox hunt in the vicinity of Kuujjuaq and Tasiujaq, with priority on Inuit subsistence harvesting and, secondly, on sport hunting. As of today, Nunavik’s introduction of muskox has proven a success.