Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Photographs now posted to blog

I have now posted my photos to the blog- please be patient if the pages take a while to load as I got a little carried away!

If you want to see a larger version, click on the photo.

If you are particularly interested in polar bear pictures, this page contains the greatest number of images:

Please also remember to visit this site for more pictures and commentary on the difficult situation for polar bears in Churchill:

Epilogue- What we need to do

I would like to use this final entry in my blog to outline some of my conclusions about what needs to be done to save the polar bears.

1) Global Warming
The plight of polar bears is urgent. Global warming has a disproportionate effect upon the Arctic- the amount of warming here is much greater than elsewhere partly due to the diversion of the jet stream of warm air from the south to higher latitudes. The most immediately threatened population is that in Alaska, but Canada holds the key as it has the majority  (60%) of the world's polar bears.
Action needs to be taken now. Chuck explained that he first saw the problem twenty years ago, and yet adequate co-ordinated action between governments has not been achieved yet. We all need to tie personal responsibility in areas such as energy conservation, but we are morally obliged to lobby our Governments and use our votes to achieve change. In the UK at least environmental issues have slipped down the political agenda and yet climate change is by far the most important issue facing our planet and there has been a real failure of political leadership.

The experience also raised two local issues for Manitoba I would like to highlight:

1) The Tundra Buggy trade
My entry from November 11th raised some real concerns about the ethics of one of the two operating companies. These include food conditioning of bears, damage to the tundra through deviating from the trails and deliberately influencing their natural behaviour in order to provide a 'better experience' for the visitors. The two companies are licensed by the government and far more stringent conditions and enforcement action must be taken. There is talk of introducing GPS tracking to monitor their positions, and this cannot be delayed further. I would also suggest more rigorous training of drivers and dividing the licences between greater numbers of operators to increase competition, and reduce the requirement to undertake an expensive organised package in order to view bears.

2) Brian Ladoon's dog farm
To summarise, this outfit is feeding bears with dog food in order to create a tourist attraction and profit from the suffering of the bears and dogs. The community appears to be turning a blind eye to this malpractice in order to maintain the tourist trade. Ladoon has now started openly advertising bear viewing amongst the dogs (we saw a sign this year displaying not inconsiderable prices). It is unfortunate that there are few alternatives to the two Tunda Buggy companies for bear viewing in Churchill (our GBF trip is one), but do not under any circumstances patronise Ladoon for the sake not only of the bears but also the dogs.
Visitors need to be informed so they can use their own judgment as to who to patronise, and pressure needs to be brought upon the local agencies from a federal level. Unfortunately small town politics complicate achiving a local solution, it pressure has to be brought to bear from outside. Please inform yourself about this problem and I would encourage you to do your own research and gather any information you can including photographs which should be shared as widely as possible. Also please feel free to contact me via a comment on this blog or click here to email me.
For a more exhaustive analysis into this problem, I would direct you to written by a fellow participant on this trip. The situation is documented in detail on this page and actions if  you plan you visit Churchill are laid out clearly, including a list of businesses which are ethical. I can corroborate the findings in this blog, having witnessed with my own eyes events this year from the border of Ladoon's property.
Incidentally, PETA raises concerns from the dog's perspective here and encourage lobbying:

Do you want to help these gorgeous creatures?

Tuesday 16th, Wednesday 17th November: Last leg of the Journey

As I write this, I am sat in the hotel in Winnipeg and have just learnt that the bus travellers had a further adventure when they skidded on ice near Regina and left the road. Thankfully the bus and its occupants were safe and got back on their way an hour later, but I suspect this will provide for some interesting stories next time we are together.
For the first time in many days I am alone, and think that Heather and Colette will be in the air somewhere over the USA, either laughing and joking together or fast asleep through the exhaustion and exhilaration of the trip. I think of how I appear to have more in common with a the GBF group who live 6000 miles from me in a different culture to those in Manchester I work with everyday. I then start browsing online for flights for the Great Bear Reunion next year in Montana and find some optimism.

On the flight from Chicago, the American stewardess giving out British customs forms tells me that I must be English before I'd even opened my mouth. I thought of a couple of people who would have made a joke of this had they been with me. Later, some Americans saw me looking at my polar bear pictures and I had a very pleasant chat. This reminded me how open, accepting, and friendly Americans were.

Monday 15th November- Final Goodbyes

The receipt of a SMS message stating that I had 5 voice messages signalled the shortened time until I had to return to the real world. Whilst I wrote that the scenery on the train was somewhat repetitive on the at here, now it is enchanting, the ground covered with snow and trees covered with ice. This made me wish I could visit Alaska in winter- it must look stunning now.
I met a filmmaker from New Zealand who was returning having spent time with Brian Ladoon He had mixed feelings about the polar bear tourism in Churchill, and whilst sympathetic to his position, had concerns about the welfare of the dogs, and felt that the situation was unsustainable. He did not share out groups concerns about the feeding of the bears: Ladoon had told him that this was aiding their survival. Interestingly he felt that the tundra buggies were far from innocent in this situation.

The final lunch on the train was bitter sweet; however some consolation was talk of future travel plans. As we approached Winnipeg, the snow disappeared completely and instead the wide open prairies became predominantly brown and green.

Five of us shared food and conversation for the last time in the hotel during the evening. This was very challenging indeed for me; I wondered if I would see them again, and whether even future Great Bear trips could live up to this if some were absent. However, I was consoled afterwards by listening to some of Heather's music and resolved to make an effort to keep in touch.


Sunday 14th November: Sadness at saying goodbyes

When planning this trip, I was a little apprehensive about spending 4 days out of 10 on a train, but the journey has proven to be one of the most cherished memories. Time stands still this far north and the concept of schedule is irrelevant. It is now a week since I have read a newspaper, used the phone, or sent an email. Even the dark, looming presence of reality slowing coming into view over the horizon is not enough to puncture the pervasive sense of relaxation. By now the group has a family dynamic, and like any family there are dysfunctional elements, but also a sense of mutual belonging. There are a few loud and insensitive members, many kind ones, and everyone looks out for each other. This is a far from a commercial tour group as one could imagine; since here there is a shared sense of liberal values, and for some it is a moral obligation to come.

What structure there is to life on the train is built upon meal times in the dining car. However this is relative: one station stop today included a snowball fight with the staff, and trip into town for Heather and myself courtesy of the train staff to visit the supermarket whilst the train was held at the station. This would not happen where I come from: schedules and regulations are regarded as more important than people in the south.

I was distraught tonight on the train after dinner, unable to conceal my sadness at the parting of our ways (the majority of the group left at midnight for The Pas). I was sad that a week of magic, kindness and fun, so different to my normal life, was ending. My feelings were amplified by the impact of listening to music for the first time in a week, thanks to Heather's generosity.

Shannon told me as she was getting off the train that I was part of the family now- a very moving comment especially given my initial nervousness as to whether I would fit in.

Saturday 13th November- Start of the long ride back (just)

Chuck famously says that it is the incompetent that have adventures. Today maintained the tradition of mishaps- on the way back to the Center to catch the train there was a clunking noise, the bus spluttered to a halt, and an announcement was made enquiring whether anyone had some string. Normally, this would have been a less than auspicious turn of events, as the train the runs only twice a week, however the atmosphere at the back (i.e. lively) end of the bus was one of hilarity. We had complete confidence in Frank and the rest of the grow to work together to find a solution to the issue even though there was no mobile phone coverage, night had just fallen, and it was well below freezing. Luck was with as since the van taking our luggage to the station was flagged down on the main, and rescue arrived, although not before a sub drama involving a certain Englishman falling out of the back of the bus; and a moment when it looked as if the replacement vehicle was going to get stuck in the snow. This incident will be added to the folklore of the GBF, to be retold late at night on trains, buses or in kitchens during future adventures.

The day dawned crisp, clear and cold, and the landscape around Churchill was breathtaking in its rugged beauty, the sea deep blue, with dark rocks standing out amongst the pristine snow, illuminated by the warm low angled sun. We saw a candlestick sunset, reportedly a common occurrence in Churchill but a real spectacle, where the sun creates a vertical line up into the sky. Earlier we were treated to more polar bear viewings, and close display of a red fox. Some may think that by now the sheer wonder of encountering bears may have faded somewhat. This could not be further from the truth: I was heartbroken as I realised watching the sunset that I would not see any more until next year's trip.

After fortuitously making the train Chuck started to talk. He retold stories from his life long work with bears. This included the time when he was bitten on the arm after a tranquillised bear he was working on woke up, and the details of when his colleague Frank fell through the roof of an occupied polar bear den. He also had some great stories of earlier Churchill trips, when attitudes were even laxer than they are now and there had been talk of lighting a camp fire in the dining car during a wide late night party on the train. Chuck held the attention of all those round him for over two hours, and his sense of humour is as great as the breadth of his experiences. He is also passionate about education: for example telling us that the adaptation where polar bears necks are wider than their head becomes more pronounced west and east from the population in the Bering Sea.

Beach on Hudson Bay

Helicopter in the early morning at the Center

Front Entrance of the Northern Studies Center

Silver- the bear dog and a real friend on the trip

Our Bus


Polar Bear Jail (with Chuck)




Sled Dog

Beth at Gypsies
Polar Bear Traps

Candlestick Sunset just before the bus broke down

Friday 12th November- Sun over Hudson Bay

Today we were back with the main group in the battered bus, but I was more comfortable psychologically. The weather had become colder and brighter and now Hudson Bay was a deep blue colour. We visited the overlook for Prince of Wales Fort and benefited from historical interpretation from a Parks Canada ranger. There were more Bear Viewings too, thanks to Chuck's skill in sensing their movements. This is the only tour I am aware of which is not reliant upon tundra buggies, and it is also vastly cheaper than commercial tours as GBF want to make it as accessible as possible to people of all backgrounds. It is run annually in early November: please visit for more information. It could be life changing for you too.
We also visited the quaint and interesting Eskimo museum and shops in Churchill town centre. I always find observing life in small northern communities fascinating.

Travelling with Great Bear is never predicable. An anecdotal example is on boarding the bus after a stop at Churchill Airport, Chuck brought with him a group of soldiers in uniform with backpacks. He had got chatting to them and offered them a lift into town, typical of his generosity. They told us they were here to practice for an exercise but we suspected they really wanted to have fun with the snow mobiles.

Despite our enthusiasm, more seasoned members of the group reported fewer bear sitings this year and much warmer weather. Many of those we did see were close to Ladoon's. Clearly it would be misguided to confuse climate and weather, but the situation is a concern as the later the Hudson Bay freeze-up takes place, the less time the bears have to feed.

One of the benefits of this trip is the opportunity to find out about other people's adventures. I haven't yet mentioned Sam, a quiet but witty farmer from Virginia who has a passion for the Spirit (Kermode) bear found in BC (a very light coloured black bear). Sam also spends the bear season in Hyder, AK every year, one of my favourite places and somewhere I hope to meet him in a future year.

Ladoon's- Dogs and polar bears too close for comfort

Ship wreck on Hudson Bay



The Royal Canadian Army join our tour

Prince of Wales Fort Overlook


Gypsies Restaurant

Sunset over Hudson Bay

Eskimo Museum