By Christina Eisenberg | An excerpt from the Whitefish Review Change issueI
’m in Churchill, Manitoba (pop. 813), a mostly Inuit village in the Churchill River estuary on the vast Hudson Bay. Only accessible by air, it’s not connected by road to any other Canadian community. The closest highway ends 250 miles southwest, in Thompson, Manitoba. Known as the “polar bear capital of the world,” because of the bears that pass through town in the fall en route from interior Manitoba to the newly-forming winter ice on the Hudson Bay, Churchill also functions ecologically as an Arctic gateway. I’m here as an ecologist to witness climate change.
Polar bears need ice to hunt ringed seals—the only food on which they can survive, given the high amount of fat that they need. While seals can outswim bears, ice gives bears an advantage. They stalk seals by picking up their scent and sneaking up on them at breathing holes, or when seals are ensconced in snow lairs or hauled out on ice. They also do still hunts, which entails locating an active breathing hole and simply waiting motionless, sometimes for hours. When seals come up for air, bears pounce, lunging head-first into the hole. In one fluid motion they pierce their prey’s skull with their sharp teeth and pull it out.
During fall migration, Churchill and its vicinity have an estimated polar bear population of 800 ravenous bruins. They’ve been fasting at this point for up to eight months. Over the past twenty-five years, climate change has increased the ice-free period in the Hudson Bay and elsewhere in the Arctic by one month, lengthening the time these bears are not eating. To survive, they rely on their fat reserves and limit their physical activity to conserve energy. Only females with cubs hibernate.
Like the bears, I’ve been waiting for the ice, so that I can observe the timing of this event and bear activity in relation to it. I hear that it’s just beginning to form on the bay, so early one morning I go out to Gordon Point, which juts out into the Hudson Bay, with biologist Jim Halfpenny to see what the bears are doing.
The rising sun gilds the ice. In the nacreous dawn light, like a shimmering mirage, a polar bear mother and her cub amble slowly toward us. She has thick, white, unblemished fur. Both terrifying and sublimely beautiful, she embodies the paradox of the Arctic—the timeless, aboriginal power of this place. As she and her yearling cub approach, I see that her abdomen and haunches are gaunt. She focuses her gleaming black eyes on us. The cub is in better flesh than his mother. She hasn’t eaten in months; she could easily eat humans. But she chooses not to; she prefers seals. And so, along with the other bears, she awaits freeze-up so she can reach the seals in the bay.
The cub mimics everything his mother does. When she lifts her long neck and faces into the wind to scent the air, so does her cub. When she stops to sniff fresh ice for seals, the cub does the same. She stands protectively over him, massive front legs planted on either side of his small body. When the curious cub doesn’t detect anything interesting during this seal-sniffing exercise, he moves on, away from his mother, nosing kelp clumps along the way. She follows, ready to intervene as needed.
Eventually mother and cub reach a nearby willow copse and lie down together to nap. The cub rests his head on her broad back and falls asleep in seconds. The bear mother, an avatar of the wild, sighs deeply, takes another look around for threats, and then closes her eyes.
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About the author: Cristina Eisenberg is an author and scientist who conducts research on how fire and wolves affect Rocky Mountain ecosystems. She is the Chief Scientist at Earthwatch Institute, faculty at Oregon State University, and a Smithsonian Research Associate. Her most recent book, The Carnivore Way: Coexisting with and Conserving North America’s Predators, was published in 2014 by Island Press. She is currently at work on a climate change book.