Witnessing a migration
PHOTOS COURTESY DENNIS BLOCKER Visitors to Churchill travel mainly by "tundra buggy" and dog sled. The dog sled ride was a first for Blocker and made for an exciting journey.
Miles away from the nearest city, accessible only by train and airplane, hides the tiny town of Churchill, Manitoba. This town, Canada's only port on the Hudson Bay, doesn't offer much for tourists in the way of hotels or luxury resorts. There are no roads leading to this tucked-away town. Visitors to Churchill come for one reason the polar bears.
When Dennis Blocker of Lehighton received an invitation from his alma mater Penn State to visit Churchill, the "Polar Bear Capital of the World," he jumped at the chance to join the group tour.
"There was no doubt in my mind. I sent it back the next day. It's a rare opportunity," he said. "This was my first 'nature' trip. I really got into it it was exciting to see these beautiful creatures in their natural habitat."
During the trip, Blocker traveled mainly by "tundra buggies," all-terrain vehicles which are elevated so that the windows are about 12 feet off the ground. The polar bears can still reach the windows by standing on their hind legs, peering inquisitively into the vehicles.
"I'm looking out the lens of my camera, and they're just looking back at me," said Blocker, who says he felt safe in the tundra buggies as bears approached them. "There was never any fear factor at that point."
The group also traveled by dog sled and helicopter.
"It was awesome. I'm a very avid snowmobiler, but I've never ridden in a dog sled before," he said, laughing.
The residents of Churchill use snowmobiles as their primary source of transportation. Blocker, the president of Blocker Enterprises in Parryville, took a personal interest in their snowmobiles because he sells them at his store.
"It was even a Yamaha. It made my day," he said of one machine that he found.
Much of the trip focused on outdoor tours. During these tours, Blocker took hundreds of photos of polar bears and other native animals, including arctic hares and foxes. The group also met with local Indians and Aborigines, who spoke about their heritage and lifestyle. After hearing their stories, Blocker had a deeper understanding of the challenges faced by natives. Their livelihood is based on nature and hunting, and recently laws have made it difficult to survive.
"It's a very difficult life to live," he added. "It's a challenge, but one they choose to embrace."
Blocker's tour group was also treated to a rare glimpse of the Aurora Borealis. These lights are most visible in early fall and spring, making a November appearance an unusual sight.
With more than a thousand polar bears roaming near Churchill, bear sightings in town are a common occurrence. Wildlife officers protect the town, shooting guns into the air to scare bears coming too close to the settlement.
"A bear came right up to our hotel porch the second night," he said. As a last resort, bears that refuse to leave town are shot with tranquilizers and held in "polar bear jail" before being flown 30 miles away from town.
During his stay, Blocker also experienced some lighthearted traditions of the north, including the "drink of the tundra" - black coffee with chocolate powder and a shot of Bailey's.
"It really warms you up. It was good stuff," he said. Because he enjoys snowmobiling, Blocker was used to the cold weather. The temperature at Churchill was negative-15 degrees the day they arrived, but warmed to the midthirties for the rest of the trip.
Only 1,000 people are able to witness the polar bear migration each year, which takes place from October to early November when the Hudson Bay freezes. Blocker's trip was from Nov. 4-10. During his trip, the bay looked like one big "slushie" of ice, not quite frozen solid. Guides reported that the bay will freeze without warning overnight and that once the water freezes the bears will quickly travel out on the ice to hunt their favorite food - seals.
Polar bears are listed as a "vulnerable" species by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). This means that they are likely to become endangered and eventually extinct if measures are not taken to protect them. About 20,000 polar bears exist in the wild, all on the northern tundra; 1,000 live near Churchill. Both Canada and the United States protect polar bears, making it a crime to shoot and kill a bear for sport. Aborigines are allowed to claim one bear per year because their survival depends on polar bear meat and fur.
"It's a good thing to protect these beautiful creatures. Their survival rate isn't the greatest," he added, noting that only 40 percent of polar bear cubs make it to adulthood.
While Blocker respects local hunters, he chooses not to hunt for sport and has not hunted since he was a teenager. Since returning from the trip, he has a deeper understanding of the role humans play in the environment.
"There has to be a balance," he said. "When animals are becoming extinct, we need to protect them."
Blocker's trip was organized by Natural Habitat Adventures, based in Colorado. Churchill is home to several other wildlife attractions, including beluga whales and hundreds of birds found only in the arctic.
Having been bit by a nature-inspired travel bug, Blocker hopes to one day visit the North Pole or witness a penguin migration.
"I'm an adventurous person," he added. "Just being there, in that part of the world, was truly exciting. I wasn't bored for a moment."