Friday, January 23, 2015

A Dog Sled Experience in Churchill with BlueSky Expeditions

On my second day in Churchill, Oct 11th, we had beautiful, quiet piles of snow, the kind that make you feel kid-like excitement.  I finished my coffee and was out the door by 7:30 to go for a quiet walk in the magic before daylight.  
The polar bear statue and distant grain storage facility across the inlet viewed from the end of the main street of Churchill.
The inukshuk located in the same area.

Perfect weather for my morning destination--Bluesky Expeditions, for a dog-sled experience.  On the way to the facility I was lucky to ride in the front passenger seat of a truck with a beautiful, retired female sled dog as my companion.  She was polite, focused and excited about where we were headed.
I don't know how she knew, but she clearly knew we were going to Bluesky.  Above, one of Bluesky's active sled dogs.
Gerald Azure, owner and operator of Bluesky Expeditions, was born and raised in the northern Metis community of Commorant, Manitoba. His parents made their living with commercial trapping and fishing and dog sleds were their chief transportation until the 1970's.  Dog sledding and the aboriginal culture remain a strong tradition in the Azure family with Bluesky's 75 dogs trained primarily for the tourist industry.
Along with offering dog sled experiences, Bluesky operates the Bluesky Bed and Sled, a bed and breakfast for visitors to Churchill.
I am wearing multiple layers under my coat, plus a Bluesky coat on top of mine and a water resistant blanket over my legs.  It worked.  I was comfortable and dry in the wind and blowing snow!

The dogs love to run and were full of energy and eagerness.  The history of the use of dog-pulled sleds goes back 4000 years and pre-dates the use of horses for transportation.  The first documented dog sled race began in 1850 and ran from Winnepeg, Canada, to St Paul, Minnesota, US.
Ernest Azure, Gerald's eldest brother, provided the dog team for my sled experience. Ernest competed in the Hudson Bay Quest in 2014, a 220-mile wilderness course that goes from Gilliam, MB, to Churchill, MB.
In this great image taken by Jenafor Azure, Ernest begins the race with Gerald cheering him on (behind, second from his right). Gerald assisted with the care of his dog team during the race.  Ernest was the oldest musher to compete in the race, first to cross the half-way check-in, the first Churchill musher to cross the finish line, and finished 7th in a field of thirteen with a time of 38: 30: 23.
An amazing wilderness endurance feat with competitors facing harsh conditions even though health checks for the dogs and rest are built into the course.  Mushers and their teams must travel 50-70 miles a day to complete the race.  Above, Ernest and his dog team as they cross the Churchill River.
Husband and wife team, Gerald and Jenafor Azure, operators of Bluesky Expeditions and the Bluesky Bed and Sled.

Bluesky's hospitality includes Jenafor's Wild Berry Bannock bread and cookies with hot tea. Yummm!
When I wasn't busy with the dog sled or tea, Gray Jays provided delightful entertainment out on the porch.
A special thank you to Jenafor Azure of Bluesky Expeditions for providing the images found in this blog post (excepting images 2, 3, 4, and 14, taken by the author).

This is the thirteenth post in a series on my journey to Churchill, Manitoba, to see Polar Bears including a visit to Riding Mountain National Park.  Click the journey to Churchill link to see all the posts.  The most recent post will appear first.  When you reach the end of the page, click "older post" to continue with the series.

Next:  Polar Bear Ally

Blue Sky Expeditions
Blue Sky Expeditions on Facebook
Click here for Part 1--Polar Bears on the Hudson Bay and Part 2
Visit my sketchbook page on Polar Bears
Link to my Polar Bear video
Hudson Bay Buggies and Bears with Rail Travel Tours
Learn about Polar Bears
Hudson Bay
Eskimo Museum
History of Churchill from Churchill Science
Churchill History
the impact of sea ice decline

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Polar Bears on the Hudson Bay--Part 2

After a rest and a great big stretch, the mother bear decided it was time to move around a bit.  (Part 1 can be found here.)

She strolled along the shore of the wetland, investigating and foraging, activity that helps to pass the time and relieve boredom.  
Polar Bears will eat vegetation and kelp when they find it, but scientists believe that these foods hold no nutritional value and that the activity functions to relieve boredom more than anything else.

The cubs were checking things out on the ground around them, as well, and took their time about following the female. She pauses, above, while they catch up.
It is well publicized that the sea ice in the artic region is declining and that this is having an impact on the ecosystem in the circumpolar artic. Polar Bears rely heavily on the sea ice for hunting, living, resting and breeding.
A November 2014 report published in by Ecological Applications/Ecological Society of America, revealed that the Polar Bear population in northeast Alaska and the Northwest Territories has declined by 40%, a reduction from 1500 to 900 bears between 2001-2010.
In this amazingly harsh environment, the sea ice provides an entire ecosystem inhabited by plankton and micro-organisms that nourish seals and other marine wildlife, that in turn, furnish the food needed by Polar Bears.  Polar Bears rely heavily on the blubber found in seals to store their own body's blubber, fat deposits under the skin that nourish them in lean times and insulate them from the cold.  


Next to the images of the mother bear with her cubs, I enjoyed seeing this adult bear's behavior as she casually foraged and chewed the grasses she pulled up.  As I considered the harsh environment she thrives in, a summer and fall of fasting, her lone responsibility for the safety and feeding of her cubs, and her eventual return to the sea ice to hunt, she seemed serene here, as if content to rest, chew and investigate.
Polar Bears have the ability to slow down their metabolism to accommodate this seasonal fasting period while access to their primary food source is unavailable.


Her two cubs were busy investigating, too.
One of them found what appeared to be the wing of a bird, possibly left over from a fox kill. The cub picked it up and carried it as he moved forward to rejoin his mother.
This is the twelfth post in a series on my journey to Churchill, Manitoba, to see Polar Bears including a visit to Riding Mountain National Park.  Click the journey to Churchill link to see all the posts.  The most recent post will appear first.  When you reach the end of the page, click "older post" to continue with the series.

Next:  A Dog Sled Experience

Visit my sketchbook page on Polar Bears
Click here for Part 1--Polar Bears on the Hudson Bay
Link to my Polar Bear video
Ecological Society of America
Ecological Applications report of decline of Polar Bears
Hudson Bay Buggies and Bears with Rail Travel Tours
Learn about Polar Bears
Hudson Bay
Eskimo Museum
History of Churchill from Churchill Science
Churchill History
the impact of sea ice decline

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Polar Bears on the Hudson Bay

The main diet of Polar Bears is seals, primarily ringed seals, but they also catch other seal species and occasionally kill walruses, belugas and narwhals.  
To hunt seals, bears must wait until the ice freezes on the bay.  Though they are good swimmers, they need to climb out of the water and onto ice to rest and remain warm.   Churchill is positioned at the mouth of the Churchill River, an area where fresh water enters the bay. The river inflows lower the salt content of the water, allowing the ice to freeze here sooner than it does in other areas of the bay.
We rolled along on the tundra in our "tundra buggy", dry, warm and comfortable with a good view of the area as our guide searched for Polar Bears known to be in the area.   We were very excited to see a female and her cubs of the year, known as "coys".


The female polar bear fasts while nursing her cubs, living entirely on the blubber she has stored in her body.  She conserves her energy by resting and moving slowly and deliberately.  Her cubs also need rest because of their young age, but they are well-nourished by her fat-rich milk.



At one point, the female stood up to her full length and sniffed the air, an incredible sight.  It was speculated that she was checking the air for the scent of a male.
Photo credit:  Billie Cantwell

Male Polar Bears will kill cubs. While females can sometimes fight off a male attack, it is much safer for her to avoid areas where males are present.  



This is the eleventh post in a series on my journey to Churchill, Manitoba, to see Polar Bears including a visit to Riding Mountain National Park.  Click the journey to Churchill link to see all the posts.  The most recent post will appear first.  When you reach the end of the page, click "older post" to continue with the series.

Link to my Polar Bear video
Hudson Bay Buggies and Bears with Rail Travel Tours
Learn about Polar Bears
Hudson Bay
Eskimo Museum
History of Churchill from Churchill Science
Churchill History
the impact of sea ice decline

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Hello Hudson Bay and Churchill!

Stark, cold, windy, forbidding--my first impressions as I glimpsed the Hudson Bay for the first time. It was spitting rain and windy as we took our introductory tour of the historic Churchill Fort positioned on the shore of the bay at the mouth of the Churchill River.
Impossible to ignore--the presence of an armed guard patrolling the area.  The guard's presence gave an immediate sense of place--the western shore of the Hudson Bay, a region where polar bears gather to wait for the first ice to freeze.  Bears do wander into town from time to time and encounter humans, and those experiences are not desireable for either the humans or the bears.  That is what the patrol is about--keeping both bears and people safe. 
The geology, the native culture, the climate and the polar bears, all give Churchill a mystical quality that was hard to absorb in a brief visit.  There was much more I wanted to explore.  Below, you see a memorial stone errected to commemorate the earliest explorations of the area.  The boulders that cover the ground along the shore were flattened and smoothed by the movement of glaciers in centuries past, giving the area an other-worldly appearance.



Henry Hudson was the first explorer to arrive in the Hudson Bay area in 1610.   In 1619, the Danish explorer, Jens Munck, explored the mouth of the Churchill River and wintered over in this area.  61 of his crew members died of disease and exposure, but Munck and two other crew members survived to return to Europe in 1620.   
In 1670 the Hudson Bay Company was established making it the oldest commerical corporation in the world with its beginnings based on the lucrative fur trade in the area and the high demand for beaver pelts to make hats in Europe. 
In 1689, the company attempted to establish a post and whale fishery here but failed to succeed.  The permanent Churchill River Post, later named, Prince of Wales Fort, was constructed across the river in 1717 by James Knight of the Hudson Bay Company in order to protect the company's interests.



It's hard to be in this area without considering the harsh conditions and practical implications for individual and community survival even today. A quick perusal of the local grocery revealed that the price of a gallon of milk in Churchill at the time of our visit (October 2014) was $26.00!  Fuel and food are the most expensive items to purchase.
Prior to European exploration, the ancestors of the Inuit people were the first to settle or hunt in this area.  Inuits are the indigenous people of the artic regions of Alaska, Canada and Greenland and were often referred to by Europeans as "Eskimos".
An inukshuk (also spelled inuksuit or inuksut), pictured above, was an important stone structure erected by Inuits as a help to other Inuits.  The objects were used as hunting and navigational aids, as indicators of coordination points, as markers for cached food, as communication centers, and sometimes indicators of sacred land and spiritual uses.
I made a too-short visit to Churchill's Eskimo Museum, an amazing repository of both historic and contemporary Inuit art.  Delicate art created from stone, ivory, bone, leather, wood and other materials is housed in the museum, as well as, other practical objects made by the Inuit people.
As an artist and one who enjoys the spirit of aboriginal art, I found these objects magical and wanted to spend a lot more time examining and reading about them. The hand-made objects reveal much about the spirit of the people, their culture, and their interactions with the natural world around them.
This is the tenth post in a series on my journey to Churchill, Manitoba, to see Polar Bears including a visit to Riding Mountain National Park.  Click the journey to Churchill link to see all the posts.  The most recent post will appear first.  When you reach the end of the page, click "older post" to continue with the series.

Hudson Bay Buggies and Bears with Rail Travel Tours
Learn about Polar Bears
Hudson Bay
Eskimo Museum
History of Churchill from Churchill Science
Churchill History
the impact of sea ice decline

Ocean Trail at Palos Verdes Nature Preserve, California

Ocean Trail at Palos Verdes Nature Preserve, California

Bird-banding at Seven Islands State Birding Park

Bird-banding at Seven Islands State Birding Park
Photo courtesy of Jody Stone

Bird-banding at Seven Islands

Bird-banding at Seven Islands
Photo courtesy of Karen Wilkenson

Enjoying Gray Jays in Churchill!

Enjoying Gray Jays in Churchill!
Photo courtesy of Blue Sky Expeditions

Smithsonian National Zoo with one of my Whooping Crane banners and son, John

Smithsonian National Zoo with one of my Whooping Crane banners and son, John

The Incredible Muir Woods near Stinson Beach, CA

The Incredible Muir Woods near Stinson Beach, CA
Photo courtesy of Wendy Pitts Reeves

Me and Denali

Me and Denali
Photo courtesy of Bob King

For the Love of It...

...the sage sees heaven reflected in Nature as in a mirror, and he pursues this Art, not for the sake of gold or silver, but for the love of the knowledge which it reveals.
Sendivogius (1750)

Your Uncapped Creativity...

Your Uncapped Creativity...
"There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action; and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. If you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. You must keep that channel open. It is not for you to determine how good it is, nor how valuable. Nor how it compares with other expressions. It is for you to keep it yours, clearly and directly." ----the great dancer, Martha Graham