Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Como Goes to Churchill: A Como staff blog from Polar Bears International's Leadership Camp

Friday, October 12: The Journey Ends

We're on our way home. It's been a great trip.

On Thursday, we moved from the Northern Studies Center into town. We have spent the last day and a half learning about the Churchill culture. We took a trip out to Cape Merry and actually saw beluga whales where the Churchill River meets the bay. They typically leave here mid-September, as temperatures cool and there is time to leave the bay before it freezes. In a way it was good to see them, but it was also a reminder that things are changing.

In addition to our time around town, our group spent a good part of the day discussing ways to inspire community action efforts to reduce climate change. It was inspiring to hear about the action plans that will be happening at zoos across North America as a result of this experience. There are plans to implement aggressive recycling programs, plans to encourage visitors and employees to commute by bike, plans to bring zoos to zero waste, and plans to plant trees. Each participant will return to their zoo and serve as a change agent within their community. We will invite our friends and families, members and visitors, neighbors and communities to join us in an effort to reduce our carbon emissions and preserve habitats across the Arctic.

When asked what inspired me most about the PBI leadership camp experience the answer is best summed up in a conversation we had with Dr. Steven Amstrup. He asked us to consider the following question; 'Do we want our children to inherit a world they appreciate, or do we want them to inherit a world they must endure?' The answer is easy. The time is now.

I am incredibly grateful to both Polar Bears International and Como Park Zoo and Conservatory for allowing me the opportunity to connect to the Arctic Ambassador Program. I look forward to the opportunities this experience will bring my way.

Tuesday, October 9: First Polar Bear Sighting!

We have spent two days going out on the Tundra with Frontier North Adventures Tundra Buggy programs. And yes, we have seen bears! The first was a large male, the second was guessed to be a female. Both were quite impressive and we spent a good deal of time observing, photographing, and discussing their behavior. The female had bedded down in kelp and was munching on it as well. Scientists say they aren’t sure why polar bears eat kelp. It does not provide any nutritional value for the bears. Some suggest it might be a way for the bears to kick start their digestive system. The bears in the Churchill area have not been on ice, and therefore have not had access to food since mid July. The ice most likely won’t form until mid November so it is thought they eat the kelp as a way to pass the time.

Most impressive about the animals up here are there camouflage. Many of the species are well-adapted to the changing landscape. Arctic hares, fox, and even ptarmigan are brown during the summer months and white in the winter. The fox and ptarmigan were difficult to spot with the dusting of snow against the brown earth. The arctic hares have grown their white coats already and stand out if not in the shelter. Luckily, their pretty good at hiding in the willows!

We took a tour of the Churchill Northern Science Center last night to learn more about the green features of the building we are staying at. This place is pretty amazing! Scientists, educators, school groups and visitors from around the world utilize this facility to learn about the tundra habitat through research and education. The new facility was designed to meet LEED certification at the gold level. One conservation measure they strive for is saving water. The average visitor staying at the center utilizes only ¼ of the water used by typical Americans. They achieve this through low flow faucets, timed showers, low flow toilets, and yes, even compost toilets – a concept that was new to me. Think indoor outhouse minus the stink – cool huh? Their water conservation efforts, in addition to their energy saving strategies set good examples for all of us. That’s why the center is a good place to for us to tackle our own eco-challenges. While in Churchill each of us at leadership camp has promised to use refillable bottles for our water, hand towels instead of paper towels for drying our hands, and we even given up showering for the week. All of our challenges are a way for us to reduce our impact on the environment while attending leadership camp.


Monday, October 8: Happy Thanksgiving!

People across Canada celebrated Thanksgiving today – how lucky for us! The traditional turkey dinner was served with stuffing, sweet potatoes and, of course, pumpkin pie. An October Thanksgiving holiday isn’t the only difference between Minnesota and Manitoba. We arrived in Churchill today and it’s a different world. This small town of just under 1000 residents sits atop a land of permafrost where the ground is always frozen. There are small lakes and pockets of water that dot the landscape where the ground has thawed, but below these ponds it’s frozen. The frozen ground gives rise to small trees. Their growth is stunted by the lack of accessible soil. Most interesting to me; the needles only grow on one side of the tree thanks in part to a relentless wind.

We took some time to explore the beach today and drove through the town of Churchill. Near the beach sits the “complex” or community center. The hospital, school, post office, hockey rink and more are all housed under one roof. Not a bad idea when living in the heart of polar bear country.

The complex isn’t the only strategy Churchill utilizes to coexist with one of the world’s largest land predator. The Manitoba Natural Resource Department runs a Polar Bear Alert Program to protect residents from accidental bear encounters. Each summer, as the ice in the Hudson Bay thaws, the bears are forced onto land where they enter a period of “walking hibernation.” Seals make up 95% of the polar bear diet. Without ice, there is no real food source for the bears. As fall approaches and temperatures drop the bears begin to gather near Churchill waiting for the ice to form. During “bear season,” a 24-hour hotline allows citizens to notify officials of bear sightings. Officers respond to about 2000 calls each summer and direct the bears away from town. This is often done with loud noises. Bears that pose a threat to citizens are trapped or tranquilized and taken to the bear holding facility. Most bears are held in the facility for 30 days and then transported by helicopter north of town to wait for the bay to freeze. The bears are not fed while in the holding area as the officers do not want them to associate humans with food. Bears that return to town repeatedly are held in the facility until the bay freezes over. Once the bay freezes, all of the bears who have been fasting on land will return to the ice to hunt seals once again.

All this talk about bears makes me want to see one. Tomorrow just may be the day!

Sunday, October 7: The Journey Begins

I’ve arrived safe in sound in Winnipeg. Before I left this morning, I took the boys down to the Twin Cities Marathon course. We were there to cheer on family and friends. Thousands of runners passed by, each one dedicating hours to training for this event. They worked hard, trained hard, and have their own stories to tell. Today their marathon journey came to an end and soon each one will begin a new journey.

Today, my journey to Churchill begins. Polar Bears International has worked hard to provide an amazing and immersive experience for our group. They will provide the opportunity to connect with others, to learn about polar bears, to experience life on the tundra. I have heard from others that PBI leadership camp is a life-changing experience. I am thankful to join them on this journey. I am eager to being writing my own story and excited to share it with you.

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