Hastie watched from a tundra buggy as two polar bears tested the broken ice floating in Hudson Bay.
“You wouldn’t believe it,” Hastie says. “The waves are coming, and there’s just scrappy pack ice, and these bears were running on it. They’re amazing.”
Sipping hot cider in a Queen Street coffee shop, Hastie flips through the photos from the week-long course she took in November at a science centre in Churchill, Manitoba.
There is a silver fox, an Arctic hare, a stained glass window given to the town by the widow of explorer Sir John Franklin, even the remains of a Cold War-era rocket range. But it was polar bears that drew Hastie to Churchill.
Just two degrees south of the Arctic Circle, the town lies by the mouth of the Churchill River in an area where some 920 of the seal-hunting bears wait out the ice-free months of summer and fall.
As soon as Hastie found out she could take a class at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre and actually help with polar bear research, she said, “That was it.”
From a tundra buggy, a helicopter, the CNSC’s 360-degree viewing dome and standing beside a trusty armed guide, Hastie got plenty of chances to see the bears in their native habitat.
“Most people, when they go, see three or four bears,” she said, smiling. “I saw 25, some of them multiple times. It was amazing good luck.”
In one of Hastie’s photos, a black-tongued bear laps water from a pond. Another flashes a webbed rear paw as he dives into a snow bank.
Built in a renovated military building, the CNSC has 86 dorm-style rooms that house working scientists alongside touring school groups, university students and vacationers like Hastie.
Churchill makes a good base for research because it is just above the tree line, at a midpoint between tundra, Arctic marine, and boreal forest ecosystems. At the CNSC, scientists can fly or train in and rent everything from lab space to snow machines, ice augers and the services of two full-time lab technicians. But for some studies, they can also put people like Hastie to work.
Hastie’s class, which included 31 people ages eight to 80, was asked to take specific photos of polar bears – side profiles, butt shots and whisker patterns – that can be used to estimate the bears’ level of body fat.
Rising average temperatures and diminishing sea ice in the Arctic are one reason for the study.
Canada has two-thirds of the world’s 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears, and federal scientists have said since 1991 that there is “considerable concern for the future of this species.”
Over-hunting is also a concern, but scientists want to know how shorter sea-ice seasons are impacting the ability of polar bears to fatten up for summer.
“It’s still in the transition where they’re looking for evidence,” Hastie said. “They just don’t know yet.”
One thing Hastie said everyone in Churchill knows for sure is that it pays to be careful how you meet a polar bear. Weighing up to 2,000 pounds, they not only have sharp claws but are built to smash through the ice that covers sea ice.
Hastie said no one batted an eye when one night she had to ask a store clerk to call her a taxi because she had realized too late that the sun was setting outside. Days before Hastie flew in, a woman with a temporary bakery job took a chance walking to work alone at 4:30 a.m. and was chased by a female polar bear.
Luckily, a 69 year-old man heard the woman scream, grabbed the shovel he had by the door and hit the bear until it ran away.
The man was treated in a Winnipeg hospital, but two female bears were shot by conservation officers. The first was mistaken for the attacking bear, and its orphaned cub was shipped to a zoo.
“I don’t think the bear really meant to do much, because a polar bear can take you out with one swipe,” said Hastie, adding that polar bears are only shot as a last resort.
Because even in Churchill some people leave open garbage out, Hastie said the town has a polar bear “jail” where problem bears stay until they get a $2,000 helicopter lift out to sea.
Only a few dozen of the hundreds of polar bears that live near Churchill get into trouble, Hastie said. And even when they do, it’s not always dire.
When a brand-new research centre was under construction, Hastie said a polar bear broke into the construction crew’s garage and ate all their food supplies except for one telling item.
“The only thing the polar did not get its nose into was the tofu.”