PABLO – The first time Frank Tyro was invited to document a polar bear-viewing expedition, he asked a perfectly reasonable question.
“When do we leave for Alaska?” Tyro, who was just establishing the Salish Kootenai College Media Center he’s directed since, wondered.
Bob Klaver, a biologist for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and part-time faculty member at SKC who asked Tyro to come along and bring his cameras, informed Tyro they were headed to Canada. To Churchill, a remote village on Hudson Bay, a town with no roads leading in or out, in the northern reaches of Manitoba.
It was 1984. In the nearly 30 years since, Tyro has returned to Churchill more than 30 times with the Great Bear Foundation of Missoula, which sponsors trips to the town that has built a small tourism industry around the polar bears that arrive every fall.
Tyro – who will talk and show pictures of his adventures in Churchill next Sunday in Plains – never tires of the long trip.
It’s not just because of the polar bears, magnificent in their own right.
It’s the beluga whales that show up by the thousands, three or four months before the polar bears invade, to calve in the Churchill River estuary. And the arctic and red foxes, and the owls and ptarmigan and – if you’re a lucky birder – the rarely seen Ross’s gull that calls the Arctic home.
Then there are the northern lights that, on a clear night with a new moon, swirl overhead in a magnificent show of greens and magentas unlike anything Tyro has ever experienced any place else.
But what he likes best?
“Seeing people see a polar bear for the first time,” Tyro says.
He got to see his first polar bears on that initial journey in 1984, during a particularly brutal fall when temperatures in Churchill hovered between 30 and 40 degrees below zero.
Tyro also got to know Charles Jonkel of Missoula, co-founder of the Great Bear Foundation and International Wildlife Film Festival, on that first trip, and there was plenty of time to do so – the trip involved a 1,000-mile van ride to The Pas, Manitoba, from Montana, followed by a 600-mile train ride to Churchill, not to mention the return trip.
“Chuck and I hit it off,” Tyro says of the well-known bear biologist who has led countless tours to Churchill, “and I kind of became the bus driver and the guy who carries the firearm after that.”
The firearm is a shotgun with the plug removed, loaded with cracker shells, double-aught buckshot and slugs.
“I’ve never had to use anything but the cracker shells,” designed solely to frighten a bear off, Tyro says, and adds that he’s only fired the shotgun three times in 29 years.
“It’s becoming less effective,” Tyro says. “Everybody tries to use cracker shells to drive the bears out of town.”
Ah, town. Only about 800 people, the majority of aboriginal descent, live in Churchill. The little town has an interesting military history that stretches from the 1700s through World War II, a much-heralded bakery and perhaps the world’s only polar bear jail.
“If they come into town and cause trouble, they get darted and taken to bear jail,” Tyro says. It’s a Quonset hut with concrete “cells” into which very few humans are allowed – an SKC student was admitted to collect polar bear fecal matter for her giardia study on that 1984 trip – and only water is served pending the bears’ return to the wild.
Polar bears bring people to Churchill. What brings the polar bears?
Tyro – who emphasizes he is neither biologist nor bear expert, just someone who has spent 29 years traveling to Churchill with a man who is – says the area around the little town is unique.
“Even though Churchill is toward the southern end (of Hudson Bay), it’s the first place where the ice freezes every year,” Tyro explains.
That’s because freshwater ice formed in the Churchill River flows into the bay. There, prevailing northerly winds from the North Pole shoot in and hold the ice against the shoreline.
“When the winds hold the ice against the shore, it can freeze a mile out overnight,” Tyro says.
And that’s why the polar bears congregate there in the fall. The ice lets them get out on the water to hunt for their primary food source, the ringed seal.
Hudson Bay – at 470,000 square miles, more than three times the size of Montana – eventually freezes over completely, and the polar bears can spread out across a vast area in search of the breathing holes the ringed seals make in the ice.
But Churchill is the ice’s starting point each fall, and where the bears gather to await the dinner bell.
“When we went to Churchill in 1984, freeze-up (in western Hudson Bay) had already occurred,” Tyro says. “In the last 30 years, the average date of ice breakup and freeze-up has gotten further apart, meaning the polar bears have a shorter season when they can hunt seals.”
Jonkel, now in his 80s, has spent much of a lifetime studying the bears. Tyro and two of his Great Bear Foundation colleagues, executive director Shannon Donahue and media consultant Matt Anderson, are making a documentary film about Jonkel and his decades of bear research and advocacy for the Arctic, its people and wildlife.
Tyro says Jonkel helped establish the Churchill Northern Studies Centre in 1976, used first to accommodate researchers from around the world and, when there are openings, people on educational tours like the ones run by the Great Bear Foundation.
“The first year I went up there, it was an old shack with honey buckets,” Tyro recalls.
Today, it is a $21 million facility located 14 miles east of town and, occasionally, you don’t have to go far to see a polar bear. Aromas from the kitchen sometimes attract them.
The research that goes on ranges from effects of climate change to invasive species studies, from measuring the intensity of solar flares that cause those northern lights, to how tundra buggies that haul tourists around locally affect the polar bears.
In addition to the wildlife, Tyro says he is fascinated by how people adapt to their surroundings, and the colder it gets, the more interesting it is.
“People near the equator can find food outside their door,” he says. “Northern people have to work at it.”
Tyro likes to share stories of the earliest explorers to Hudson Bay, British and Danish ones whose ship captains brought along their finest silver and porcelain, not to mention people to polish their buttons.
“They couldn’t believe the natives would eat the contents from the stomach of a caribou, or the skin of a whale,” Tyro says, but the joke was on the visitors. The caribou consumed lichens that were high in vitamin C; the whale skin had many minerals and vitamins.
The Brits and Danes wouldn’t touch either, and “that’s why they died of scurvy,” Tyro says, “while the locals survived.”
You can fly into Churchill, but Tyro says Jonkel discourages it.
“Chuck always says not to be a tourist, but to be a traveler,” Tyro says. “Take the time to learn the land and the people.” Driving to a spot near the end of the road, then taking the train that also hauls wheat to be shipped out of Churchill by boat to Europe, lets you gradually enter a part of the world occupied by polar bears.
“They’re so magnificent,” Tyro says. “They have huge feet with hair on the bottom, and their feet are webbed. Their skin is black and their hair is hollow, which is why they can swim.”
The hair is also not white, but clear hollow tubes that reflect light and make it appear white.
“They come in all shapes and sizes, and dispositions,” says Tyro, who says he’s seen more than 600 of the animals since he started traveling to Churchill.
Churchill is also where Tyro met his wife, Lori Lambert, in 1988. She was teaching at Penn State University at the time and looking for an Arctic site to take her environmental education students.
And they sound like a good match. When they’re not traveling to often chilly Churchill, Manitoba, for fun, they go to places like Baffin Island – located even farther north of Hudson Bay – and Iceland.
“Our ‘bucket list’ includes Greenland and Antarctica,” Tyro says.
Like the polar bears they love to watch, Tyro and Lambert take to cold climes.