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Each year, in early November, polar bears move to the Cape Churchill area on the west coast of Hudson Bay. The bears somehow know that freshwater ice flowing down the large rivers will become packed against the cape by the prevailing northwest winds. Fresh water forms harder ice sooner than salt water, so the ice in this area becomes the first from which the bears can hunt ringed seals, their most important food source.

By November 4th or 5th, the ice shelf is usually firm enough for the bears to begin hunting, but during some years the ice does not form until December. The longer the ice is delayed, the larger the bear concentration around Churchill. As the bears wait with growing impatience for their hunting season to begin, students of the Great Bear Foundation's Arctic Ecology Field Class are given a unique opportunity to see North America's largest predator.

"Polar bears are the hook, " according to Dr. Charles Jonkel, Great Bear Foundation president and leader of the course, "but students in this class learn about much more than just bears." Most important, Jonkel says, is the fact that ecosystem processes, like bears, do not recognize political boundaries, and if we hope to protect them we need to develop a spirit of what Jonkel calls "North Americanism."

The water that we drink and the air that we breathe crosses national boundaries, Jonkel points out, and the actions taken by people living in Montana will have a direct impact on the fate of the entire arctic, including the polar bears.

"Europeans, for example, have a much better awareness of the interconnectedness of their continent," Jonkel says, "and now that we are faced with threats like global warming, it is high time that North Americans start to cooperate . . . before they lose much of what is valuable to them."

On the way to Churchill, students in the field course follow the Saskatchewan River to Lake Winnipeg, the Nelson River, and finally arrive at Hudson Bay. Jonkel talks about the changes in the land and vegetation that can be seen as the course passes through distinct ecosystems, including long grass prairie, montane forest, short grass prairie, and several forest zones. There are no roads to Churchill, so the last 500 miles are traversed by train, which gives travelers a chance to meet an interesting variety of people.

Once in Churchill, students spend their time on nature walks, beachcombing and polar bear watching until they see the first ice form. Once the bears move out onto Hudson Bay, there are chances to build igloos, learn about arctic plants, pick berries under the snow, and do outreach programs in the local schools.

This web page was put together by students in the November, 2005 field course in Churchill. It was originally imagined as a way for the students to share photographs with each other and show them to their friends, but it is also meant as a gesture of thanks to Charles "Chuck" Jonkel.

Chuck has been studying north american bears for over 40 years, and he was the pioneering researcher of polar bears in the canadian arctic. It was a privilege to travel and learn from someone that is so knowledgeable and so dedicated to preserving the land that he loves.





Web page maintained by Mike Tercek.


An inuksuk (plural = “Inuksuit”) near the railroad station in Churchill. Inuit people use inuksuit to express complex information like yearly stream conditions or they may merely mark the location of a trail or a fishing hole. In recent years, they have become increasingly human in outline.