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Polar bear quest

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Photos courtesy of Rick Harner As a polar bear walks in icy water, his body is reflected in the water. This image of one of the "Lords of the Artctic" was captured during a recent adventure by Rick and Len Harner to Churchill, Manitoba, Canada, to view po

On Oct. 27 Rick and Len Harner of Cedaredge set out on a trip to spend seven days in Churchill, Manitoba, Canada, observing polar bears on land as the bears wait for the Hudson Bay to freeze over so they can return to ice.

Hudson Bay is famous for the seasonal migrations of polar bears. Churchill is known as "Polar Bear Town" because it is the first place where Hudson Bay freezes over.

About 800 people live in Churchill year round. Polar bear season lasts one month. The town swells with tourists beginning in mid-September. The residents of Churchill earn their annual income hosting tourists, especially while the polar bears live on land.

Tourists also come to Churchill for hunting season in mid-November and in January and February to observe the aurora borealis.

2016 has been the warmest season on record for that area of Manitoba, which has caused delay in Hudson Bay freezing over.

Len said, "Every day without ice is a day polar bears don't eat. The bears munch on kelp, which has mussels in it, to provide some food, but the bears need seals."

Rick added, "The polar bears come ashore in July as the ice is breaking up. They bulk up before they come on land and have to wait from July to November to go back out on ice.

During this time the bears will eat carrion, animals that have died and washed up on shore. They are strictly carnivores, primarily adapted to hunt seal on the ice."

Len and Rick left Cedaredge by automobile, spending three nights on the road and driving through Nebraska, South Dakota and North Dakota. They spent two nights in Winnipeg, Canada, where they met their tour group, consisting of 12 visitors and a tour guide. The group flew to Churchill, Manitoba.

They were housed at Churchill Northern Studies Centre, which was established in 1976 by members of the local community, university researchers and government officials. The Centre is an independent, non-profit organization which facilitates research and education in western Hudson Bay.

The Centre provides opportunities for the general public to interact with scientists and educators in an active field setting.

Rick and Len's tour group enjoyed dormitory-style accommodations, a cafeteria, wireless internet and full vehicle support. They had access to the Centre's heated 360-degree aurora borealis viewing dome, second story observation platform, fitness room, library and audio-visual lounge.

The Centre arranged for an interesting lecture every day. Len and Rick attended lectures on polar bears, aurora borealis, climate change, and the three distinct native tribes of the area: Inuit, Cree and Dene.

They were fascinated by the presentation of noted storyteller Myrtle de Meulles about the Metis tribe. Myrtle's father, Joseph McCuley, was a Scot who, like many others before him, came to Canada and married an aboriginal woman. Myrtle's mother, Margaret, is Cree. Myrtle married Robert de Meulles of the Metis tribe.

One of Myrtle's goals is to nurture the Metis art and craftwork that have been handed down through many generations. Her trademark artwork, caribou hair sculpting, on which she holds the patent, is inspired by the wildlife and landscapes of the Churchill area

Every day Rick and Len went out with others in their group in a tundra buggy to look for polar bears, to see where the bears were and what they were doing. They prepared for the temperature to reach 40 degrees below zero Fahrenheit

"The buggy leaves from the Centre," Len said. "We put on our coats and boots in our room and the buggy is right outside the door to the Centre.

"There is a guide there with a shotgun to protect humans from polar bears. It's not unusual for a bear to stand by a buggy.

"When a bear is in the vicinity, the guide shoots a cracker shell in the vicinity of the polar bear. The cracker shell explodes like a cherry bomb to frighten the bear. If a polar bear presents a real danger, there is a guard who will shoot actual bullets," Len said.

Rick added, "We saw bear tracks right outside the Centre. Polar bears are very curious and not afraid of humans.

"In Churchill there are three different types of biomes, or ecological communities: tundra, where the locals live; maritime, Hudson Bay; and boreal, the forest. Polar bears are found in the tundra and maritime biomes," he said.

"Riding around in our buggy we had as our host/leader Jim Halfpenny, Ph.D., a scientist doing research on arctic and alpine conditions all year round. He has been leading these tours for 27 years. He has seen everything," Rick said.

"Dr. Halfpenny is from the United States and is also one of the founders of the Arctic and Alpine Institute at University of Colorado Boulder."

On one occasion the Harners took a sled dog ride.

"The sled dogs really want to pull," Len said. "It was awesome. There we were, adults with big smiles on our faces."

The sled accommodated one seated person, Len; one standing person, Rick; and the musher, who stood also. There were six dogs pulling on a one-mile track.

"We probably reached a speed of 20 miles per hour and we had maybe a 10 minute ride. It didn't last as long as we would have liked, but it's a good way for the musher to raise money to feed and take care of the dogs," Rick said.

Rick noted that it was fairly expensive for the year-round residents to live in Churchill. Their food and other necessities have to be brought in by plane or train. Planes arrive with one-half cargo and one-half passengers.

Len added, "Everyone we met was really, really nice. Churchill has a good hometown feeling. We stayed out most of the days and we enjoyed the cultural activities in the town."

After their seven days in Churchill, Len and Rick flew back to Winnipeg, picked up their car and drove home. The odometer registered 3,300 additional miles from the time they had left Cedaredge.

Rick and Len moved to Cedaredge in 2007 from the Front Range, having lived in Denver and Littleton.

Rick owned his own company and was a consultant for biological surveys for energy companies, facilitating permits to mine in the Rocky Mountain region, performing vegetation surveys, wildlife surveys, soil surveys, and preparing reclamation plans for restoration of the sites after mining is completed.

Len's career involved administrative work in offices in Littleton.

Rick is a highly accomplished wildlife photographer. Splendid examples hang in the Harner home.

He said, "I became interested in photography about 15 years ago. At that time I put down my guns and picked up a camera.

"I enjoy the camera very much. I use it all year round as Len and I travel to environments where we can find animals. In Churchill we saw 25 different polar bears, four of which were cubs.

"The animals are probably happy when we leave," Rick said, chuckling.

Len and Rick are looking forward to their next wildlife photographing trip to Yellowstone where they like to spend a good bit of time.

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