Polar Experience

Amanda Gilmore

    In a world newly released from the clutches of a pandemic, Dr. Sarah Ivers knew one thing to be true in 2022–she wanted to travel. And, as a professor of mammology and animal behavior at Shawnee State University, she also knew she wanted to go where she could observe some of nature’s most magnificent creatures.

     That place turned out to be the Arctic Tundra in northeastern Manitoba, Canada, the town of Churchill, to be precise, one of the best places in the world to see polar bears in their natural habitat. The timing was October 2022–just as the bears began their winter feast on seals on the ice of Hudson Bay.

     “I was actively looking for unique experiences focused on wildlife and unique habitats. Polar bears are often described as the ‘poster child’ for climate change, and I was concerned that if I put this off until retirement, I might miss my chance to see them as they have existed for millennia. I also always wanted to see the Taiga, the boundary between the Arctic Tundra and Boreal Forest. This was my chance.”

     Ivers, 38, of Portsmouth, selected Natural Habitat as her tour group. Its mission of “conservation through exploration” and carbon-neutral goals fits well with Ivers’ mindset. Plus, “I was able to experience the environment and the wildlife with experts–with several scientific presentations during the trip.”

     Churchill boasts the title of Polar Bear Capital of the World. The bears, the largest land carnivores in the world, spend most of their time out on ice, far away from land. But as the ice melts each year, they are forced to come to land during the warmest seasons. “As I understand it, the water in Hudson Bay near Churchill tends to freeze earlier than in other locations. Polar bears, long lived and intelligent organisms know this, and they gather along the shores here months in advance to wait for the ice,” Ivers said.

     A little more than 1,000 miles north of Winnipeg, Churchill is the definition of remote. The transportation choices are either a multiple-day train ride or a charter flight from Winnipeg; Ivers chose the latter. Once arrived, she boarded a Tundra Rover (think white school bus, elevated about nine feet off the ground to keep both the humans inside and polar bears outside safe). Her home was a similarly elevated Tundra Lodge on the edge of the Hudson Bay. Ivers’ sleeping area measured 4’ by 6’ and was heated to about 60 degrees. “I’m always freezing, so I wore my parka inside as well,” she said.

     From there, the group of 25 left each of the next three days in search of the thing they’d come so far to see. “We would board a rover and travel around the area, communicating by radio with other vehicles about bear sightings and locations. Sometimes, a bear would remain in an area for only a few minutes. Other times, it would stay nearby for two or more hours.”

     Ivers had 19 sightings over 72 hours. Her first, from a bit of a distance, was of a polar bear and a red fox hunting lemming. “The experience was surreal–seeing the animals together like that. At that point, I had no idea I was going to be able to observe the bears from a much shorter distance.”

Fortunately, she had many more much closer sightings, including watching a mother and her 18-month-old cub for nearly two hours. “The cub was playful and curious. I watched it wander close to the vehicle, even sampling a tire with his teeth. He then found an old dog sled and chewed on it much as a puppy would with a bone. That was a behavior no one on the trip, regardless of experience, had seen before. It was both adorable and a reminder of how incredibly powerful these animals are.”

In addition to the trip to the Arctic, Ivers also journeyed in 2022 to Costa Rica, Iceland, New Zealand, and Manitoba again–this time to kayak with migrating Beluga Whales. All of these experiences not only enriched her life, but her students’ lives as well.

“I think the work translates into my role as professor in a few ways. It shows that it is possible for an alum of SSU, which I am, to become a woman in STEM who travels to see the organisms I teach about,” Ivers said. “You don’t have to be independently wealthy; you don’t have to have connections. Drive, motivation, and stubbornness can get you a long way toward your goals. I want my students to recognize that they can achieve these things that feel very impossible for them. I know that feeling. I’m first generation and once thought very similar things.”

In a more practical way, Ivers brought back stories and photographs which she shares in the classroom, at community events, and on her Instagram page (@professor_ivers).