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Rudolf Harmsen 

Banding and Bear Trouble

Realizing that bears are part of it all

Banding and Bear Trouble

7 August 1983 20:30 hrs

1 – Banding

Dinner will be another hour at least. I just climbed onto the roof of the kitchen, and saw the banding crew coming towards camp. They are still a good 2 km away, and slow. Conditions are miserable: blowing drizzle and exceptionally cold. They will be exhausted when they get here after 12 hours in fog and rain, processing several hundred uncooperative geese. I did not go out today because of another job I had to finish. I guess I was lucky.

Yesterday the banding operation slipped into gear as smoothly as an Israeli military assault. Up at 07:00. Breakfast ready - cooked by three crew members who were up by 06:00. Punctually at 08:00, the first catch crew took off in the chopper. Rocky and his lieutenant Scott1 had things beautifully worked out, and the weather,for once, cooperated: sunny skies, cool, and a fair westerly kept the mossies at bay.

Within minutes the catch crew had rounded up a flock of about 1200 geese, dropped off the drivers to contain the flock, and the chopper was back. Brenda2, our site selector, was next with the gear-sling. At first, the assistant site selector, Lauraine3, was also in the chopper, but the damn thing was overloaded and once off the ground, could not gain enough height to switch to forward flight. It dropped the sling (I hoped not too much of our gear was crushed), landed and let Lauraine off. Then, with the sling re-attached, it took off in search of a good banding site. We could hear all the conversations over the radio, and soon Brenda and Scott were in visual contact. They agreed on a suitable site within a few hundred meters from the captured flock. Within minutes the chopper was back to pick up another crew to set up the nets, and roared off again. I was in the fourth load. It was great to be looking down on the flat tundra below and recognize all the different plant communities we had sampled in the previous weeks. Only a few minutes after take-off we landed at the banding site, i.e. an hour's walk from camp. Wow, technology! No time was wasted in getting the nets set up, just as we had done in the rehearsal. The last load of workers arrived,and the helicopter wound down on a safe parking spot. Then the eight man strong catch crew slowly and gently drove the entire flock into the enclosure.

For the rest of the day, that was the end of any excitement. Now the slog started. First the goslings, then the geese. Hour after hour of kicking, scratching, flapping, muddy geese. It was a tour de force to keep up morale, as the afternoon wore on into evening, but finally, 1160 geese were banded and recorded. Also, sadly, 15 goslings (all sick of severe renal coccidiosis) were dead. I was exhausted, very wet and muddy. Immediately after dinner I went to bed. A lot of others did the same.

I really can't imagine that anyone could have done the same thing again today, and under much worse conditions. But they did.

 

2 - Bear trouble.

At four o'clock this morning - yes, at 04:00 hrs - there was a minor commotion, as people whispered and walked out of the sleeping quarters. Just as I was falling asleep again, "BANG! BANG! BANG!", three shots (meaning: dangerous bear situation). Everyone jumped up – questions – running. Rocky's voice outside: “There is a bear in the kitchen!” Then silence, waiting, watching, asking for further information, clarification. Rocky, John4 and Scott were on the roof of the Dry Lab – the kitchen door stood open, and one of the windows was pushed in. It was just getting light, and since nothing more was heard, Scott went to investigate. The bear was gone. He had eaten all last night's left-overs, all the powdered milk (well, that is, half of it was smudged all over the floor), a couple of containers of Parmesan cheese, a 25 lb bag of dog food and most of the cookies and muffins, presumably for his desert. He had also smashed one of the tables, and, of course, the door was broken open, and one window was totaled. The floor was awash in bear urine.

We soon spotted him, asleep, about a 100m from camp in a patch of low willows. By 08:00 he got up, stretched and waddled off north-eastwards in the rapidly thickening fog; there he presumably continued sleeping off his meal somewhere on the R-Chain. By 08:30 the banding count-down was stopped since visibility was down to a mere 50 m. However, an hour later the fog lifted, and soon the banding operation was at full speed underway. With the last chopper-load gone, silence returned to camp. The phalarope and ptarmigan teams left on foot. So did Dawn and I, leaving a rather nervous looking Jo-Anne behind by the radio, with a gun on the table beside her.

 

10 August 1983 09:15 hrs

 

A nervous tenseness hangs over the camp. We are totally fogged in. Everybody is sitting around wondering what to do, call banding off or wait another hour, or start doing something else. Also, the banding has not been going well at all. The geese are much more widely dispersed than in previous years. After four banding days only 2,500 new birds have been banded, versus the normal 5,000. Rocky, unfortunately takes this as a kind of personal defeat, making him very tense. This rubs off onto the others, and tempers are getting frayed. Add to this our nearly daily – or should I say nightly – encounters with bears, so that nobody is getting enough sleep, and things do not look too good.

As I expected, you can't give a bear a meal of milk powder and dog biscuits and not expect the bugger to return. He did. This time, however, we were more or less ready. The evening after his first intrusion, we decided to keep a series of watches, so that we could intercept him before he did a lot of damage. Rocky and Scott would do the first watch till 2 am, since they had a lot of data to process anyway. Jo-Anne and I did the dishes after dinner, and it was 00:45 hrs when we closed up the kitchen, switched off the lights and put all the punji boards5 around the door and windows. We stopped by the Dry Lab and said 'good night' to Rocky and Scott before turning in. I had barely fallen asleep, when: “BANG! BANG! BANG!” It was only 01:20 hrs – that bear had been watching us , and as soon as we left the kitchen, he came in. Rocky and Scott heard something, and they chased him off without too much damage (just one smashed window and the back of the stove is bent forward).

He did not go very far; at daybreak we spotted him sleeping, perhaps 200 m from camp. We called the polar bear research team, and someone turned up at 06:00 with a helicopter, and we all watched the sport. Our bear was darted, tagged, weighed (450 kg) and measured, and carried away in a sling under the belly of the chopper. They also painted a large black number 12 on each side of the bear, so that he will be recognizable for some time into the future. We will know him if he comes back. So far, he has not. Yesterday night was a quiet one. I had the 04:00 to 06:00 watch with Alex, and nothing happened. At about 05:15 we opened up the kitchen, made coffee and then cooked breakfast for everyone. We concluded that our bear problem had vanished with #12. Not so my problem. I had, inexperienced as I was in dealing with polar bears, decided to bring a snowy white pair of coveralls with me, having been informed that if I ran into any difficulties while alone in the field, I could radio for the helicopter, and the pilot would have to find me. From the first day on, I kept scaring fellow field workers who spotted me in their peripheral vision. Shortly after bear #12 was evacuated, I looked for my coveralls, and discovered that some gremlin in the middle of the night had painted a very large #12 on the back of my outer garment. Now I feel somewhat insecure walking around the tundra among gun-toting fellow researchers.


11 August 1983

Yesterday, my last day at L.P.B. I went out, doing “productivity” and “demography” studies with Dawn. This is very nitpicking botanical work, and it brought us all the way back to the east side of the bay. The weather was fair, if anything on the cool side, but by afternoon things had warmed up quite a bit. The banding operation was far to the west-northwest on the R-Chain. By mid afternoon the helicopter went up near the banding site, and was doing 'buzzing' antics. With our binoculars we could see that it was chasing a bear away from the site. Then, we spotted the cub. It was a sow with one quite small cub, and they were coming our way down the R-Chain islands. For the next two hours, as we botanized, we watched this mother and youngster walk past. They never came closer than 600 m, but it was great bear watching. The mother dawdled and nozed around as she slowly meandered eastwards. The cub, on the other hand, played. He clambered onto rocks, tried to jump from one rock onto another (not always very successfully), ran hither and yon and pestered his mother. Slowly they disappeared into two white dots in the direction of Point Pakulak.

That evening I cooked dinner with Geneviève6 – it was the official 'Banding Banquet': roast beef, roasted potatoes, peas, salad and for desert chocolate moose, or as we called it 'chocolate caribou'. With it we had wine and champagne of sorts for toasting the success of the operation. The atmosphere was great. All the sleeplessness, bear tension, banding problems and horrible weather conditions had not broken our spirit. Indeed, a strong sense of camaraderie and achievement had driven the mood of the camp up to an exuberant level. We put on a show on the inter-camp radio system, laughed till we could not laugh anymore, and totally forgot all our problems and responsibilities for a few hours.

 

Notes:

  1. Scott, surname and where, what?

  2. Brenda, ,,

  3. Lauraine, ,,

  4. John, ,,

  5. Chunks of firm plywood, with the sharp ends of 3 ½ inch nails hammered through, and sticking upwards.

  6. Genevieve Menard? Where now?

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