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Bear necessities

An Eagle Creek teen travels to Churchill, Manitoba to study polar bears in their changing environment
by: patrick sherman, Kourtney Kuiper is a frequent volunteer at the Oregon Zoo.

Eagle Creek teenager Kourtney Kuiper has been to the end of the earth, and returned to share what she discovered in her travels.

'We went up to Churchill, Manitoba,' she said. 'It's called the polar bear capital of the world, because it's the first place the sea ice freezes so they can go out and hunt, and it's the last place to thaw. We went up to investigate the impact global warming is having on them, and on the other plants and animals in the arctic.'

A junior at Estacada High School, Kuiper volunteers her time at the Oregon Zoo.

'That's where I heard about this opportunity,' she said. 'I had to write a paper, go through an interview process and then give a public presentation.'

The goal of the program was to identify a student who would be an effective 'ambassador for the arctic' upon returning home, and Kuiper was selected after taking on the subject of methamphetamine abuse in her own community.

'It was about a week after my presentation that I found out,' she said. 'I wasn't really expecting either way - I was just waiting, trying not to get my hopes up - but I was really excited when I found out I was going.'

On Sept. 29, Kuiper boarded a plane at Portland International Airport and flew to Winnipeg, Manitoba, where she met the other 13 members of the expedition.

'They were from all over the world: the United States, Canada, Australia and Denmark,' she said. 'It was definitely different. It was interesting how different things are in Denmark and Australia than in the United States and Canada.'

Although all of the participants spoke English, they often found themselves divided by that common language.

'One of the funnier ones was that what we call a 'shopping cart' they call a 'shopping trolley.' We all got confused because nobody was quite sure what we were talking about,' said Kuiper. 'We all got along though, because we were all there for the same reason.'

After several days of orientation, the team boarded a small airplane for the flight to Churchill.

'It's pretty cut-off up there. You can't drive there, although you can take the train,' Kuiper explained. 'I'm not a fan of flying, so getting up in a little, tiny airplane with propellers was definitely an experience.'

Arriving in Churchill on the shore of the Hudson Bay, Kuiper transferred to an entirely new means of transportation: the tundra buggy.

'It's like a school bus that's been widened out mounted on a fire truck chassis, and then you add monster truck tires,' she said. 'It allows people to go out and safely see the polar bears without disrupting the environment.'

Along with the other participants, Kuiper stayed in the tundra buggy lodge - five of the oversized vehicles hooked together like a train, each with a specific purpose: sleeping quarters, kitchen, lounge and computer lab.

'Everybody got to know each other very, very fast,' said Kuiper. 'It was different not being able to go out and do what you want - I think we all got a bit of cabin fever, being stuck in that small area.'

According to Kuiper, all of the hardships were made worthwhile by the opportunity to observe polar bears in the wild and learn about their plight.

'Polar bears want to get out on the sea ice as soon as they can, because when they are on land, they basically don't eat anything,' she explained. 'The females will go eight months without eating while they are raising their young on land.

'When the sea freezes over, they go out and eat as much as they can before it thaws out, and they have to wait for next year.'

Polar bears feed on seals, lying in wait near holes in the ice for the pinnipeds to surface for air and then devouring them. Now, changes in the global climate are threatening the polar bears' survival.

'It usually freezes in the middle of November, and doesn't thaw out until spring or summer,' Kuiper said. 'It's starting to thaw out sooner, and it's freezing later, because the Earth is getting warmer.

'At the rate things are changing, we won't have polar bears in 100 years. It's amazing how fast things can happen - I didn't realize it.'

Female polar bears are especially reliant on a winter diet rich in seal blubber, which provides the energy that they will require to nurse their young through the long summer months.

'If they don't have that fat built up, they won't have cubs,' said Kuiper. 'We could be affected, too - it's a chain reaction: polar bears eat seals, but if we don't have polar bears, then there will be more seals, who eat the same fish we eat. There will be less fish for us.'