Churchill in northern Manitoba, Canada is also known as the “polar bear capital of the world” and was originally a Hudson Bay Company fur-trading post. This frontier community is one of the few human settlements where polar bears can be observed in the wild and we were told that no where else in the world can one see as many polar bears as close and as often. There are approximately only 20,000 polar bears left in the wild with about 60% living in Canada. Polar bears are the world’s largest land predators and they primarily hunt ice seals. They appear in the Churchill area every year from mid-Oct to early Nov when Hudson Bay freezes over so that they can head out into the bay and access their hunting grounds. We flew into Winnipeg in order to catch our chartered flight to Churchill. Most visitors join one of the two tour companies operating out in the tundra where they organise the flights, hotels, meals, sightseeing etc for you. We joined the Frontier North Group and chose the guided visit which is less people per tundra buggy and we also get an experienced guide/naturalist with us the whole time. We had 15 in our group compared to about 40+ people in the non-guided tours. Upon arrival in Churchill, we had a guided tour of the town and points of historical interest such as Cape Merry, Port of Churchill, and Manitoba Conservation’s Polar Bear Holding Facility. This holding facility is basically a polar bear jail where bears that repeatedly wreck havoc in town are taken and kept in separate cells and only given water for 30 days or until the ice has formed on Hudson Bay where they are released. We initially thought it was terrible to only give the bears water in the holding facilities, but the guide explained that polar bears normally don’t eat until the bay freezes and they are able to hunt. So they usually don’t eat between the months of June to October or whenever the Hudson Bay freezes.
We spent two days on the Tundra Buggy for our safari-like trips through the Churchill Wildlife Management Area. The Tundra Buggy is basically a large bus on monster wheels with an open area in the back. The vehicle is well heated and all the windows can slide down for better viewing and photos. There is also a washroom on board since we are in the buggy from 9am to about 4 pm. There is also the option of staying at the Tundra Lodge out on the tundra. We decided against it because it is like sleeping in a large dormitory with bunk beds and sharing bathrooms. But truth be told, our accommodations at an inn in town weren’t a lot better and the food is very mediocre. The advantage of staying at the Lodge would be more direct access to the trails and probably higher chances of seeing bears passing by the windows at times of the day when the Tundra buggies would have returned to base. My main criticism of this tour is that we are basically paying African luxury safari prices but are getting at best 2 to 3-star level of service, food, and accommodations.
Adult males normally weigh from 350 to 600 kg and females weigh from 150-295 kg. Adult polar bears are typically 3.5-5 feet tall when on all fours and up to over 10 feet when standing on its hind legs. Polar bears are curious creatures and oftentimes they would approach the buggies and stand on their hind legs to try and peer in. Don’t let their size fool you, they are super fast and stealthy and they are champion swimmers. They have been known to swim more than 60 miles without rest. Polar bears are made for the arctic climate with two layers of fur and also a thick fat layer. Unfortunately, because of global warming, the ice is still unformed in Hudson Bay during our visit and as a result there are significantly fewer bears arriving in the area. Instead of the area teeming with polar bears, we had to drive all over the place in search of them. Most of them were napping amongst the rocks or kelp to conserve energy and they are so still that they can easily be mistaken for a rock or vice versa, and hence the term “polar rocks”. The highlight of our trip was seeing a mother bear and her two cubs on the afternoon of our last day. But because there was another male in the area near our vehicles, the mother got spooked and didn’t approach us.
Other than seeing the polar bears, there is not too much to do in Churchill. Even though there wasn’t snow on the ground, we still managed to go dog sledding (on wheels) through Churchill’s boreal forest. I can imagine how exhilarating it would be to mush your own team of dogs through the snowy open plains of the Arctic. The owner of the kennel we visited, Dave Daley, is also the organiser of the annual 400-km gruelling Hudson Bay Quest racing along the coast of Hudson Bay from Churchill to Arviat, Nunavut. We also paid a visit to the Eskimo Museum which is a bit of a hodge-podge of everything arctic. It gives you a peek inside the everyday life of this desolate environment.
I am strangely enchanted watching the polar bears in their natural habit for hours and hours. It reminds me of seeing the animals on an African Safari where you look forward to each game drive and are sad when it’s time to leave. The tundra and plains give you the feeling that the rest of the world is very very far away and the peace and solitude here is alluring. Polar bears, to me, are powerful, beautiful, and magical creatures, like in the Chronicles of Narnia, and I am grateful for having the opportunity to see them in the wild.
Until the next adventure! Thanks for stopping by!
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