Kings of the Arctic – Churchill’s Polar Bears

There are destinations on my “bucket list” that sit quietly in the back of my mind for years and years. From the moment I first learned about these places, I knew I just had to get there one day and experience it firsthand.

These places are usually tucked away in my brain, ebbing and flowing in my consciousness, re-igniting when I see a photo or video about them. I’ll smile and nod in acknowledgement, reminding myself that I still need to get there. “I haven’t forgotten about you,” I say.

Churchill, Manitoba was one of those places.

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It’s known as the “Polar Bear Capital of Canada”, and for good reason. Every fall, a huge number of polar bears migrate through the Churchill area, which lies on the northwest shores of Hudson Bay. The bears are ready to end their summer fast, waiting for the sea ice to form so they can return to the water to hunt seals and replenish their fat reserves.

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Cargo gets the first-class treatment when it comes to Canada’s isolated North. 

Canada’s North is a unique place. Churchill is located roughly 1,200km north of Winnipeg, and is only accessible by plane (some supplies can move by barge on Hudson Bay during warmer months). The railway will soon return to Churchill, after a 17 month closure due to track flooding. Moving cargo (groceries, equipment, supplies) is key to survival here. This was most evident when I boarded my flight from Winnipeg: the front half of the jet was reserved for cargo, with passengers taking up the back.

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Visitors to Churchill must be vigilant and “bear aware”. 

The larger western Hudson Bay region is home to roughly 900 polar bears, and the town of Churchill is home to around 900 people. That’s a pretty impressive ratio! Needless to say, when the bears are in the area in October and November, there’s an excellent chance to see them firsthand.

I recently had the opportunity to visit Churchill with Polar Bears International (PBI), which is doing incredible work to study and save the polar bears, whose livelihood is at risk due to climate change, which is affecting the world’s sea ice.

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Visitors view a polar bear from a tundra buggy. 

My visit landed during “Polar Bear Week”, which draws international attention to polar bears and the threats against them. Polar Bears International educates the public about polar bears and their staff includes scientists who study wild polar bears to understand their ecology habitat and threats.

Polar Bears International is also in the process of building a permanent home in Churchill, which will include an interpretive centre, host community events and serve as lodging for visiting scientists and guests.

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PBI has its own tundra buggy, a true lab on wheels, that has a live “polar bear cam” mounted to it where you can get a glimpse of the tundra and bears in their natural environment.

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PBI’s tundra buggy is equipped with radar equipment and polar bear cams. 

If you’re lucky enough to visit Churchill, you’ll get the chance to see the polar bears from a “tundra buggy”, a vehicle custom-built in Churchill. With huge wheels, the buggies can navigate the snow drifted tundra and allow visitors to see the polar bears safely. Operators such as Frontiers North has a number of tundra buggy experiences for travelers, and even has a “Tundra Buggy Lodge” – essentially a number of higher-end wheeled trailers locked end to end like a train, which allows visitors to stay on the tundra for a number of days.

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Just before the ice starts to form on Hudson Bay, many polar bears find their way into the town of Churchill (which sits on the shore of the Bay), but a local patrol helps to keep both bears and residents safe. If a bear is spotted, locals can call a 24-hour phone line, where they are monitored or relocated.

Residents and visitors must take caution when exploring the town, with many opting to carry bear spray. The majority of residents leave their vehicles unlocked, just in case a pedestrian needs to find refuge from a surprise encounter. The bears can be anywhere!

On Halloween, at the height of polar bear season, a special community patrol is set up to keep bears away and trick or treaters safe (you won’t see any polar bear or ghost costumes here).

Seeing a polar bear firsthand took my breath away. I couldn’t get over the size of her feet – as big as dinner plates, which better distributes her weight on the ice. It’s these moments that stay with us for a lifetime, watching one of the world’s most incredible creatures in its natural habitat.

And just like a classical African safari or other international wildlife experience, no two days are the same when it comes to seeing wildlife, and the same rings true for Churchill. Fortunately, the Wildlife Management Area limits the amount of visitors in the area, for the sake of the bears and the natural environment.

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Canada’s North is home to so many stunning natural wonders. In Churchill, as the bears make their way onto the ice, winter brings new wonders to experience – winter’s Northern Lights called the Aurora Borealis. Summertime offers the chance to witness the migration of thousands of beluga whales in the Churchill River.

Like the rest of our planet, the North is changing, but we can all do our part to try and limit our impact on the planet and keep these kings and queens of the Arctic safe for centuries to come.

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