Polar Bears of Churchill

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Question: Why is visiting Churchill, Manitoba, like visiting North Korea? Stay tuned. I’ve just returned from four days in Churchill where I visited my second-cousins, the polar bears. Naturally, four days makes me an expert. So bear (hee-hee) in mind that everything that follows comes from a four-day expert. First the basics. The polar bears of Hudson Bay spend the winter hunting seals on the frozen bay. When the ice breaks up, they come to shore and spend the warmer months living off the fat they stored away during the winter, having cubs, and waiting for the bay to freeze again. So in October and November, they hang around near Churchill on the shore of the bay where it tends to freeze early. There seem to be two teams of companies from which to choose if you want to meet the bears up close and personal: Natural Habitat Adventures of Boulder CO teams which teams with Great White Bear Tours of Churchill and its Polar Rovers, and Frontiers North of Winnipeg which uses its own Tundra Buggy fleet. (As of now, the Lazy Bear Lodge offers a third option.) I traveled with Natural Habitat and recommend them highly. One option with either company is to stay in Churchill and make daily trips out to the tundra. That’s what I did. Before leaving Winnipeg, Natural Habitat provided loaner boots and parkas to those who hadn’t brought their own. Once we placed our bags outside our hotel rooms in Winnipeg, we didn’t see them again until we opened the doors to our hotel rooms in Churchill, and similarly for our return trip. There were no formalities at either airport because we flew on charter flights. All our meals were included (except for beer and wine) and we ordered from the restaurant menus. (“What another desert? Sure, go right ahead!”) On the afternoon we arrived in Churchill, our driver gave us a “city tour” which included a stop at the shore of Hudson Bay to admire an inukshuk. (Well, don’t expect me to explain everything; that’s what Google is for!) Then, that evening and at 7:30 on each of the next two mornings, we were transported from our hotel in a minibus about 20 miles out of town. Sometimes you see bears along the way; on our way back to town on the third afternoon, we saw two pairs of mothers and cubs, our only such sighting of the trip. The minibus took us to the “launch site,” where the Polar Rovers (Natural Habitat) and Tundra Buggies (Frontiers North) back up against an embankment of earth and snow so that passengers can just walk into a back door across a short bridge from the minibus. The tires of one of these vehicles are more than five feet in diameter and I estimated that the floor of our Rover is 8-10 feet off the ground. Our vehicle had two rows of two seats each, with a seating capacity of about 50, and divided by an aisle that’s four to five feet wide. The windows lower at each seat for easy photography, and there’s an outside deck at the rear for open-air viewing. We had only 14 in our group (plus our tour leader and driver), so we all had plenty of room and there was little jockeying for position to get the best view or camera angle. The front of the Rover is all window and tilts inward from the roof, so that as you look out the window you can look down to the ground, where a bear may be standing and looking up at you. At the rear of the Rover, a door opens onto a small deck to stand when a bear is wandering around back there. At no time do your feet touch the ground from the moment you board the Rover in the morning until you leave it in the late afternoon. I want to emphasize the spaciousness of the Rover. Although it’s not elegant, there’s good leg room between the seats, it’s easy to move around inside it, and there’s ample room for coats, day packs, water bottles, etc. It also has its own toilet. All this is important because we were on a Rover for about eight hours on each of our two full days in Churchill. Once we had boarded, we set off along the roads, such as they are, of the Churchill Wildlife Management Area. The roads are broken and bumpy but not enough to give any of us motion sickness. Still, if anyone tends to react poorly to motion, bringing some patches or pills would be a good idea. The vehicles are required to stay on the roads because they otherwise would damage the delicate vegetation of the tundra, and it would take years to repair that damage. This means that your contact with the bears depends on how close they are to you, not how close you can get to them. More on this soon. After several hours on the road, we would stop so our driver and tour leader could prepare hot coffee or cocoa. Natural Habitat gave us metal water bottles and lidded coffee mugs as part of their effort to keep their programs as “green” as possible. (They partner with the World Wildlife Fund.) Several hours after that, we would stop for a cup of soup, an excellent sandwich (with several choices available), fresh salad, sodas, and a sweet. On our first evening when we went out on the Rovers at dusk, we had a hot chicken dish for dinner. I think we all were pleasantly surprised that the food was so much better than the ham and cheese sandwiches I had expected. We estimated that during our two and a fraction days on the tundra, we saw perhaps 35-40 different bears. (It’s not always possible to know if you’re seeing a bear for the second time; most of them have eartags but none have name tags pinned to them: “Hi, My Name is Whitey!”) We saw some white ptarmigans, and a hint of a lemming, but no white foxes or hares. They’re just too small and well-disguised. This only quarry of this trip is bears. Some we saw from a distance, and we had to be satisfied stopping the Rover and watching them from our windows. Sometimes they were walking around. At other times, they were lying on the ground and would raise their heads and look around for some moments before deciding that they’d exerted enough energy and let their heads fall back on their paws. After all, they had eaten little for months and now were at their thinnest, so they were conserving their energy until the bay froze and they could begin hunting—and feasting. We sometimes saw two bears together—young males, according to our driver and tour leader—who would play and wrestle, sometimes rising to their hind legs and grappling with each other. This was good practice, we were told, for when they might have to really fight with each other over a seal kill. Having to stay on the road prevented us from getting any closer to them, but what excited and surprised me the most was discovering that some of the bears would come to us. These bears evidently were curious about us and our vehicles—or, more likely, their incredibly keen sense of smell alerted them to the fact that we had foodstuffs aboard, both our meals and, of course, us. Also, if they had spent one or more earlier seasons on the tundra and had encountered our vehicles before, they knew they had nothing to fear from us. It was something like cheetahs perching on the hoods of safari vehicles in east Africa. On several occasions, one bear or a pair of them walked straight toward us from quite a distance away, and we could watch them coming. On other occasions, one of us would glance out a window—while eating lunch, as I recall—and see a bear standing there or slowly walking past us. Bears would come up to the front windows and stand on their hind legs, so that only two feet and a pane of glass separated their heads from ours. Or the bears would sniff around under the front of the vehicle. Or they would walk to the rear of the vehicle and explore beneath our outside rear deck which had a metal grate for a floor. So not only could we look directly down at the bears, but they could try to stick their snouts through the grate at our feet. In fact, one bear tried his best to get his teeth around one of the ridges on the soles of my boots. And so the day would go, with our occasional exclamations of “Wow!” or “Look!”, but often with silence as we appreciated the size, the obvious power, and the beauty of these great animals. At about 4:30 in the afternoon, we’d begin our return to the “launch site” and then to town. We stayed at the Churchill Motel which is right in the center of town (most things are!). It was plain but functional, the staff were friendly, and the meals we had there were fine. It wasn’t elegant by any means but, hey, we were in Churchill, Manitoba! Remember the TV series, “Northern Exposure.” Well, Churchill is the closest I’ve come to Cicely, Alaska. The town is aligned along a main street with shorter streets running perpendicular to it. The buildings are low, plain, and built to withstand the elements, except for a very large combination school/community center/skating rink/curling arena/etc., which must be everyone’s home away from home during the long and cold winter months. After all, the only ways to get to or from Churchill are by air, a 42-hour train trip from Winnipeg, or on one of the cargo ships that stop arriving just about the time we were there. Our group actually totaled about 45-48 participants, but we were broken up even before leaving Winnipeg into three smaller groups. The other two stayed at the Seaport Hotel and the Polar Inn. There are as many as 7-8 hotels open during the polar bear season and many of the staff come up for the short season before returning “south” to Winnipeg or elsewhere. We ate lunch on the day we arrived at Gypsy’s Bakery and dinners at the Seaport and the Tundra Inn. No “fine dining” in Churchill, but good, solid food after a long, cold day. I’d happily return to any of the places we ate. Our two full days culminated in evening meetings with two local residents, one a Meti story teller and the other a local historian, who entertained us with local lore. Then, before flying back to Winnipeg on the fourth day after we arrived in Churchill, we visited the small but excellent Eskimo Museum and had a chance to meet some sled dogs, speak with their musher, and spend a while being pulled on wheeled carts (there just wasn’t enough snow on the ground to make it possible to use sleds). Two members of our group chose helicopter flights instead. At various free moments in Churchill, most of us probably visited one or more of the shops in town. In addition to the several sweatshirt/t-shirt/cap/etc. souvenir stores, appealing stone carvings are to be had at Northern Images, next door to the Churchill Motel, and at a gift shop which occupies one corner of the one-large-room Eskimo Museum. The carvings are expensive by my standards, but probably in line with, or less expensive than, what similar carvings bring elsewhere. You won’t be bringing home a polar bear skin coat or rug, so why not a small stone bear? By staying in Churchill, we were able to do these various off-tundra things. There is an alternative, though. Each company maintains a “lodge” on the tundra during the season. Each lodge consists of maybe five linked compartments like railroad cars—several for sleeping, one for eating, and another for the kitchen. The lodges are placed on the tundra in areas that the bears are known to frequent, and its human residents divide their days between remaining “home” on their lodge and heading out in Polar Rovers or Tundra Buggies. I understand that each guest has a small compartment with a single bed and with access to shared showers and bathrooms. Having only experienced one of the two alternatives, I can’t say which is best. That said, the “lodges” may offer several more hours per day of bear watching—if bears wander by—but at the expense of some creature comforts and the opportunities that come from being in Beautiful Downtown Churchill. Also, there’s no walking around on the tundra, so I wonder if the lodges might not become a bit confining after a while. Which brings me back to where I began: why is visiting Churchill like visiting North Korea (which I had done several months earlier)? Because in neither place are you allowed to walk around freely. In North Korea, tourists are never supposed to leave their hotel or their tour group, at least not without one of their “guides.” And in Churchill, our tour leader sometimes would caution us about walking around on our own. Even before letting us off our minibus for photo-stops, she first would survey the environment to make sure it was safe, because bears are known to wander into and through town. They don’t come looking for trouble, but who knows how a started 500-1,000 lb. bear might react? On balance, I think I’d rather take my chances with a much smaller North Korean soldier.

Wow - what an awesome adventure - thanks for sharing... it is in my bucket list!

Awesome write up on the polar bears. I was there in 2003 with Natural Habitat and it is one of my favorite animal trips.
I am not sure if they still offer the optional side tour to the Oak Hammock Marsh. This was also a great look at the wildlife around Winnipeg.

Yes, Natural Habitat offers an optional one-day program in Winnipeg on the day before its charter flights to Churchill. It's a good way to make sure that people arrive in Winnipeg in time for the charter flight; otherwise, they have a problem.

The tour took us out to Oak Hammock Marsh in the morning and for lunch, and then a visit to the Manitoba Museum and a few other spots in the afternoon. The museum is well worth a visit. In retrospect, though, I wouldn't have done the day tour. Instead I would have spent the day on my own in Winnipeg. Our naturalist at the reserve was excellent but there just wasn't much to see that was alive. But it was my fault. The day tour was advertised accurately; I just didn't think it through carefully. The Fort Garry hotel is located within walking distance of interesting places in Winnipeg, if the weather is warm enough to enjoy getting to them.