Polar Bear Capital
Canada Map | Churchill - Polar Bear Pictures
Churchill, Manitoba is the best tourist place in the world to see polar bears in the wild.
The ice forms first on the nearby Hudson Bay shoreline because of its unique topographic conditions, and the bears gather in the vicinity waiting for the sea to freeze so that they can hunt their favourite food - ringed seals.
October and early November are the key times - beforehand the bears are inland and afterwards they're out on the ice.
Polar bears are huge, apex predators with no natural enemies so they assume that anything they encounter is potential prey.
They have an acute sense of smell, make little noise and will outrun and outswim you (as their Latin name ursus maritimus implies).The first piece of guidance on the 'bear aware' leaflets given to visitors is 'DO NOT RUN'.
Males can grow to more than 600 kg (1,320 pounds) and up to 3 metres (10 feet) tall - for good reason they are known as 'The Lords of the Arctic'.
Churchill's residents are used to bear-faced intruders hunting for left-over burgers in rubbish bins and use ear-splitting 'cracker shells' to scare them off.
Recidivists, often adolescents, are caught in humane bear traps and carted off to the Polar Bear Jail which can hold up to 30 inmates where they are given water but no food, and then released onto the ice once it has formed.
No tourists are allowed inside the jail, but you can hear the growls and rattling of the cages from the outside.
A typical Tundra Buggy
Visitors usually view polar bears from specially designed vehicles called tundra buggies (akin to a Portakabin on top of outsize wheels) which rumble slowly through a desolate landscape along trails originally established by the Canadian armed forces.
It is also possible to stay overnight in a tundra lodge which is a mobile accommodation version and convenient tough pricey.
There is a surprising amount to see in the arctic wilderness - ptarmigan, Arctic hares, foxes, voles and the like - as well as polar bears but there is no doubt as to the star of the show.
In late autumn the bears tend to be lethargic conserving their energy for the hunting season, but they can be found everywhere - ambling along the trails, dozing in the scrub nearby or listlessly turning over the seaweed.
Curious bears can get very close to the buggies which provide a great vantage point on their outside viewing platform.
Getting to Churchill is a trek in itself given the location and lack of roads to the town.
The main options are a two hour flight from Winnipeg (pronounced Winnapeg by Canadians) or a rail journey of 40 plus hours.
Most people go as part of an organised group which takes the hassle out of the logistics and enhance the experience as the accompanying guide will be knowledgeable not only about polar bears but also about the Arctic environment more generally.
The average Churchill Polar Bear tour lasts two days, flying in and out. e.g.
- Day One touring the town, the local fort, bear traps, bear jail.
- Day Two is time to ride a Tundra Buggy for half a day, typically seeing at least half a dozen bears depending on timing and local conditions, as well as other artic wildlife, followed by the museum, more Churchill wandering and souvenir shopping.
Remember that in this season at this latitude daylight hours are short and temperatures low.
Daniel Nash II
Churchill Polar Bear Pictures |
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