Polar Bears in and around Churchill, Manitoba

Churchill streets, Manitoba, Canada

Churchill, Manitoba. Bleak, battered and beared.

Polar Bear Watching

Churchill in northen 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.

tundra buggy, Manitoba, Canada

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.

A young polar bear in the snow, Churchill, Manitoba, Canada

A young polar bear seen from a Buggy in November, near Churchill.

On the frequently frozen shores of Hudson Bay in Canada’s Manitoba province, small, unattractive and chilly Churchill is the best place on earth to see polar bears, whether out on the icy tundra in a Tundra Buggy, or rooting around Churchill’s garbage cans lit only by the northern lights.

Other creatures that make this desolate land their home are white foxes, arctic hares, lemmings, owls, falcons, whales, seals and affluent eco-tourists.

Aerial view of landscape near Churchill, Manitoba, Canada

The Hudson Bay part of Manitoba is a bleak and desolate place.

Polar bear viewing happens from September to December (if the ice forms late) after the bears have been hibernating/ fasting for 6 months and before the ice forms firmly on Hudson Bay. Once that happens they live mainly on the ice, eat seals for meals and are more difficult to find.

Churchill welcome sign, Manitoba, Canada

An optimistic welcome sign against a typically unattractive Churchill town view.

Apart from polar bears Churchill offers other wildlife watching possibilities with Beluga whales (the small, cute, white ones) coming in as #2 attraction from June – August, birds (June-August) and aurora borealis (northern lights January – March) a distant third and fourth since they are hardly unique to Churchill and many tourists would choose a more scenic and easily accessible destination.

Churchill main street, Manitoba, Canada

Churchill’s main street in late September, with temperatures just above 0C, 32F.

The only reasons there is a settlement in this desolate area of Canada is to handle grain shipments in the summer and to maintain a now defunct Canadian military base.

Polar bear traps in Churchill, Manitoba, Canada

Polar bear traps, obviously not in use at this time.

Some bears, especially adolescents, take to hanging around townlooking for easy meat so local authorities need to get them off the streets, and these traps are the solution.

The traps work by towing them to a bear’s cruising ground, attaching some kind of meat-soaked rag or dead chicken to the inside of the grille, opening the trap door on the left side, waiting for the hairy beastie to climb inside and then releasing the door – best done from a distance.

Bears collected in this way are then confined to a bear jail until wildlife experts decide it’s the optimum time to release them when ice has formed on the bay and seal’s for breakfast.

A Tundra Lodge in Churchill, Manitoba, Canada

Pricey but convenient mobile tourist accommodation (Tundra Lodge) on the shores of Hudson Bay.

A Tundra Buggy in action on the tundra, Churchill, Manitoba, Canada

A Tundra Buggy loaded for bear.

Inside a Tundra Buggy, Churchill, Manitoba, Canada

Inside a typical Tundra Buggy.

A Polar Bear and Tundra Buggy, Churchill, Manitoba, Canada

Et voila! The bear essential.

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.

A polar bear in the bushes near Churchill, Manitoba, Canada

A polar bear in late September near Churchill, Manitoba.

Premium polar bear watching around Churchill happens from early October to mid-November, tho’ from September to early December is possible, depending on how quickly the ice forms on the Hudson Bay.

Polar bear tours always involve riding in a Tundra Buggy and these are usually group booked, but individual day trips are possible to get too. Book ahead to be sure of a place, you wouldn’t want to go all that way without a ride!

Churchill’s main wide-screen entertainment occurs January to March, when the wild and spectral Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) takes over the sky, though they may appear at any time.

Dog sled tours are another popular winter option.

A polar bear sleeping, near Churchill, Manitoba, Canada

Might as well catch up the hibernation since the ice has yet to show its frigid form.

A polar bear digging in seaweed near Churchill, Manitoba, Canada

Hoping for something edible lurking in the seaweed, though it’s unlikely to be a ringed seal.

A polar bear approaching ptarmigan birds in the tundra near Churchill, Manitoba, Canada

A bear approaching Ptarmigan. But not optimistically.

A beautiful ptarmigan bird in the tundra near Churchill, Manitoba, Canada

Ptarmigan.

Around 500 twitchers head for Churchill from June – Augustand have spotted over 270 species in the immediate vicinity including Snowy Owls, Swans, Golden Plovers, Canada Geese (they get everywhere) and Falcons just stopping off for a feed en route to elsewhere as well as indigenous Ptarmigan, Sandpipers, Sparrows, Finches, Smith’s Longspur and Parasitic Jaeger.

Due to long daylight hours in the summer birders can go spotting around from 5am to 10pm if they choose on many dedicated trails and local birding specialists offer many bird watching tours.

An ptarmigan bird in the tundra near Churchill, Manitoba, Canada

Ptarmigan. Ahhhhh.

An arctic hare in the tundra near Churchill, Manitoba, Canada

Arctic Hare.

A young beluga whale approaching an inflatable on the Churchill River, Hudson Bay, Manitoba, Canada

A young beluga whale approaching an inflatable on the Churchill River, Hudson Bay, in July. Photo by Ansgar Walk.

Up to 3, 000 beluga whales arrive in the warm(ish) waters of the Churchill River estuary to socialize and calf from July to August. Local tour companies usually run one hour beluga watching trips via inflatable boat, kayaking or even snorkelling with another hour visiting Churchill’s only architectural attraction, the Prince of Wales Fort.

A polar bear on shore waiting for the ice to form, Churchill, Manitoba, Canada

Waiting for the ice man. Goodbye and good luck my furry chum.

Weather

Churchill has a sub-arctic environment with long, very cold winters when temperatures drop about -28C (-16F) in January. Summers are short and cool, peaking in July at around 14C (57F), if you are lucky.

Getting there

No roads go to Churchill so tourists generally fly in (2 hours) via the international hub of Winnipeg, Manitoba, or take the train (48 hours). Thompson, Manitoba, is the nearest paved road to Churchill and trains run from there to Churchill.

By Daniel Nash II et famille

Share