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Polar Bears - Churchill, Manitoba - Canada; Part 1

31 August 2011


By Matt Reid, client of McIntosh Travel

Churchill in Manitoba, Canada, is a small, northern community with a lot of character. Only accessible by train or plane (2 hour flight or 2 day train ride from Winnipeg, Manitoba), it's the sort of place that's a little on the wild side. Living in Churchill is like living on an island in a sea of wilderness. There are no billboards, no chain restaurants or the big-chain hotels that you might find in a larger centre. What you will find is warm, down-home hospitality and clean, comfortable hotels with all the amenities. And POLAR BEARS!

Known as the accessible Arctic, it lies at the southern edge of the Eastern Arctic. Although it's a relatively tiny place, it has a great string to its bow - the title of Polar Bear capital of the world. Polar Bears are the largest land carnivores in the world and Churchill's polar bear population is the most southern population on the planet. On the frozen ice of Hudson Bay, hundreds of polar bears spend the winter hunting seals but when the ice breaks up in June, the polar bears move ashore to socialize and prowl the shoreline. Aided by the fresh water ice of the Churchill River and northerly winds, the ice around Churchill will freeze up to a month sooner than other areas on the western shores of the Hudson Bay. The bears know this and use the Churchill coastline as a staging area, allowing them to get on the ice and hunt seals several weeks sooner.

In mid October, cooler temperatures bring changes to the bear’s habitat; they become restless and sensing a change in the season, they return to the outskirts of Churchill and gather along the coast in eager anticipation of the “Coming of Ice”. At this time, around 300 passing Polar bears roam through the town and as it’s relatively short season of only seven weeks, that means that during this time the population in Churchill swells from 1000 people to the high 10,000s.

The bears travel up and down the coast and because the town is located on a narrow strip of land between the Churchill River and Hudson Bay, bears can be expected to wander through town as winter approaches. This is a busy time for the local Bear Patrol as they are in charge of keeping the bears out of town and the tourists and town locals safe. Depending on how early the ice breaks, the bears can't wait to get back on the ice again and fatten up. This results in them becoming inquisitive in town, and the bear patrol have to chase them back out again. Most often the bears move once the bear flares or bear bangers are used, but on the odd occasion when they get a stubborn bear, they may need to tranquillize it and take it to the famous "Polar Bear Jail"! Here, they can hold the bear for up to one month with only water and no food (obviously for good reasons) until the ice on Hudson Bay is solid enough for them to continue their journey.

October is a fantastic time to see the Polar bears, but it can be dangerous to unknown and inexperienced tourists as the bears could be anywhere at anytime. During this time the local bear patrol put bear traps out for extra safety of the locals and tourists and because of this the bear compound (jail) can become very full!

Outside of Churchill you will find the famous Tundra buggies. For those of you that don’t know what these are, they are an all-terrain vehicle built and used by adventure companies as a wildlife viewing vehicle for photographing and observing polar bears. Tundra buggies are built very high off the ground to ensure guest safety and during the autumn freeze, these vehicles only use an existing set of trails on the tundra that were built by the Canadian and American Armed Forces in the 1950s and 1960s.

The high ground clearance of the Buggies also help navigate through difficult areas of the trail.

Tundra Buggies can also tow additional modules containing bunks, showers, and dining facilities for overnight stays on the tundra in a configuration the company calls a "Tundra Buggy Lodge". Here you can experience the polar bears at night in their natural habitat around the Tundra and along the Cape.

October is also great for northern lights and there are plenty of night tours that will take you out and about to show you the fascinating colours and movements of the aurora. These famous lights are incredible to watch and gaze up at, and a sight not to be missed if you are in those parts during this time.

It’s amazing to view the mischievous polar bears during the day, and then venture out at night to see these stunning and breathtaking lights, imagine seeing two incredible life experiences at the same time….well you can in Churchill.

Continued in part 2....

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