When I’m asked if I would like to participate in the Churchill Northern Studies Centre’s Lords of the Arctic Learning Vacation, I giddily pack my long johns. I’ve worked for Travel Manitoba for five years and had not yet had the opportunity to go to Churchill. I’ve written a lot about the polar bear viewing experience, but I learn more about these ‘Lords of the Arctic’ within the first 30 minutes of the program than in my whole career promoting Manitoba’s travel experiences.
Yes, I knew that Churchill is one of the best places to see polar bears, as they move from their summer habitat on the tundra to the shores of Hudson Bay during the months of October and November. But as our instructor and guide, bear expert Rupert Pilkington informs our group of 24 bear lovers from around the world, most polar bears are found within the Arctic Circle. However the sea ice of the more southern Hudson Bay is diluted by the fresh water of the Churchill River, meaning the water here freezes faster, and bears get out on the ice – their winter hunting grounds, stocked with 200,000-300,000 seals – sooner than other places. These unique circumstances are part of the reason why Churchill has a higher density of urus maritimus – the bears of the sea – than most anywhere else. I also knew that polar bears are huge animals – with adult males ranging in size from 1,400 to 2,000 pounds, reaching 11 to 13 feet when standing on their back legs. But I didn’t realize that the polar bear evolved from the brown bear a mere 200,000 years ago. (For reference sake, the oldest bear is the panda at 24 million years).
Traits such as huge paws act as paddles to help the bears swim, while their white fur and black skin provides incredible insulation. And Rupert tells us, if you were to watch a polar bear with an infrared sensor, you would not see it. They are so well insulated, they don’t give off any heat. Only their footprints in the snow would leave any sign a bear was even there.
I knew that polar bears are curious, that they often come right up to the viewing vehicles. And, of couse, that bears are dangerous. Which is why we view them from the safety and comfort of a tundra vehicle, or with a guide armed with a gun. Now that we are more familiar with polar bears, we are ready to get out on the tundra to see for ourselves, just how many, how huge, and how curious these animals actually are.
The tundra vehicle, in our case, a Tundra Buggy operated by Frontiers North Adventures, is kind of like a school bus on steroids. The giant wheels propel the buggy over the rocks and snow of the tundra, while the windows pop down and the open platform on the back allow for unobstructed views. An onboard heater and toilet keeps us comfortable throughout the day.
Our buggy driver and guide, Kevin Burke, is in his 29th year at the helm of a buggy. As last of the original four buggy drivers, he knows the 22-26 km route through the Churchill Wildlife Management Area like of the back of his hand, giving us a heads up when we hit an exceptionally bumpy spot. Shortly after we launch, a traffic jam of three other buggies has us all fluttering about with excitement, but Kevin sets us straight – there is no bear here. He skillfully takes us around on our way to Gordon Point – and it is here we see our first bear. Everyone scrambles to get a look, and a shot, of our first bear. There it is, a 7 to 9 year-old male. We get our first taste and we want more.
And, we get more. We spot this guy not much longer after our first sighting.
On we go, bumping along the coast. With wind chill values reaching -27°C, the open water of the bay seem out of place. The waves ripple under the ice that has already formed along the shore. At Polar Bear Point, we see two more bears. This time a female and her cub – most likely a two-year old.
We come across a female bear digging in the kelp found under the snow. While the kelp isn’t actually a source of nourishment for the bears – they’ll get that out on the ice feeding on seals – it does provide some minerals that are useful to the bears.
This bear is so intent on her digging that we stop for our own snack, coffee and hot chocolate (yes, of course with marshmallows) before moving on.
After stopping for a bagged lunch across from a dozing bear, the afternoon is jam packed with bear action. We see a sleepy old bear, his muzzle slashed with the scars of past fights for mates, who seems annoyed that we are interrupting his nap.
We come across another mother and cub cuddling up for a snooze. It is hard to imagine these bears as dangerous when they look so cuddly and cute.
Later, we see a mother and cub (possibly the same ones we saw earlier) checking out the Tundra Buggy Lodge, looking weary when another male wanders over (I think this might be our snoozer).
After he leaves, the two relax and start playing in the snow.
As the sun begins to set, we see two more bears going for a jog, their rambling gait making them look like they are slipping and sliding across the ice.
In fact, we literally drive by some bears on our way back to the launch. So many bears, not enough time! Hilary, who travelled to Churchill all the way from Tasmania, sums up my thoughts on the day perfectly, “That was fabulous! How could you not enjoy that. It was an unforgettable day.”
Yes, Hilary, it certainly was.