Like many of you, I have missed travelling, and jumped at an opportunity to get on a plane and visit somewhere different. My destination was Churchill, Manitoba, home of the largest congregation of polar bears on western Hudson’s Bay, and accessible from where we live.
I should explain, the reason polar bears gather in Churchill, is its location. There is a small section of Hudson's Bay which freezes earlier that anywhere else, and it is the southernmost site of Arctic ice on the planet.
The polar bears, all six hundred to a thousand spend their spring and summers lethargically foraging for berries. I say lethargic, because they do what they can to conserve their energy, in anticipation of their winter seal hunt, which begins sometime in November.
Seeing polar bears in Churchill can be tricky. If you are too early, the bears have not yet arrived. If you are too late they will have made their way onto the ice for the winter hunt. It is recommended to arrive somewhere between mid-October and mid-November, and I decided to venture out the last week of October.
Although there are two ways to get to Churchill, the most common is by air. You can take a train from Winnipeg, but it takes 42 hours, and zigzags all over the place. The more practical method is flying from Winnipeg directly north. The flight is just under three hours on a propeller plane, operated by Calmair.
The best way to do the trip is through one of the lodges in Churchill. They arrange your transportation from Winnipeg including accommodation, some meals and all the polar bear viewing you could hope for. I chose Lazy Bear Resort, as it appeared to offer everything I was looking for.
Spending a night in Winnipeg was a great, as it gave me an opportunity to visit the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, which has fantastic exhibits showcasing the history of civilizations in Canada.
I should mention that flying was much easier than I expected. I simply showed my vaccination proof, breezed through security, and found myself ready to board the plane in less than 20 minutes. It was the same process on the return flight
The town of Churchill was more or less as I expected. It is a typical Northern Canadian town of 600 to 800 people of whom 60% are indigenous and the other 40% consists of Europeans, Chinese and people from the Philippines.
The Lazy Bear Lodge was great. It is a massive log cabin, built in the late 90s out of reclaimed wood. The rooms are comfortable, and feature television, Wi-Fi and double beds.
The next morning I boarded an Arctic Crawler, a million dollar vehicle designed to traverse the tundra in search of polar bears. The Crawlers are large inside with a stove, toilet facilities and a makeshift kitchen, where they prepare your lunch, hot chocolate and cookies. What more could I want?
At the back of the Crawler is an outside area known as the ‘Snack bar for polar bears’. This is where tourists stand to take photographs unobstructed by glass. I was fortunate the weather was warm (between -1 and +1) and blue gray skies. There was no snow as yet, so my timing was perfect.
We had out about 20 minutes, when we came upon a polar bear with her cub, lazily sleeping amid the lichen and berries. The bears do not move much, as they try to conserve their energy for the big seal hunt. The mothers and cubs are also wary of any males in the vicinity, as cannibalism is common among the bears. I should mention, polar bears are the only animal that hunts humans… another good reason to remain inside the crawler.
After a lengthy visit with our first bears, we continued on and came upon several more. I liken the experience to safaris in Africa. Watching wild animals in their habitat is amazing. Times flies and before you know it, the day is over. Seeing 12 to 15 bears is quite spectacular, and I was told it is rare to see that many. There have been tours where, due to timing and bad luck, no bears were seen.
The next day I had a cultural tour of the Churchill area, including an airplane that crashed in the 60s, a visit to a fort from the 1800s, and a very informative visit to a museum. I was also able to walk to a food store where I was shocked by the prices. That evening, I was taken 30 or so minutes away from the lodge, to experience night dog sledding.
I have had the opportunity to do this a few times in the past, however as there wasn’t any snow, the sleds had wheels. I joined Dave Daley and his team for an educational talk about Dog Sledding, Métis Culture and life in Churchill, Manitoba, followed by an exhilarating dog sled ride through the boreal forest. The weather was turning and it began to sleet. Although it was chilly, it added to the experience.
The next day I was back on the tundra searching for bears. We came upon another mother and cub who entertained us over lunch. I watched him for what I thought was about an hour, which turned out to be nearly three hours. The antics of the bears were entertaining. A few minutes later, a cub approached the Crawler and tried to make a meal out of the tires.
The experience was unique and extremely enjoyable. It is something that has been on my bucket list for many years. I was glad to finally venture forth, and visit a unique spot in this wonderful country of ours.
Churchill and the Polar Bears will be the December episode of Jonathan van Bilsen’s photosNtravel show on RogersTV and YouTube.