Watching polar bears in the wild is one of those awe-inspiring experiences that makes you realize the world is truly a magnificent place. And we humans are just a tiny spec in the big picture. It had been our dream to see polar bears in the wild for as long as either of us could remember. When that opportunity came along, it was in the remote community of Churchill, Manitoba.
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What Makes Churchill Manitoba So Special
That’s part of what makes it so special.
Polar bears spend their summer months hanging out on the tundra, doing as little as possible. Where most bears in other parts of the world spend the summer eating anything they can get their claws on, polar bears eat very little at this time.
Their favorite snack is a big, fat ringed seal and the only time they can eat them is when ice forms on Hudson Bay. The seals poke holes in the ice so they can come up for fresh air. That’s when polar bears grab their lunch.
Hudson Bay is a big body of water which takes a long time to freeze. But being smarter than your average bear, polar bears know that the freeze-up starts where the fresh water of Churchill River flows into the salt water of Hudson Bay. The river does that just outside the town of Churchill. That’s why polar bears like this location so much.
Where to See Polar Bears in Churchill
Bear season is about six weeks in October and early November as the bears come in from the tundra to wait for the freeze-up. We saw our first polar bear within about 15 minutes of landing in Churchill. We were leaving the airport and heading toward town when the driver stopped. A big male polar bear was lumbering along the road that intersected with ours. He sat down and then, as they do this time of year, he just sat there for a very long time.
Our first stop was this point looking out on Hudson Bay. Note the sign above our heads. While we were standing there, the polar bear police arrived and fired a “banger” toward the water. A banger is basically a firecracker in a shotgun. It makes a lot of noise, but doesn’t hurt anyone. Out in the distance, a polar bear was swimming toward shore. He turned and swam in a different direction.
And yes, there is such a thing as the polar bear police. They are on duty 24 hours a day during bear season, gently encouraging bears to stay out of town, away from people. For those bears who don’t comply, they are sent to Polar Bear Jail. Yep, it’s a real thing.
To get a better appreciation of how many polar bears hang out around Churchill this time of year, just take a helicopter flight. There were hundreds, one or two at a time, within two or three miles of town, the river and Hudson Bay.
How to Find Polar Bears in the Wild in Manitoba
It’s entirely possible to hang out in Churchill and see a few bears. One early morning as we were attempting to leave our hotel, we were told to stay indoors. A bear was in the street about 100 yards away. The polar bear police encouraged him to move along. Another morning, a mom and a cub ran across the road in front of us, also being chased by the polar bear police.
But there are a gazillion options for a more up close and educational experience.
An educational, hands-on experience that helps others study polar bears is the Churchill Northern Studies Center. It’s not plush — few things in Churchill are — but you hang out with scientists who are studying polar bears in the wild and can ask all the questions you like. You have a heated, 360-degree aurora viewing dome to see the Northern Lights and a ride out on the tundra for a day of watching polar bears.
Our tour was with a company called Churchill Nature Tours. In addition to the helicopter ride, we spent two days in an over-sized, souped-up school bus specially equipped for riding around on the tundra. You’ll hear the term “tundra buggy,” which is basically the same thing only it’s trademarked so I can’t use it to describe the very comfortable, spacious vehicle we rode in.
We had a bathroom, a hot lunch and a big viewing platform outside from which to watch polar bears — except for when the bears were so close they could have climbed up in the bus with us. Darn, the guides made us come in and keep the windows closed. But I could have reached out and patted them on the head if I was not concerned about keeping my hand attached to my arm.
But it was — without comparison — the most awesome thing we’ve ever done in our lives.
Polar Bears in Magnificent Places
Every now and then, I look back at these photos from the comfort of our home and think about the bears up there, waiting for the freeze-up, wandering around town, scooting out on the ice to snatch a seal.
I worry about climate change and what it means to these sweet creatures.
It’s easy to get caught up in the busy-ness of our daily lives and forget that this goes on in the world as well.
They share the world with us and make it a truly magnificent place.
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