Churchill, Manitoba (1996)
People who live in White Bear Lake seem to be attracted to polar bears. It goes with the address. Most homes have a polar bear replica on their lawn or on the coffee table. We have a couple dozen on our window ledge. It follows then that when we had a chance to go to Churchill to see the real polar bears, we couldn't pass it up.
Polar Bear Weekend
Up close ........ and personal
Churchill is the site of the annual convention of polar bears as they gather in late October and early November every year waiting to go back out onto the polar ice to begin their annual seal hunting season. Located on the western shore of Hudson Bay, Churchill is a remote little town just over a thousand miles north of the Twin Cities. The population is about a thousand people but grows to twice that size during the polar bear season
There are no roads into Churchill. The only access is by air and train. We chose the latter and flew to Thompson, Manitoba, where we met John and Kirsten Gibson and their friends, Richard and Barbara Redden and boarded the overnight train to Churchill. The train ride was itself an adventure traveling with all the native Inuit people on board heading home after a day in the city to their small, whistle-stop villages along the isolated track. We had our first glimpse of the frozen tundra was when we raised the shades in our sleeping compartment the next morning and watched the sun rise over the desolate yet strangely beautiful landscape of the Arctic north.
This annual polar bear watching event is drawing an increasing number of tourists from all over the world each fall and requires reservation a year or more in advance. We were very fortunate to be hosted by the Redden's daughter and her husband, who have been living in Churchill since shortly after their June wedding. Glen is a recent medical school graduate, who chose to fulfill his six month, rural service obligation by heading up a medical clinic serving the Churchill area. Allison is a recent nursing school graduate and works with Glen at the clinic on a part time basis. They live in a comfortable apartment near the clinic and were able to arrange to make a next door apartment available to us for our stay.
Glen and Allison were great hosts, who had arranged not only for our accommodations but also for several very interesting tours of the medical center, the Eskimo museum and a rocket launch site under construction to send communication satellites into polar orbit by 1999. The newly-weds also treated us to two fantastic home-cooked dinners of a couple of their local specialties, arctic char and caribou steak.
But back to the bears. As a marine mammal, the polar bear spends eight months of each year roaming over the polar ice feeding on seals. When the ice breaks up in the July, they are forced back on shore to their denning areas to wait out the summer. Without any land-based food sources, the bears often lose several hundred pounds of body weight as they wait for the ice to freeze over again.
In late October, they begin to congregate again near Churchill where, because of the influx of fresh water from the Churchill River and other geographical factors, the ice tends to form first. The polar bear population grows to upwards of two thousand bears and presents a unique opportunity for viewing this superb animal. It is the only place in the world where such a concentration polar bears occurs.
Ironically, we spotted our first bear not on the tundra but flying low over the rooftops of Churchill suspended in a net sling below a helicopter on its way to deportation into a more remote location. Each year dozens of bears find their way into town, where they are drugged and either given a free, one-way plane ride out of town or taken to the polar bear "jail" in a large, concrete building at the edge of town where they are held until the ice freezes over. There a number of Bear Alert signs posted around town and a full time bear patrol. Although there haven't been any instances of bear attacks in recent years, the locals treat their four legged visitors with great respect and we found ourselves looking over our shoulders as walked outside our apartment at night.
Polar Bear Club Polar Bear Alert Tundra Buggy
Our second bear sighting occurred on our visit to the town dump on the outskirts of town where we sat entranced in our van the first night watching four, fully grown bears illuminated by our headlights sort through the garbage and occasionally glance up at us in our vehicle . . . people meat in a car.
But our premier bear watching event was a full day's trip out onto the tundra in a tundra buggy . . a large, thirty passenger vehicle built-up on huge, low pressure tractor tires and equipped to roam over the rough terrain, while carrying the passengers in a closed cabin and open platform about ten feet off the ground and just out of the reach of a standing bear.
We spent a full day out on the tundra and saw some thirty to forty bears before the day was over with as many a ten in view at the same time in one particular location. The bears ranged from full grown males, which can weigh up to a thousand pounds a stand ten feet in height, to small cubs, sticking close to their mothers, who are always alert to threats from other bears and, particularly, the large males. Although most of the bears kept their distance from our buggy, several came up close to the vehicle to check us out, giving the photographers a great opportunity for some close-up shots of these beautiful animals with their wet black noses, small brown eyes, enormous clawed paws and luxuriant warm coats.
Probably the most exciting event was a boxing match between two large males, who stood on their hind legs sparing with each other for minutes at a time in a ritual test of strength. Rising to their full height of almost ten feet, they were an awesome sight. The day passed all too quickly and, although we probably have more bear photographs than will ever fit in an album, we could have stayed much longer. For those who'd like a more prolonged visit, the tour company has fitted out several tundra buggies and joined them together for an overnight bear watching experience. We'll have to save that for our next visit.
Reluctantly, we boarded our Calm Air flight the next morning and winged our way south just as the long winter was beginning its slow descent over the Arctic and as the ice was again beginning to form as the polar bears waited impatiently along the shores of Hudson Bay. Our brief, but unforgettable, Arctic safari had come to an end.
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