Churchill, Manitoba – the land of the polar bear

Coming face to face with a polar bear certainly sets the heart racing – even if the window of the vehicle is seperating us. After many such encounters during our three days on the frozen shores of Hudson Bay, it was tempting to be lulled into a false sense of comfort with these giant creatures.

The bears spend the summer months hibernating and losing much of the fat they have acquired during their time hunting on the ice. When they start the migratory route north in October/November, they do not expect to feast on fresh meat for a while. So maybe a vehicle with 10 people on board would not have them salivating just yet, although if one of us had fallen onto the ground I have no doubt the ready meal would be too easy to refuse!

We sat in our tundra buggies waiting. As the bears approached, they found our presence fascinating. A sniff around, a peek through the windows, and even a better look by standing on their back paws and towering over 2 metres high to look through the back of the buggy. The vehicle is essentially an old school bus mounted on the chassis of an army truck, giving an uncomfortable ride for the passengers but providing the clearnance from the ground to keep us out of harm’s way.

We saw 42 bears in our stay on the ice – mothers with cubs, solitary males, bears fighting, playing and even hunting (the blood on the snout of one reminded us again of their fearsome power). As this was 10 years ago, we were all still relying on film rather than digital pictures, and so the rolls of Kodak were being reloaded at a breakneck pace. It was a real privilege to witness one of natures most extra-ordinary migrations.

The residents of Churchill, while pleased with the revenue that the visitors like us generate for the town that has no road links with the rest of the country, are not quite so enamoured with their bear population. Rogue bears are frequently found wandering the streets and rummaging through the garbage cans. When a bear is found in the city limits, they are captured and taken to the “polar bear prison” where they are supplied with an ice only diet. The delinquent bears are then released onto the ice at the right time, when they can hunt fresher produce.

Churchill is a long way from anywhere else – a three hour flight from Winnipeg is the closest point of entry. But if you do make the trip, you may be rewarded with the chance to look straight into the eyes of the most powerful and fearsome creature on earth (and see their cute little cubs too).

(Oct 1999)

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Freelance travel writer

One Response to “Churchill, Manitoba – the land of the polar bear”

  1. Churchill Manitoba #

    Watching Polar bears live in action & not just caged in zoo is not only a eco friendly way of doing it but also a fun way in Churchill, Manitoba. A tundra carriage for day to witness polar bears with Eskimo museum would be memorable & eco friendly journey for you.

    August 31, 2009 at 8:35 am