Greetings from polar bear country
CHURCHILL, Manitoba —
If you hear firecrackers going off , it’s not a celebration. It’s someone using “bear bangers” to alert townspeople that there’s a polar bear in the ’hood. This tiny northern town operates a bear patrol seven days a week. Chronic ursine offenders end up in “bear jail” for 30 days. Walk alone after dark at your own risk; with soft feet the size of dinner plates (the better to walk on ice), a bear treads so silently that you won’t hear it coming. But bear attacks are rare — the last fatal one took place in the 1980s. “Polar bears and people co-exist here,” says Paul Ratson of Nature 1st Tours, making this a unique place to visit.
“The guides talk about the landscape and the culture but, really, it’s all about the bears,” said guest Peter Foukal of Nahant, on a bear-viewing tour with Frontiers North Adventures, a family-operated eco-tour company based in Winnipeg. Wildlife-lovers descend on the subarctic town of Churchill for a few weeks each autumn to tour the desolate landscape to look for polar bears. Churchill (population 800) is home to more bears (900 plus) than people, if you compare the town to the Churchill Wildlife Management Area, 12 miles to the east. They call it the Polar Bear Capital of the World. “This is the most studied, and most stable and accessible population of polar bears on the planet,” among the 19 populations of polar bears that exist in the wild, says Frontiers North interpretive guide and driver Marc Hebert. October and November are prime time for polar bears here, when they congregate along the coast anticipating the freeze-up of the Hudson Bay.
For most people, this is a bucket-list adventure. Cheap, it isn’t. You’ll fly into Winnipeg, and then take a charter flight to Churchill. Until recently, a 45-hour train trip was an option, but a flood wiped out the railway. Since this is a remote locale, most visitors travel with an established outfitter like Frontiers North, which arranges flights and lodgings. Churchill draws well-traveled types who have already visited wildlife hotspots like Africa and Antarctica. Since the polar bear, stranded on ice, has become the cute, furry face of global warming, there’s a feeling of “see ’em while you can” with this adventure.
“Polar bears are the opposite of [black bears] and grizzlies. They fatten up all winter and lay around all summer. They’re here because we have the earliest ice in the fall and the latest ice in the winter,” Ratson said. Polar bears will ride the ice for 150 miles looking for ringed and harbor seals, their favorite foodstuff. (It’s the blubber they’re after, not the meat.) The average polar bear consumes about 45 seals a year.
Surprisingly, these bears aren’t snowy white, but blond-ish. Their skin is black and their outer layer of fur is made up of translucent, hollow hairs. On a trip like this, you’ll learn everything you ever wanted to know about polar bears and then some. Then again, if you’ve sprung for this trip, you’re pretty keen on all things polar bear.
Bundled in cold-weather duds, we boarded our Tundra Buggy with visions of frisky polar bears dancing in our heads. Riding in a Tundra Buggy is a bit like traveling in a duck boat without Boston traffic, but with major bumps and serious lurching. These specially designed vehicles have five-foot-wide tires that can grind through the rutted trails of ice, snow, and mud within the Churchill Wildlife Management Area.
Our on-board interpretive guide Angele Watrin Prodaehl and driver/guide Kevin Burke kept things lively — bear lore, bear bingo, lunch — and pointed out wildlife along the way like the snowy-white ptarmigan. Finally, Burke announced a polar bear in the distance, something that looked like a yellow rock but was moving slightly. Even with binoculars, it was tough to identify at 1200 feet away. Later, at a spot called “No Pants Lake,” we had another far-off bear sighting. But the bear watching was basically a bust. Blame it on the weather: Unseasonably warm, rainy, and foggy. “Bears hunker down in this weather,” said Burke. “Cooler temps make the bears more active.”
As every wildlife-watcher knows, there are no guarantees from Mother Nature. “It’s not like Disney, with critters popping up everywhere on demand,” summed up a guest from Colorado, trying to make the best of things. “Put Angele in a bear suit and we’ll take some selfies!” someone joked.
Scanning the landscape in search of bears allows ample time to soak in the otherworldly terrain. The tundra has a bleak beauty with its infinite flatness, green frills of lichen on “greywackye” rock, skinny pines, willow bushes, and numerous shallow ponds, created because permafrost keeps rainfall and snowmelt from absorbing. Due to the wind, “flag” trees tilt sideways. There’s “grease ice,” the first ice to form on Hudson Bay, slushy and Margarita-like, and “frazzle ice,” with spiky points of ice that stick straight up. We had expected expanses of snow and ice, but on this day there were only remnants of two earlier fall blizzards.
Uh-oh. Was this the new normal, courtesy of global warming? Would our Bear Encounter consist of a couple of raggedy polar bears back at the Churchill General Store, panhandling for bags of ice? Guide and driver Burke, a local guy who’s been doing these tours for 32 years, admits things have changed. “Normally, everything would be frozen up by now. It’s staying warmer longer, and the ice is disappearing sooner,” he said, problematic for the bears, who have evolved to live and hunt on sea ice. The bears here on the western shore of Hudson Bay are tattooed and ear-tagged so they can be tracked and studied. “The trend seems to be that we’re seeing fewer bears now,” Burke said. Prodaehl, a biologist, noted, “We’re also seeing bears we’ve never seen before, untagged bears. We don’t know where they’re coming from.” The word from Parks Canada seems to be that there were around 1,200 polar bears in the area in the 1980s, and that number has dropped to around 930.
Certainly, vanishing bears would be bad news for the people of Churchill, as well as the bears, since the town’s primary business is tourism. Bear season (October-November) is the busiest time, but tourists also come up to see the Northern Lights in February and March. The community of Churchill sees auroral activity about 300 nights a year. Summertime is beluga season, when more than 3,000 beluga whales migrate into the Churchill River after wintering in the high Arctic. To handle the human influx, the town has a couple of inns that are pleasant and clean if not luxurious.
As part of our package, we stayed at the Tundra Inn and were happy to discover decent Wi-Fi and TV; plus, the inn’s restaurant turned out to be our favorite dinner place, with its menu of wild boar bangers, elk meat loaf, and other unique edibles. For lunch, Gypsy’s Bakery is the go-to joint for hearty grub that’ll keep you going when the wind howls and temps dip to 9 degrees Fahrenheit in November. (The October average is 28.9 degrees.)
It takes longer to walk across Boston Common than it does to cover the entirety of Churchill. Things to see include the Itsanitaq Museum (Inuit carvings, kayaks, and artifacts), the Parks Canada Interpretive Center, and a general store and artisan shop. A central complex houses the school, the hospital, and a curling ring. There’s also an outfit, Wapusk Adventures, offering dogsled rides, and Hudson Bay Helicopters, which will fly you over the region for $650 per person. (Canadian dollars, but still.)
What a difference a day makes! Our second (and final) day on the Tundra Buggy dawned clear, cold, and sunny — perfect for bear watching. “I feel lucky today,” said participant Yan Ho of Sydney one of 20 in our group, as we boarded the vehicle. Sure enough: We soon saw a mother bear and two cubs, one cub “testing the ice like mama taught her,” guide Hebert said. And then came two more polar bears, bounding past our buggy. These looked to be teenage males, playing and sparring. We climbed out to the viewing platform for a better look, clicking away on cellphones and cameras. “I feel like crying,” one guest said. “Me, too!” echoed another. The light was beautiful, and the bears were . . . being bears. We felt privileged to witness this.
Later that day, heading back to Churchill, we saw an arctic fox and an arctic hare — fluffy and white — and we even got a nice look at the Northern Lights after dark. But really, it’s all about the bears.
If you go . . .
Frontiers North Adventures (www.frontiersnorth.com) offers the Churchill Town and Tundra Experience in October and November. Self-escorted tours will start at about $2,400 per person in 2018. (Includes accommodations, airfare between Winnipeg and Churchill, some meals, and two full-day Tundra Buggy tours.) Fully guided tours with all meals and activities will start at about $4,100. Day trips on the Tundra Buggy cost about $360 per person.