Published in Canadian Traveller Magazine
“I got very close to a polar bear today,” says Paul Jenkins, a family physician from Queensland, Australia, recounting how the Arctic’s most iconic predator had reared up on its hind legs against the side of his tundra buggy while he was photographing it from an open window. ”I was so near its face I could feel its breath.”
Nothing can prepare you to go nose to nose with mighty Ursus maritimus, or Nanuq, as the Inuit call the great white ice bear, now thought to number fewer than 25,000 in the wild. For millennia the hero of Aboriginal myths, the polar bear has over the past two decades become a powerful symbol of global warming, threatened by reduced access to its primary prey due to melting Arctic sea ice. If you want to safely get up close and personal with polar bears before they vanish there is no better place on earth to be than Churchill, nestled between the shore of Hudson Bay and the Churchill River in Northern Manitoba 110 kilometres south of Nunavut.
Canada is home to roughly 60% of the world’s remaining polar bears, and as the Arctic’s sea ice advances and retreats each season, individual bears may travel thousands of miles per year to find food. Each fall thousands of them congregate near Churchill, a former fur trading post, waiting for the water of Hudson Bay ice to freeze solid enough for them to break their long summer fast and venture out onto it to hunt for ring seals.
“The complex relationship of the bears with sea ice is sometimes hard for visitors to understand,” explains biologist Doug Ross, an interpretive guide for Frontiers North’s Tundra Buggy Lodge Adventure. “The bears need the sea ice to get their main source of food, which are seals, and if the period of ice on Hudson Bay is reduced, then they will have less to eat,” he adds. For wildlife lovers as well as Canadian frontier history buffs, visiting Churchill at this time of year is a once in a lifetime opportunity to view these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat as they amble along the Bay’s coastal marshes and salt bogs.
Journey to Churchill
No roads reach Manitoba’s northern outpost, located along the 58th parallel. To reach Churchill you either have to ride the VIA rails for two days from Winnipeg or fly in. During fall polar bear viewing season Frontiers North charters flights, making it an easy two-hour hop. Upon arrival, I board a bus tour of local and historical points of interest, including the Port of Churchill and Cape Merry, site of the Hudson Bay Company’s Fort Churchill, which for nearly 200 years was the fur trading empire’s most northerly outpost.
I also stop at Manitoba Conservation’s polar bear holding facility, which holds ‘problem’ bears that wander too close to town and are captured during fall bear alert season. While I’m there one accidental ursine intruder is being transferred to make room for more. I watch from a safe distance as conservation officers load the enormous tranquilized bear into nylon net attached to a helicopter that will transport it about 50 kilometres out of town. Applause from the crowd of onlookers breaks out as the world’s largest flying fur ball soars overhead, bound for a rude awakening far out on the tundra.
Another Churchill highlight is the world-renowned Eskimo Museum, containing hundreds of intricate Inuit carvings that are among the world’s oldest examples of indigenous craftsmanship, huge skin kayaks, a stuffed polar bear and muskox and other fascinating artifacts. For anyone interested in history, art and archaeology, this museum is a must-see. So too is the National Parks Visitors Centre’s interactive exhibit about the history of the fur trade and park sites in the area, including Prince of Wales Fort National Historic Site, York Factory National Historic Site and Wapusk National Park of Canada. I emerge from both amazed by the fortitude and ingenuity of the North’s original and early European inhabitants.
Into the wild
Churchill’s museums and historic sites offer an engrossing preparation for three days and nights in the heart of bear country far from the lights of town. My base of exploration is Frontier North’s mobile Tundra Buggy Lodge located in the 850,000 hectare Churchill Wildlife Management Area that protects the polar bear’s summer resting areas and maternity denning grounds. To reach it I board a tundra buggy along with fellow polar bear lovers from Europe, Australia, the US and Canada for the two hour bumpy ride over muskeg. Invented and built from spare parts by Churchill resident Leonard D. Smith in 1979, this Macgyvered all-terrain vehicle has been used ever since to view, photograph and study polar bears and other northern wildlife like Arctic hare, Arctic fox, Willow Ptarmigan, Snowy Owl and Snow Geese out on the tundra in their natural environments. Resembling an extra-wide school bus welded onto the chassis of a monster truck, our tundra buggy rumbles and lurches its way into the twilight of a late sub-Arctic afternoon like an ungainly lunar exploration vehicle, bound for one of the most unusual hotels I’ve ever seen.
Imagine a zoo where you are in the enclosure and the animals roam free. That’s what it feels like at the Tundra Buggy Lodge, where I fall asleep and wake up with polar bears right outside my window. Consisting of several trailers on giant tires connected by outdoor walkways perfect for round the clock wildlife viewing, this ingenious inn features two accommodation units that sleep up to 40 guests on comfortable bunks under iconic wool Hudson’s Bay Company multi-stripe point blankets, a lounge area, a dining car and staff quarters. Exterior field lights enable guests to continue watching bears after the sun sets.
“What makes this lodge experience so unique is being so remote on the actual shore of Hudson Bay and being "caged", so to speak, while the polar bears and other animals are free to wander at will,” says Doug Ross, my group’s interpretive guide. Trained as a biologist, this former Parks Canada employee was recently in charge of the popular Journey to Churchill exhibit at Winnipeg’s Assiniboine Zoo. A wealth of northern wildlife information, Ross adds that he often hears from lodge guests how surprised they are to be able to get so close to the bears without disturbing them. “Most of the bears have no fear of the guests and the buggies,” he says. “Many guests are also surprised at how curious some bears are of us.”
Where the bears are
The next morning we set off in our roving photographic base station in search of the magnificent carnivore that Inuit hunters considered to be wise, powerful, and almost human. In some parts of the Arctic indigenous people still follow long held traditions by hunting polar bears, consuming their meat and making traditional clothing like kamiks (soft boots) from the fur. The only part of the bear that is traditionally discarded is the liver due to its toxic levels of Vitamin A. Banned in Manitoba, sport hunting is now regulated in other parts of the Canadian arctic by a strict quota system designed to keep the kill within the bounds that bear populations can support.
It doesn’t take long to spot our first polar bears wandering across the tundra or curled up in the snow, conserving their energy for the impending seal hunting season. As curious about us as we are awed by them, individual bears occasionally approach our buggy, sniffing the air and in some cases rising up to lean against the buggy’s side. “To actually see that huge bear and learn how it sustains itself for a period of time, marvels Bonnie Jean Fenton, a retired nurse from Highgate, Ontario. “You think you’re prepared and you know what’s coming but you don’t.”
Many in our group say they have come here at considerable expense to realize a lifelong dream; the chance to see polar bears in the wild before this vulnerable species vanishes. “It’s an emotional experience, connecting with these animals,” says Paul Jenkins’ wife, Sandra. “ I’m gaining a real understanding of what their lives are like and what they’re facing. And I’m hopeful that they will carry on. That there will be enough interest and good will to really try to ensure that they are sustained.” Polar bears were listed as a threatened species in the US under the Endangered Species Act in May 2008 due to ongoing loss of their sea ice habitat resulting from climate change. Canada's Western Hudson Bay bear population has suffered over a 20% decline since the early 1980s. According to Polar Bears International, the conservation organization that works closely with Frontiers North, the survival and protection of the polar bear habitat are urgent issues.
The next morning we pull the Tundra Buggy over to watch a pair of young male bears half-heartedly shadow boxing, too weakened by their summer long fast to make the fur really fly. Later, we track a mother and her cub gingerly traverse a dangerously thin expanse of early season ice. When we come across a bear feeding on the skeletal remains of an unlucky ring seal I’m relieved despite the ghastly spectacle that the seal’s sacrifice might provide this bear with enough strength to hang on until that sea ice finally freezes.
Snuggly tucked under my Hudson’s Bay blanket in my bunk that night, I spot a ghostly white form in the distance hunched motionless in the moonlight. It’s another male polar bear staring out over the still unstable ice flow, a solitary hunter contemplating his odds of surviving what we’ve done to his once predictable and pristine world. Inuit hunters worshipped, Nanuk because they believed that he decided if their hunt would be successful. Now it is up to us to decide if the titan of the tundra will successfully navigate global warming’s dangerous waters.
IF YOU GO
Frontiers North’s Tundra Buggy Lodge is located in the Churchill Wildlife Management area, home to the largest concentration of polar bears in Churchill. Daily Tundra Buggy excursions, led by a knowledgeable Interpretive Guide*, allow guests to explore the area beyond the Lodge and give plenty of photography opportunities. Select Tundra Buggy Lodge departures are available with both rail and air transportation. Packages include 2 nights in Winnipeg, 1 night in Churchill and 3 nights at the Tundra Buggy Lodge. For more information and to book, visit www.frontiersnorth.com/content/tundra-buggy-lodge.
How you can help
Polar Bears International (PBI) is the only international organization solely dedicated to conserving polar bears and the sea ice they depend on. Through media, science, and advocacy, it works to inspire people to care about the Arctic, the threats to its future, and the connection between this remote region and our global climate. Donations support critical polar bear conservation research and fund ongoing education and outreach efforts, including PBI’s work to address climate change.