The flight from Winnipeg to Churchill Manitoba is two and a half hours long, a distance of one thousand km, and a world away. Winnipeg is a vibrant, urban city of more than 750,000 people. Churchill, located on the western shore of Hudson Bay, has a population of eight hundred and is accessible only by air and rail. The population increases many fold during six weeks in October and November when the polar bears gather in and around Hudson Bay and visitors from all over the world come to see them.
Polar bears are marine mammals that live in the Arctic regions of five countries: Canada, the U.S., Greenland, Norway, and Russia. Currently, there are twenty to thirty thousand globally but they are at serious risk of decline due to loss of polar ice. While there are nineteen different polar bear populations in these five countries, sixty percent live in Canada, with more than one thousand in Churchill. Water conditions here cause ice to form first and melt last. Polar bears are not adapted to eat on land. The ice serves as platforms for the bears to hunt ring seals, their primary food source. Polar bears are uniquely suited to the extreme climate in the Arctic regions. In fact, they can’t easily survive in temperatures above freezing. They have two coats of dense fur and eleven centimeters of fat as insulation against the cold. Large furry paws keep them warm and claws help them walk over thin ice to reach their prey. They can live thirty years in the wild.
I am here in Mid-November, the fifth of the six-week season. It is very cold, below zero with a substantial wind chill. I’m told snow has been on the ground for the past three weeks or so. On our first day in Churchill as our group approaches town from the airport, we see a beautiful polar bear mom and cub also approaching town, something that is strongly disapproved of for safety reasons. The polar bear patrol shoots cracker shells in the air to discourage them and they run away in the opposite direction.
The next day, we head out to the tundra on a special vehicle called a polar rover designed to traverse the difficult terrain that is thick with tundra grass, rock, snow and ice.
Early on, we see a polar bear hunkered down in some scrubby willows apparently avoiding the harsh wind. Conditions rapidly deteriorate to blizzard white-out and we can no longer see anything. I go out on the back deck of the rover to experience twenty degrees below zero and feel my face get numb.
I have a conversation with the driver asking him how he can possibly navigate in zero visibility. He tells me about landmarks that he uses as well as the fact that he comes from Churchill and knows the contours of the land well. Then he promptly gets lost! It is quite hilarious. We stop a number of times waiting for the weather to clear. When it does late in the afternoon, we are at an overlook of Hudson Bay. To our surprise and delight, we see an Arctic Fox curled up in a ball and an Arctic Hare lying in some stunted willows, each as white as the snow in which they are camouflaged, sleeping peacefully.
Our second and last day on the rover, there is thankfully no blizzard. We’re shown a weather map that indicates how far the ice has grown in magnitude over the last few days, from just along the shore of Hudson Bay to four miles out. This means that in that period of time, most of the bears have gone from Churchill for the season and we’re likely to see only stragglers. And we do! For a long time we watch a bear quite far out on the ice as it moves back and forth, sniffing the air, it’s long neck stretched out, then lying down to rest and up again to explore.
In addition to our group guide who has told us a tremendous amount about polar bears, we are fortunate to have a polar bear scientist from the World Wildlife Fund on board who shares with us her extensive knowledge from years of study. And we’re not finished yet! We see ptarmigans resplendent in their winter white.
Then there is the polar bear jail. As I mentioned earlier, the polar bear authority wants to keep people and polar bears apart. When the bears get into Churchill, an emergency call goes out and the polar bear patrol gets to the location of the wayward bear, tranquilizes it and has it taken to jail where it is incarcerated a few days to a month depending upon the seriousness of the infraction. Once paroled, the bear is released onto the ice, perhaps deterred from future town incursions.
Halloween in Churchill is a unique production. Given the polar bear issue, trick-or-treaters must be protected. This involves a helicopter, police, northern rangers, fire fighters and conservation officers, twenty four men and two helicopter pilots in all. This to make sure that one hundred sixty Churchill kids get to fill their bags with candy and be safe from polar bears!
On the day of our return to Winnipeg, the weather in Churchill is the most extreme yet. Taking a photo requires glove removal. By the time that thirty-seconds has elapsed, my fingers burn with the cold. My toes are so painful that it takes hours indoors for them to thaw out. And it’s only November. It is quite apparent that Churchill is for far hardier folks than me!
Featured photo is courtesy of Amy McCawley