Text and photos by Alan G. Luke & Jacquie D. Durand
One of the reasons the New York Times selected Canada as the #1 choice in their Places to Go in 2017 and Lonely Planet has officially recognized Canada as the 2017 Destination of the Year, is our adorable carnivores. We respect these predators in “The Polar Bear Capital of the World,” Churchill, Manitoba. It is when you acknowledge their freedom in their natural habitat that you begin to truly appreciate them.
During a six-week period in October and November, polar bear watching is the most active. Canada is home to 17,000 of the estimated 25,000 worldwide polar bear population. Tundra Buggy and Great White Bear conduct their tours here on rugged all-terrain vehicles, which have each been built on the base of retired fire trucks. Each of these ATVs may carry up to two dozen patrons as they spread as far as 12 km (7.5 miles) east of the town.
Just 10 minutes east of town as the crow flies, or rather snowy owl, is the launch site where we board our designated tundra buggy of international adventure seekers and appointed driver. A convoy of the big-wheeled buggies proceeds to depart and disperse over the snow-laden tundra toward Gordon Point. The region is classified as a semi-desert and only receives about 16 inches of precipitation annually. This day turned out to be perfectly clear and sunny with a surprising temperature of -5°C (22°F), ideal for photo opportunities.
However, the polar bears were engaging in some sub-Arctic repose. I suppose if I weighed over 500 kg (1,000 pounds) and had 10 cm (four inches) of fat, I would sleep too. Their white fur, more of a creamy blond colouration, acts as a camouflage covering their black skin which facilitates heat absorption. The guard hairs which protect the thick undercoat are hollow and transparent.
After viewing a few with heads on paws, I began to wonder if they were real — maybe someone donning a bear suit had made all these distinct tracks in the virgin snow. Then someone in our group would spot a bear with his head popped up. Definitely animatronic creatures, I thought. I almost expected to see a bear sitting with a beverage and shades as in the popular soda commercial. (Coca-Cola first used the polar bear in a print ad campaign in France during 1922.) My suspicions eventually waned when a curious bear casually strolled by a row of tundra buggies.
One must employ bear-watching etiquette or the bear essentials (so to speak) at all times to not stress these marvelous marine mammals, known as “Lords of the Arctic”. Their paddle-like paws permit them to swim myriad distances in frigid waters. Thus, they are known as Ursus Maritimus, “bear of the sea,” by scientists and nanuq by Inuit. It is essentially important to remain as quiet as possible and not to bait or feed them. Failure to abide by these simple rules will result in a helicopter ride off the tundra — at your own expense.
Our second full day on the tundra was windy and colder and consequently provided us with more activity by the great white bears. We spotted six outside the Polar Bear Lodge known as “the camp”. The Lodge is essentially a series of glorified buggies replete with appropriate facilities that can provide sleeping accommodations for up to 38 people. Here, when not sniffing at buggies, the bears were doing everything from sleeping to sparring. These mock fights help to determine their dominance for when the bears move out onto the frozen bay. Bears relocate after “freeze-up” in search of their primary food source, the ringed seal (aka nattiq to Inuit), which they can detect under more than one metre of snow and ice.
Prior to the start of their hunting season, they can fast for as long as eight months if they conserve their energy resources. During the interim they may nosh on kelp or even twigs if they get hungry enough. Since the polar bear generally eats only the skin and fat of the seal, the Arctic fox is never far behind to scavenge the remainder of the carcass.
On these tundra excursions you can spot other types of animals as well. There is a unique diversity in animal habitat with both Arctic fox and red fox present. Both fresh and saltwater marshes, the tundra, taiga (vast sub-Arctic forest) and boreal forest attract a variety of wildlife. Arctic hare, snowy owls and the grouse-like ptarmigan are often sighted during tundra tours.
The flat, snow-dusted landscape is primarily terrain, dotted with windswept white spruce trees. Due to the prevailing northwesterly winds, they provide a natural compass pointing in a southeast direction. Although rather barren and diminutive, reminiscent of a Charlie Brown Christmas tree, “these trees could be as much as a few hundred years old,” our guide told me.
Polar Bear Compound was erected to hold any wayward white bears that encroach on the perimeter of Churchill. This area buffering the town has 16 culvert traps and over two dozen spring-loaded leg-hold snares to deter any of the wanderers from venturing into town. The bears are darted with a tranquilizer and then have both ears tagged and the inside of their lip tattooed with numbers. A tooth will also be extracted to help determine the age of the bear. Often, they will also be weighed and measured before being hauled off to jail. The bears are not fed during their time at the compound, so as not to provide the image of a Churchill Hilton for the temporary town terrors. When the “freeze-up” does not precede the compound’s capacity, then some of the incarcerated bears are transported via a helicopter net outside a 64-km (40-mile) radius. There is an average of 100 polar bears detained annually in this facility that can accommodate up to 28 of the massive mammals at one time.
Within the controlled zone or city limits, intruders are not darted because a drugged bear is not a happy bear for at least 15 minutes until the chemical can take effect and render them incapacitated. Generally, they are scared off by firecracker shells, horns, sirens or even obscene language. Often, the bears show up in the evening, so we decided not to stroll by any restaurant exhaust fans during our nocturnal tours of the town.
Popular tour operators such as International Wildlife Adventures (IWA) offer comprehensive itineraries. To enhance the overall tour, visual presentations are provided by a photographer, a naturalist, Parks Canada representatives, Métis artist and raconteur. A visit to the Eskimo Museum and the Churchill Northern Studies Centre where you can participate in a dog-sled ride are also featured on the tour. A local tour around the town with a population of close to 900 residents, takes you by appropriately named hotels including Aurora, Polar, Tundra and Ice Berg Inns. Churchill’s 14 streets are named after explorers such as Hudson, Radisson and Munck.
The aurora borealis can be elusive but when it makes its appearance, the often luminescent, misty green brush strokes of light can be awe-inspiring. Inuit believe that the northern lights bring good luck to those who are conceived during its activity; so procreate or peruse as you wish.
When I asked Nature 1st Tours guide and gunsmith Paul Ratson what it is like to live in “The Polar Bear Capital of the World,” he simply replied: “freedom”. I suppose man and animal do strive for the same thing, and ideally, we can both thrive and survive in harmony.
International Wildlife Adventures
Tundra Buggy Tours
Great White Bear Tours
Nature 1st Tours
Churchill Northern Studies Centre