A beginner's guide to Churchill
Wild at heart Sam was always the perfect person for Canadian Sky to send on assignment to the frozen tundra of Churchill. But on the -40°C shores of Hudson Bay, even she needed more than the bear necessities with her...
In summer, the small and very remote frontier community of Churchill is a hotspot for fishing, bird spotting and snorkelling with beluga whales. In winter however, when the entire region sleeps under feet of snow, it is one of the only places in the world where humans and polar bears regularly mix.
As you would expect, escorted tours are the only way to safely view polar bears in the wild and Canadian Sky offers some excellent packages to get the most from the experience. November is definitely the best month to see them and weighing as much as 590kg, and standing up to 10ft tall, you can see why these beautiful but endangered bears attract so much popular attention and demand so much of our respect.
I will never forget just how still the air was when I arrived into Churchill. The air hung silent and grey; heavy with coming snow and chilled from horizon to horizon. Sparse fistfuls of tufted grass clung to rocky outcrops, half buried in the persistent ground snow. The wilderness around Churchill is hauntingly beautiful and with no direct road connections and a population devoted to conserving the beauty of their natural environment, change comes slowly. In summer, the waters teem with fish and the skies with birds. Vocal beluga whales surface and plunge in the deep green waters, where they come to calve. In November, it is a changed place and some might call it barren; but it is far from empty. Caribou can be seen all year, but I came to meet the bears and the polar people — people like Dave Daley, who make the survival of the bears and the prosperity of their town their personal responsibility. I actually could never have expected just how warm it would be in Churchill; the welcome that is, not the weather. I don’t know why, but I was surprised at just how open and friendly the people were. I felt very welcomed and instantly at home among them — spurred on by their obvious passion.
I always knew that polar bears had a reputation that needed to be completely respected, but I wasn’t prepared for what effect they would leave on me. They obviously need their ferocity to survive in the harshest kind of conditions that no humans could ever live in, but they also exude a complicated relaxed calmness and intelligence that I wasn’t expecting. They stare at you with questions, hiding a connected knowledge of the natural world that you envy. They always seem to be asking not: ‘Can I eat that?’, but rather ‘What is that?’, ‘Why is that there?’, and maybe even ‘Why am I here?’.
A wild frontier
Sitting on the shores of the mighty Hudson Bay, Churchill has been called the polar bear capital of the world. It’s for a very good reason as this is one of the only places where humans and bears interact on a daily basis. Although every care is taken to stay safe, we are told regularly to be careful and never forget that we are treading the line between civilisation and the northern wilderness. Cracks and horns can often be heard in the distance, as the locals work together to carefully scare off any bears that come too close to town. As darkness falls in the evenings, there is a curfew siren that notifies all children it’s time to get indoors, to avoid any prowling bears in the darkness. Churchill has always shared a relationship with the bears since the 1930s. One of the ways in which the locals work to keep bears and humans apart is with its ‘bear jail’. For any bears that come into the town itself and ignore the tactics used to scare them away, they are tranquilised and transported out into the wilderness where they are released.
The Tundra Buggy experience was just incredible. The science fiction moon rover allowed us to get incredibly close to the bears, who seemed to view us with the same intense curiosity that we had. At times, I really wasn’t sure who was watching whom. The heated Buggy was really comfortable, although none of us stayed in our seats for very long once the first bear had been spotted padding towards us from out of the white. Our guide showed us just how close you can get and at one point laid on the grill at the back of the vehicle for a nose to nose moment with a huge bear.
Survival of the fattest
There are thought to be around 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears in the world with half of those in northern Canada. It sounds a lot but the bears have been on the Threatened Species list under the Endangered Species Act since May 2008 and is regarded as ‘Vulnerable’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). Polar bears hibernate and during the summer months and rely almost entirely on the marine sea ice environment for hunting seals to bulk up for winter. Climate change is leading to warmer summers and is causing sea ice to melt faster, meaning less hunting in early Spring, when bears are at their hungriest.
Dogsledding with Wapusk Adventures
Wapusk Adventures is one of Churchill’s largest sled dog kennels and offers an authentic dogsledding experience through the trails around Churchill. I had the opportunity to be taught to drive them by owner Dave Daley, who was a brilliant teacher and had me up and sledding in no time. He began running dogsled tours in 2000, from behind the Wapusk General Store (owned by his wife), and now offers tailor-made tours. The infectious enthusiasm the huskies have to run takes hold of you and it’s not long before you never want them to stop. It was an exhilarating experience and the dog teams clearly enjoyed it so much — it had me in tears by the end.
My only regret in this whole tour was that my children weren’t on the trip to experience it with me. I know it would have been a life changing experience for them as well. Manitoba is such a beautiful territory, right from the Eskimo museum in Churchill to the bright lights of Winnipeg - I already want to go back.
More information and to book: Our Churchill & Tundra Experience lets you view wild polar bears in their natural environment aboard the world famous Tundra Buggy and also enjoy Churchill’s unique northern charm.
Article written by Sam Hohol.