Face to Face With Polar Bears

Churchill, Manitoba is one of the best places to spot a polar bear in the wild By: Debbie Olsen
Churchill is known as the “Polar Bear Capital of the World.” // © 2011  M.M. ; Single Polar bear with river
Churchill is known as the “Polar Bear Capital of the World.” // © 2011  M.M. ; Single Polar bear with river

The Details

Frontiers North Adventures
800-663-9832 or 204-949-2050

In northern Manitoba, nobody goes for summer walks along the Hudson’s Bay coastline — not even during the day. Well, almost nobody.

During a summer visit to Churchill, Manitoba, our group came across a middle-aged Italian gentleman out for an afternoon stroll. He had been in the “Polar Bear Capital of the World” for two days and hadn’t seen a polar bear, so he decided to take matters into his own hands. I suppose he didn’t realize that providing live bait — in the form of his own warm body — was not a good way to attract a polar bear and live to tell the tale.

Perhaps Coca-Cola advertisements are to blame, but polar bears seem to rank somewhere between penguins and dolphins on the cute scale for many people and, despite warning signs on roads and trails visitors to Churchill sometimes wander out on foot in search of wildlife. Fortunately, on this occasion, our tour guide and driver, from Frontiers North Adventures, convinced the man of his folly and offered him a free ride back to town.

The small town of Churchill was built on prime polar bear real estate — it is one of the top spots in the world to view these amazing creatures. Visitors may find polar bears in the vicinity of Churchill at any time after the ice has melted on the Hudson’s Bay, but each October and November the bears migrate en masse to this area, eagerly awaiting the formation of the first winter ice.

Unlike other bear species that hibernate during the winter months, polar bears become the most active during the winter as they use the ice floes to hunt for seals. On land, they eat very little and become less physically active while they try to conserve energy. But if they happen to come across a whale carcass (or an unarmed tourist wandering alone on the beach), their keen hunting skills kick in — even during the summer.

For visitors who want to see Churchill’s polar bears in the wild, the safest way to do so is on a tundra buggy, and the best time of year to ensure a sighting is the late fall.

“I’ve seen as many as 50 bears in a single day during peak season,” said our guide, Hailey, as we traveled by van to a place called Halfway Point for our tundra buggy excursion. “Sometimes you will see many and sometimes you may not see any at all — especially during the summer.”

I have to admit; I felt a little anxious when she said we might not see any bears. Since we were traveling during the late summer, the odds of seeing a bear weren’t as good. Fortunately, a few moments later, we noticed a Manitoba Conservation truck stopped on the side of the road. Our driver pulled up behind him and, for the next half-hour, we were able to observe a female polar bear and her almost fully grown cub wandering in the tundra grass, not far from the road.

The bears were headed in a direction that would lead them into town, so the conservation officers fired some warning blasts to scare the bears into changing their course and heading another way. Keeping bears and people apart for the safety of both is the primary objective of the Polar Bear Alert Program, which we were seeing in action.

After the two bears had cleared out, we returned to the tundra buggy for our excursion. A tundra buggy is a custom-designed, 50-passenger vehicle with a diesel engine, a sturdy steel frame, steel sheeting, eight-wheel-drive tandem tires, many windows and a viewing platform at the rear. Frontiers North Adventures has an exclusive permit to utilize old military roads to get deep onto the tundra and observe the wildlife. If it is safe to do so (meaning there are no bears in site), passengers can get out of the buggy and get a closer look at the plant life in this unique biome. Since we didn’t see any bears, we made a stop and got out for a closer look. It was amazing to see the tundra up close and to feel its spongy texture beneath our feet.

While we didn’t happen to see any bears on our summer tundra buggy excursion, we did manage to see a total of four polar bears over the course of a weekend — just enough to make us want to come back for another visit in the fall.

Frontiers North Adventures owns and operates the original tundra buggy excursions in Churchill, and they are the only company to have a permit to go into the Wildlife Management Area, which lies farther out on the tundra where more bears are likely to be found. Polar bear tours run from mid-October to mid-November and start at $2,449 per person. The tours begin in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and include return flights from Winnipeg to Churchill, accommodations and two days on a heated tundra buggy observing bears. Longer tours and specialized photography tours are also on offer. All tours are commissionable.