Thursday, January 21, 2021

Best way to view polar bears in the wild

Magnificent polar bears at Churchill, Canada

Just inches from my feet, two shiny black eyes stare up at me through the metal mesh floor of our Polar Rover. A bear cub lifts his button nose as if to check out the scent of my heavily padded boots. I’m furiously taking pictures, camera in burst mode, in hopes of capturing a few good shots of this incredible moment.

A cub peaks up from the outside grate of our Polar Rover,
 right where I'm standing.

We’re in Churchill, Manitoba, Canada—1,000 miles north of Winnipeg--on a polar bear expedition, hunting with our eyes and our cameras. It’s polar bear season, a six-week period during October and November when hundreds of polar bears migrate to this area on their way to Hudson Bay. When the sea freezes over, seal-hunting season begins.  After fasting during spring and summer, bears are ready to hunt (and eat) seals to fatten up before they again enter a period of living off their fat reserves.

Mother and cub walk over the slushy ice of Hudson Bay, not yet
frozen over.

Why Hudson Bay?

Hudson Bay is the first place that gets iced over each fall. Located in the middle of the North American continent, this region has no coastal waters to moderate temperatures. Also, the Churchill River, which drains from the Rocky Mountains, flows into Hudson Bay. Being fresh water, it freezes at a slightly higher temperature than salt water.  Aided by strong counter-clockwise currents, the bay can freeze very quickly forming prime hunting grounds for bears-in-waiting.

Journey to the Far North

We’re traveling with Natural Habitat, a leading tour company that partners with World Wildlife Fund to offer a variety of 6- and 7-day environmentally responsible wildlife excursions. While this is my favorite adventure tour company (we have gone on numerous adventures with them), other tour companies also provide similar itineraries in Churchill.

We overnight in Winnipeg where we are issued right-sized parkas and snow boots. These are snuggly warm and comfortable, eliminating the need to cram-pack or carry bulky items while traveling.

 An informative dinner introduces us to our guide, Drew Hamilton, whose photos and commentary whet our appetites even more for the experiences we’re about to have. Because no roads go into Churchill, the following morning a charter flight whisks us to the outpost town of 800 residents. The other option would have been a 52-hour train ride.

Bears are curious. This one checks out the 6-foot tires
on the specially-built Polar Rover.

Polar Bear Capital of the World

Although more than 14,000 visitors are expected during the peak season, the number of vehicles allowed each day on the government-owned 26-by-7-mile tundra region where polar bears congregate is highly regulated.  With only 16 people in our group, everyone has a comfortable window seat from which to observe the bears and take photos. On the back of the specially-built Polar Rover is an elevated outside observation deck. This is where I come face-to-feet with the bear cub.

Adventure in the tundra

Our first tundra excursion starts shortly before sunset. In the dimming light we soon cross paths with a polar bear family—mom and two cubs about eight or nine months old—that we watch slosh through semi-frozen puddles and muddied snow. We see tracks of an Arctic fox but no sign of the elusive camouflaged animal.

Male bears practice sparring skills that may be needed later. 

At dusk we come upon a group of three male bears. One is sleeping and uninterested in bear society, but the other two put on an amazing show of sparring, bear form of play-fighting. Raring up on hind legs, they nip at each other with open mouths, exposing long sharp incisors that could do plenty of damage under other circumstances.  Pushing and shoving each other with their huge paws in a pseudo-wrestling match, these enormous animals practice skills they may need later.

Sunset is a fiery feast of red hues.

Just before nightfall, streaks of scarlet red, orange, and yellow spread upon the clouds turning the horizon into a fiery blaze. Reflections on not-yet-frozen pools and dazzling snow-tipped vistas broken occasionally by scrubby reddish willows or brown boulders reveal a splendor unique to tundra landscapes.

Our first full day on the tundra yields about 20 bear sightings, with an equal number the following day, and more on our evening excursion—all observed from the comfort of our Polar Rover bus.  Male bears enchant onlookers with their sparring antics, mama bears keep watchful eyes on wandering cubs, and one male bear shows dominance by approaching another bear in a way that causes it to retreat.  Numerous bears sleep or stroll across thin ice, while others meander close to the Rover, poking around and climbing on the six-foot tires to check out their surroundings.

Polar bears are fascinating to observe in the wild.

Bears in the wild

Viewing these magnificent animals in their natural habitat is an incredible experience, but we’re constantly reminded that they are wild creatures. On the tundra we never leave the Polar Rover. Signs throughout town, where we stay in a basic but comfortable hotel, warn locals and visitors that this is bear territory. If an unruly bear wanders into town, it is captured and held for several days before being helicoptered back to the tundra.

Push comes to shove in good-natured fun.

Almost half the world’s population of polar bears (estimated numbers range up to 40,000) lives in northern Canada. Warmer temperatures from climate change may affect their natural habitat as ice starts to form later, allowing less time for bears to hunt and build up stores of fat. In the U.S. polar bears have been considered threatened since 2008, although they’re not endangered.

If you're craving a nature adventure that's extraordinarily inspiring, I suggest an expedition to Churchill to view polar bears in the wild.

A version of this story first appeared in NowU in 2014.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier


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