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Chopper Chuck beside helicopter used for polar bear tours
Chopper Chuck beside helicopter used for polar bear tours
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

A helicopter flight over Churchill and Hudson Bay was a great introduction to our Churchill Nature Tours polar bear trip.

Tour guide, Steve Clubb, drove our group to Hudson Bay Helicopters (phone number: 204-675-2576, address: 294 Kelsey Boulevard). Staff divided us into sub-groups of three-to-five people and assigned us to pilots.

Our pilot was Charles, who wore a toque labeled "Chopper Chuck." After leading us across the tarmac to his Bell Long Ranger III Superior helicopter, he ensured that we were properly buckled in before starting the engines.

Charles showed us how to use the headphones, which had microphones so we could ask him questions and listen to his commentary.

The four helicopters lifted off, one after the other, raising clouds of snow powder around the runners below them. We noted that one of the helicopters had a hook below it to support a sling that carried errant polar bears out of the town of Churchill.

Aerial view of Churchill, Manitoba
Aerial view of Churchill, Manitoba
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Tour route

Flying east, we had great views of the VIA Rail trains and tracks, homes, streets, shops and hotels in Churchill. It was mid-November and ice had already formed at least one kilometer (0.6 miles) into western Hudson Bay. Farther out, we observed an icy soup of bergy bits floating in olive-green water.

Much of the Hudson Bay ice was fractured like broken glass. It looked as if some massive hand had crumpled a bag of white potato chips and left them scattered along the coast.

Hudson Bay shipwreck

We flew over the wreck of the M/V Ithaca, located 16 kilometers (10 miles) east of Churchill, on the western tip of Bird Cove. Charles explained that it was a nickel ore-carrying ship that ran aground in the 1960s, during a storm.

"It lost both rudders and its anchor. Locals went out and removed everything of value after the cargo was recovered. The crew survived."

Ithaca shipwreck surrounded by Hudson Bay ice
Ithaca shipwreck surrounded by Hudson Bay ice
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Viewing polar bears

Charles told passengers on the left side to look down. A mother bear and her two cubs were resting beside floating chunks of ice.

"I'm going to turn around now, so folks on the right side of the helicopter can see the bears," he said after everyone on the left had taken their photos.

We spotted another female bear with twin cubs following her nose-to-tail. Mama bear stopped walking and gently nuzzled her cubs before they continued their journey.

Helicopter pilots are very careful not to disturb the polar bears. "If a bear runs or seems disturbed, we avoid them," explained Charles.

"Sometimes we're 60 meters (200 feet) above them and they don't react. Other times, we're 300 meters (1,000 feet) high and they run, so we quickly fly away." The bears below us seemed oblivious to our presence above them.

Mother bear and cubs rest by floating ice on Hudson Bay.
Mother bear and cubs rest by floating ice on Hudson Bay.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Tundra tours

The blades of our helicopter made throp, throp sounds as we flew northeast over Cape Churchill Wildlife Management Area toward Fox Island, near Wapusk National Park.

"We're now in Tundra Buggy land," said Charles. We flew over Tundra Buggies and Polar Rovers slowly making their way along snowy trails, so passengers could look for bears.

Near Great White Bear Lodge, Charles pointed out a big male polar bear slowly plodding over the ice. His hair had a yellowish tinge, so it was easy to spot him on the white ice.

Over the radio, another helicopter pilot reported two male bears sparring. From above, they looked like sumo wrestlers pushing their massive bodies against each other.

Helicopter flies over Cape Churchill Wildlife Management Area.
Helicopter flies over Cape Churchill Wildlife Management Area.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Cape Merry

After ensuring that passengers on both sides of the helicopter saw the bears, Charles said: "Let's fly over the islands off Cape Merry and Prince of Wales' Fort to see if we can find more polar bears."

We saw only a solitary male bear, sitting on his haunches sniffing the air. A fellow Churchill Nature Tours participant later showed us photos of moose that he took from a previous helicopter flight over Cape Merry.

Helicopter flights are one-hour-long, but our trip was so interesting it felt like five minutes.

How much does it cost to see polar bears on Churchill, Manitoba helicopter tours? The flights are included in Churchill Nature Tours polar bear trips (dates: mid-October to mid-November). Otherwise, the price is $250 per person.


Churchill Nature Tours

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