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POLAR BEAR SEASON IN CHURCHILL MANITOBA - WHAT TO SEE & DO

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Polar bear warning sign
Polar bear warning sign
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Why is Churchill, Manitoba, called the Polar Bear Capital of the World? The town is at the northern end of the primary route for polar bear migration between the Nelson River and Cape Churchill.

Every fall, hundreds of polar bears congregate at Gordon Point and Cape Churchill to wait for Hudson Bay to freeze, so that they can hunt for seals.

Getting to Churchill

The town of Churchill (population: 800) is located 1,242 miles (2,000 kilometers) northwest of Toronto and a 95-minute flight north of Winnipeg.

During polar bear season (dates: October and November) Churchill residents and visitors are constantly alert. Signs along the Hudson Bay coast warn: "Stop. Don't walk in this area." They include a phone number for reporting polar bear sightings (204-675-Bear or 204-675-2327).

Taking photo beside Churchill inuksuk
Taking photo beside Churchill inuksuk
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Churchill tour

What can you see and do? Our Churchill Nature Tours trip included polar bear-viewing from tundra vehicles, dog-sledding, the opportunity to see aurora borealis, weather permitting, and a Churchill helicopter tour.

It also included a town tour, in a yellow school bus, driven by our experienced guide, Steve Clubb. After scanning the surroundings with binoculars to ensure it was safe, Steve let us out of the bus so that we could photograph a landmark inuksuk and Miss Piggy, a downed cargo plane that lost its engine (but no passengers) in 1979.

Polar bear jail

We then drove to a large corrugated steel building called the Polar Bear Holding Facility (PBHF), which is better known as Churchill's polar bear jail. Steve showed us a culvert trap used to capture bears that come into town and are not scared away by noise from cracker guns.

Churchill Nature Tours guide, Steve Chubb
Churchill Nature Tours guide, Steve Chubb
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

"It's baited with smelly seal oil," he said. "The door slams shut behind them. Natural Resources staff tranquilize bears with Telazole, a drug that allows them to swallow and blink so their eyes don't dry out."

Most problem bears are five-to-eight-year-old sub-adult bears, according to Steve. "Before polar bear tourism started in the 1960s and early '70s, most polar bears that came into Churchill were shot. When Churchill closed and buried its dump in 2005, the number of polar bears entering town began decreasing."

Polar Bear Alert Program

Signs beside the bear traps gave us more information about Polar Bear Management in Manitoba and the Polar Bear Alert Program. We learned that the holding facility has 28 cells. Five are air-conditioned for bears caught in Churchill in the summer.

After Hudson Bay freezes, the bears are released onto the ice. If there is not enough room in the PBHF before the ice forms, wildlife management staff transport the tranquilized bears in a net bag, hoisted below a helicopter, to the Seal River area, 40 miles (64 kilometers) northwest of Churchill.

Reading signs about polar bear programs
Reading signs about polar bear programs
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

How many polar bears are captured and released?

A sign on the Manitoba Conservation office door reported the statistics for November 5 to 11.

It read: "Number of bear reports this week — 48. Total number of bear reports to date — 204. The number of bears held in the Polar Bear Holding Facility and released this year — 24."

Newborn cubs

Displays in the Parks Canada Visitor Centre, located in the historic Churchill train station, provided interesting polar bear facts. We watched a video about Wapusk National Park, home to one of the world's largest known maternal denning areas.

Parks Canada model of mother bear and cubs in den
Parks Canada model of mother bear and cubs in den
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

A model of a polar bear den depicted the chamber, which pregnant females dig in early October to give birth to cubs (usually twins) in December. (Polar bear mating season is late-March to late-May.)

How much do polar bear cubs weigh? A newborn's weight is 1.75 pounds (0.7 kilograms).

They grow quickly because the mother bear's milk is 46% fat. The temperature inside the den is warmer than the outside temperature. When it is -40 degrees F or C in Churchill the den temperature is 28 degrees F (-2 degrees C).

Mother and cubs emerge from the den in March and walk to the frozen Hudson Bay, where she breaks her eight-month fast. Polar bear cubs stay with their mother until the next litter is born in two to three years.

What do polar bears eat?

Another Parks Canada exhibit explained that ringed seals are the preferred diet of these predatory carnivores. Polar bears patiently wait for a submerged seal to pop its head out of a breathing hole. Their sensitive noses can smell a seal 3.3 feet (one meter) below the ice and snow.

Using their sharp teeth and strong neck muscles, they hoist the 150-pound (68-kilo) seals out of the water. Eating up to 20% of their body weight at one sitting, they often consume the blubber and leave the meat behind.

Viewing Inuit art in Eskimo Museum
Viewing Inuit art in Eskimo Museum
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Eskimo Museum

Several polar bear carvings and prints highlight Churchill's Eskimo Museum, which houses a superb collection of Inuit crafts, tools and indigenous art. We admired carved walrus tusks and whale bones, soapstone sculptures, historical harpoons, handmade sealskin boats and ladles carved from muskox horns.

The Eskimo Museum Gift Shop sells unique Inuit and polar bear-themed souvenirs, including clothing, books, blueberry tea, Inuit carvings and prints.

How to get a polar bear in your passport

We found more polar bear souvenirs in Wapusk General Store, the Arctic Trading Company, Northern Images and the Great White Bear Tour Gift Shop.

Our favorite souvenir was free. Employees at the Churchill Post Office stamped our passports with a polar bear stamp. Encircling an image of the great white bear were the words: "Churchill MB — Polar Bear Capital of the World".

Manitoba wildlife

Preoccupied with their quest to see polar bears in Churchill, most visitors are unaware of the other animals and birds in Northern Manitoba. Birdwatchers frequently see ravens, called Thompson turkeys by the locals.

Ptarmigan eating seeds
Ptarmigan eating seeds
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

During polar bear excursions our tundra vehicle driver, Ward Brown, stopped whenever he saw wildlife so we could have a closer look and take photos. We would've missed the ptarmigans (called Northern chickens by locals) eating seeds from tiny bushes if Ward hadn't spotted them.

As white as the snow around them, we could only see the birds when they moved their black eyes and beaks. "They drag their feet," said Ward, pointing out the tracks made by their feather-covered feet.

A red fox trotted across the tundra in front of us. Snow buntings rested on a rock. Gyrfalcons soared above us. On previous trips, Ward and Steve Clubb saw Arctic hares, owls and white Arctic foxes.

Ordering dessert at Gypsy's Bakery
Ordering dessert at Gypsy's Bakery
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Gypsy's Bakery

Because the sun sets early in November, we had plenty of time to freshen up at our hotel, the Aurora Inn, before dinner. Steve picked us up in the school bus to bring us to Gypsy's Bakery, a Churchill gathering spot where we ate all our meals.

Other than alcohol, (which we paid for individually), Churchill Nature Tours participants could order anything on the menu. Breakfasts included eggs Benedict, yogurt, cereal, French toast, cream cheese brioches, orange fritters and muffins.

In addition to soup and sandwiches, we enjoyed delicious battered cod and chips for lunch. Dinners featured New York striploin steak, Manitoba pickerel and Arctic char with fresh vegetables and potatoes. It was hard to select a dessert from the assortment of homemade pies, cakes and cookies.

Churchill Manitoba weather station
Churchill Manitoba weather station
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Tour groups and local residents weren't the only ones who knew that Gypsy's food was good. Next to the picture window in front of the bakery, we saw two big polar bear paw prints below the kitchen exhaust fan that emanated aromas of cinnamon buns and other baked goodies.

Churchill weather

In October and November the weather in Churchill, Manitoba, tends to be cloudy and overcast. Temperatures range from a high of six degrees C (42.8 degrees F) in October to a low of -23 degrees C (-9.4 degrees F) in November.

"Churchill is a semi-arid area," says Steve Clubb. Most of the precipitation falls as snow. When we arrived in mid-November it was -15 degrees C (five degrees F) and light snow was falling.

What should you wear on a trip to Churchill during polar bear season? Windy days are common, so windproof clothing is essential.

Churchill Nature Tours recommends that participants dress in layers and bring an insulated hooded parka, warm turtleneck sweaters, mitts, boots, socks, a scarf and ski warm-up pants.

If you're still not sure about the Churchill weather forecast, check the Weather Station sign near Gypsy's Bakery.


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Churchill Nature Tours