On the shores of Hudson Bay, Manitoba, sits the small outpost town of Churchill, a frozen frontier with a population of about 1,000, at the top of many wildlife enthusiasts’ lists. This is where you have the highest chance of seeing the King of the Arctic in his natural habitat, as he roams the tundra waiting for the ‘Big Freeze’.
Each year, by the end of July, the ice throughout Hudson Bay melts completely, effectively stranding the polar bears on land. This natural process results in the bears needing sufficient fat reserves to survive approximately four months without access to their principle food source - seals. Unable to go out and hunt for these blubbery critters, they roam the land, sometimes coming into the town in search of food. October and early November, the bay begins to freeze once more and thousands of bears congregate on the peninsula and, despite being thought of as solitary animals, some form temporary friendships and can be seen play-fighting on the tundra. This is the best time to visit, before it is again each bear for themself as they can finally set out again onto the frozen ice in search of seals. This process is unique to Churchill, as in more northerly areas the ice does not melt completely so the bears can go about their daily lives without interruption.
The focus of many wildlife documentaries, films, and photoshoots, Churchill is known as the ‘Polar Bear Capital of the World’.
Churchill and Nanavut
The small town of Churchill sits on the edge of Hudson Bay in Northern Manitoba and is the starting point for some life-changing polar expeditions into the tundra wilderness. Situated at the most southerly range of a polar bear’s habitat, the milder climate of Churchill means that ice completely melts in the summer months, effectively stranding the bears until the ice freezes again, but creating more favourable conditions for wildlife enthusiasts as you observe them as they wait for the ‘Big Freeze’.
The Nunavut archipelago includes Ellesmere Island, Baffin Island and Victoria Island over a vast area of 2.2 million square kilometres. Ellesmere is just 800 kilometres from the North Pole and has a spellbinding scenic mix of ice caps, glaciers, fjords and vast wilderness. Further southwest of here is Baffin Island, named after the famous explorer William Baffin, this is Canada’s largest island, with a population of just 11,000. It has a picturesque mountain range - Baffin Mountains – with its highest peak Mount Odin at 2,147 metres elevation. It is possible to see Arctic wolf, caribou, Arctic fox, and polar bear here.
"These areas combine a huge range of experiences between them from polar bear tracking and ice camping, to seeing the Northern Lights."
Location and Activities
Cape Churchill, around 50 kilometres from the town, is the staging point for most bear journeys north across the recently frozen ice. An important area for conservation, it is mainly the large males that hug the shorelines here, usually with between 30 and 40 bears. As we come to the end of the season, the hierarchy here is obvious, with smaller bears or family units keeping their distance.
Polar bears may be the principle attraction, but there area other fantastic wildlife opportunities, from watching or even swimming with beluga whales to birding. Being in the transitional zone between the arctic tundra and boreal forest, there is a variety of wildlife, from Arctic fox, gray wolfs and muskrats, to caribou, arctic and snowshoe hare and mink. Lynx here are a recovering population, but are very rarely seen. There is some fantastic marine life too, with otters, walrus, whales and three species of seal; ringed, bearded and harbour.
Activities in Churchill include dog sledding and scenic helicopter flights. To search for bears we head out in tundra buggies, each fitted out for thirty passengers, but we only allow fifteen so you each have a window seat. Back in the town, learn about the history of this frozen wild west and the fur trade that was once established here.
Accommodation in Churchill is not of the standard of the luxury camps found in destinations throughout Africa, but the infrastructure is reliable and westernised. The emphasis here is putting you in the right place at the right time to maximise your polar bear sightings. The Tundra Lodge is a great example, a train-like structure that is moved at the start of the season to the prime spot, right on the tundra itself. With viewing platforms and observation decks, as well as big windows, you will not miss a thing.