When one of our travelers wanted to see polar bears, our Churchill Polar Bear Expedition was the perfect adventure that combined polar bear viewing with delightful activities including a visit to Inuit structures, art murals, and a wonderful dog sledding excursion. Read more to see some of her fantastic photos.
Churchill is an isolated small town in the Canadian subarctic on the Churchill River and Hudson’s Bay, accessible only by plane or train. After the flight to Churchill, we enjoyed a driving tour of the area. Many of the buildings in the area have murals on them in different artistic styles and subject matter, even one reminiscent of Dalí.
The beach is a great place to view the aurora (weather permitting). An inukshuk, an Inuit means of communication, stands on the windy shore of Hudson’s Bay.
Bear safety is a way of life there, so there are few negative human-bear interactions. There is a bear siren at 10:00 pm every night to remind people to get inside and to walk in a group if outside, a 24-hour polar bear sighting hotline for the town, and bear guards at Cape Merry. There is also a “polar bear jail” where nuisance bears are brought for a short stay before being tranquilized and airlifted to a safer area.
One afternoon, we had a dog sledding adventure. It was exciting to sled through the forest and was much smoother than I expected. Those dogs love to run!
We had two full days on the tundra in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area, a former military base and artillery range with a network of trails the Tundra Buggy traveled on during our search for polar bears and other wildlife. The scenery was bleak but striking. Our buggy driver Neil had a sharp eye for spotting wildlife and always got us in a great spot for observation and photos. We saw ptarmigan, silver fox, and arctic fox. Here was an arctic fox hunting a vole under the snow.
Our first day on the tundra was windy with light snow. The bears aren’t as active when the weather is like this but we saw several bears and were fortunate to have an unobstructed view of a mother bear and her cub waking up from a nap. The mother bear was wearing a radio collar. I wonder if she was the bear that was just named Betty White.
On our second day on the tundra, the weather was better, and we did see bears! They are huge and majestic and words can’t describe seeing them in the wild. The bears are very curious and a couple of them even closely approached the Tundra Buggies. We were also accompanied by a researcher from Polar Bears International (PBI) who answered our many questions.
We watched a pair of young male bears sparring. It looks like a serious fight as they bite and push and swing at each other with their enormous paws, at times reminding me of huge furry wrestlers. The bears were silent during their sparring matches, which means they are playing, practicing for the time they have to fight for territory and mates. Then they would take a break before sparring again.
Our buggy driver got word that some bears got an unexpected meal, which doesn’t happen often; an unlucky seal was stranded at low tide. We arrived in time to watch three bears and a bold raven feeding on the carcass, a sight I won’t soon forget.
This was an interesting, informative trip both about polar bears and life in Churchill. Our guide Alex had everything well in hand and was very flexible depending on the circumstances. The hotel was comfortable and the food was very good. The ladies at the Tundra Inn make great soups!
Seeing polar bears in the wild is a truly special experience and the loss of sea ice where they hunt is a sobering thought. If you want to see polar bears in the wild, this is the trip for you. Just be sure to dress in warm layers!
—Text and photos by 11-time WT adventurer Maggie Grall, Churchill Polar Bear Expedition. Be sure to check out Maggie’s blogs about Komodo, Cenderawasih, and Alaska.