23 Aug Face to Face with Polar Bears in Churchill
I can still feel the Arctic air, sharp and clean. I can see the late-afternoon sunset, a glowing band of gold, then scarlet, then deep rose, lingering on the horizon. I can hear the yip of the sled dogs, avid to dash across the snow. But what remains most vivid in my memories of a November visit to Churchill, Manitoba is the image of my daughter’s face, nose to nose with an enormous polar bear.
Granted, a pane of glass lay between them. But it was no hindrance to this powerful exchange of mutual curiosity. The giant male bear had approached our Polar Rover, a large heated tundra-trekking vehicle custom-designed for polar bear viewing. He sauntered up and sat before us, as we craned to gaze at him through the huge front windows. Then, he rose up on his back legs and stood nearly 10 feet tall, placing his paws like pieces of furry carpet onto the perfectly clear windshield. As my daughter, then 11, watched eye to eye, he leaned closer, touching his big black nose to her small pale one, staring at her for a few enchanted seconds.
Though this was the most moving encounter, it was one among many with these remarkable animals during our three excursions onto the tundra. Our family of four (including my husband and son) went to Churchill on Natural Habitat Adventures’ Classic Polar Bear Expedition, where we saw not only polar bears but also fluffy white Arctic hares, Arctic foxes and ptarmigan, which we detected despite their wintry camouflage.
Polar Bear Watching: The Time to Go is Now
We were fortunate to have exceptionally good bear viewing, as the Arctic’s largest predator was congregating on the shores of Hudson Bay awaiting freeze-up and the start of seal-hunting season. The Western Hudson Bay population — one of the most southerly among the Circumpolar North’s 19 different polar bear groups — must fast for at least 5 months after the ice melts, and it was clear that they were hungry, patrolling the shore in search of ice that would facilitate seal hunting. During our excursions along the edge of the bay, we watched thin layers of ice form along the shore, tantalizing the bears, then break up in the action of the tide or a south wind.
A warming Arctic has delayed ice formation in recent years, and the bears are waiting ever-longer periods till they can venture out onto a solid frozen expanse. Polar bears around Hudson Bay are spending 20-30 fewer days annually on the sea ice than they did in the 1980s, and they’re weighing less, as access is diminished to their main food source — fat-rich ringed seals.
Currently polar bear numbers overall are relatively static — some populations are declining while others are increasing or remaining stable — yet the species is listed as Vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Scientists widely concur that without action to reduce the pace of climate change, sea ice loss will have a significant impact on their numbers by 2050, with perhaps two-thirds of the world’s polar bears gone by then.
Knowing this, we were grateful for this opportunity to see them — and in impressive numbers. At one point near the shoreline, we observed 10 bears at close range and more in the distance. Two pairs of sparring young males rose up on their hind legs, swatting at one another like boxers, then crashing to the snow to wrestle and play like puppies. Our seasoned Rover driver Bill, who had spent years among the bears, assured us we had one of the two best days he’d seen in his career, with the bears both play-fighting and climbing up on our vehicle. We felt incredibly fortunate.
Inspiration to Protect the Natural World
In a world where children are increasingly insulated from nature, and wildlife encounters happen primarily at zoos — if at all — our family’s experience was rare and profound. One of our trip companions echoed my own feeling that our time among the bears felt spiritual. It’s hard to convey the delight of such proximity to these gorgeous beasts, the sense of wonder at their adaptation to this harsh ecosystem, and the restorative power of several days’ immersion in the Arctic wilds.
As we returned to Churchill from a night drive on the tundra, looking up at the northern lights against a black sky full of glittering stars, my daughter hugged me and said, “Thanks, Mom, for taking us here.”
I have mused on how my own view of the world has been transformed by spending time with wild polar bears. But I am even more grateful for what such an experience means for my kids. They have a sense now, far more palpable than they could glean through news stories, of how crucial our human actions are for the polar bears’ future. They know what it means for the bears’ health when the ice freezes later and melts earlier than it used to, shortening their hunting season. They recognize that leaving lights on at home or driving when we could walk actually makes an impact on the polar bear cubs they loved watching in Canada.
My hope is that as a result of travels to wild places, we will come to treasure the natural world in a far deeper way. Like me, you may see the value in driving a 10-year-old Subaru, getting by with a 20-year-old sofa and looking for bargains at consignment shops, if it means saving money for a chance to come nose to nose with a polar bear. What better gift can we give our children — and ourselves — than a communion with the world’s wonderful wild creatures? The only answer I have is this: a commitment to protecting our planet so that such opportunities will be there for our grandchildren’s children and beyond.
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For those who dream of a close encounter with the King of the Arctic, now is the time to go. See polar bears in Churchill with Natural Habitat Adventures, which offers seven different polar bear itineraries, including specialized photography tours. Trips run in October and November each year.
Or join Lindblad Expeditions during the summer on a small-ship cruise to High Arctic Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago, to observe polar bears at the top of Europe. The Land of the Ice Bears itinerary takes a special focus on polar bears, while other Svalbard itineraries include Iceland and Greenland, or Norway’s fjords. Visit Lindblad’s Arctic offerings to learn more.
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