Visiting the Polar Bear Capital of the World: Churchill, Manitoba, by Ted Cookson

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by Ted Cookson
Published in December 2005

Polar bear at Hudson Bay, 63-second video clip

"Bear with me," joked "Stu" Kelsey, our driver/guide, as he slowed to navigate a rocky patch on the unpaved track leading from Churchill, Manitoba to the shore of Hudson Bay.  We were sitting comfortably in a massive 48-seat, butane-heated tundra buggy while en route to view the annual autumn polar bear migration.  After spending one night at the gateway city of Winnipeg on 21 October, we had flown north on a 40-seat Hawker Siddeley prop jet from Winnipeg to Churchill early the next morning.

Billed as the polar bear capital of the world, Churchill, with a population of 1,500, is accessible both by air and via the Hudson Bay Railway.  The 1,000-mile/1,600-km-long rail line was completed across the permafrost in 1929 by a crew of 3,000.  Today, because the 36-hour train journey consumes a full two nights and one day in each direction, many tourists feel that the 2 3/4-hour, 650-mile/1,045-km one-way flight is a more desirable transportation option.  

Discovered in 1619 and the site of a Hudson's Bay Company fort constructed in 1688, Churchill grew into a fur-trading port.  Then, after construction of the railway some 75 years ago, much of the wheat grown in Saskatchewan and Manitoba was exported via the port of Churchill to Europe, Africa and beyond.  In fact, Churchill was once one of the largest grain-exporting ports in the world.  Nowadays, tourism plays a significant role in the economy since Churchill lies astride a polar bear migration route. 

During the 45 minutes that it took Stu to drive our tundra buggy from Churchill out to the shore of Hudson Bay, he conveyed much information about polar bears to the participants in our group tour.

The Latin name of the polar bear is Ursus maritimus or "sea bear."  The youngest of eight bear species, the polar bear is thought to have evolved some 200,000 years ago from the brown bear.  The world's largest land predator, the powerful and heavily-insulated polar bear is well-adapted for Arctic survival.  The adult male polar bear can weigh from 775 to 1,500 pounds (352 to 682 kg) and reach a length of 6 feet to 10 feet ( 1.8 to 3.0 m).  The adult female polar bear is smaller, weighing from 330 to 550 pounds (150 to 250 kg) and reaching a length of 5 feet to 8 feet (1.5 to 2.5 m).

Polar bears range across the Arctic regions of Canada, Alaska, Greenland, Norway and Russia where they hunt the ringed seal, the most common seal in the Arctic.  It is estimated that the current world polar bear population is about 25,000. 

Polar bears have an excellent sense of smell and also keen senses of hearing and eyesight.  Their small ears and small tail help prevent heat loss.  Polar bears are excellent swimmers and have been known to swim as far as 60 miles (96 km) without resting.  In fact, the bears' massive forepaws, measuring up to a foot in diameter, are partially webbed to assist in swimming.  Polar bears' fat layer, some 3 to 4 1/2 inches (8 to 11 cm) thick, both provides insulation against the cold and increases buoyancy in the water.

Female polar bears normally give birth to two cubs.  While mating occurs in the spring, delayed implantation doesn't take place until the fall which is also when the female bear digs her maternity den in a snow bank.  Infant polar bears, covered with white hair, typically weigh only a pound ( 0.5 kg) or so and measure from 12 to 14 inches (30 to 35 cm).  But, when the mother and cubs leave their den in March, the cubs weigh up to 30 pounds ( 13.6 kg) and have thick fur.

Polar bear cubs nurse for at least 20 months.  During this period they must learn from their mothers how to patiently await the return of a seal to its breathing hole in the ice.  In lower Arctic regions mothers wean their cubs as they approach the age of two.  On the other hand, in higher Arctic regions where conditions are more difficult, mothers care for their cubs for a third year. 

Starvation is believed to be the leading cause of death for sub-adults, those bears which have not yet reached maturity at age five or six.  But those polar bears which do survive to adulthood have learned to hunt well.  The annual mortality rate of adult bears is only 5% annually.  Polar bears, whose sole enemy is man, generally live 15 to 18 years in the wild.  

After fasting for several months on land following the mid-July break up of ice on Hudson Bay, polar bears begin migrating back to the shore of Hudson Bay in late September.  More bears continue to arrive during October and early November.  This is the best season for close-up viewing of polar bears near the shore in the vicinity of Churchill.  With their natural sense of curiosity, the bears generally will not flee a slow-approaching tundra buggy; and, in fact, sometimes they will even lean up on a tundra buggy to try to sniff the occupants!  In November when the ice finally forms again on Hudson Bay, the bears go out to hunt for ringed seals, their main prey.  At that point polar bear viewing can only be done at a great distance with binoculars as the tundra buggies cannot follow the bears out onto the ice. 

Fifteen polar bears were spotted during the two full-day tundra buggy drives our tour group took near Churchill.  This figure double-counts bears seen on both days.  Toward the end of our tour Stu advised us that, although normally he would have expected us to see more than 15 bears, we were lucky because we had witnessed interesting interactions between some of the bears.  In particular, we had been fortunate to see one group of three sub-adult males mock wrestling with one another for an extended period.  Kelsey referred to these bears as "the Scrappy Brothers" or "the Scrappies."  Sometimes these wrestling bears even stood up on their hind legs briefly while trying to bite and paw one another.

We also saw polar bears sun themselves while lying around on kelp beds.  In fact, sometimes they even gnawed on the kelp itself.  We watched as one polar bear swam out into Hudson Bay.  Unusually, that bear captured a duck, which was consumed on the spot.

Polar bears which happen to wander into the town of Churchill are darted, put into wheeled tubular cages fitted with trailer hitches, and then held in an old aircraft hangar for up to a month until they are transported back out onto the tundra far from town.  While in captivity in what is known locally as the " polar bear jail", the animals are given access to water or snow but not to food.  The idea behind this form of tough love is to provide the bears with a negative memory of their contact with man so that they will not be inclined to return.

In addition to bears, our tour group spotted caribou, Arctic hare, snowy owl, ptarmigan and raven on the tundra in the vicinity of Churchill.  Stu said that our caribou sighting was only the second of the season. 

The cheapest weekend polar bear adventure package is priced at about USD 1,400 per person in double and features round trip airfare between Winnipeg and Churchill, Manitoba, two days of sightseeing in a tundra buggy with lunch, and one night at a hotel in Churchill.  With the meals in Churchill which are not included in the package, additional pre- and post-tour hotel accommodation and meals in Winnipeg plus round trip airfare from the U. S., the total price of a polar bear adventure tour is likely to run to USD 2,000 or more from the U. S.

ABOUT TED COOKSON:  Egypt's most widely-traveled travel agent, Ted has been to every country in the world!  He has also visited 307 of the 315 destinations on the list of the Travelers' Century Club (visit and refer to World Travel Club).  A travel agent in Cairo since 1986, Ted manages EGYPT PANORAMA TOURS, a full-service travel agency, at 4 Road 79 (between Roads 9 and 10, near the "El Maadi" metro station) in Maadi.  Contact Egypt Panorama Tours (open 7 days a week 9 AM-5 PM) at:  Tels. 2359-0200, 2358-5880, 2359-1301.  Fax 2359-1199.  E-mail:  Web site:


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