Dubbed the “Polar Bear Capital of the World,”Churchill, Manitoba in northern Canada is where you’ll find the world’s largest concentration of polar bears in the wild. Adventure travel writer Julia Dimon, from the blog www.traveljunkiejulia.com, journeys to the shores of Hudson Bay for a unique walking expedition with the illusive polar bear.
Snarling winds and frosty temperatures test the will of our group, as we waddle in our snow pants single file across the barren landscape of the frozen Canadian tundra. Our collective curiosity brought us just below the Arctic Circle, to a remote fly-in lodge. Our mission was simple: find polar bears. Our tools? A keen eye, a team of well-trained guides, a pocket full of hand warmers and hope.
Churchill, Manitoba: The Polar Bear Capital of the World
(Check out this video I shot when in Churchill about my encounter with the polar bears on this wild arctic adventure)
It is here, just outside Churchill, Manitoba in northern Canada where you’ll find the world’s largest concentration of polar bears in the wild. Churchill is just a blip on a world map – a tiny frontier town of some 1,000 residents- but due to its unique congregation of indigenous animals, it’s become known as the “Polar Bear Capital of the World.” Every year an estimated 1200 polar bears migrate to the shores of Hudson Bay. Native to the area, the bears hungrily wait for the ice to freeze so they can move out and hunt for food. This annual migration (best observed in October and November) gives international tourists, photographers and scientists the chance to spot the world’s largest land carnivore in her natural habitat.
Like the thousands before me, I too traveled to the shores of Hudson Bay, eager to see the illusive polar bear. While there are many ways to experience and interact with these creatures, I decided to join up with an adventure tour company called Churchill Wild. Churchill Wild is the only polar bear viewing company in the world that hosts walking expeditions with polar bears. Walking with polar bears offers a wildly unique point of view. It brings visitors eye level with these magnificent creatures for an intimate appreciation of the bears’ size, strength and speed.
So there I am, just outside Dymond Lake Lodge, freezing my butt off in what would appear to be the middle of nowhere Manitoba, walking around in sub-arctic temperatures on the hunt for polar bears.
Terry, the main guide, and his co-worker Steve, lead our group. The pair is the quintessential Canadian cliché; lumberjack types with grizzly icicle-covered beards, a rifle under each arm and cans of bear spray fashioned to their belts. They scan the landscape for animal activity. “Polar bears tend to be a yellowish color this time of the year, so they stand out in the snow,” explains Terry, peering through a set of black binoculars. “So basically guys, you’re looking for movement. The polar bears are walking up and down the coast looking for food, scavenging this time of the year. It’s our best time to see them,” he says, as we all keep our eyes peeled for masses of yellow fur.
Hours pass. We learn that hunting for the world’s most notorious hunter is hard work.
We walk across some five miles of harsh snowy terrain, occasionally seeing animal tracks or the white tailed ptarmigan pecking around but not one polar bear. Unlike the “tundra buggy” experience (a safari-like all-terrain vehicle that transports tourists overland and can drive straight up to bears for the best possible viewing), walking with polar bear is a more subtle art, requiring a lot of patience and an understanding that there are no guarantees when it comes to bear encounters. These are wild animals after all, and, while rangers do their best to track them, they cannot be corralled or controlled for the public’s viewing pleasure.
And so we walk. As if on cue, to a growing soundtrack of grumbling guests, a polar bear reveals himself. Terry calls out to the group, a wave of excitement washes over the crowd as binoculars are passed around and all point to a moving dot in the distance.
I strain my eyes to find a yellowish blur on the horizon. “He’s going to want to get downwind from us, so he can smell. He’ll know what we had for breakfast last Tuesday. That’s how good their sense of sense of smell is. 30 times better than a blood hound. They can smell food from 40 miles away.” My heart races as the polar bear zig zags across the white plains towards us. It rapidly gains ground and goes from abstract blob to real life bear. It is wild, hungry and coming towards me.
Called the “Lords of the Arctic,” male polar bears can grow to more than 1700 lbs and measure about 7-8 feet long from nose to tip. Polar bears have no natural enemies and consequently no fear. While they may appear cute and cuddly, they are some of the most ferocious animals on the planet. Majestic creatures known for their slow, labored steps, these marine mammals are actually able to gallop as fast as a horse over short distances. The polar bear diet consists mainly of ringed seals – they can eat 100 pounds of blubber in a single sitting – but they are opportunistic eaters who will happily settle for harbor seals, bearded seals, marine life or anything else they might stumble across….hopefully not travel writers in snow pants with limited mobility.
My eyes grow wide, my pulse quickens and time seems to slow down as the polar bear approaches our group. Terry snaps into safety mode and instructs the group to gather round and form a circle. If we look like a larger and more cohesive group, we are less vulnerable to a possible attack.
Walk with Polar Bears in This Canadian Arctic Safari
The bear comes within some 20 feet of our group before stopping to check us out. At this close range, I see the details of his wide webbed paws (natural snowshoes that distribute his weight while walking to prevent sea ice from breaking), each toe with a thick, curved, non-retractable claw. His hair, stiff and shiny, looks more nicotine-stained yellow than white. His snout is marked with black scars, a reminder that beneath all that fur, a polar bears skin is actually black! This fun evolutionary feature enables polar bears to absorb sunlight and keep their bodies warm despite harsh arctic temperatures.
The polar bear lets out a snort, sniffs the air, bobs his head and paces around as if trying to access what kind of land mammal we are and if we would be delicious.
“Polar bear interaction has to do with body language,” Terry explains. “You think about a dog. If a big dog comes up to you and wants to bite you the worst thing you can do is run away. You have to be aggressive with the dog, tell it no. Polar bears are similar. If a bear has his head down, front legs apart, ears forward, staring intently that could indicate aggressive behavior. But most of the time they’re just trying to smell us, but they are always looking for weakness. That’s why we always travel as a group…there’s safety in numbers.”
The bear attempts to move closer to our group but Terry stands his ground, raises his hands above his head and authoritatively calls out “whoa bear, whoa bear…that’s far enough.” He whips a snowball at the bear, again vocalizing not to come any further. You’ve gotta respect any man willing to negotiate land claim issues with a polar bear on his turf.
Miraculously, the snowballs work their magic. Unharmed, the bear concedes his ground, turns around and runs in our opposite direction. Our group is left to bask in the afterglow of an enchanted and completely safe polar bear encounter.
Truly, there nothing quite like standing face-to-face with a large carnivorous marine mammal. It’s a surreal feeling, one that combines the sentiments of wonder, other-worldliness and worry. Here, there are no electric fences to hide behind, no barriers separating man from beast. It’s just you, the bear, the faith you have that the lead guide knows what he’s doing and (pending an emergency situation) is a good shot.
In the safety of the lodge, fueled by hot chocolate and shortbread cookies, Terry would later confess to me that for him, polar bear interactions are always adrenaline rushes but, with years of experience, he’s come to understand polar bear behavior and adjust accordingly. “If you’d told me I’d be throwing snow balls at polar bears for a living, I’d never believe that, but they’re very effective deterrents because polar bears don’t like to be touched.” Beyond snowballs, the guiding team is armed with flare-like noise makers called bangers and screamers, pepper spray and a shotgun. “I’ve never had to fire my gun but every time we’re out there we need to be prepared. Complacency has no place here. You always have to be on your toes and ready to react.”
A conservationist and die-hard environmentalist, Terry believes that man and bear can peacefully coexist as long as there is the foundation of respect.
For tourists like me, a visit to this, the “Polar Bear Capital of the World,” provokes a conversation not only about man’s interaction with polar bears but about man’s impact on nature as a whole.
Polar Bears International, the world’s leading polar bear conservation group, warns that global warming and diminishing sea ice are the greatest threats to the polar bear population. Polar bears depend on sea ice for access to their main prey. As the atmosphere heats up, the sea ice melts and the polar bear habitat is threatened. For polar bears, sea ice loss means: reduced access to food, a drop in body condition, lower cub survival rates and ultimately a declining population. If current global warming trends continue, scientists predict that two-thirds of the world’s polar bear population could disappear by 2050. While it is easy to feel discouraged by these statistics, Polar Bears International shares an online message of optimism: “if greenhouse gas levels continue to rise, polar bears and many other species will perish. But because humans are causing this problem, humans can fix it. Scientists say that time remains to save polar bears if we act soon to greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”
By visiting Churchill and signing up for an immersive polar bear adventure, visitors are sure to come away with a deeper appreciation for the beauty of Canada’s arctic and an overall reverence for the great polar bear. I found that seeing them in their natural habitat fostered a profound respect for these massive creatures, and awakened a desire to protect them.
Julia Dimon is an official Travelocity Gnational Gnomad. Gnational Gnomads is an exclusive group of high-profile travel and lifestyle experts who offer tips and inspiration on behalf of Travelocity. For more information on the Travelocity Gnomads visit TravelocityGnomads.com
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