Step 1: Go to Churchill in Canada between October and November
Step 2: Take a Polar Rover out onto the tundra of the Churchill Wildlife Management Area
Step 3: Spot a polar bear!
Step 4: Read about my polar bear spotting experience below
Churchill is a town located in the far north of Manitoba in Canada. It sits on Hudson Bay and is smack bang in the middle of the polar bears annual migration path. Every year the polar bears gather in Churchill in October and November as they wait for Hudson Bay to freeze over and seal hunting season to start. This makes Churchill one of the worlds bet destinations to view polar bears earning it the appropriate title of “polar bear capital of the world”.
There are only two ways to access Churchill by plane or train. If you’ve got a time limit a flight is really your only option and it’s an expensive one at that. But if you’ve got a bit of time up your sleeve the train is a fantastic way to access Churchill. It’s a long, painstakingly slow journey but the scenery is incredible and the seats are comfortable. If you catch the train from Winnipeg its going to take you about 36 hours but if you’ve got a car and don’t mind a bit of a roadtrip you can drive a further 7 hours from Winnipeg and knock 20 hours off your train trip making it a 16 hour journey. Since Ryan and I had already roadtripped 3 days and nearly 2000 kms from his home in Ontario an extra 7 hours on the road didn’t seem like that big a deal.
We made the decision to catch the train from Thompson and booked the tickets before we’d done any research on the town of Thompson itself where we would need to spend the night before boarding our train. A quick google search looking for accomodation kindly informed us that Thompson is the crime capital of Canada! This had us both a little concerned but thankfully we didn’t have any problems. We also read that people who park their cars at the train station often return to find their cars with broken windows so Ryan decided to park the car at the nearby town hall in the hope it would be safe there. Then we boarded our overnight train bound for Churchill.
16 hours is a fair bit of time to kill when you’re confined in a train carriage so entertainment is a must. Ryan and I burned a fair bit of time watching all 10 episodes of “Stranger Things” and spent the rest of the time snoozing and watching the Northern Lights make magic in the sky outside the train window. Yes you read that right I got to see the Northern Lights!!!! And I was so freaking excited I even let out a little scream. I’d looked into it and generally we were too early to see the Northern Lights, we were heading to Churchill in October and the Northern Lights aren’t usually visible until December/ January but I watched them for about 2 hours in all their beautiful glowing glory right outside the train window!!!! I still can’t believe it!
We arrived in Churchill to a chilly -7 degrees with the wind chill making it feel a whole lot colder than that! We headed to the Bear Country Inn to check in and dump our bags before doing a bit of exploring. To our horror when we told the lady at the desk the name for our booking she had record of it, we looked up our confirmation email and showed it to her and she kindly informed us that that email was not from the Bear Country Inn in Churchill. Turns out we’d booked our accomodation at the Bear Country Inn in British Columbia… I’m not going to name any names BUT Ryan might have been in charge of booking this hotel. This was not good, we’d just arrived in Churchill in the middle of polar bear season without an accomodation booking. Everywhere is completely booked out at this time of the year but thankfully the amazing staff at the Bear Country Inn somehow managed to find a spare room for us so we weren’t left homeless in the freezing weather of the sub-arctic town of Churchill!
The hotel staff gave us a pamphlet outlining safety in polar bear country and we headed off for the afternoon to explore the town, there’s not a real lot to do in Churchill but we wandered through the little streets and headed down to take a look at Hudsons Bay, we were very careful to keep an eye out for polar bears that could be hiding just out of sight.
Polar bears are the largest land carnivores in the world, they possess superior hunting skills and the ability to run at 40km/h, basically they’re the ultimate predator and you do not want to find yourself in the path of one who’s been waiting months for a meal. In Churchill people don’t lock their cars or house doors, this is in case someone finds themselves in a sticky situation with a polar bear, they have to be able to escape to the closest shelter and if doors are locked they’d be in pretty big trouble. I’d read about all of these things before visiting Churchill and I found it all quite amusing but as soon as you arrive you realise how serious all of it is! There’s even a polar bear jail! Polar bear jail is for repeat offenders, polar bears who keep hanging around the same spot close to humans day after day. The polar bears are hungry and if they continue to hang around near people the risk of an attack is very high. So the staff of the Polar Bear Alert Program will try a capture the bear and confine him to the polar bear jail until the ice of Hudsons Bay has frozen. This might sound cruel but the polar bears that are straying into Churchill are doing so because they are waiting for the ice to freeze. So whether they’re waiting in jail or lying on the ground waiting, they’re still just waiting. The minute the ice freezes the bears are let out of jail and they head straight for the ice without causing any more trouble for the town.
Your best chance of spotting a polar bear in the wild is to head to the Churchill Wildlife Management Area in a “Polar Rover”. There are only two companies in Churchill that have access to this area; Great White Bear Tours and Frontiers North. The tours are a bit pricey at around $500 AUD per person for a day but don’t try and cheap out and book someone with a lower price because they probably don’t have access to the wildlife management area and there really is no better place to come face to face with these majestic creatures.
Ryan and I chose to go with Great White Bear Tours and we were picked up from our accomodation at 6am to head for the polar rover launch site. We were lucky that on the day we booked the tour wasn’t full so we had lots of room to spread out in the polar rover and everyone was able to have a window seat. Once we were all loaded we ploughed our way out onto the tundra, these rovers pretty much act as an ice breaker when you’re the first ones out in the morning, its awesome!
Probably about 45 minutes in and we spotted our first polar bear!!!! It was a “long distance bear” really only visible through binoculars but still a real life wild polar bear right in front of my eyes! Luckily not much further on we spotted one a little closer, one that was actually visible to the naked eye! Excitement overload! I let out another one of my screams of excitement as we slowly approached this gorgeous creature chilling out on some ice. We stayed for quite a while watching him before we moved on to see another one that had been spotted a little further on. This guy was a clown! I swear he was actually doing sit ups for us! And when he’d had enough clowing around he got up and wandered right over to another nearby polar rover, I’ve got to say I was pretty jealous that they got to get so close to him! Our driver decided that since this guy had drawn quite a crowd, 3 other polar rovers, we would head back to the first bear we saw to stop and have lunch.
I should mention quickly you don’t ever get off the polar rover, we are onboard the whole time! We parked near our polar bear friend and got stuck into lunch, a delicious hearty vegetarian stew for me and it was a welcome bit of warmth since I’d started to lose some of the feeling in my hands, it was a freezing cold day! It seemed as though the polar bear had smelt our lunch cooking so he decided to wander over to get a closer look! We all headed out onto the deack at the back and HE CAME RIGHT UP TO OUR ROVER and I swear he looked me right in the eyes, he probably wanted to eat me! He jumped up and put his front paws on the rover and then he spent some time sniffing our feet through the grate that we were standing on. We were so close to him, it was absolutely incredible! He would have hung around for at least half an hour, curiously watching us before he sauntered off to have an afternoon snooze.
We went and saw one last polar bear that just layed there and did nothing the whole time, he was a big guy though, the biggest we’d seen and he was obviously just waiting and conserving his energy for when the ice did freeze over. Sadly we then headed in as out day on the polar rover with Great White Bear Tours had come to an end.
On our final day in Churchill we headed out for a tour of Churchill with John senior, John Senior is the father of John Junior who is the owner of our accomodation The Bear Country Inn. John took us in his ute to see the sights of Churchill. First stop Cape Mary Peninsular where we had an intersting chat with National Park Ranger, she gave us an insight into the history of Churchill and helped spot some beluga whales and a harbour seal.
Next stop, Miss Piggy, a crashed freight plane that crashed soon after departing Churchill in 1979. No one was killed in the accident. We then visited an old rocket launcher site and the Northern Studies Centre before we started to head back into town. On our way we spotted a tour bus pulled over so we went to see what they were looking at. It looked like a rock but turned out to be a mum and cub! Best day ever!!! We hung around for a while before heading into town so we could make our train that evening.
And just like that I got to tick off one of my ultimate bucketlist items! See Polar Bears in the wild: done!
This video features my polar bear experience and the epic road trip it took to get there!