Two and a half weeks with Polar Bears

Nov 15, 2023

For the fifth consecutive year, I traveled to Churchill, Manitoba, the self-proclaimed Polar Bear Capital of the World. This annual pilgrimage has taken on extra meaning as my connection with this remote Arctic town deepens with each passing year. Churchill’s unique blend of natural beauty, community, and wildlife encounters has captivated my imagination, and provided incredible moments that will stay with me forever.

Polar bears gather in Churchill due to its strategic location along the western coast of Hudson Bay. With the meeting of multiple rivers and other geological factors, it is one of the first places where the sea ice becomes accessible. This sea ice is essential for polar bears as it provides them with the opportunity to hunt seals, their primary food source.

In the span of two and a half awe-inspiring weeks, my three groups were treated to a spectacle of polar bear encounters that exceeded any I had witnessed before. From the heartwarming sight of nursing cubs to the playful interactions between ravens and polar bears, and the intense drama of mothers asserting their dominance over intruding males — we experienced so many captivating moments.

Nature, however, held no reservations, and subjected us to extreme weather conditions. We endured gale force winds for two consecutive days that tested our fortitude, with blowing snow engulfing our lenses in mere moments. Yet, during the latter part of the expedition, we also experienced some of the most exquisite golden light I had ever seen, which provided a vivid contrast to the challenges we had weathered earlier. The Arctic sun, low on the horizon, bathed the landscape in a warm, golden glow, casting long shadows across the tundra.

By November 6, a mesmerizing transformation was almost complete on the vast canvas of the Hudson Bay. The sea ice, non-existent a few days earlier, extended almost as far as the eye could see. That day we had numerous bear sightings, though almost always from a great distance as the bears ventured far out to test the ice. Yet, the following dawn brought a dramatic twist to this frozen tale. A shift in the wind’s ballet, veering from the north to the south, prompted a strong southward gust that swept away the meticulously assembled sea ice. The polar bears, at the mercy of these elemental forces, had no recourse but to retreat reluctantly to the shore, resuming their patient vigil for the sea ice to sculpt its frozen embrace once again. The last I heard, they are still patrolling the shoreline and eagerly awaiting for the sea ice to form.

In addition to the majestic polar bears, the foxes in Churchill provided us with great entertainment. Churchill is home to two types of foxes: the red fox, which comes in three different color variations, and the Arctic fox. Luckily, we had the chance to see multiple foxes every day, and the Arctic fox treated us to a special show on our very last day. Their agile movements and beautiful features added an extra layer of wonder and excitement to our Arctic adventure.

During our last week, the clouds finally broke and the night sky was transformed by the aurora borealis. Nature bestowed upon us a mesmerizing show, as the northern lights painted the darkness with vivid hues of emerald, casting an otherworldly glow that stretched across the icy horizon. For some of my guests, this was their first time seeing this amazing display of cosmic wonder.

Over the years, my purpose for returning to Churchill has evolved beyond the thrill of witnessing majestic polar bears in their natural habitat. It has become a quest for a deeper understanding of polar bears and the fragile ecosystems that define the North. It also serves as a call to action, motivating me to share my experiences and advocate for the preservation of these amazing bears. The challenges faced by polar bears — from the impacts of climate change to the delicate coexistence between humans and wildlife — underscore the urgency of our collective responsibility to safeguard our planet.

As I bid farewell to Churchill’s polar bears for the fifth time, I carry with me not just memories of extraordinary wildlife encounters and three amazing new groups of friends, but a profound sense of duty to be a voice for polar bears and advocate for their future.