Playing with Polar Bears in Churchill Manitoba 4

One of the most accessible places in the world to see polar bears is straight north of Kansas City

After a busy morning of activities, out and about exploring, we finally stopped for lunch. A big bowl of warm soup and hearty sandwich hit the spot on a cold blustery day.

But we were being watched.

It was hard to concentrate on food with such dark, calculating eyes staring you down from just a few feet away.

Finally, we gave up. Letting our soup grow cold, once again, we dropped the windows on the tundra bus, letting sub-Arctic wind blow through us as we snapped pictures and got just a few inches closer to an adorably cuddly, yet colossally huge male polar bear.

We were in Churchill, Manitoba on the shore of Hudson Bay waiting for the winter freeze up. That’s the only time polar bears eat – when the bay has frozen solid and ringed seals poke holes in the ice so they can come up for air. The bears sit patiently, waiting for a seal to stick his nose up. Then he has lunch.

Polar bears spend most of their summer out on the tundra just lazing about in seaweed to keep cool, burning as little energy as possible. From the spring thaw to the winter freeze-up, they don’t eat, living off of their fat from a winter of hunting seals.

But as winter approaches, the bears start heading toward Churchill, because of its location on the banks of the Churchill River where it flows into Hudson Bay. They know that where the fresh water from the river flows into the salt water of the bay will freeze first. And that’s where they’ll get their first meal in a long, long time.

Life in Churchill

Although fewer than 900 people live in Churchill year-round, the population soars to several thousand during bear season, roughly September, October and early November.  We saw our first bear within 10 minutes of landing at the airport – a big guy slowly lumbering down the road like nobody’s business.

Another day, a mom and her cub ran out in the road right in front of us. They were being chased by the polar bear police. Seriously – Churchill employs polar bear police that patrol 24 hours a day this time of year. They carry shotguns loaded with firecrackers, which create a heck of noise that scares the bears. And they carry guns loaded with more than firecrackers, as well as guns loaded with tranquilizers. One morning, the polar bear police would not let us leave our hotel lobby because a polar bear was standing in the street about a block away. The firecrackers were going off like July 4th.

Of our four days in Churchill, we spent two watching bear out on the tundra. And they were everywhere! A momma and her cub nuzzled around the tires of our tundra bus, so close that if our guide Patrick hadn’t prohibited us from putting the windows down, I could have patted momma on the head.

We had so many favorite moments, but the one that literally took my breath away was one afternoon when we saw two big males, easily 1,000 pounds each, on their hindquarters fighting with each other. Their growls turned to roars so powerful that the ground beneath my feet shuddered.

But Patrick explained that they weren’t really fighting – that would come later out on the ice during mating season. At this point, after a lazy summer of doing nothing, the bears were simply sparring, a good-natured effort to re-build the muscle mass necessary to pull a 200-pound seal out of the water in one fell swoop. 

Patrick is married to an Inuit woman, so during our time together, he offered fascinating insight into the Inuit culture and history. The Inuit people, he told us, have respect for all living creatures, but especially the polar bear. They consider the “nanuck” an almost human creature with great powers that should be treated with reverence and respect.

And now that we’ve been to Churchill and experienced polar bears in their own habitat, I get what the Inuit are talking about. They have my respect and my adoration.