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 us 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.
Seriously, I just wanted to cuddle up against that fuzzy bear belly, but we were pretty sure the 1,000-pound fur ball was not in the mood for snuggling. He was hungry too, but not for soup, not for a sandwich, not even for people.
We were in Churchill, Manitoba in November, on the shore of the massive 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 polar bears sit patiently, waiting for a seal to stick his nose up. Then they have their 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 the little town of Churchill, population 800, because of its location on the banks of the Churchill River where it flows into Hudson Bay.
Being smarter than your average bear, these polar bears 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.
A connection to Southern Illinois
Long before I had been no farther from Southern Illinois than Busch Stadium, I knew of Churchill, Manitoba and the polar bears. When I was a little girl, no more than nine or ten years old, a man named Fred Rector sat at our kitchen table in Wolf Lake one night telling about the Churchill polar bears. We listened wide-eyed as he told about the bears just wandering the streets of the town, walking right up to businesses and people, about a polar bear jail and polar bear police.
I remember searching through our sturdy set of encyclopedias to find Churchill, Manitoba. As a farm girl in Southern Illinois, I thought it had to be the most exotic place in the world.
That man, Fred Rector, was a fish and game officer at the Union County Wildlife Preserve. This was in the 1960s, when the preserve was still developing as a winter feeding ground for the nearly 500,000 Canada geese that now spend several months a year in Southern Illinois.
His work at the time required that he follow those geese and one of the places that the geese liked to spend their summers was around the Hudson Bay near Churchill, Manitoba.
So sitting there last fall, just a few feet from one of these powerful, intriguing creatures, was truly a childhood dream fulfilled.
Getting to Churchill, Manitoba
No one accidentally finds themselves in Churchill, Manitoba. There are no roads connecting the town to the rest of the world. It’s either a two-hour flight from Winnipeg, the provincial capital, or a two-day train ride, which runs only twice a week.
So starting your polar bear journey in Winnipeg is a necessity, but an enjoyable one at that. The Winnipeg zoo, officially known as the Assiniboine Park Zoo, is home to the world’s largest polar bear enclosure, with seven of those big bears in captivity.
The exhibit, appropriately called “Journey to Churchill,” prepares you for the landscape and other wildlife you may encounter on the tundra. Snowy owls, arctic foxes and caribou are among the exhibits.
Canada’s native people are rightly protective of their polar bears, so the zoo worked diligently with the northern communities to accept only bear cubs that had been injured or abandoned and otherwise would not have survived on their own.
The two and a half acre exhibit includes a big pool in which the bears play and swim much of the day. Be prepared to squeal and laugh out loud as you watch, through a plexiglass tunnel, the bears’ graceful movements and childlike actions underwater. Put your iPhone down for a minute and just enjoy.
It’s reasonable to spend an entire day at the Assiniboine Park Zoo. Enjoy lunch at the Tundra Grill and watch the polar bears at play. And here’s a tip — buy your polar bear souvenirs here. It’s cheaper than when you get to Churchill and it helps fund the zoo efforts to study and protect these creatures.
Before you leave Assiniboine Park, seek out the Pavilion Gallery Museum and specifically the Pooh Gallery. Here you’ll learn the true story behind another bear named Winnie the Pooh. No, he wasn’t a polar bear, but a real bear nonetheless who came from Winnipeg, Canada.
Polar Bear tours in Churchill
Although the population of Churchill is only 800 people, that soars to several thousand during bear season, roughly September, October and early November. Everybody and their brother offers tours of some kind, based on budget, interests, etc.
We chose Churchill Nature Tours because they’ve been in the business for more than 40 years and hire wildlife biologists and other specialists to lead their tour. Our guide was Patrick Rousso, a former warden for Parks Canada, whose stories about bear encounters over the years was the stuff of Daniel Boone escapades.
We had just left the Churchill airport on our way into town when we saw our first bear lumbering down the road in our direction. We watched for a while in amazement before heading on to the shore of Hudson Bay.
Signs all around the beach area warned of the potential for polar bears in nearby rocks. Just as we spotted a big white blob swimming a few hundred yards from shore, the polar bear police pulled up beside us.
Yes, polar bear police. They patrol 24 hours a day in Churchill doing their best to keep the streets and people on them clear of curious polar bears. There’s a polar bear jail, too. Barney Fife would be so impressed.
As the swimming bear got closer, the police fired off a “banger,” basically a shotgun loaded with firecrackers. It doesn’t hurt anything but makes enough noise to scare the bear. And sure enough, he turned around and swam in the other direction.
But we would see that same bear later in the day.
After lunch at Gypsie’s, the most popular restaurant in Churchill, we took a helicopter ride where we saw dozens of polar bears just a few miles out of town. It was a bright, sunny day and a little warm for this area in November, so the bears were doing their best to stay cool and burrow into the little snow that had fallen.
As our helicopter swung around over Hudson Bay, we saw a big white blob moving through the water about a mile from shore. Upon closer inspection, we realized it was the same bear that we had seen swimming about three hours earlier. Adult polar bears can swim up to 100 miles without a break.
The next morning was our first of two days watching polar bears in their natural habitat. We boarded a vehicle that everyone calls a “tundra buggy,” but technically, ours was not. Tundra Buggy is a trademarked term owned by another company.
Ours was an oversized school bus of sorts, but so much more comfortable than any school bus I ever rode. The aisles were wide, the individual seats comfortable with tray tables and plenty of leg room. We had our own bathroom and best of all, a big viewing platform on the back that allowed great visibility of polar bears.
And they were everywhere! A momma and her cub nuzzled around the tires of our tundra bus, so close that if our guide, Rousso, hadn’t prohibited us from putting the windows down, I could have patted momma on the head. Rousso would not let us out on the viewing platform when the bears were that close.
The nature of Polar Bears
As we moved through the tundra, Rousso helped us better understand the creatures we were watching, one of the newest species on earth. Their DNA is identical to a grizzly bear, but all polar bears can be traced back to one Irish brown bear.
Here’s something I bet you didn’t know — polar bears have joints in their noses. They can be looking at you and without moving their head, turn their nose up to 90 degrees to sniff out what might be coming from another direction.
We had so many favorite moments during our five days in Churchill, but the one that literally took my breath away was one afternoon when we saw two big males, easily 1,000 pounds each, up on their hindquarters fighting with each other. Their growl turned to a roar so powerful that the surface beneath my feet shuddered.
But Rousso 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 their muscle mass necessary to pull a 200-pound seal out of the water in one fell swoop.
If you watch closely, polar bears are pigeon-toed. That’s because their front paws are turned in slightly, allowing them a bit more leverage when scooping that seal out of its ice hole.
Rousso is married to an Inuit woman, so during our time together, he offered a fascinating insight into the Inuit culture and history. One tidbit that he offered that has stayed with me is the respect the Inuit people have 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.