PHOTOS — Off the Beaten Trail: Land of the polar bear

You know a town is remote when it sits at the end of the road, at that point where no other roads lead out from it and you only see vast landscape in front of you.

A wave of green and pale pink streak across the clear night sky above the boreal forest. (Dawn Wilson/Estes Park Trail-Gazette)

Churchill, a small town in northern Manitoba, Canada, is even farther off the beaten path than just at the end of a road; there are zero roads leading to this village on the southwest corner of Hudson Bay.

I love these types of towns. Add a town slogan like “polar bear capital of the world” and I am hooked.

There are only two ways to reach Churchill: by plane or train. The train ride takes more than 45 hours from Winnipeg, barring any issues with weather due to its route along the tundra and permafrost. Although traveling by train is quite a bit cheaper and is the lifeblood for transporting goods into this sub-arctic village, visiting by plane is much easier – only three plane rides over 36 hours. Yes, much easier.

When you finally step off the plane and walk through the small Churchill airport, a remnant of its World War II military days as a U.S. Army base, you are immediately greeted with a sign that welcomes you to polar bear country. The sign also promptly tells you what to always and never do when around these apex predators.

These white bears, and the other arctic animals of the area, are what brought me to this town of less than 1,000 people. Churchill also has a population of just as many polar bears in the fall.

A polar bear looks out from behind a chunk of ice along the coast of Hudson Bay where it tried to escape the harsh winter-like weather. (Dawn Wilson/Estes Park Trail-Gazette)

Seeing polar bears is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity you will truly never forget. They are curious, beautiful and have unfortunately become the poster animal for a dramatically changing world.

From late October through mid-November, polar bears migrate into the Churchill area after spending the summer on land fasting and surviving off the fat reserves they built up the previous winter.

Polar bears prefer to eat ringed and bearded seals. The only way polar bears can access these animals is to hunt them from the ice during the winter. Waiting for the water to freeze on Hudson Bay is the only reason polar bears migrate into Churchill, where the fresh water of the Churchill River freezes into large chunks before flowing into the open salt water of the Hudson Bay.

In more recent years, the ice hasn’t been forming until late November or even early December, a result of our warming climate. This year, however, the ice arrived at its historical average with thick chunks appearing by early November, a great sign of hope for the bears who are eager to start rebuilding their fat reserves. This earlier freeze up gives the bears a couple more weeks on their hunting season.

A red fox jumps high above the snow before coming down to pounce on a potential meal. Dawn Wilson/Estes Park Trail-Gazette

Although the ice wasn’t thick enough during my trip for the bears to completely head out to hunt, enough ice formed to entice the bears to venture beyond the shores of Churchill – and beyond where vehicles could drive.

So even though I saw 29 bears during the weeklong visit, many of them were enjoying the opportunity to be on the ice, making viewing opportunities a little trickier than on my previous trips.

But who can complain when you have even one close encounter with a polar bear?

Of the 29 bears, five of them were mothers with cubs – a set of twins and a single cub. Those special moments of watching mamma bears teaching their young about what to do when waiting for the ice are some of my most precious moments in my wildlife photography career.

One cub imitated mom cleaning her paws, wiping her nose and giving sideways glances back at our group. The cub’s version was just in an upside-down manner. The other two cubs obediently followed in a straight line behind mom as she skirted the edge of the willows to stay out of the wind.

A polar bear cub tries to get a different perspective of the two-legged animals on shore. (Dawn Wilson/Estes Park Trail-Gazette)

Other bears included the three that were enjoying some freedom after being released from the polar bear holding facility, an old military aircraft hangar where “misbehaving” bears are held until the ice forms. A subadult polar bear – a bear that is three to six years old – curiously wandered near the road to see what the two-legged animals were doing. Several other bears cruised along the ice flats at high tide hoping to find a seal in the shallow water.

Beyond the large carnivores, red fox were also seen daily. Arctic fox are more native to this tundra habitat than red fox but climate change, bringing its reduced snowpack and warmer temps, has given the latter species the opportunity to expand their range farther north. This species of fox is also much larger and more aggressive than their white-coated cousins and have taken over much of the habitat near Churchill.

Even the red fox, however, in coat varieties of silver, cross and red, were fun to see as they pounced into the snow to hunt smaller mammals tunneling below.

After an unsuccessful search for snowy owls, five bull moose – all of the northwestern subspecies of moose that can be as much as 20 percent larger than the Shiras subspecies found in Colorado – were spotted along the edge of the spruce forest.

A keen-eyed guide spotted two arctic hares hiding in plain sight on top of some black Precambrian boulders. A first for me to photograph, these hares are about twice the size of Colorado’s local snowshoe hares and are an abundant food source for lynx, red fox, arctic fox, snowy owls and wolves in the Churchill region. A silver fox showed up sniffing the ground within minutes of the hares hopping away.

Although birds are uncommon in fall and winter in northern Canada as most migrate south to escape the harsh winter conditions, one horned lark sat fluffed up on the side of a road. Hopefully he made it safely out of the area. The only other noted birds were redpolls, a cold-loving finch, and lots of ravens.

Besides the time with the polar bears, the highlight of the Churchill trip came on the last evening when the Northern Lights danced across the night sky. Starting as just a faint streak above downtown Churchill, the green and pink colors grew in intensity before being washed away by incoming clouds.

Few places in North America offer the combined experiences of rare arctic wildlife viewing, skies filled with waves of green, and a village rich in Indigenous peoples and European history as that found in Churchill, Manitoba.

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About Pep Dekekr

Pep loves Estes Park, he lives here with his family and hopes to bring people to Estes Park and Estes Park to the people. Along with his wife Paige, they own EstesPark.com.

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