Journey to the Polar Bear Capital
See the great white bears up close
in the Canadian province of Manitoba
By Alan Fox
The tops of my gloves were peeled back to make it possible to use a camera, but after only a few minutes outside the polar rover, the searing pain in my fingers was becoming a distraction. The temperature was -18 degrees, with a wind chill of -30.
Honestly, I was loving every minute of it.
Our guide had spotted a vanilla-colored lump partly buried in fresh snow from a distance of 150 feet, and I had taken a dozen photos without knowing which end was the head and which was the tail. Suddenly, the lump shook and two black eyes and a black nose emerged from the flying powder, pointed directly at our polar rover.
The slumbering polar bear was awake!
All 11 in our group were on the open-air observation deck at the time, and our collective gasps of joy momentarily drowned the clicking of camera shutters. The magnificent animal strolled slowly through the stunted willows that grow on the tundra, keeping an eye on our group, more curious than concerned.
Within minutes, a second polar bear appeared, and then a third and a fourth, animals that seemed to spring from nowhere, having been so well concealed we had not seen them at all. Our excitement boiled over, and our tour guide had to remind us to hold down the racket to see if these beautiful creatures would approach us.
Eventually, one curious bear did just that, ambling by our mobile observation deck and then alongside the polar rover, from one end to the other. Toward the front, the bear stood on his back legs, put his front paws on the rover and looked us over, eye to eye, through windows 10 feet off the ground.
The great white bear seemed utterly nonthreatening and was close enough to touch, though we dared not.
I am writing today from the tiny town of Churchill, Manitoba, a remote outpost on the frozen shores of Canada's Hudson Bay. Churchill cannot be reached by road; we arrived two days ago on a chartered turboprop from Winnipeg.
At this time of year, in the fall, the polar bears in this area outnumber the 900 or so humans. They congregate here for six to eight weeks, waiting for the vast Hudson Bay to freeze over.
The extreme cold spell that hit this week in the middle of November is the best possible news for these animals. Huge sheets of ice are forming along the coast, moving as the wind shifts but growing in size all the while.
Within a few days, all open water will be gone and the ice will be solid enough to support polar bears that can weigh up to 1,500 pounds. The animals will disperse across an ice pack nearly twice the size of Texas to hunt seals, their only significant source of food.
Until that day, this shoreside tundra offers tourists the best odds on Earth of seeing polar bears in the wild.
We are here with an upscale adventure-travel company called Natural Habitat Adventures. The company offers a wide range of eco-friendly nature expeditions and is the largest operator of tours in Churchill, the so-called Polar Bear Capital of the World.
Polar bears are found in five countries -- Canada, Russia, Norway, Greenland and the United States (in Alaska). There are only 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears in existence, and unfortunately most of the 19 subpopulations are declining in size. The U.S. lists the polar bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, while Canada lists the bears as a species of concern.
Polar bears are the largest land carnivores, with adult males reaching 8 to 10 feet from head to toe, and females 6 to 8 feet. Despite their size, they can outrun humans over short distances, reaching speeds of 25 mph.
While the 15 polar bears we have seen seemed almost cuddly, they are dangerous predators and are desperately hungry at this time of year, still living off the seal fat they consumed before the last ice pack melted in July.
The best way to safely see polar bears is in a polar rover, a luxury motor coach on steroids, with massive tires, a triple-wide aisle, a food-service area and a restroom. Built to hold 40 people but limited to 15 by our tour operator, it has more than enough room for everyone to switch sides as needed as we scour the countryside for wildlife.
Our tour included two daytime tundra rides and one nighttime ride that happened on our first evening in Churchill. We boarded the polar rover 45 minutes outside town, turned off our interior lights and lurched slowly across the dark and frozen landscape as our headlights illuminated the falling snow.
We ate dinner in the rover and made our way past the Tundra Lodge, a mobile hotel positioned in prime polar bear territory for two months each year. The Tundra Lodge is a string of four or five attached, rover-size vehicles converted into bedroom, dining and lounge cars. Natural Habitat guests can choose to stay in the Tundra Lodge or in hotels in the town of Churchill. Remote does not begin to describe the setting.
Last night, we were treated to the greatest bonus any sub-Arctic tour can offer, a magical display of Northern Lights. The only hurdle to watching them was the tour rule to stay inside our hotel after dark due to the possibility of polar bears wandering into town.
This is not an unusual occurrence -- four bears have walked through 300-yard-long Churchill since we arrived. When they could not be frightened off with firecrackers by the Bear Alert team, they were darted (tranquilized) and taken to a bear "holding facility" to sleep it off. They will be airlifted by helicopter onto the ice and released as soon as the ice is fully formed.
Despite the warning, we slipped out of the hotel and did our best to photograph the spectacular auroras amid the lights of the village and the numbing cold, with frequent glances over our shoulders.
Tomorrow we leave for Winnipeg and one last night at the lovely and historic Fort Garry Hotel, where we gathered to begin our tour. We'll find the friendly city the way we left it, blanketed in snow and beautifully decorated for Christmas.
Our trip has been handled flawlessly and is accessible to people of all fitness levels. We chose the last week of the season because we actually like extreme weather; it's much warmer here for the start of the season, in October.
I want to thank our brilliant Natural Habitat guide, Leah, a bear expert who has accompanied our group every step of the tour, and all the kind drivers and local folks we met along the way. It has been wonderful to be back in Canada; I've promised myself I won't stay away so long again.
Visiting the Polar Bears of Churchill
Natural Habitat Adventures offers 10 departures of its six-day "Classic Polar Bear Adventure" this year, from Oct. 15 through Nov. 12. Rates start at $5,295 per person and include accommodations in Winnipeg and Churchill, the round-trip flight between those two towns and nearly all meals. Guests spend two days on the tundra with expert guides viewing the polar bears and also enjoy evening presentations on the local culture and wildlife.
A seven-day version of the itinerary also is available, from $5,795 per person. It includes a nighttime excursion to the bears' territory, with dinner aboard the polar rover.
Natural Habitat Adventures also offers safaris in the game parks of eastern and southern Africa, grizzly bear encounters in Alaska, wildlife adventures in Asia, cruises in the Galapagos Islands and a variety of photography expeditions, among other options. To learn more, call Vacations To Go, (800) 680-2858, or check details online.
To view photos from my trip to Churchill, please click here.
The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in March/April 2013. Please visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 680-2858 for current rates and details.