Each year, way up in the north of Canada - 1,500 kilometres north of Winnipeg, Manitoba - Churchill welcomes throngs of tourists and polar bears.

Churchill seems to have no other purpose than to be invaded by bears and tourists every autumn. There’s a ten to one ratio of 15,000 tourists for 1,500 bears and they all have to share the town with its thousand residents. Bears share the same reason for choosing to spend time in Churchill as its early settlers: the Churchill River. The town is built along its banks at the spot where the river flows into the Hudson Bay to form a cove that proved to be the ideal port of call for Her Majesty’s three-masters. While people settled here for the commerce, the bears come for the meals. The river’s fresh water freezes more quickly than the salt water of the Bay, providing them with early ice floes from which to participate in their favourite sport: hunting for ringed seals.

Polar bears have a different rhythm to brown bears and hibernate in summer. Come October, after fasting for four long months, they are famished and dreaming of only one thing: a delicious dinner! Checking out rubbish bins, entering kitchens, chasing after dogs - or tourists - doesn’t daunt them, as they are used to winning every contest. Everyone is therefore very, very careful to heed the instructions given by Rangers and to keep to the middle of the road so as to avoid surprises.

It’s against the law to lock the front door of a house in Churchill. If you find yourself face to face with a bear, you’re supposed to enter the first house you see without knocking. It happens, particularly at night or early morning when visitors leave their hotel to have breakfast at Gypsy, the town’s best eatery. An adrenaline rush is guaranteed, but ‘accidents’ are few and far between thanks to the efficiency of the open-door policy.

Near the airport there’s a prison for wayward bears, the Polar Bear Jail, which tourists visit as soon as they arrive. Rangers lock up the polar bears that arrive before the ice floes have formed and wander too close to the buildings in town. They catch them with harmless traps but don’t feed them; many polar bears would probably turn themselves in at the thought of being fed in jail.

Tripping and trapping

Trappers and Native Americans used to canoe along the 1,600 km long Churchill River, bringing hides and pelts and leaving with boats filled with provisions. The Bay was also accessed via the 2,575km long Nelson River, a waterway flowing north out of Lake Winnpeg which is fed by tributaries such as the Saskatchewan, Rouge and Assiniboine Rivers. The Hudson’s Bay Company built forts along these rivers which later became modern cities such as Winnipeg and Edmonton.

Cargo filled ships sailing into Prince of Wales Fort from Europe would be unloaded and laden with furs before then heading back to The Old World via the Arctic Ocean. Thus the Hudson’s Bay Company, founded in 1670, made its fortune in the fur trade. The Bay department stores, prominent throughout Canada, are its most recent descendents.

Prince of Wales Fort, a remnant of the trapping era, still watches over the mouth of the Churchill River at Cape Merry, but you can’t explore the area alone and unarmed due to the polar bears that roam the area. As soon as tourists step off the plane or train, guides will tell them that the polar bear has no sense of humour. Bother one during its nap or, worse still, wake it up from a late morning snooze, and you could lose your head, literally, from a surly swipe of the paw. Never turn your back on one, it will jump you; don’t run, it will see you as prey; don’t look one in the eye, it will take it as an insult. That's why tourists move in clusters, protected by an armed Ranger, which contributes to local folklore and to the indispensable trepidation which makes every step exciting. A simple stroll along the Bay becomes a daring feat when polar bears might burst forth at any given moment.

Bear boogie in the buggy

The adventure begins at Winnipeg. The package, as well-regulated as a metronome, begins with a tour of the town by school bus. The impressive rifle, mounted like a trophy above the driver’s head, acts as a reminder of the polar bear’s power. The most fearsome of land carnivores, a male can weigh up to 800 kg with an average weight of 450-600 kg. Females are half as big. Born with an incredibly developed sense of smell, bears are aware of the presence of prey up to 30 km away! Excellent swimmers and sprinters (they peak at 50 km/hour), polar bears are surprisingly nimble on firm ground, even if they generally amble slowly and tire quickly. Best not try to outrun one.

The afternoon features a helicopter ride above the boggy tundra which will soon freeze over. The goal, obviously, is bear-spotting, but we travel at a safe distance so as not to disturb them. Look there! A bear in the water! As cameras whirr and snap, another big fellow trots off, annoyed by the noisy metallic insect hovering above. After an hour or so, the helicopters land for a few minutes in Nunalla at the edge of the federal territory of Nunavut. The pilots bring along their guns: you never know. When the helicopters have flown off, the steppe once again becomes the domain of caribou and muskoxen.

One of Churchill’s attractions is the Tundra Buggies, big white, lorry-like, all-terrain vehicles mounted on gigantic tyres - polar bears can reach three metres when standing on their hind legs! These heated buggies with exterior viewing platforms offer day trips around Cape Churchill to tourists with high hopes of spotting bears. In three days of Buggy travel, you’re likely to spot at least a dozen bears. Drowsy with the heat (it’s -3° C), some of them are lumbering about, others are sleeping, often striking curious poses. Quite a few are bold enough to approach the buggy and beg for scraps, though it’s completely against the rules to feed them anything. Around a bend you may spy arctic hares and foxes, but they won’t be taking the time to chat: knowing all too well that predators are roaming nearby...

Practical information

Canadian Tourism Commission
www.canada.travel
 
Travel Manitoba
www.travelmanitoba.com

Canada: Grin and polar bear it!

The author

Pierre-Brice Lebrun

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The tourist attractions mentioned

Winnipeg Art Gallery
Winnipeg Art Gallery
Winnipeg
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Legislative Building
Legislative Building
Winnipeg
0:30
Royal Canadian Mint (Winnipeg)
Royal Canadian Mint (Winnipeg)
Winnipeg
1:30