A bear landscape: Tom Breathnach takes a trip of a lifetime to magical Manitoba

"800 polar bears migrate through its environs each summer, when their unique sea ice habitat melts, and they await the next winter’s big freeze"
A bear landscape: Tom Breathnach takes a trip of a lifetime to magical Manitoba

Up close with a polar bear on a Manitoban adventure. Pic: Frontiers North Adventures/Michelle Valberg

I’m sitting in an airport hotel in Winnipeg, Manitoba, being briefed on the red-flag importance of, what else, but polar bear safety. It may seem a little alarmist but this is pretty much common sense-101 when travelling to the town dubbed 'The Polar Bear Capital of the World'.

“If you do encounter a polar bear walking around Churchill, remove yourself from the situation as soon as possible,” my Frontiers North Adventures guide, Duane Collins, advises our all-ears group as we prepare to set off. We’re embarking on their one-week Conservation Journey to Churchill to experience one of the world’s most beloved animals up close — but not too personal. And Duane’s advice is chillingly clear: “Get into the nearest car, building, or even someone’s home if you have to; people won’t think anything of it up in Churchill!”. In Canada’s subarctic, it really is a case that reality bites.

I’d found myself in Manitoba, one of Canada’s lesser-explored provinces, on my ultimate wanderlust mission. For my first overseas trip since the pandemic, I wanted to embark on a meaningful adventure and with life feeling a little shorter now than it had done pre-Covid, my all-time dream trip was calling 'carpe diem'. Ever since the dawn of Wikipedia, I’d been fascinated by the town of Churchill and its famed ursine residents. 

800 polar bears migrate through its environs each summer when their unique sea ice habitat melts and they await the next winter’s big freeze. And for a short window in November, as this Western Hudson Bay subpopulation of the species instinctively converges on the coast, Churchill becomes the best place in the world to view polar bears.

Following that memorable airport debrief, my trip takes off with a dawn flight from Manitoba’s adventure gateway of Winnipeg to far-flung Churchill. It’s a two hour haul northwards which sees me flying across the province’s vast boreal forests before they finally white flag to the unforgiving subarctic climes of the mighty Hudson Bay. Few landscape features mark my arrival in this vast tundra desert that stretches all the way to Alaska, so rather unceremoniously, I finally touchdown in my Churchill dream.

Polar bears on the tundra in Manitoba. Pic: Travel Manitoba
Polar bears on the tundra in Manitoba. Pic: Travel Manitoba

Home to just 900 human residents, Churchill is a lonesome frontier, cut off from the rest of Canada but for its airport and a temperamental train line which demands a two-and-a half-day transit from Winnipeg. Settled by Inuit ancestors a millennium ago and first discovered by Europeans in the 1600s, today the town acts as a significant grain port in Canada with an emerging beluga whale, Northern Lights and polar bear tourism scene. It’s a frigid and unforgiving town but not without its quirks: where else would you see a snowmobile deal in the local supermarket?

I’d be spending five days in the Churchill region with our first stint spent 'downtown' to acclimatise to polar bear capital culture.

First up, and just a few minutes' jaunt from the airport sits the Churchill Holding Facility better known locally as, yes, Polar Bear Jail. It’s in this former military morgue where rogue polar bears who wander into Churchill are held for a month, without food, before being released back to the wilderness. “The reason for this extended captivity is to give bears a negative association with humans,” Duane explains. 

“There’s even a highly effective polar bear alert hotline run by the Department of Natural Resources with a response to capture time of just minutes”. As a consequence, the last human attack in Churchill occurred in 2013 when a woman was ambushed walking home from a Halloween party. She survived but like all human encounters, it rarely ends well for the bear.

Other tourist attractions in Churchill include the Itsanitaq Museum — a one-room exhibit hall of Inuit artefacts, Wapusk Adventures, an indigenous husky sledding outfitter teeming with rescue dogs. But the true highlight is the interpretative centre, Polar Bears International House. PBI as it's known is an official partner of Frontiers North and the world’s only polar bear focussed non-profit and a team of their scientists would be joining us on our tundra trip. Even a portion of our tour fees is donated to their projects; a small token to thaw my flygskam (flight shame) for taking three flights to get here.

A mural in downtown Churchill
A mural in downtown Churchill

Churchill’s urban edge in our rear view, we next bus out to the fringes of Churchill’s road system where, at an arm-guarded depot, we make our transfer aboard the infamous Tundra Buggy. The Tundra Buggy, a robust tundra-tackling safari vehicle which is the driving force behind polar bear tourism since the 1980s with Frontiers North just launching their first electric evolution of the vehicle.

Aboard it, we wind through former military trails deep into the tundra, the lights of Churchill, now like a relative Toronto, dimming in the distance. By twilight, our headlights are hitting the snow as a supporting cast of tundra fauna dapple in dusk; we encounter a snow goose, a ptarmigan and even a curious red fox whose range we learn is moving increasingly northwards as the climate tempers. Two hours later, we reach promisingly named Polar Bear Point where we reverse park into our base, Tundra Buggy Lodge. Uniquely, and for safety, I would not be touching terra firma for the next three days.

The Tundra Buggy Lodge, essentially a row of stationary carriages, functions as polar bear-viewing hotel and spans two sleeper wagons, a lounge, as well as a panoramic diner should Aurora Borealis put on a show. It’s a simple but toasty lodge affair and I’m joined by an all-North American mix of two dozen fellow travellers. Bunking down around me are a family from Alberta and no other than Dr. Steve Amstrup, the charismatic Chief Scientist with PBI who would be joining us on the trip.

An early night is on the cards ahead of tomorrow’s viewing but with my weekly Irish Examiner column to file, I retire to the lounge to revel in the ultimate remote work location. It’s here, alone in the carriage, that incredibly, a massive male polar bear emerges from the scrub, and nonchalantly lumbers the moonscape leaving dinner place. My breath (and deadline) is stopped in its tracks. They don’t call this Polar Bear Point for nothing.

Aurora Borealis: the splendour of the Northern skies. Pic: Travel Manitoba
Aurora Borealis: the splendour of the Northern skies. Pic: Travel Manitoba

For three days, we venture out for all-day viewing shifts on the tundra wilderness — the previous night’s sighting proving just a teaser. On our first morning, no sooner had our tundra buggy cranked a few gears beyond the lodge than one…two…three polar bears, denning down in the willows, came into view. Two of the bears, young males, begin to spar, typical behaviour at this time of year as bears warm up for winter on the ice. But that’s becoming an increasingly longer warm up. “Because of declining sea ice, these bears are having to spend about a month longer on shore compared to about 30 years ago,” Dr. Steve tells me. “That not only means more time that they’re food-deprived but also they’ve now less time on the sea ice to hunt those calorie-rich seals”.

We experience a documentary’s worth of fascinating polar bear behaviour, from territorial tussles between yearling cubs to playing, foraging — and much napping. But life on the tundra is harsh. One wearied male we encounter is approached by a dominant male just outside our buggy as we’re warned we may be about to witness a kill. In this instance, the dominant male moves on, but our guide Duane offers the tough reminder that “no polar bear ever dies peacefully in their sleep”. “There is a chance this bear may make it to the freeze,” he adds “but I don’t imagine he’ll survive long beyond winter”.

Back at the lodge, evenings are spent dining on delicious Manitoban fare, polar bear viewing and enjoying wildlife presentations. Not least Dr. Steve chatting to us about the stark future facing global polar bear populations. “If we continue on our current path of our greenhouse emissions, we project polar bears to disappear in the wild within a century,” is his stark take. “However, if we tackle lowering our reliance on fossil fuels and meet our Paris Accord targets, we can still stabilise global temperatures enough to safeguard the polar bears’ habitat…and our own”.

A lone polar bear traverses the tundra. Picture: Frontiers North Adventures/Neil Mumby
A lone polar bear traverses the tundra. Picture: Frontiers North Adventures/Neil Mumby

It’s a sobering, if hopeful, take-home message as just outside those same three polar bears continue to conduct their sparring as an Arctic fox pops into the scene under a gentle whirr of Aurora Borealis. In this most incredible land of Churchill, Manitoba, nature sure puts on a spectacle up here. While it can.

  • Get there: Tom travelled to Winnipeg, Manitoba via Toronto with Aer Lingus and Air Canada. Polar bear viewing with Frontiers North Adventures starts from €360 for a day tour to €6,500 for their seven-day Conservation Journey from Winnipeg.
  • For more see, travelmanitoba.com & frontiersnorth.com

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