Polar Bears of Churchill Oct 30—Nov 06, 2005

Posted by Bob Sundstrom

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Bob Sundstrom

Bob Sundstrom has led VENT tours since 1989 to many destinations throughout North America, as well as Hawaii, Mexico, Belize, Trinidad & Tobago, Japan, Turkey, Iceland,...

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When our group first arrived in Churchill, Manitoba on Halloween morning of 2005, we were surprised to see the ground free of snow. Snow had been predicted for days here at the southwest corner of Hudson Bay, but little had fallen. That afternoon we got to know the town area a bit, and the group walked a trail near Cape Merry, not far from the town. We nearly walked right up to a huge Arctic hare, conspicuous in its all white winter fur, as it sat among a field of ancient boulders rubbed smooth by glaciers and now covered in orange lichens. The hare seemed to be waiting for snow, waiting for its winter camouflage to arrive.

A few snowflakes began to fall as we went to dinner that night. After dinner, we walked out to two inches of snow on the ground. By morning, a full five inches of fresh snow had dressed the world in white, a color scheme that would apply to a whole range of wildlife we would see in ensuing days. We saw more stately Arctic hares, as well as some smaller snowshoe hares, both all white except for the tips of their ears. We watched an all white Arctic fox hunting in the mounded seaweed of the high tide line of Hudson Bay. The fox leaped into the air several times, coming down sharply on its front paws, hoping to dislodge a rodent from the layers of seaweed. Sights of Willow Ptarmigan were a daily pleasure, all white in their winter feathers, until they flared the black edges of their tails. Snow Buntings were also in their striking winter plumage, with rusty highlights on mostly white bodies. A couple of Snowy Owls perched nearly invisible against the white landscape. And on the last day, as we stopped in the Tundra Buggy to watch a couple of ptarmigan just in front of the vehicle, a new white bird suddenly appeared on the scene, flying at the ptarmigan. The white bird almost stopped in midair with the ptarmigan and a dense row of shrubby willows at its feet, then lifted on long, pointed wings, showing a white breast and dark dappling on a white back: a beautiful adult white-morph Gyrfalcon, perhaps the most magnificent bird of the Arctic.

Of course, the white wildlife celebrities we had come primarily to see were the wondrous polar bears, which concentrate here at this time of year awaiting the freeze-up of Hudson Bay. We didn't even have to go out on the tundra to see our first bear; late the first afternoon, as we were headed back toward the town of Churchill in a van, we had a front row seat for what almost seemed a polar bear rodeo. A big bear had walked in a bit too close to town for the conservation authorities' guidelines and, as we watched from a short distance, two helicopters tried to urge the bear away from town. The polar bear was ultimately sedated via a tranquilizer gun, and packed onto the bed of a truck to be moved away and later released on the sea ice. Our timing was impeccable, as we were able to walk right up to the truck and marvel at the enormous bear, which filled the truck bed to overflowing.

During our days on the Tundra Buggy (special vehicles which traverse the tundra on enormous tires), we had amazing luck and watched sparring, or play-fighting polar bears each day. Two bears, usually young males of at least 500 pounds, would carefully approach one another, sniffing and mouthing one another lightly, then stand and face each other, bear-hugging and wrestling upright, soon to fall to the ground and wrestle like young cubs. After about ten minutes of wrestling, both bears would collapse on the snow or ice to cool down and take a snooze before the next bout of sparring. Camera shutters clicked and clicked during this wonderful study of animals at play, often very close to the Tundra Buggy. A couple of curious bears came right up to the Tundra Buggy, standing up with their dinner-plate-sized paws against the vehicle's side, offering a truly memorable face-to-face view of the world's largest terrestrial carnivore.

Not all the wildlife was white in color, as we also saw Northern Goshawk, King and Common eiders, both Hoary and Common redpolls, bright red male Pine Grosbeaks in contrast with the dark green spruces and white snow, and a very tardy Rusty Blackbird. Adding color one evening was a brilliant display of the Aurora Borealis, sending plumes of green light across the sky. And with surprisingly good amenities for a frontier town, Churchill made a comfortable base for one of the world's foremost wildlife viewing experiences.