Churchill, located on the west shore of Hudson Bay in northern Manitoba, Canada, easily lives up to its moniker of Polar Bear Capitol of the World. This little town of only about 800 year-round residents lies right in the middle of one of the densest populations of polar bears anywhere.
What Makes Churchill Polar Bears Special
Only about 50 miles south of the town, near the Broad and Owl Rivers, is one of the largest denning areas for the bears in Canada. Large, deep snowdrifts build up on the steep sides of the river banks, making for excellent snow dens for pregnant bear mothers-to-be.
In addition, this area is one of the first to freeze up in the fall along the west side of the bay. The Churchill River, one of Canada’s biggest, empties into Hudson Bay at the townsite, and the normally north-south shoreline takes an abrupt east-west turn, forming Cape Churchill. The enormous amount of brackish water in the river estuary forms ice at a warmer temperature than pure sea water, and the prevailing northwesterly winds then push the ice along the east-west shoreline of Cape Churchill.
Since the bears have been essentially fasting all summer (see Polar Bear Adaptations section), they are eager to head out on the ice for the winter seal hunt, and the Churchill area’s early freeze-up draws the bears like a magnet. While the bears have been ashore in the region all summer, by late September they begin to gather along the shore of Hudson Bay, mostly east of the town of Churchill. Much of this area is part of a provincial wildlife management area and just to the south is one of Canada’s newest national parks, Wapusk National Park.
Prime Viewing Seasons for Churchill Polar Bears
In mid-October, the ponds begin to skim over with thin ice and the first snow falls on a regular basis. This is the start of a very brief, but intensive tourist season. Huge tundra vehicles with enormous tires and seating up to 50 passengers prowl the tundra looking for bears and other Arctic wildlife. This is the preferred means of watching bears, as it not only provides visitors with warm shelter from the cold winter weather, but safety also. Polar bears can stand more than 10 feet tall on their hind legs and these vehicles put visitors just out of reach of inquisitive bears.
The fall season is only a little over a month long, from mid-October to around the third week of November, when Hudson Bay typically begins to freeze in the Churchill area.
However, since the bears are present in the area after they come off the sea ice in June, they can be viewed in the summer as well. In fact, this can be a wonderful time to view them on the flowering tundra and other wildlife and birdlife as well.
For more information about both fall and summer polar bear viewing programs, visit International Wildlife Adventures‘ website page on the Polar Bears of Churchill.