November 13 – Snow and fog dominated this morning as groups departed for the tundra. By late morning visibility improved greatly, and strong, cold winds came up from the north. The bay has begun to freeze again and some polar bears have moved back onto the ice. One bear near Gordon Point commanded most of the attention from bear watchers, with tundra vehicles taking turns to see it on the ice. Late in the day, a sow and cub were seen walking across on the ice from Halfway Point by a number of vehicles. It was an excellent day for smaller critter sightings including Arctic and red fox, gyrfalcon, Arctic hare and ptarmigan. An impressive sunset finished off the day as groups headed back to town.
Polar bears sparring on the frozen tundra in Churchill. Discover Churchill photo.
November 14 – A big storm blew in from the north. Visibility was limited throughout the day as snow blew sideways. These conditions are always tough for bear viewing and today was no exception. Travelers returned to town having managed to find ptarmigan and an Arctic hare, but polar bears remained elusive. The bay is now frozen again. Tomorrow is expected to bring sunny skies and milder temperatures; a positive forecast for a fresh perspective on the tundra.
Stygge Creek in Churchill frozen over. Alex De Vries – Magnifico.
November 9 – The winds died out overnight and the morning temperatures were still cold, just below 0°F. Without the windchill, however, the air felt mild relative to the past several days. Bear watchers reported the highlight of the day was spending the morning with two polar bears along the coast, which were alternating between feeding on kelp and visiting various tundra vehicles. The afternoon was slower for bears, though smaller creatures like American pine marten, ptarmigan and red fox were all spotted. There were more polar bears seen on the sea ice than on land today. The ice bears were viewed from both the tundra vehicles and helicopters. Helicopters reported that more ice had formed in the bay overnight. In just three days, the Hudson Bay has gone from being totally ice-free to having heavy coverage along the coast. The ice now reaches several miles out from the land and is broken up in places by open water.
A polar bear and two coys peruse the ice of the Hudson Bay. Discover Churchill photo.
By mid-afternoon, strong winds kicked up from the northwest, causing temperatures to fall. About that time, folks from town gathered at the Polar Bear Holding Facility to watch the release of a sow and two yearling cubs. These bears were flown by helicopter further north and away from town, where they can’t get into any more mischief. With so many locals present, the conversation naturally turned to the quickly changing ice conditions. There were many hopeful comments about how early freeze-ups have occurred in the past during bear season, only to have the ice blown back out by strong winds several days later.
A mom and cub polar bear keep a watchful eye on the tundra. Discover Churchill photo.
November 10- Today was extremely cold with a high of -27°F. Windchill made it feel more like -35°F, and the strong, cold winds persisted throughout the day. Conditions alternated between cloudy and foggy, with periodic whiteouts and blowing snow. The weather made for tough bear viewing. Bear watchers found one bear on the eastern side of the Churchill Wildlife Management Area. It was present all day, resting and rolling around to clean its coat. Many smaller animals were encountered by the tundra vehicles, including Arctic fox, red fox and ptarmigan. A real highlight for some travelers was a sighting of an ermine that had just killed a lemming. It appears from shore that the ice has consolidated more since yesterday. Helicopters were unable to corroborate, however, since they were grounded due to the high winds. Southern winds are expected soon—this often blows the ice out, bringing polar bears back to shore.
A red fox in the wind and cold in Churchill. Discover Churchill photo.
November 11 – Cold temperatures dominated again today, though, at only -16°F, it felt mild compared to previous days due to less windchill. Winds have shifted to come from the west. Helicopters were back in the skies this morning and pilots reported several polar bears on the ice. Polar bear cubs and a seal kill stole the show, along with a moose cow and calf near the shoreline. By early afternoon, helicopters were reporting that the ice had pushed away from the shore, and polar bears were spotted on land in various locations. From the tundra vehicles, a few bears were observed on the ice from Halfway Point early in the morning, best seen with spotting scopes. By late morning, the tundra machines made it out to Gordon Point to find a sub-adult bear. They watched it for hours as it ate kelp and walked among the vehicles. A red fox was seen on the tundra by several groups, a snowy owl was spotted from the Tundra Lodge, and there have been many red and silver fox sightings right in town. Winds are expected to shift to arrive from the south overnight, and local chatter is that this is the best-case scenario for potentially moving ice out of the region and driving more bears back to shore.
Visitors to Churchill woke yesterday morning to heavy winds and hammering snow. Enormous waves crashed along the shore of Hudson Bay, and it was worth the trip out to see it. Snow drifted across the roads and trails, and the town had the plows and loaders out for most of the day. Helicopters were grounded for the second day in a row, though the incoming planes managed to sneak in and out within small weather windows of good visibility thanks to the prowess of specially trained Arctic pilots. Amazingly, out on the tundra just 15 miles away from town, it was an entirely different day weather-wise. Snow dissipated by late morning and visibility was excellent. The tundra vehicles had no issue navigating the snow that drifted up against the willows. Yesterday’s polar bears were mostly in the same places, with active polar bears cleaning themselves in the fresh snow and sparring out east. Travelers had two encounters with polar bears putting their paws up on the tundra vehicles. Later in the afternoon, several bears were seen moving westward along the coast. A red fox was spotted near Halfway Point, and two migrating red-breasted mergansers were occupying one of the ponds, no doubt waiting out the storm. All dog sled operations are now running their winter sleds, having stored the summer training carts until springtime comes.
Two polar bears spar near the Tundra Lodge in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area. Krys Walczak photo.
Polar bear sleeping in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area. Krys Walczak photo.
Natural Habitat Adventures guide Brad Josephs and his group of travelers were on their way to rover launch last week when they spotted a sight that most on – board the rover had never seen. No, not the iconic “king of the north” the magnificent polar bear,
although many of those beautiful creatures were in their future, but a stoic immature snowy owl. An “amazing sighting” according to Brad!
Iconic snowy owl perched on a snow covered rock. Brad Josephs photo.
This was just a preview of what was to come. “We had the most bears I have ever seen at one time on halfway point. They were all over the place!” Brad stated following a sensational day in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area (CWMA). A sow with two cubs of the year (coys) definitely stood out as the highlight of the expedition though numerous polar bears with varied behavior
kept the group in awe for hours and hours. This is a good sign for the ongoing season as the polar bear numbers are growing daily.
.”It was so incredible that this female felt so comfortable snuggling her precious little babies just 30 feet from our Rover.” reported Brad regarding the intimate interactions witnessed by the group.
Sow and her two coys approaching a polar rover. Brad Josephs photo.
Sow polar bear and her two coys snuggling in a kelp bed. Brad Josephs photo.
Red poll in a willow tree. Brad Josephs photo.
Polar rovers enjoying polar bears on the tundra. Brad Josephs photo.
Adult polar bear approaching the groups’ polar rover. Brad Josephs photo.
Brad’s Natural Habitat Adventures group listening to Churchill River Mushing’s head musher Kelly Turcotte. Brad Josephs photo.
Natural Habitat Adventures band of avid adventurers in Churchill. Brad Josephs photo.
The group rounded out their memorable and exciting time in Churchill with dogsled rides with Churchill River Mushing and owner/musher Kelly Turcotte. Kelly gives a history of mushing in Churchill while the group enjoys bannock and a hot drink after the rides in his authentic trappers tent. As you can see the group bonded well on their amazing adventure in the north!
As a guide and logistics coordinator, I worked in Churchill close to 15 years. Some of that work experience with Natural Habitat Adventures was on the job training. Some of that training was life or death related and could not be prepared for anywhere else.
Whenever risks are involved in an endeavor, being prepared as much as possible helps one make a right decision whenever a situation becomes dire. In Churchill one thing anyone, either a resident or visitor, needs to learn quickly is how to deal with a polar bear encounter. Or, better yet, prevent possible polar bear encounters.
Polar bear trying to get in the vehicle in Churchill. Steve Selden photo.
However, even if you are well aware of the risks, sometimes polar bears can sneak up on you when you lose track of their movements.
Here are three times in Churchill when I felt a bit unnerved by being in the vicinity of a polar bear:
1. I described this incident in an earlier post. I was in a photographer’s van at a popular polar bear photo location in Churchill and a polar bear tried to get at us through an open driver side window. The photographer reached from the backseat where we were all backed into, unsure if the polar bear would climb through the window or not, and turned the key in the ignition to scare the bear away from the vehicle. It worked and to my amazement he kept his arm attached to the rest of his body.
Cautious polar bear on the rocks. Photo Rhonda Reid.
2. On a delivery of food and beverages out to the polar rover launch site, Darcy Callaghan and myself were pressed for time. We arrived at the loading ramp and began unloading the van full of supplies and handing them over the railing to the rover driver. We were about halfway finished when something made me look just to the right of the van and I looked straight into the eyes of a large male polar bear about 12 feet away trying to unload some of the food for himself. Some shouting from fear and the bear was on his way. Close call.
Churchill Polar bear shaking off the rain in the fog.
3. The third scare was clearly my most tenuous “near” polar bear interaction. I was leading a Churchill summer group and we were on a half – day rover trip to the coast for a barbecue and walk around the coastline. I had a strange feeling before we even left the Great White Bear launch. The fog was rolling in and the hair on the back of my neck was standing up. When we got out to Halfway Point, we took off for a walk with the group of 12 heading down the trail to the beach. The rover driver, John Sinclair, was walking next to me and I was carrying a shotgun. As we moved along, the group spread out on the wide trail. We were talking and John suddenly said, ” I’m going back to the rover”. At least that’s what I thought he said. He actually said, ” I think we should all go back to the rover.” As he calmly pointed into the fog ahead, we looked to see a huge polar bear sauntering right towards us at about 300 feet away. We turned and slowly though methodically, walked swiftly to the rover and out of harms way. It could have been bad had we not seen the bear in time.
Polar bear on the Hudson Bay coast. Sean Beckett photo.
Sometimes a little bit of luck can save your life in Churchill. I’ve had my share for sure.