The polar bears of Churchill

by Drifter

Every year, as the ice freezes on Hudson Bay, polar bears gather near the town of Churchill in northern Canada. On my first day, I saw 10 or 12 of them – plus an abundance of other arctic wildlife

The town of Churchill lies midway along the western shore of Hudson Bay in northern Canada. It’s the sort of place you don’t visit by accident. Although there are roads around the town itself, there is no road link to the outside world. Some people go there to see migratory birds, others seek out beluga whales but most people go to Churchill to see polar bears. I was there at the invitation of UK wildlife tour operator, Wildlife Worldwide.

It’s not the easiest place to get to. From Heathrow we flew to Toronto where we cleared customs and immigration before flying on to Winnipeg. After an overnight stay at the luxurious hotel Fort Garry, it was back to the airport for the final 700-mile journey to Churchill in a chartered Hawker Siddley 748 turbo prop.

As we flew north, the scenery changed from the green/brown patchwork of the prairies to a white sheet of snow and ice, broken only by the occasional road or railway line. On arrival at Churchill, our pilot took us for an impromptu low-level sightseeing tour of the area, showing us the old fort built by the Hudson Bay Company, the huge grain elevators that mark the end of the railway line and the rusting wreck of the MV Ithaca which ran aground in Bird Cove in the 1960s and has been left to rot ever since.

During the winter, polar bears live out on the frozen waters of Hudson Bay. Their main diet is ringed seal – but seals are difficult to catch in open water, so the bears usually resort to sneaking up on them on the ice, or grabbing them when they pop up to breathe through a breathe hole.

As the ice melts in the spring, the anti-clockwise currents within Hudson Bay drift the ice flows back to the shore where the bears are marooned for the summer. Here they virtually fast, forced to conserve as much energy as possible until the ice freezes over again.

The frontier town of Churchill is situated beside the Churchill River estuary. The fresh river water freezes before the salt water of the Bay and the anti-clockwise currents tend to pack the ice up here first. The bears congregate here in late autumn, knowing the sooner they can get back out on the ice, the sooner they can start to eat again.

The polar bear season is very short, from early October to late November, but exact dates depend upon the weather and the effects of climate change. An early freeze will see the bears out on the ice sooner, but sometimes the prevailing winds blow the pack ice away from shore. Then the bears have to wait until the currents bring the ice back.

Bears are viewed from the comfort and security of a tundra buggy. At first sight, the buggies appear to be part-coach, part-monster truck with an observation platform at the rear. Polar bears are naturally inquisitive and can reach quite a height when they rear up on their back legs, so the buggies need to be set up high. They have a solid-fuel heater, making the cabins warm and cosy – but when there are bears to photograph, everyone opens the windows so it can get quite chilly.

Lunch is taken on board and consists of hot drinks, hot soup, sandwiches and salad. We saw 10 or 12 bears on our first day, some coming right up to the buggy. Other wildlife consisted mainly of arctic fox and ptarmigan but we did see a snowy owl and someone spotted an arctic hare. The Aurora borealis, or Northern Lights, is particularly active in northern Canada and we were fortunate to see a fine display on our very first night.

Altogether, we took three buggy trips out on to the tundra; the last one was at night. Seeing the bears in their natural environment was, of course, very exciting – but going out there at night, I was simply overawed by the space and vastness of it all. Alone on the observation platform, surrounded by stars and spindrift, it was almost a spiritual experience.

Temperatures varied from about -5C to -20C. The wind chill could nudge this to -30C, but it was a dry cold and quite bearable when wearing warm clothing. If required, arctic parkas and boots were available from the tour organisers at no extra charge.

In addition to watching polar bears, I took the opportunity to snowmobile and dog sled out on to the tundra. I had always fancied myself as a musher, but it didn’t take long for me to realise that it is nowhere near as easy as it looks – especially on broken ground. The dogs are directed by verbal commands, most of which are in Cree Indian. Cree spoken hesitantly with a Yorkshire accent was always going to be a recipe for disaster, and eventually led to me guiding us down the main railway line slap bang between the tracks. Not my finest hour, but that’s another story.

Without a doubt, this was the best trip I have ever undertaken – and by a wide margin. I’ll probably never go back, because to do so would spoil the memory… and this is one trip I’m never likely to forget.


Phil was born on the edge of the English Lake District which probably explains his affinity with mountains. He began walking the fells at the age of 12 and climbing the crags whilst still at school. A teenager in the 1960’s he soon learnt that you could travel just about anywhere at anytime. All you needed was a thumb and a friendly smile. As a student he hitch-hiked across the US on Route 66 and was later shot at in Canada trying to hop a freight train. His travels have taken him to all seven continents including both polar regions. He was the first Britain (along with co-driver Charlotte Ellis) to compete in Expedition Trophy, a gruelling 4X4 winter race across Russia. A professional photographer he is a contibutor to the Alamy Stock Photo Library and his images appear in the Travel Photographer of the Year Showcase. Phil is an enthusiastic skier, walker and general drifter.