Polar Bears of Churchill

January 10, 2022  •  Leave a Comment

Polar_bear_Churchill_2021_1Polar_bear_Churchill_2021_1One of the first polar bears we saw during the trip to Churchill, Manitoba. Snowfall, polar bears and Arctic birds — what more could a wildlife photographer want for a photo trip?

In early November, I took a group of four photographers to Churchill for their first experience in the Arctic. Churchill sits on the southwestern edge of Hudson Bay on the far northern reaches of the Canadian Province of Manitoba. Churchill has long boasted about being the polar bear capital of the world, and with good reason.

About 1,000 polar bears call this northern Canadian region home. In comparison, there are only about 800 full-time human residents. Yup, the bears outnumber the people! Polar_bear_CH_2021_60Polar_bear_CH_2021_60Two polar bears (Ursus maritimus) spar on a snowy hill during a light snowfall in Churchill, Manitoba, Canada.

Mother bears give birth in dens not far from Hudson Bay. Some bears will spend the summers foraging for berries and other small samplings of food in the tundra and spruce forest surrounding Hudson Bay. 

The peak polar bear viewing season for this region, however, is late October through mid-November when the bears arrive along the coast of Hudson Bay to wait for the water to turn to ice. When that happens, these apex predators venture out onto the barren, frozen water to hunt for their favorite meal, seal. In the meantime, they pass the time around the Churchill area, hopefully staying out of trouble.

Churchill_street_2021_1Churchill_street_2021_1A nighttime street view of Kelsey Boulevard covered in snow in Churchill, Manitoba, Canada. No roads lead into the remote, no-frills town of Churchill. (I believe the road system in Churchill encompasses only about 35 miles of paved roads.) The only methods for reaching Churchill include plane (a single daily flight from Calm Air takes off from Winnipeg International Airport during the polar bear viewing peak season) or a train from Winnipeg, which just recently reopened after being closed due to heavy snowstorms in March 2017.

I love the cold and photographing white animals on a white landscape. I was a little nervous, however, about the weather during the Churchill trip this year. Photos coming out of Churchill just days before our arrival showed brown, snowless terrain. Willow_ptarmigan_Churchill_2021_3Willow_ptarmigan_Churchill_2021_3In addition to polar bears, Churchill is known for its bird viewing opportunities. Although winter has fewer than a visit in late spring, the willow ptarmigan (pictured here) is one of my favorite birds to photograph during a polar bear photo tour, especially in falling snow.  

Historically, the ice arrives on the bay around November 7, but can happen any time up until mid-December. Climate change, however, has caused the freeze-up to happen later and later. It can make planning a trip difficult but my local guides were spot on for estimating the freeze-up date for our trip, which took place November 7-13, 2021. Schedule a trip as close to the water freeze-up but not after. Closer to the freeze-up date provides a better chance for snow on the ground and an abundance of polar bears milling around. Schedule your trip too late and you run the risk of bears being inaccessible on the ice.

The snow arrived a day before we landed on the Churchill tarmac and bears were plentiful. The water started showing signs of freezing with the early form of grease ice (the first stages of freezing when the surface of the water gets a thick, slushy coating) on November 11. It took several more weeks for the ice to freeze enough for the large mammals to travel on it. 

Polar_bear_CH_2021_39Polar_bear_CH_2021_39Although the tundra can look barren, the cold air and high humidity can create some interesting atmospheric conditions. A polar bear just adds to the scene and gives a subject in this sense-of-place photo. Over the course of our visit, we saw at least a dozen different bears, with anywhere from four to a dozen sightings in one day. We also saw snowy owls, a gyrfalcon, red fox, willow ptarmigan and eider ducks. When one participant mentioned he thought he would see more, I happily reminded him that he was now part of the polar bear club, that group of dedicated photographers and wildlife enthusiasts willing to brave the cold and long travel to visit the edge of the tundra and hang with the polar bears.

If you are interested in joining me on a polar bear photo tour, email me or signup on my polar bear photo tour page.

Polar_bear_Churchill_2021_2Polar_bear_Churchill_2021_2Full-frame portraits of bears top the list for any visit to Churchill, but don't forget about those images that capture the personality of these fun-loving and curious bruins, like this one playing with a utility line.

 


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