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Realm of the Ice Bear

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Builders of the railroad to Churchill Manitoba probably had no idea that their new grain shipping port, which provided a link from the Prairies to the Arctic Ocean, lay just 40 km north of the world’s largest polar bear denning area. For millennia, the Arctic’s most iconic mammal has come ashore along the western coastline of Hudson Bay to wait out the time until the ice freezes again so that they may begin their annual seal hunt.

From late summer to early November the bears follow an ancient migratory route just beyond Churchill. Here an astounding number of polar bear can be viewed at close range as they rest, pace, spare, test the ice and socialize in places where the ice freezes first. Today the settlement of Churchill embraces the brand “polar bear capital of the world”.

Two decades ago, I ventured to the sub-Arctic to see the polar bear gathering near Churchill. I arrived in early October, a little before the height of the ‘official polar bear season’. On that journey I saw a few large males sparring and one female, who nursed her twins a short distance from my tundra vehicle. These moments connected me emotionally to the bears. I returned several years later, this time during the prime three weeks of best viewing, and was indeed rewarded with sightings in great numbers. More than thirty bears were spotted outside of town by tour bus, and out on the tundra aboard tundra buggies. There were many male bears along with quite a few females with newborns of the year, and second year cubs. Also seen were Arctic and red fox, ptarmigan gyrfalcon and a snowy owl. 

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The opportunity arose to visit Churchill again and this time I took my 13-year old son, Brandon. Growing up in the temperate clime of the Sunshine Coast, he had a limited polar wardrobe. When we arrived in Winnipeg where flights and trains to Churchill depart, we went to one of the many outfit stores to purchase boots, gloves, a hat and warm winter jacket. For this adventure, we chose to travel by the VIA rail two-night trip.

During the first night, my sleep was interrupted by Brandon excitedly announcing that the Aurora Borealis was visible from his side of the train. Together, we watched the night sky dance in bands of intense green and red illumination. During the next full day aboard the train we saw birds and beavers and stopped in several Prairie towns where the train became a gathering and chatting space for tourists and commuters. At each meal, we were seated with different travelers.The journey proved to be a wonderful way to appreciate a slowing of time, and to connect to both people and a sense of place.

When we arrived in Churchill the next morning, we were met by a local tour adventure specialist and immediately set off exploring the town and surrounding area. Of the historical and cultural sites, the most memorable was the Eskimo museum (now in the process of branding itself as the Itsanitaq Museum). The building houses a fine collection of Inuit carvings and artifacts. 

The highlight of our second day were the bears. From the safety and comfort of the specially designed tundra vehicles, we traveled through Wapusk National Park on un-groomed but park designated trails. When bears were spotted, we opened a window or stood on an outside deck to view and photograph them.

The weather was unseasonably warm – perhaps the Arctic wardrobe was overkill. This however, allowed us to do more walking. Typically the wind and snow make such foot options limited. We took a full “Roads and Trails” day with local naturalist Paul Ratson and his partner, Pam of Nature 1'st. Brandon was excellent at finding fossils along with Beluga whalebones, a caribou skull, and evidence of the multiplicity of plant and animal life that co-exists with the polar bear in this sub-Arctic ecosystem. Watching my son curiously exploring ancient marine rock beds covered with lichen and containing plant and invertebrate fossils from more than 400 million years ago remains a precious memory for me.

On the fourth day, we again ventured out on the tundra in Wapusk National Park. It was easy to spot wildlife as the animals were in their white winter coats and plumage now exposed against a tawny backdrop. The brilliant hue of the Arctic hare stood out from the under bush. We were surprised by a pouncing polar bear and then delighted to watch the hare outrun the bear who gave up after some time, conceding to the swiftness of its intended prey. Several curious bears approached our buggy providing one last thrilling experience to complete our polar adventure.

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