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Polar Bear Watching at Hudson Bay

We visited Churchill, Manitoba, on 12 to 16 October 1999. We were part of a Travelwild Expeditions tour group that met in Winnipeg on 11 October. I was a little worried that we would be too early to see bears since we were part of the first Travelwild group for 1999. All the later Travelwild tours were already filled when I called for reservations in October 1998. 

I had read on the internet that warm fall weather last year had reduced the early bear arrivals.  I don't know if the weather this year has been colder than last year or not, but the bears were there early this year. In fact, they have had bears since June this year, much earlier than before, and before they were ready for them.

Our Churchill tour started with a bus ride from the airport to several places around town. We arrived about 11 AM, but could not check-in at the Tundra Inn Hotel until 3 PM. This bus ride was actually a standard North Star Tours town tour. Stops included the Polar Bear Jail, the Eskimo Museum (souvenirs are less expensive here than anywhere else, and they close at 5 PM, too early to shop after the Tundra Buggy rides), lunch at Gypsy's Bakery, Miss Piggy, sled dogs, Cape Mary, and the grain loading and and shipping facility. An artic hare was by the road to Cape Mary. The bus driver, Bill Calnan told many very interesting stories about the town and the stops. Bill is also the assistant fire chief of Churchill, and is the customs officer for the Port of Churchill. He doesn't live in town. Too crowded. He claims his hobbies include a lot of wood working, and entertaining attractive women.

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The North Star Tour bus, with Judy, Norman, and Paula. Bill Calnan, the bus tour driver.
Bears that reach the town of Churchill are trapped or sedated with a dart gun, and moved into the Polar Bear Jail. Bear control is a function of the Canadian Natural Resources Department (DNR, or some similar office). The DNR people usually arrive in Churchill about August to get ready for the bears. wpe5.jpg (13078 bytes)
wpe6.jpg (25628 bytes) This is One of about 15 traps that are baited with something that stinks a lot, and located outside of Churchill in hopes of intercepting the bears before they get into town. This spare one was parked at the Bear Jail.

The bears in the jail are provided with water, but no food. The bears normally fast during the summer and until Hudson Bay freezes and they can go seal hunting. However, the momma bears do nurse the cubs, depleting their fat stores. Bears that are not doing well in jail are sedated and moved by helicopter three rivers away from Churchill. Any closer and they get back too soon. In the wild, the bears do find a little to eat, such as dead caribou. Natives (Indians) in the area can hunt caribou year round, and some do. Bears, foxes and ravens all feed on the scraps and internal organs left behind when a caribou is field dressed.

There was supposed to be a momma and two cubs removed from jail at the same time our plane was scheduled to depart on the 16th, so we did not get to see it. The bears are carried in a net under the helicopter, we are told. Word is passed when something of this nature is to be done, so anyone who wishes can observe. Only the DNR people enter the jail, and they do so very little to minimize the human contact with the bears. In the small town of Churchill, word of mouth is effective communication. Most all the 700 or so town residents know everyone not just visiting in town. In bear season, there are a few hundred visitors. Some visitors are present during the summer for bird, flower, and whale watching. In winter, the only visitors are people seeking medical treatment at the government building, or the infrequent airplane on a polar route that gets in trouble. If you see Bill, get him to tell about the "dollars from heaven" that a plane that makes an emergency landing can bring to Churchill in the winter.

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Our tour group by one of the Tundra Buggys at the launch facility.

Click HERE to see pictures of the bears we saw.

Click HERE to learn more about bear watching at Churchill.

Click HERE to load a 3 minute RealMovie clip (751KB) video. It should take about 3 minutes to load with a 56K modem.

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