Walking With Giants: Meeting the Churchill Polar Bears

I’ll never forget the feeling of coming face-to-face with a wild polar bear.

We had been hiking through the sub-arctic tundra for a couple of hours – trudging over banks of drifted white snow, through rusty brown willows that had gone dormant for the winter and across frozen lakes made of crystal clear ice. My eyes were going crossed from scanning the unfamiliar landscape for a polar bear.

Our guide, Andy, following the fresh tracks of a polar bear. Gulp!

Finding a white bear against the backdrop of white snow is a tall order.

Our guide had said that the bears would look ivory or cream against the white snow – but between the snow covered boulders (which all looked like bears to me!) and the tan grasses and brown shrubs, my eyes didn’t know where to focus.

There are polar bears out there somewhere! “Keep looking,” the guides would say.

“Just ahead…a polar bear!” our guide said as he pointed toward the horizon.

I began frantically scanning the landscape for the color of the bear (whatever that might be). White-white-white-brown-white-white-brown-white-white-white-cream-white-brown-white-white….wait…cream! I saw cream! I moved my eyes backwards and there he was…a large polar bear was meandering his way straight toward us.

Affectionately known to the group as “dirty bear” (because of his filthy butt), he was the first polar bear I saw in the wild. (Photo by Chris)

My entire body tingled and it was all I could do not to jump with joy and hoot with excitement — which, as you can imagine, is exactly the opposite of what you want to do when you are on the ground with the largest predator in North America.

We were yards from a huge polar bear…in the wild. Oh my heck!

Another picture of “dirty bear” taking a little snooze. He will always have a special place in my heart as my first polar bear encounter. (Photo by Chris)

I came to Churchill, Manitoba, on the western coast of the Hudson Bay with Glenn and his brother Chris specifically to see these magnificent creatures. Like other adventures on our trip (e.g., hiking the Inca Trail) this was the fulfillment of a childhood dream — thanks to a National Geographic TV show on the Churchill bears that I saw when I was around 10 years old.

These bears spend the winter and spring hunting seals on the ice that forms on the Hudson Bay. They ride the ice to the southern end of the bay as it melts, eventually hopping off onto land only to spend the summer and fall gradually working their way back north in preparation for the arrival of the next winter’s ice.

It is like a large ice-n-bear conveyor belt.

Churchill is the mecca for polar bear viewing because the first ice of the year forms in this part of the bay – which means the polar bears congregate here en masse in late October and early November. While waiting for the ice the bears spend their days slowly meandering north along the coast near Churchill. They stop to take plenty of naps which helps them conserve energy as they are living off their fat stores from seal hunting done earlier in the year.

This big guy was catching some Zzzzzs while working his way north. (Photo by Chris) {Watch Chris’ compilation video to see footage of this guy making a bed and curling up for a nap!}

Climate change will undoubtedly impact the freeze and thaw cycle of the ice on the Hudson Bay. The ability of the Churchill bear population to adapt to those climatic changes remains to be seen. I am committed to continuing my professional work to curb global carbon emissions so that we aren’t experimenting with the lives of these amazing bears and the rest of the delicate ecosystem they live in. For now, the bears around Churchill appear healthy and their population is reportedly steady.

I’ve learned that polar bears are very curious and occassionally social creatures. Some wander close to town to check things out (e.g. they had to chase a bear off the runway at the airport the night we were flying out) and younger male bears will spend hours play fighting with each other to hone the skills they will need later in life to compete for mates.

These young males were resting after a day of play fighting. There are three of them in the photo, including one lounging on his back waiting for the next round to begin. (Photo by Chris)

Our amazing tour was through Churchill Wild – which is the only area tour company that offers the opportunity to walk safely on the ground with the bears. They have several remote wilderness lodges located away from the throngs of tourists that can be found in the town of Churchill.

We stayed at their Dymond Lake Lodge and spent several days viewing the wild bears on foot, as well as from the comfort of the lodge. The guides have years of experience hiking with the bears and are experts at reading bear body language. They made sure that the group didn’t inadvertently harass or stress the bears out, while also ensuring the safety of the hikers.

Sunset over Churchill Wild’s Dymond Lake Lodge. (Photo by Chris)

There were times when the guides turned the group back when it was unsafe (e.g. entering thick willows with reduced visibility) or when a bear made it clear he wasn’t interested in interacting with us. Although they were armed with bear-spray and shotguns as a last resort, the guides were able to use their voices, body language and noise makers (e.g. banging two rocks together) to keep the more curious bears at a safe distance.

I felt completely safe and at no point did I get the sense that the bears were negatively impacted by their interactions with us.  In fact, quite the opposite. It wasn’t uncommon for the bears to eventually follow us back to the lodge where they would bed down for the night.

One of our guides, Derek, scanning the ice for polar bears.

Every evening I would think, “Wow…what an amazing day. Nothing could top that!” – only to have an encounter the next day that blew my socks off again. In addition to meeting Dirty Bear, my first polar bear (Unforgettable Moment #1), I will forever remember several other polar bear interactions.

Unforgettable Moment #2: Bears…bears…everywhere!

The lodge has an observation tower and each morning the guides would scan the area around the lodge looking for bears. One morning they came down and said, “there is a mom with two cubs walking up the coast – if we hurry and get out there we might be able to see her!”

Upon arrival we were disappointed to discover that there was a large male bear lounging on the ice in the far distance which had pushed the mom and cubs out further toward the water’s edge (as male bears will occasionally kill cubs). The mom was now too far out for us to see her and the male bear was too far away to hike to. It looked like we were going to be out of luck.

Then one of the guides said “Well, it looks like Christmas has come early…there is another mom and cubs bedded down up ahead.” We made our way over toward this slumbering trio and were gifted with an adorable sight of a mom cuddled up with her two cubs for a morning nap.

A mom and her cubs enjoying a morning nap. (Photo by Chris)

Before long we realized that the big male bear had gotten up and was working his way across the ice toward us. I’d watch the sleeping mom and cubs for a bit…then turn around and watch the big lumbering male for a bit.

Although he was far in the distance…it felt a bit like we were being stalked knowing this big guy was coming up behind us. (Photo by Chris)

Then it got even better. The original mom and cubs that had gotten pushed out to the edge of the water was also working her way across the ice back toward us.

The original mom and cubs we had ventured out to see, working her way inland. (Photo by Chris)

 We had front-row seats for this convergence of polar bears!

Eventually the male bear turned inland likely having caught the scent of our nearby lodge – which often acts as a magnet for curious bears. We were left to watch in awe as the two moms greeted each other with their adorable cubs in tow.

The two moms warily pass each other just a few yards in front of us. Look at those cubs checking each other out! (Photo by Doreen Booth with Churchill Wild)

Unforgettable Moment #3: My what big teeth you have!

We eventually split into two groups – one group that wanted to hike back to the lodge in search of the big male bear and another group that wanted to stay on the ice with the mom and cubs.

The mom (sporting a radio collar) and cubs checking us out. (Photo by Chris)

Chris and I stayed out on the ice and were treated to the amazing experience of having one of the mom bears come closer to investigate. It was exhilarating to have such a massive animal approach us – not to mention being so close to her adorably curious cubs.

It wasn’t lost on me that these bears are huge deadly predators and I’ll admit to discreetly inching my way behind Chris a bit! At one point the guides had to step forward to let her know she was getting a little too close for comfort.

Well hello momma! That’s close enough…

Check out this video Chris captured of our encounter with this mom and her cubs! Talk about an adrenaline rush!

Sometimes it’s tough being so adorable!

Eventually she wandered off and I was left in a complete state of awe as we hiked off the ice back to the lodge. Pure magic.

Me, with the mom and cubs wandering off in the background. I was still vibrating with the excitement of our close encounter! (Photo by Chris)

Unforgettable Moment #4: But mom…can’t I stay and play a little longer?

The following morning we awoke to find the same mom and cubs from our close encounter the day before bedded down on the edge of the frozen lake in front of the lodge. We spent the better part of an hour watching this trio out of the lodge’s picture windows…while enjoying the comfort of a warm fire and hot coffee.

Watching the bears out the lodge windows. Best view I’ve ever had while while drinking my morning coffee! (Photo by Chris)

Eventually the mother decided it was time to go and she started walking across the frozen lake with her dutiful cubs following behind – or so she thought. The little male cub had other ideas. As he began following his mom, he turned and looked back at the lodge and it was clear he was pondering a little disobedience.

The next thing we knew he started walking away from his mom and back toward the lodge where he sat on his butt and looked up curiously at all of the faces staring back at him out of the picture window. You could almost see her roll her eyes in exasperation as she turned around and began walking back to the lodge to retrieve her wayward cub. She stopped at the edge of the frozen lake and I imagine she called him by his middle name when she told him it was time to go.

The rebellious cub looking into the lodge window with his mom looking on from the lake’s edge. (Photo by Chris)

Much to our surprise the shy little female cub then decided she wanted to have some fun too and she trundled through the snowbank and made her way to sit by her brother. It was adorable.

Two rebellious cubs! (Photo by Chris)

Mom finally came in for a closer look and to gather up her cubs…it was time to go. (Photo by Chris)

She let the cubs watch the funny humans a bit longer – but then she put her foot down and made it clear that it was time to leave and they were expected to follow. Eventually the little boy got up and reluctantly walked away, sneaking backward glances at the lodge as he sulked off. {Watch Chris’ compilation video to see footage of this cub walking off with backward glances toward the lodge!}

This time the cubs followed her…albeit a little reluctantly. (Photo by Chris)

The lodge operators speculated that the male cub would probably return to the lodge on his own as an adult in future years – given his now positive association with the lodge. I hope so, as he promises to be full of mischief when he is older.

Unforgettable Moment #4: Riding in the tundra buggy

Nearly all of the visitors to Churchill view the polar bears from custom made vehicles known as tundra buggies (walking on the ground with the bears as we did is very uncommon). Looking like school bus monster trucks, the buggies drive across the tundra on old military roads stopping along the way for the tourists to view the bears out the windows or on a back deck. We spent our last day in Churchill aboard one and set out to explore an area East of town.

One of the tundra buggies of Churchill. (Photo by Chris)

The bears often come over to the buggies to check them out as they continue to migrate north. Unlike our earlier experience of being on foot, we were able to cover a lot of ground in the buggies which meant we saw a lot of bears. I saw 26 bears (although 3 of them were far off in the distance) the day we were on the tundra buggy.

Chris and Glenn viewing this mom and cub out the tundra buggy windows.

There are some tundra buggies that are outfitted as lodges (as seen here) where guests spend the night. I think I’d prefer the more intimate bear encounters and the relative luxury of the Churchill Wild lodges instead, but this buggy option is likely more exciting than staying in a hotel in town. (Photo by Chris)

Our time in Churchill was absolutely breathtaking and is definitely at the top of my list of most amazing experiences of my life (although, the “pods of death” as Glenn called them are a close second!). From the delicious food at the Churchill Wild lodge, the almost nightly display of northern lights, dog sledding or riding in a small plane over the tundra – it was a trip to remember!

You’ll find more pictures below…and be sure to check out Chris’ website to view even more amazing pictures and videos of our trip!

Glenn, me and Chris…all suited up for the arctic cold. We actually had unseasonably warm weather (good for us, bad for the bears that need the bay to freeze) so we soon shed many of these layers.   

Northern lights over the lodge with the lights of Churchill in the distance. Seeing the northern lights was on Glenn’s bucket list…check! (Photo by Chris)

View this time lapse video Chris made of the dancing northern lights!

Dog sledding…always a blast. (Photo by Chris)

Never had snow build up on my eyebrows before!?! Brrrr! (Photo by Chris)

Typical sight of the tour group bedded down to take pictures of the bears. (Photo by Chris)

The group enjoying the view of this mom and her sleepy cubs. (Photo by Chris)

Always a treat to see a bear stand on their hind legs. (Photo by Chris)

I never got tired of watching the bears roll onto their backs while napping…just like my lazy dogs at home! (Photo by Chris)

Me watching a bear out the tundra buggy windows. (Photo by Chris)

Adorable much? (Photo by Chris)

Our crew setting off in search of bears. (Photo by Chris)

Sunset on Dymond Lake.

Even without polar bears, it was truly beautiful hiking. 

I loved the look of the polar bear tracks…they sort of drag their feet, making the edges of the prints soft and wispy.

You had to watch your step as the ice was super slick!

This female was the most beautiful bear we encountered…I was completely taken with her soft fur, soulful eyes and timid yet inquisitive demeanor. (Photo by Chris)

We got to view the northern lights on several occasions. (Photo by Chris)

Arctic Glenn

Our plane from the town of Churchill to the Churchill Wild Ecolodge at Dymond Lake.

It’s been a long time since I’ve flown in the co-pilot seat!

Churchill has a three strikes policy for the bears that wander into town…after the third time they end up here (a.k.a. polar bear jail). They are eventually flown by helicopter several miles north of town in hopes they will continue their migration along the coast. It is a program designed to try to keep the people safe from bears…and the bears safe from people. 

One last look. I can’t wait to go back someday! (Photo by Chris)

17 comments on “Walking With Giants: Meeting the Churchill Polar Bears

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  4. Oh man!! I’m signed up for this same tour in mid-November, including the dog sledding. I thought I couldn’t be any more excited, but then I read your recap and viewed Chris’ photos and videos!! November can’t get here fast enough!! If my experience is anything like yours I’ll die a happy woman with multiple bucket list check marks!!
    Do you have any recommendations for clothes and/or gear that are must haves (or don’t bother bringing)? I’m coming from Florida so even if they’re having a “warm spell” I’m going to be completely out of my element!

    Thank you for sharing your experience!

    • Hi Kinsley!

      I’m so excited for your adventure! It is the most amazing experience I’ve ever had…and as you can see by my other blog posts, I’ve had a lot of fun adventures! I’d definitely recommend renting the gear through Churchill Wild. Especially the jacket and boots. It was unseasonably warm when we were there so I didn’t wear their gear every day, but I was glad to have it. I was also glad I had the little hand warmer and toe warmer pads (they’re disposable and heat up when exposed to air). You end up standing in one place for a long time when you’re close to the bears so fingers and toes get cold! Have fun!!!!

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  8. Dear Chris,
    Your skill in photographing these fantastic animals and ability to put the story together is terrific. Diane and I are just getting to download the photos we took. I am going to forward this to our friends so they too can experience the adventure we all had. Great Job!

  9. I nearly made it to Churchill myself this year, been on the list for a long time but I’m even more inspired to go now after reading your post and seeing your pic. Didn’t know on foot was an option and the lodge sounds amazing. My friend was there last month and didn’t have nearly the experience you did. Love your blog and following your travels. You are my hero

    • Definately keep it on your list – it was amazing. I’m sorry your friend didn’t have a great time. I want to go back to see the Bears in the summer months and swim with the beluga whales! Hope you are well!

  10. Oh man, what a dream!! I love that you got to meet the Bears that your work is helping to save. And you saw northern lights on top of it all. I am adding this experience to my list!!! Love!

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