Seeing polar bears in the wild has always been on my bucket list. I was lucky enough to fulfill that dream with a number Defenders supporters recently. And what an adventure it was!
We flew into Churchill, a small little town in Manitoba right on the Hudson Bay, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, to start our trip. It exists, for the most part, thanks to polar bears these days. They even call themselves the Polar Bear Capital of the World. But ecotourism was not always its focus. It is also the only Arctic seaport in Canada and historically, it was home to an Air Force base during World War II. In the 50s, it was a Rocket Research Range where they conducted experiments relating to northern lights and the ionosphere. History pops up in this little town in some strange ways. We came across an old military plane that had crashed on the shoreline, and were told it has been there since the late 40’s. The town has determined that it would cost too much to remove… so there it sits, marking history.
As we explored the town, we were impressed with the appreciation and respect the locals have for polar bears. It is not uncommon for bears to wander through town, so they have extensive coexistence efforts in place: They take their storage of garbage seriously, and no one walks alone in town. For safety and efficiency, there is one big building for just about everything, from the movie theater, to stores, the court house, the school, the gym; everything is there so that residents don’t have to venture outside. It was just after Halloween, and we heard that the police and parents on four wheelers patrol the town perimeter in force each year so the local kids can go out trick-or-treating. I’ve got to hand it to them, it takes a tough kid to trick-or-treat in this weather! The town even has a polar bear facility where they keep bears that get into trouble until the bay freezes over and the bears can move out to hunt. Clearly each polar bear is valued.
As we left Churchill, we headed out onto the tundra making our way to the Tundra Buggy “Lodge” run by Frontiers North. Slowly bumping along in the dark of night was a bit surreal. I had forgotten what dark was really like, given all the light pollution I have become so used to. As we prepared to overnight, the excitement was palpable. Each of our bunks had a small window we could look out of and we all planned to be on the lookout for arctic wildlife for sure. My son Carson was so excited the first night he couldn’t sleep. He admitted in the morning that he was watching out the window of his bunk for polar bears. In his excitement at seeing his first one, he climbed down out of his bunk, wearing only a t-shirt and shorts, slipped on his flip-flops and ran out to the viewing area to get a better look. Now mind you, it’s about 5 degrees at this point, so even my tough 16-year-old did not last very long. But it was worth it for his first glimpse of a polar bear in the wild.
We were all up bright and early, the group with cameras and warm clothes in tow, heading out again in the tundra buggy towards the river in search of polar bears. And boy did we see them!
One of the many things that struck me as we experienced this vast landscape was the desolate nature of the land. It is overwhelming, in a magically beautiful way. I was also surprised by the many colors of white: All around me was white, from the gray white fog to the tan white snow and the pink and blue white sky; it was hard to get a handle on where we were. There were no obvious landmarks, and the bigness was awesome. This vastness that is the Arctic, on the shoreline of the Hudson Bay, was truly the middle of nowhere.
Then, out of the whiteness of the gray fog, lumbered the massive yellow-white form of a polar bear. It’s hard to imagine the size of these great beasts until you see them up close. Their paws alone are at least a foot wide. I was mesmerized by their size… and their patience. Every October and November, they gather along the shoreline of the Hudson River waiting for the water to freeze. It is considered the best place to see polar bears in the wild. One bear we saw tested the waters regularly, hoping it had finally frozen so they can all get out and feed on the seals they need to survive. Sadly, the slushy ice collapsed under his enormous weight and he scrambled to shore each time. He will have to wait longer for that meal.
In the days that followed, we saw many more. Even a coy (a cub of the year), so cute we all wanted to hug it, but still so huge. We were on station with some polar bear researchers who reported that the bears were in better shape than expected at the end of a long summer. I was happy to see that only one bear looked kind of scrawny; hopefully that guy will feast soon on a good meal.
While the researchers said most of the bears were in good shape here, they did say climate change is having a significant impact on the region. While it was cold to us, the researchers and the locals all said that it was not as cold as it should be this time of year. The ice is freezing later and later, and the bears have to wait longer and longer each year to get to their hunting grounds. No one asked what their chances of survival are in the long run. I think getting this close to them made it so personal, we were all afraid of the answer they might give us.
The polar bear was certainly the star of the show while we were on the tundra, but we saw other wildlife as well, including a beautiful arctic fox, red fox, willow ptarmigan and gray jays. The jays were so friendly, they actually landed on our hands for a food bribe. And we even got to hit the trails with some sled dogs in training. Through a family-owned group called the Ididamile, we all got the chance to be mushers, guided by yearling pups that were like drunken sailors navigating the sled. What a way to get around! These dogs were in training for races like the Iditarod. The family has been breeding and raising sled dogs for generations, and it was fun to see the puppies. These little guys are born to run. They couldn’t wait to get out on the trails.
Beyond the polar bears, the highlight of the trip was the most dazzling display of the Northern Lights imaginable. Even the tour guides said that the array of colors, from the dancing blues and greens to pinks, was unusual. It was a stunningly huge display that we learned was seen all the way down to the northern United States.
This was a transformative trip for many of us. I have not seen my teenage son this excited in years. I felt like I had my eight-year-old boy back. He said that it was the most amazing and surreal place he had ever seen. He and my husband shot more than 17,000 images over the few days we were out there. Carson is not a showy person, but he loaded up his phone with his pictures so that he could share with teachers and friends at school now that we are back. Even days later, he can’t stop talking about the trip. It is clear to me that this left a deep and lasting impression on him.
The Arctic appears unlimited and so vast, but it is not. It is melting before our eyes, and the polar bear is its ambassador, telling us loudly and clearly that the Arctic, and therefore the rest of the planet, is in trouble. It is one thing to read about the plight of the polar bear, but it is another thing to see it up close and personal. I wish everyone could have such an experience. It really brought the impacts of climate change into crystal clear focus for all of us on the trip. I was shocked at how dramatic the climate crisis has become. It is touching everywhere. Here we were, in the middle of nowhere, yet the impacts of our politics are having a heavy hand on the daily existence of this little town of Churchill, and the wildlife, so tough as to survive the frozen tundra, yet so vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Here in Churchill, there is a community and researchers that really care about the plight of the polar bear and the Arctic. We just need our country and the world to care as well.
Protecting Polar Bears
In remote Alaska, we’re testing the next generation of polar bear resistant food storage containers. Keeping polar bears out of human communities keeps both bears and people safe.