Polar Bear Encounters in Manitoba, Canada

by James Sturz | August 30, 2010
sports & adventure

Polar Bear Encounters in Manitoba, Canada
James Sturz

We’ve all seen pictures of polar bears on receding sheets of ice, but it wasn’t until I flew to the western shore of Hudson Bay, in northern Manitoba, that I understood you could get so close to them you could appreciate the fearsome moistness of their snouts, the awesome sharpness of their claws and teeth, or the fact that the thousand-pound predators still look like fat, furry white blobs you want to leap on and hug.

Or that you can see them in the summer, in weather that sometimes approaches 70 degrees, against a backdrop of purple fireweed, gentian, primrose, buttercup, and cloudberries, as well as potbellied Arctic ground squirrels. Except that you might also see one of those winsome squirrels hanging limply from a polar bear’s teeth.

On a recent visit to Churchill Wild’s
, a 40-mile float-plane trip from the town of Churchill (after a 2.5-hour flight north from Winnipeg), I spent a week stalking bears on foot with guides, and then enjoying dinners of barbecued caribou and stir-fried snow goose before waking to a nighttime display of bending, writhing northern lights. When I wasn’t busy with the bears, I traveled by Zodiac five miles south to the mouth of the Seal River, donned a dry suit, and went snorkeling with the Hudson Bay’s nearly 60,000-strong population of white beluga whales. As dozens swam past me in the water, just a few feet away, my chilled ears were full of their high-pitched whistles, clicks, and chirps.

I took part in Churchill Wild’s “Birds, Bears, and Belugas” package, held in July and August ($7,295 CAD per person, including roundtrip flights from Winnipeg), but other expeditions involving polar bears, wolves, caribou, moose, dog sledding, and northern lights are offered from September through November and in March, in Churchill Wild’s five family-owned, small lodges, all in Manitoba’s northernmost reaches, where I never saw fewer than a half-dozen bears on any day – and often many more.

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