Bond with Churchill’s Belugas and Polar Bears

Manitoba polar bear

A lone polar bear swims for miles across the Hudson Bay, which thaws in summer. Close to 2,000 bears gather in Churchill waiting for the bay to freeze in October and November so they can wander and feast on seals.

Hudson Bay’s August weather and tides finally cooperate on a four-day adventure to Churchill, Manitoba. Three men and I ignore the 7 a.m. chill as we tug into wetsuits and carefully scoot kayaks across the Churchill River’s rocky shallows. We paddle into the 40-foot-deep channel where a red grain ship looms in the distance.

We sit. Wait. Watch. Within minutes, a circle of bubbles boils up and bursts the surface. Then the beluga whale rises alongside my kayak—so close I can almost touch it.

In Your Bucket Because

  • You want to paddle up close among beluga whales and their babies.
  • You want to see polar bears in the wild.
  • You want to admire natural beauty in the sub-Arctic.

Close to 3,000 of the whales gather to give birth and feast in the fish-rich Churchill River estuary late June through August. (Photo credit Lia McClintick, c 2012).

Close to 3,000 belugas gather to give birth and feast in the fish-rich Churchill River estuary late June through August. As we watch, the whales glide by like alabaster ghosts in blue-green water. We are astonished at how friendly and curious they seem to be with us in their midst, clicking away with cameras and constantly pointing as a new group approaches. Are we watching them, or are they watching us?

Beware the Bears

People make the long journey here by plane or train to see Churchill’s belugas, northern lights, and polar bears—by far the most popular and famous resident.

Summer’s technically off-season for the polar bears, but you can’t ignore the gnawing sense of danger knowing you might spot one in their “walking hibernation” phase.

“They’ve had 21 bears in town in just the last week,” says Brian Bruce, who greeted new guests arriving at Lazy Bear Lodge. He serves as both a town guide and protector as we rumble down roads in red school bus to admire ancient rocks covered in brilliant lichen, a sweeping coastline, tundra wildflowers and historic sites from the fur-trading era.

Early-morning paddlers wait for pods of curious, friendly beluga whales to swim alongside and beneath their kayaks on the Churchill River (photo courtesy of Lisa Meyers McClintick, c 2012).

A 24-hour bear patrol sweeps Churchill’s perimeter, and staff at historic fort sites stands guard, armed and watchful. Bears that come too close for comfort do time in one of 32 jail cells built for the world’s largest land carnivore. Crews tattoo their lip and tag them before they’re relocated by helicopter.

At the rugged Hudson Bay beach, a massive stone inukshuk (an Inuit figure) welcomes visitors , but its outskirts are posted with bright-green signs. They ominously warn people from the edges of the rocky coast: “Stop! Alert! Polar bear area.”

By October and November there will be close to 1,200 famished bears roaming these shores, impatiently waiting for ice and a feast of seals. Custom-made tundra vehicles sit throughout town like albino monster trucks with elevated platforms and windows to let late-fall visitors safely (and warmly) watch and photograph the gathering. For summer visitors like us, boats and buses will do.

Fireweed flowers brighten the Churchill shoreline where beluga whales can look like white caps out on the Hudson Bay (photo credit: Lisa Meyers McClintick, c 2012).

Boating with bears

Within an hour of kayaking with belugas, I’m back to the harbor with about a dozen fellow travelers. We entertain each other clumsily climbing into survival suits like astronauts in hunter’s orange. We are heading about three hours north to the Seal River, never touching land. Without survival suits, we’d last 15 minutes in the Hudson Bay. With them, we can survive for six hours.

I gratefully hunker into the suit as our guide and Lazy Bear Lodge owner Wally Daudrich cranks up our speed and cold air rushes across us.  It takes about 15 minutes after reaching the Seal River before someone spots a polar bear wandering across a shrubby strip of land. A short while later, we see another one paddling through the water. It hauls itself onto rocks, then poses like a calendar bear as Arctic gulls circle overhead.

In the bay, we idle and eat box lunches, marveling at whales that arrive like scheduled entertainment before we head back to Churchill. The town harbor is barely a smudge on the horizon when Daudrich spots a white speck in the vast sea of blue.

Tours such as those at Lazy Bear Lodge take visitors up the Hudson Bay coast to the Seal River where polar bears can be spotted during the summer months (photo credit: Lisa Meyers McClintick, c 2012).

We carefully draw close, getting within 10 feet of a polar bear as it churns through the water. Polar bears can swim for a hundred miles when ice melts in the spring, but it still seems miraculous to see it happening right before us–to see this creature that weighs at least 800 pounds paddling steadily through icy waters miles from land.

The bear huffs and chuffs, occasionally snorting saltwater from its nose. After a few minutes, we prepare to leave it in peace. As the boat slowly pulls away, the polar bear pauses and bobs up as if surprised. Then it shakes its head and goes back to swimming.

That night as I fell asleep soundly–my body still feeling the rock of the boat and the bay—other travelers planned a 2 a.m. rendezvous on the back of a parked tundra buggy. It provided a safe perch to watch the dark sky with its hypnotic dance of green aurora borealis–the very best nightcap for a far-north adventure.

Practicalities

  • Give yourself a few days of travel just to reach Churchill and return. It can at least two days by train from Winnipeg, which is the most economical option. Flights to Churchill take about two hours.  Plan ahead to get seats on either.
  • Take sturdy shoes and good outdoor layers, including a raincoat, warm hat and gloves.
  • Summer temperatures average 54 degrees Fahrenheit, and can change quickly.
  • Bring a good book or a few other things to do. Visitors are expected at their lodging before dark. There are shops, a few exhibits and an Eskimo Museum to visit, but days can get long when wind and/or rain cancels or postpones tours.
  • Boating or bus tours can get seniors and children close to belugas, historic sites and possibly within viewing distance of bears. Active adventurers can opt for kayaking or snorkeling among beluga whales.
  • U.S. money or credit cards are accepted at most businesses, but it’s wise to exchange some money for Canadian dollars.
  • Local dining may feature tender caribou, muskox rouladen, Arctic char and caribou stew.
  • Get more information from Travel Manitoba, 800-665-0040, www.travelmanitoba.com.

Peak viewing times

  • July-August: Beluga whales, birding, Arctic wildflowers
  • October-November: Polar bears
  • December-March: Aurora borealis

About 

Author of “Day Trips from Twin Cities” and “The Dakotas Off the Beaten Path,” Lisa Meyers McClintick has gone caving, paddled with belugas, unearthed dinosaur bones and biked through Badlands. A mother of three—including twins—she writes for USA Today’s Go Escape, Midwest Living, AAA Living, the Star Tribune, Expedia’s FamilyVacationCritic.com and more. She also created Minnesota Lake Vacations, a Sutro Media travel app and the travel site 10000Likes.com.

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