Polar bears in Canada can be found in the northern regions of the country, where winter arrives as early as September. Few of us are ever lucky enough to see any type of bear in the wild, let alone the amazing polar bear! Fortunately, there's an opportunity to see these massive bears by taking a guided polar bear tour in Churchill, Manitoba - and when the stars aligned for us, we took that chance and went for a tour.
In this photo, this polar bear waits patiently for the sea ice to freeze on the Hudson's Bay. The photo was taken in early October, just outside of the city limits. When we arrived, the air temperature was a frigid -20 Celsius but warmed up to -5 Celsius in the mid-afternoon. We were lucky to watch the bears as they played and wandered about in the warm sun.
In Canada, the polar bears can be found along northern coast along Yukon, NWT, Nunavut, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec & Labrador. A well-developed tourist industry has been set up in Churchill, Manitoba, just north of Wapusk National Park to take tourists from around the world into the natural habitat of this giant predator.
On our escorted tour of northern Manitoba, we saw about 100 polar bears just outside the city limits of Churchill, known as the polar bear capital of the world. Polar bears feed on the tasty blubber of seals and can only hunt when the sea ice is thick enough to support their heavy weights. Until then, they wait on land and sustain themselves from their fat reserves.
When we were there, winter had arrived early in northern Manitoba and the surface of the Hudson's Bay was just being to freeze. Large chunks of ice and plenty of slush made the horizon look like a giant, blue ice drink. Just to the south of Churchill is Wapusk National Park that protects the important breeding and mating grounds of the polar bears.
As the polar bears waited for the pack-ice to become solid, they hung around the shore-line, looking as bored and impatient as a bear can look. We saw many polar bears including large, single males (like the one in the photo), young adolescents and protective mothers with their cubs. The bears were active during the day but, as a northern blizzard blew onshore, they curled up in small snow pockets to protect themselves from the fierce ocean wind.
On this well organized tour, there were tourists from all over the globe ranging in age from 10 to 85. Even though the trip cost $3300 CAD (per person) from Calgary, it was well worth the journey and adventure to see a wilderness where only the strong and skilled animals survive.
We also saw moose, Arctic fox and lemmings (in the jaws of the fox). We were told there were also beluga whales, seal and caribou in the region.
The best time to see the polar bear migration is usually in early to mid-October. If you book for early November, there's a chance that the ice will have become solid and the bears may have migrated.
Bring your winter gear! Even if it's not yet winter where you live, winter is likely to be in full force in Churchill during polar bear watching season.
A search for polar bear tours in Manitoba will show you many options for taking a guided tour.
There are no roads leading to Churchill, Manitoba but there is a modern airport with daily schedules flights to and from Winnipeg.
A snail-paced passenger train also brings in tourists (and supplies) to the town. If you decide to go, I recommend taking the Via Rail train up (it's a novelty to witness a train coming to halt in the middle of nowhere to pick up a person as they flag down the train) and then fly out (it's quicker). The train crawls along 1700 kilometers from Winnipeg to Churchill in 43 hours.
Churchill, Manitoba is about 1400 kilometers (3 hours flying time) from Winnipeg, Manitoba and is the best spot to view polar bears in Canada.