Tracking polar bears and pioneers in Churchill, Canada

Famous for polar bears, Churchill, Manitoba has an incredibly rich history, too. 400 years after they first sailed into Hudson Bay, track the pioneers’ legacy - and the bears’ prospects...

4 mins

"Are you sure you want to get out?” asked Mark Ingebrigtson, laconically. I hadn’t spotted the dozing bear just yards away, its clotted-cream-coloured coat blending seamlessly with the spume along the shore and the light covering of snow on the pale grey rocks.

Like all the polar bears I was to see over the following week, it was indifferent to our presence; its slow, ponderous movements belied the speed with which it could move when hunting. I had been about to leave the warmth of Mark’s car to photograph huskies at Bird Cove; in light of the nearby bear, I rapidly reassessed my decision.

I had arrived in Churchill, on the south-western corner of Hudson Bay, by train from Manitoba’s capital, Winnipeg. It was one of those special train rides where almost everyone was on board to experience the joy of the journey. There is no better introduction to the vast, sparsely populated tracts of forest and muskeg that follow the fertile strip of prairie north.

Family of polar bears (Shutterstock)

Family of polar bears (Shutterstock)

It’s a slow journey, entailing two nights in a sleeping car. The reason is evident as the train crawls past upturned freight cars lying in the boggy ground; in many places the terrain makes it impossible to maintain track at any pace faster than that of a pump trolley.

On the polar bear express

The swampy ground is colonised by willow and close-growing black spruce with its distinctive bushy top, leaving the drier earth to white spruce and poplars. Beaver trails weave through the rushes to open pools and the tangle of a dam.

A narrow gap between the trees indicates a trap line, worked by residents of the tiny communities that each huddle around a clapboard church in a forest clearing. The trees shrink and shorten as the train eases north, and the tripod telegraph poles testify to the ferocity of the winds that tear across this flat land.

The gentle progress was welcome: sleep in the ingeniously contrived retractable beds came more easily, and the convivial crew and passengers made for leisurely mealtimes in the dining car.

Ute from Bremen talked about her fascination for deserts and her recent 12th camel trek with the Tuareg in Libya. Simon and Nan described how, in 1978, they’d bought a $500 Mini in Sydney to drive across the Nullarbor Plain and then through South-East Asia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Europe to Britain; it’s still running now, around the streets of Vancouver.

Train at Churchill train station (Alamy Stock Photo)

Train at Churchill train station (Alamy Stock Photo)

A Churchill resident, Wally, told us of the impact of climate change on the bears – warmer temperatures are causing their dens to collapse, forcing pregnant females to create new dens and risk the loss of their cubs.

Little Churchill, big impact

The train arrived in Churchill at dawn, the grey light revealing a town of snow-covered, low-rise buildings on a grid of broad streets. Towering over them was the immense bulk of the grain terminal, from which the first cargo of prairie wheat was shipped in 1931 after the railway’s completion.

Churchill is one of those remote communities that have assumed a cultural and historical significance out of all proportion to their size. It’s 400 years since Henry Hudson sailed into his namesake bay in 1610.

Since then, Churchill has had to reinvent itself, from its birth as a centre of the fur trade, through the Cold War years when the area was home to thousands of military personnel, to today’s incarnation as ‘polar bear capital of the world’.

To introduce me to the area, my guide Mark drove me round the few roads before they petered out – there is no road access to Churchill. A little out of town, blowing up a cloud of snow in our wake, we passed the long-abandoned blocks of the former military base, and reached Bird Cove, where a local musher keeps his huskies.

It was here that Mark uttered his timely warning about the somewhat larger creature snoozing nearby, and I got my first, unforgettable sight of a polar bear in the wild. But Churchill is as much about history as huskies and bears, and my next stop was the town’s oldest structure – and one of Canada’s most extraordinary places.

...such A Miserable Place

Situated on an isolated peninsula, Prince of Wales Fort was built by the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) between 1732 and 1771. While ice is forming at the onset of winter it can only be reached by air, so I hitched a lift with Chuck Burke of Hudson Bay Helicopters.

With us was Parks Canada Heritage Presenter Duane Collins, a mine of information on the area’s topography, culture, flora and fauna – and weather. “Bucket loads of misery coming sideways from the sky,” was his forecast for the day – delivered so lugubriously that laughter was the only possible response.

From the air the sea was grey-brown, with scummy foam. The enlarging ice floes were pale grey and looked like crazy paving. We circled the fort a couple of times to check for bears. Duane had cartridges as well as scary cracker shells for his gun, but good bear cover around the fort could result in an uncomfortably close meeting.

Chuck dropped us by the entrance to the fort. The storeroom, workshop and accommodation blocks survive to first-floor level in a central area sunk below the artillery platforms. The stone walls are some 11m thick.

I tried to imagine the emotions of newly arrived HBC men, in turmoil as they regarded their new home. A more desolate and inhospitable spot is hard to imagine. Even the man who chose the site, Captain James Knight, wrote in 1717 that he had ‘never Seen such A Misserable Place in all my life’.

Yet its bleakness makes it a fascinating place to visit, and to wonder at the endurance of early HBC recruits, mostly from London and the Orkneys – the last port of call for company ships bound for Hudson Bay.

Sunset over Hudson Bay (Shutterstock)

Sunset over Hudson Bay (Shutterstock)

Wine froze as you poured

In winter they had to contend with cold so intense that a man woke to find his hair frozen to the wall. When officers tried to commemorate the coronation of George II, ‘good port wine froze in the Glass as soon as pour’d out of the bottle’. And that was inside.

In summer they were plagued by blackflies and mosquitoes whose bites could soon reduce the face to ‘nothing in the World but knotts & bumps’.

The fort was surrendered to three French warships in 1782, without a shot being fired. Governor Samuel Hearne recognised that resistance was futile: none of the fort’s 39 men had been trained to fire the fort’s 42 cannon, each of which in any case required a crew of ten to 12 men. Most of the guns can still be seen at the fort.

Curiously, early diaries of the company men seldom mention ‘white bears’. Today, visitors in October and November are almost guaranteed polar bears, which wait for the ice to form so that they can hunt for ringed seals, their primary food source: Churchill is the first part of the bay to freeze up, so bears congregate here.

Though the whole of Hudson Bay freezes over, tidal action breaks up the ice beyond five miles offshore, constantly creating new hunting grounds.

Aboard the Polar Rovers

Most visitors see polar bears from massive, specially built 'Polar Rovers'; built on airport fire-tender chassis, they have up to 40 seats, a heater, a toilet and an open rear viewing platform.

Their vast tyres could do great damage to the fragile and slow-growing vegetation, so they’re limited to trails created by the US army during Cold War weapons testing, weaving through an almost flat landscape of small, willow-fringed lakes.

Polar rovers provide transportation (Shutterstock)

Polar rovers provide transportation (Shutterstock)

Get to see polar bears up close on a tundra buggy (Shutterstock)

Get to see polar bears up close on a tundra buggy (Shutterstock)

The ground is strewn with orange or cream lichen-covered rocks and punctuated by occasional clumps of lopsided trees; a short growing season and brutal climate mean that even small trees can be over 120 years old.

I spent a day on the tundra with natural scientist David Hatch, who has been coming to Churchill each winter for 42 years, leading parties in search of bears, and has developed an encyclopaedic knowledge of the region.

It wasn’t long before our first sighting, and I soon came to appreciate why immersion in this unforgiving landscape becomes a compulsive interest. We watched a huge recumbent bear in a typical posture – head resting on a paw – while David quietly shared his knowledge with me.

The slow, deliberate movements of the bear and its repeated languid yawns made it hard to visualise him moving at 50km/h, a bear’s top hunting speed. They can surprise a resting seal by climbing onto an ice floe, or wait patiently by an air hole.

Short work of seals

A mother with two cubs may wait beside three adjacent holes; the fidgeting of the young cubs diverts the seal to the quiet hole beside which the mother is waiting, motionless and ready to strike. She’ll sink her teeth into the seal’s head and lift it out through the strength in her powerful neck and shoulders.

During the summer, feeding opportunities diminish, and hunger may induce bears to risk an attack on a walrus; one jab of a tusk can prove fatal.

Similarly, a delay in getting onto the ice is harmful – bears burn up to 1kg of stored body fat each day they’re not hunting seals. Analysis of ice cover of Western Hudson Bay makes sober reading: researchers at the University of Alberta found that between 1978 and 2008 the average sea-ice concentration in the first week of December declined from 72% to 21% – a staggering drop. Consequently, average body condition of polar bears in this region has been declining for almost 30 years.

Polar bears play fighting in Churchill (Alamy Stock Photo)

Polar bears play fighting in Churchill (Alamy Stock Photo)

Facts and figures are fine, but during a short stop for soup I began to absorb the subtle beauty of this superficially harsh and colourless landscape. Just staring at a small area of ground, I noticed the astonishingly varied colour of the rocks, from pale grey to purple; the pattern of snow crystals; the form and colour of kelp; the deep red of Arctic cranberries and the yellow and cream of lichen.

Few trick-or-treaters in -25°C

My last night coincided with Halloween. Though lows of -25°C and bone-crunching wind chill deterred all but the hardiest trick-or-treaters, bear patrols were mounted at strategic points around the town to safeguard the intrepid.

Bears sometimes wander through town on their journeys west and north; one recently popped through the open door of the British Legion – though the tale that the manager informed him he wasn’t a member is probably apocryphal.

Bears that persistently hang around town are sedated and taken to a compound near the airport, a hanger-like building managed by Manitoba Conservation. The breezeblock cells of ‘Polar Bear Jail’ hold 36 miscreants, with family cells for mothers and cubs.

On my last morning I watched a sedated bear being taken out of the compound by quad bike and placed in a burlap bag for a lift by helicopter up the west coast of Hudson Bay to Seal River. Once there, a biologist would watch the bear until the sedative had worn off before returning to Churchill.

A large crowd had gathered to watch the lift. As this potent symbol of the impact of climate change took to the sky, many must have been wondering how long these creatures have left in their extraordinary wilderness.


This award-winning article was first published in Wanderlust issue 111 in 2009 and updated in March 2023. The author went on the trip with the Great Canadian Travel Company.

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