Kings of the Arctic

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A female polar bear and her cubs in Churchill.
A female polar bear and her cubs in Churchill. Photo Credit: Melissa Scott

You'll always remember the first time you saw the Grand Canyon, the Taj Mahal, the Great Pyramids of Giza, wonders of the world that took your breath away. Seeing a polar bear in the wild -- massive, charismatic, powerful, sometimes even playful -- can feel every bit as exhilarating. Perhaps even more so, as this is a veritable wonder of nature, the iconic symbol of the Arctic, and one whose very survival might be threatened.

The estimated number of polar bears worldwide is 20,000 to 25,000, spread across the northern reaches of five countries they call home: the U.S. (Alaska), Canada, Greenland, Norway and Russia. Their designation by the U.S. as a threatened species in 2008 secured a spot in the international spotlight, and they have stayed there.

The biggest threat to their long-term survival is the change in their habitat -- the loss of sea ice -- due to climate change. Pollution, poaching and industrial impact also hurt. The last seven summers were the lowest Arctic sea ice statistics since satellite monitoring began in 1979. Polar bears spend much -- in some cases in the extreme north, all -- of their time on the ice floes in search of ringed seals, their main source of food. With the ice freezing up later in the fall and melting earlier in the summer, the polar bear's future hangs in the balance. 

Is there a certain urgency to see this King of the Frozen North sooner rather than later? 

"We do not use this see-the-bears-before-they're-gone theme as a tool for marketing," says Ted Martens, marketing director at Natural Habitat Adventures (Nat Hab), the worldwide conservation travel partner of the World Wildlife Federation that has been organizing polar bear trips to the Arctic since 1988. "Rather, we believe that travel has the power to inspire an ethos of conservation in our travelers who will return home and feel compelled to take action."

Canada, which has about two-thirds of the world's population of polar bears, enjoys the lion's share of polar bear tourism, namely in the small outpost of Churchill, Manitoba, on the west shore of Hudson Bay. There are few human settlements where polar bears can be viewed in the wild. In fact, this scrappy town of 800 hardy residents might very well be the only one.

I booked a late-October departure with Colorado-based Nat Hab. Of the myriad wildlife encounters it offers in more than 40 countries around the world, Churchill is its most popular. With an unbeatable location where the Churchill River empties into the shallow Hudson Bay, Churchill's mix of fresh and salt water is some of the first to freeze up beginning in October and November. It is then that the area's 800 to 900 bears start congregating along the shore, where they are forced to live when the sea ice melts midsummer. (It is also the last time they will have eaten for three to four months, during which they survive on fat reserves.)

It is a migratory phenomenon with an unrivaled bear density that gives unassuming Churchill the title of Polar Bear Capital of the World.

Kings of the Arctic

"Once the ice forms, their hunting season begins and they're outta here," said Karen Walker, our Alaska-based expedition leader. "They're hungry."

Although not technically the Arctic (the Arctic Circle is 66.6 degrees latitude, while Churchill is 60 degrees), it sure looks and feels that way, situated on the edge of the frozen expanse of Hudson Bay. Yet, given its middle-of-nowhere location and extreme weather, it is reasonably easy to get to and comfortable once you arrive.

With no paved access, travelers have to fly or take a train from Manitoba's capital, Winnipeg. Nat Hab arranges a two-hour charter with a regional airline aptly named (at least during our flight) Calm Air, while the 48-hour rail ride traverses the sprawling Canadian prairies, the boreal forest and finally the subarctic tundra. Seemingly minutes after arriving at Churchill's small but modern airport, we were enjoying lunch in the simple dining room attached to the Churchill Hotel, one of nine small, no-frills hotels in town and our home for the next four nights. TripAdvisor hotel reviews had repeatedly cautioned, "Don't come to Churchill for the accommodations," so I was surprised to find plenty of water pressure, free (and strong) WiFi and a spacious and clean (if design-challenged) room.

But there was no time to unpack, because the town was abuzz with excitement. A bear was being held at the Polar Bear Jail, about to be airlifted out of town, and everyone was headed that way to catch the big event. Thus, our first sighting was of a heavily sedated polar bear. He had wandered into town, was duly captured and after a brief stay at the Polar Bear Holding Facility (a former military hangar) was tranquilized, stretched out into a hammock-like net, winched up by a helicopter and whisked off to a location far outside of town. Bears are also released onto the sea ice if it is already formed.

It is commonly inquisitive adolescent bears that loiter in or around town and that can face up to one month of jail time. But this bear was an old-timer, possibly in his 20s, and was being given preferential treatment with a shorter jail time to avoid stressing him out.

Churchill, where the human population roughly equals its polar bear population.
Churchill, where the human population roughly equals its polar bear population. Photo Credit: Brad Josephs

So went our introduction to Churchill and our first observation of how the town has come to embrace these seasonal visitors, historically seen as a nuisance and even killed if they approached town or were found rummaging through the dump, since relocated well outside of town. Residents (curiously, the polar bear population of Western Hudson Bay approximates that of Churchill's human count) now recognize them as a livelihood, an incentive to assume stewardship over the bears with an emphasis on conservation and habitat protection. The town first began to nurture a tourism industry based on this migration in the 1980s, when ecotourism was a nascent concept. It now welcomes some 2,500 to 3,000 visitors during polar bear season alone. Two other seasonal and nature-related attractions also draw nature buffs: the July/August period when some 3,000 beluga whales visit these warmer waters to calf, and February/March, when it is all about the northern lights; Churchill is one of the most aurora-active places on Earth. 

It's impossible to miss the celebrate importance that nanuk (the Inuit word for polar bear) commands around town. Mementos are sold in every imaginable interpretation, from polar bear slippers to children's books about the bear's plight, carrying price tags both cheap (think refrigerator magnets) and steep (I splurged on a small soapstone sculpture by a local Inuit artist).

We were soon given a crash course on all things polar bear to prep us for the up-close-and-personal encounters that awaited. When not hunting seals on the pack ice, the world's largest carnivore roams the subarctic tundra that surrounds Churchill (it is actually taiga, as tundra has no trees) and stretches as far as the eye can see. The male can tip the scales at 1,000 to 1,200 pounds (the largest ever recorded weighed 2,200 pounds) and stands around 10 feet on his hind legs. Females are considerably smaller and give birth to cubs that weigh only a pound or two.

With a highly acute sense of smell, they are skilled hunters who can pick up a scent from 20 miles away and can detect the presence of seals under 3 feet of snow and ice. Polar bears have no natural enemies -- we're talking top of the Arctic food chain -- and consequently no fear. And despite their size, they can move with surprising speed and agility.

With the latter still fresh in mind the next morning, we gladly clambered onto our viewing vehicle of choice, a Polar Rover, or "the illegitimate offspring of a coach bus and a monster truck," joked one of Nat Hab's leaders. Inarguably the safest and most comfortable way to roam the tundra, it has six wheels, each 6 feet high, and can run in all-wheel drive through lakes, ice jams and over rough terrain. It seats 40 in reclining bus seats, which meant that our group of 15 -- bundled in Arctic-proof parkas and extreme-weather boots lent to us by Nat Hab -- were able to stretch out, each with a window seat and room for camera equipment and backpacks. Heated, with a coffee dispenser in the back and -- most impressive of all -- a flush toilet, this was safari luxe.

A Great White Bear Tours Polar Rover.
A Great White Bear Tours Polar Rover. Photo Credit: Henry H. Holdsworth

Our Polar Rover was one of 18 owned by two local companies, the only vehicles allowed in the 3,000 square miles of bayfront tundra that make up the Churchill Wildlife Management Area, where polar bear viewing is at its best. Rovers are restricted to an 18-mile network of barely discernible trails, relics of a military presence during World War II.

With roles reversed, we were now in the world of the polar bear, trespassers in a glorified cage. With the engine turned off, we prayed they would come and check us out. And come they did, well over a dozen in the two days we spent in the rover. They have plenty of room to avoid these lumbering white coaches but are naturally curious creatures. Some came directly up to our parked rover and lingered for hours, one rising on his back feet with massive paws on the windshield, another venturing underneath the outdoor observation deck at the back. At one point there was only the steel mesh grating separating my thick rubber boots from the black nose of a curious male.

Polar bears are solitary animals but not territorial nor antisocial, and from what we observed, seem to form alliances as they hang out, roaming the tundra, biding their time. We saw them mock fight and spar with one another, yawn and stretch or just sit in the vicinity of the rover and chill. Bears on land tend to laze about to conserve energy, we were told, in a behavior sometimes referred to as "walking hibernation." Although cubs can stay with their mothers for two to three years, we did not see any, but female bears don't congregate along the coastline in the same numbers as males.

Churchill is not only the most accessible bear-watching spot for U.S. travelers but also the closest proximity to the densest population of polar bears. Still, it is not the only place to experience them. Northern Norway -- Svalbard to be exact -- is arguably Europe's best place to find polar bears, with summer-month departures by boat making it a preference for some. 

Located 350 miles north of Norway, with which it has been politically integrated since 1925, and the northernmost tip of Europe, the rugged island of Spitsbergen (Dutch for "jagged mountains") is the largest of the Arctic Svalbard archipelago and home to 2,500 to 3,000 bears. With a small airport that accommodates flights from Oslo (the moderating influence of the Gulf Stream keeps the island inhabitable, albeit sparsely), it is the embarkation point for exploration of this remote and little-visited region May through August, the prime tourism months here (think Midnight Sun). Expedition cruises of nine to 13 days or more illustrate why Spitsbergen is called the Wildlife Capital of the Arctic. In addition to polar bears, you can expect to see walruses, reindeer, seals, colonies of seabirds and some of the 17 species of whales that call these waters home, all against a stunning landscape of glaciers, peaks, icebergs and abandoned whaling stations. 

A bear sighting during a Quark Expeditions trip.
A bear sighting during a Quark Expeditions trip. Photo Credit: Naomi Box

Nat Hab brings their same expertise in ecotourism to Svalbard, joining other veteran operators such as Quark Expeditions and Lindblad/National Geographic aboard small, 60- to 120-passenger ships built especially for these ice-clogged waters. Zodiacs are used for exploration of hard-to-access inlets and shore walks.

Those with the luxury of time should opt for longer itineraries, many of which include both Greenland and Iceland. Hurtigruten, the venerable Norwegian passenger and freight service line that has also served as a popular cruise line since 1893, has been exploring the summer wonders of Svalbard for 45 years; its 265-passenger Fram, built in 2007, is a common sight in this region. Its 13-day itinerary includes the highlights of Svalbard before continuing with a cruise along mainland Norway's fjord-indented coastline on its way to the city of Bergen.

Long days of summer sun showcase Svalbard's spectrum of polar wildlife against a dramatic backdrop, but there is one thing it can never deliver: a winter sky undulating with the aurora borealis, or northern lights, and for that, I will always remember Churchill. As if on cue our last night there, we were awakened around 2 a.m. by excited knocks on our hotel room door. (We had hopefully placed our "Please Awaken" signs outside every night, though astonishingly, some choose to be passed over for the sake of a good night's rest.) We joined other excited, half-asleep visitors pouring out from Churchill's cluster of small hotels in the frigid night, standing in the middle of Main Street, looking up.

As if a grand finale to our brief stay, the planet was putting on a show, regaling us the most awe-inspiring sendoff: a black winter sky filled with pale green dancing lights, shimmering, gossamer, ever changing, ethereal and beautiful beyond belief. In one final flourish of nature's brush, they transformed our wonderful adventure into a remarkable one.

Patricia Schultz is the author of the New York Times best-seller "1,000 Places to See Before You Die" (Workman).

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