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In Mid-October we saw photos of polar bears in a travel magazine. We wondered what time of year is the best time to go, so we called the first travel agent that came up. Four hours later we had tours AND flights booked! That was the fastest we have never made trip plans!

 

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Our tracks around Churchill are in green, they’re expanded below.

The prevailing current is counter clockwise, so note how the shoreline turns eastward right at Churchill.

As the Churchill River dumps fresh water into the bay at Churchill and the current pushes the freshwater against the shore, this is the first place Hudson Bay freezes in winter making this a major polar bear viewing place. (Fresh water freezes faster than salt water)

At the end of the bear photos there are photos of a bear “lift” and Winnipeg.

 

GPS-Churchill

 

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Churchill is a town of about 800 located where the Churchill River flows into the Hudson Bay.

 

As indicated on the sign, tourism is active here during parts of the year: polar bears in October and November, beluga whales from late June to Late August, and is popular with bird watchers throughout the summer.

 

They have many organized tours for the above, as well as tours from late November through March for Aurora Borealis viewing.

 

Downtown Churchill.

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This is the information for the week we were there.

 

Bear Facts!

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This Inuksuk is used as an informative sign for the peoples of the Arctic and are found from Alaska to Greenland.

The word means “something which acts for or performs the function of a person.”

They may have been used for navigation, as a point of reference, a marker for travel routes, fishing places, etc.

 

 

 

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This is a Tundra Buggy like the one we were on during our two days bear viewing.

 

This is the Tundra Buggy Lodge. It is an option to staying in a hotel in Churchill as we did.

The two buggies on the right are the “dorms” for 20 people.

The next two buggies are the dining car/lounge car. Beyond that are the staff dorms.

Some tours stay 2 to 3 days – nonstop – in his lodge. They get on/off tundra buggies like ours every day for that day’s touring. Pretty cosy

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We had watched this bear sparring with another quite a distance from us. Then it slowly walked toward us, occasionally looking back over its shoulder.

 

It climbed the bank and made itself comfortable right in front of our tundra buggy for about an hour. As the drivers are not allowed to start the buggy (they don’t want to make the bears afraid of them) we sat and watched.

 

He occasionally looked in the direction of the distant bear.

 

Did he feel safer by the tundra buggy?

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Ring seals are the main diet of polar bears.

 

As the water freezes the seals maintain a breathing hole by keeping it wide with their claws as they climb out of the water.

 

The bears can smell these holes from a long way away.

 

They stealthily approach the hole knowing the ring seal will come back because it needs to breathe.

 

The long neck of the polar bear (different from the other bears) is used to reach down in the hole to pull up the ring seal.

 

 

The sea ice breaks up about July and the polar bears leave the ice for inland. They eat very little before the Hudson Bay freezes again in late October to early November. At that time the bears move to the Churchill area and wait to get on the ice.

 

Why Churchill? The Churchill River flows into the Hudson Bay where the land changes direction from south to east. The flow is counter clockwise so the fresh water is pushed against the land.

 

This fresh water is the first water to freeze and is the reason the bears come here to wait.

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The polar bear watching season is just seven weeks long.

 

In October there are only the bears that arrive first.

 

Arriving in the middle of the period might mean not seeing the females with their young, as they aren’t comfortable being around the males. A weak cub would be an attraction for males.

 

Arriving too late in November is a problem if Hudson Bay has already frozen because the bears will all be on the ice.

 

 

 

The tours during the time we were there were the last for the season; we hadn’t realized that.

 

We were lucky and the ice hadn’t frozen.

 

Being so late meant that we not only saw the males but we saw females and lots of them with cubs and several with twins.

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No one knows why males spar. They haven’t eaten much, if anything, for five months and they are thin and not strong. Some think they feel the need for exercise even though their number one goal seems to be that they not get hurt. To get injured now, before they got on the ice would be very bad.

 

In March, when they are competing for a mate, they can fight to the death. But now, they are unbelievably gentle (as gentle as a 1000 pound animal can be, that is!).

 

There was so much drama; all of us on our tundra buggy watched in pleasure and amazement.

 

We watched spellbound several times the following scenario: a bear (A) approaching another (B) that was lying in the snow.

B would ignore A. A would then lie down next to B.

B would ignore A. A would start to sidle up to B. B would ignore A.

Finally their noses would touch and B would look at A. This might go on for a while before B finally lifted his head. Then they would slowly (like Sumo wrestlers?) move back and forth. Eventually they stood, but they never bared fangs or made any violent move; it was like slow dancing.

 

In some of the photos the bear paws can be seen from the bottom. These paws can be 18” across, as they distribute the bear’s weight when on the ice.

 

The bears get out of breath very quickly; that’s the reason for the mouths being open.

 

A movie clip gives an even better feeling for what it was like than do the following photos.

 

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Below is another sparring sequence.

 

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Following, the final sparring sessions we’ll include.

 

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Very rarely seen is the Arctic fox below. We lucked out and observed this one (very long tele lens shot).

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Again, luck!

 

This Arctic hare (aka polar rabbit) survives with a thick coat of fur and keeps warm and sleeps in holes it digs in the ground.

 

Arctic hares can run 40 mph which is necessary to escape its predators: the Arctic fox, red fox, gray wolf, Canada lynx, ermine, snow owl, gyrfalcon, rough-legged hawk and humans. That’s quite a list!

 

Fortunately for us, their defense is to “freeze” and the tundra buggy came really close for our photos. From a distance it looked like a lump of snow.

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Another tundra buggy had photography tourists. We were amazed at their cameras (here and below).

 

We were told that in two days out on the tundra they hadn’t seen even one pair of bears sparring!

 

We were lucky!

 

Check out the lenses above and right.

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We were on a “Tundra Buggy” tour. This is the group of us.

 

For people who travel without a tour to Churchill, they offer day trips on the Tundra Buggies that might have FIFTY people!

 

We had picnics of delicious soup and sandwiches.

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There is a holding facility in Churchill for bears that they can’t convince to stay out of town. (It’s called the bear jail.) These bears might be kept for a month, but are eventually flown by helicopter and released 50 miles away.

 

Our guide has been doing tours like ours for 15 years and he’d seen bear lifts only four times.

 

We got to see two, each lift taking a mom and her cub!

 

They put the bear to sleep before bringing it out of jail on this cart.

 

They roll the sedated bear on its back on the net (when the helicopter lifts it, the bear curls into a ball).

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They prepare a net for the mom and a different net for the cub.

 

They take up the cub first, then the mom.

 

 

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…and off they go!

 

It was really the icing on the cake for us on our Churchill adventure!

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We landed in Winnipeg in the afternoon before we flew to Churchill so only had time to tour the “forks” region of the city. This is where two rivers meet and has been a settlement place since people have been here.

 

This is a new pedestrian bridge near the area of the city which has historical buildings.

 

It was a late fall feel: not very cold.

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This is a new museum, The Canadian Museum for Human Rights. It is supposed to be as spectacular inside as outside.

 

Unfortunately it was closed.

 

The above was on November 14.

 

We were back in Winnipeg for the night of November 18.

 

November 19 we flew home. Our hotel was on the airport and the following two photos were taken from our fifth floor window.

 

The wind was really blowing and it was … COLD!

 

What a difference a few days make! Locals told us that winter had arrived and that there would always be snow until spring, and that there would very often be strong winds.

 

BRRRR !

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The planes getting de-iced.

 

 

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