If you're interested in seeing the famous polar bears of Churchill yourself, there are a number of ways to get there. You can do what we did, and arrive by train, which takes about two days from Winnipeg, or fly into the tiny Churchill airport. The flight takes about 2 1/2 hours from Winnipeg, but you don't get the excitement of being pitched onto the floor from your train berth in the middle of the night, or late night poker games in the dining car with native Canadians. Polar Bears International has a list of eco-tour companies that operate tours and give a portion of their proceeds to polar bear conservation efforts. One of our favorite eco-tour companies, Lindblad Expeditions, does not go to Churchill, but has cruises to Svalbard, Norway, another known stomping ground of polar bears.
Most hotel rooms are booked up by tour groups from October through the end of November, which is the season for the bears to start heading out to sea to hunt for ringed seals. The timing of the bay freeze varies from year to year, so it's hard to predict exactly how many you might encounter. When we were there, the bay froze early, so most of the bears had already headed out to sea during the second week of November.
Be sure to book your tour in advance; they often sell out and there are limited hotel rooms in Churchill. Be sure that your tour can accommodate kids, and find out what is available for different aged children. A nine-hour tour on a Tundra Buggy might be fine for teens, but your 2 year old might not find it quite so charming. Inquire about babysitting services if you might need them, or plan the trip when the kids are older.
We never felt that we were in any danger, but polar bears are wild animals and can be somewhat unpredictable. Be sure that your kids understand that they are visiting the bears in their home turf, and need to be respectful of them and their environment.
Tips for your Trip
- Prior to the trip, invest in warm clothes and wear multiple layers. It is bitterly cold in Churchill, and November temperatures average about 15 degrees Farenheit, and can go below zero.
- Study the bears with your kids before you go by reading age-appropriate books, watching videos, and checking out polar bear conservation websites. There are books about polar bears and featuring polar bears for all ages. I've listed some of the books we have enjoyed in the right column. Most of these are suitable for children 5 and under or for elementary-aged kids.
- While on the trip, wear multiple layers of clothing and take along back-up sets of long underwear and gloves.
- Take along games, books, puzzles, and plan activities for down time on the train or while waiting for bears to appear. Be sure to pack extra batteries, since the cold will cause them to drain faster than normal.
- Take advantage of other experiences that Churchill has to offer--the Eskimo Museum, Town Center, dogsledding were among the highlights for us.
The Bear Facts:
There are currently about 20,000-25,000 polar bears in the world. Scientists predict that, if current warming trends continue in the Arctic, two-thirds of the world's polar bears could disappear by 2050. The greatest threat to polar bear survival is the changing nature of sea ice. As the world warms, the polar ice caps are melting, causing less surface area for the bears to hunt. Other threats include pollution and poaching. Citing to concerns about shrinking sea ice, the U.S. Department of the Interior listed the polar bear as a Threatened Species under the Endangered Species Act on May 14, 2008.
If a trip to Churchill is not in your budget, consider taking steps to help them in your own way. Adopt a green lifestyle that helps conserve energy and slow global warming, to protect the bear's natural habitat. Donate to Polar Bears International to help in conservancy efforts. Watch videos, read about them, and support efforts to help these magnificent creatures. If you are not able to see them in your lifetime, do what you can to make sure that they survive so your children and grandchildren can.
Useful Articles:Churchill's Polar Bears