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The Ebbs and Flows of a Polar Bear Season

The following description of the typical patterns of polar bear migration and weather in Churchill is gleaned from more than two decades of experience operating the world’s greatest polar bear adventures. Every day our Adventure Specialists are asked, “When is the best time to go?” While that is an impossible question to answer with 100% accuracy (after all, we cannot control nature), the best time to go truly depends on the type of experience you are seeking. At Natural Habitat Adventures, we run our trips ONLY during the 'core' polar bear season and we offer a unique guarantee that our guests will see bears or they can return free of charge the following season.

An important note: Please keep in mind that in our many years of sharing this amazing place with nature lovers, it tends to be that single incredible experience with one bear that makes an entire trip meaningful, not a simple tally of seeing “X” number of bears.

Beginning of the Season
The first few weeks of polar bear season in Churchill are characterized by brilliant fall colors on the tundra and the arrival of bears from the entire western Hudson Bay ecosystem. The bears tend to be curious about our presence. Weather is generally a little warmer than later in the season, allowing visitors to explore the historic town of Churchill in comfort. Though we may see fewer bears than at the end of the season, it is the quality of these experiences that has left our past visitors with amazing memories. In addition, this time of the year provides excellent opportunities to spot other wildlife. Without the cover of snow, animals such as arctic fox, arctic hare, snowy owl, willow ptarmigan, gyrfalcon and other birds stand out against the vibrant colors of the subarctic landscape. There is also a better chance to spot caribou during the earlier, warmer weeks. Milder weather conditions are also conducive to a more comfortable experience for guests who choose our Ultimate Churchill trips or the optional helicopter excursion.

Middle of the Season
The transition to mid-season is subtle and does not occur at a precise moment, but the third and fourth weeks are typically characterized by a continuing drop in temperature, while weather conditions become less predictable. Of course, polar bears like the colder temperatures, and we may begin to see more of them scattered throughout the area. Colder temperatures also bring higher activity levels. However, if wind and snowstorms move in, bears may become inactive as they hunker down to wait out adverse conditions. Fall colors on the tundra may disappear beneath a sprinkling or cover of snow. Other arctic wildlife can become harder to spot, yet this adds a fun element to the adventure when someone shouts out excitedly that an elusive creature has been sighted. As we move into the fifth week, temperature and weather conditions can feel truly arctic—though there have been years in which a very cold stretch fades into a mid-season warming trend, and the bears disperse to a degree.

End of the Season
As we approach the fifth and sixth weeks of our season, the edges of the bay usually begin to freeze and the bears start to become more active in anticipation of access to their winter home—the Hudson Bay pack ice. We can state confidently, based on previous seasons’ observation, that the highest bear concentrations generally occur during the week or so before the bay is frozen enough to support the bears’ weight, allowing them to leave. However, sightings may be at great distance as the bears begin to move to the edge of the ice to test its stability, and to position themselves to prey upon any unwary seal that hauls itself onto the ice to rest. The potential to see a greater number of bears comes with a caveat: there are definitely years when the bay freezes early and a majority of the bears depart for the ice. There is no way to accurately predict when this will happen from year to year. In fact, the freeze may even occur during what we consider mid-season, resulting, in hindsight, in better bear viewing during the earlier weeks.

A Word about Snow: Churchill is a semi-desert environment with relatively little snowfall for a place associated so closely with the Northland. We have witnessed years when snow arrives by late September and remains throughout the season, and years when the ground is bare until late December. It is impossible to predict snow cover, but clients should be aware that the Churchill environment is not always white.

In Conclusion: The best time to see polar bears and the natural habitat that supports them is dependent upon an individual’s own goals for the experience. It is important to approach this exciting adventure having made the most informed decision possible, knowing that nature is unpredictable. As a staff of dedicated nature enthusiasts, naturalists and scientists, we believe that this information best describes what to expect during the Churchill polar bear season. We hope you have found this helpful as you consider when you wish to travel. If you have further questions, please call one of our Adventure Specialists at 1-800-543-8917.

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