Karin Delany on a Churchill polar bear tour

What fascinates me most about traveling is experiencing a completely different way of life in other cultures. Different food, different climates, different ideas of what’s “normal.” On my Classic Polar Bear Adventure in Manitoba, Canada, last October, I definitely got a glimpse into a different world.

I was incredibly excited to see polar bears in the wild. I had a convenient nonstop flight from Denver to Winnipeg, which was a much bigger city than I had anticipated, and with a very international vibe. I would have loved to have had more time here to explore, but my destination was Churchill.

This small town with fewer than 1,000 inhabitants sits right on the edge of Hudson Bay, a few hours north of Winnipeg via our chartered flight. It is world-famous for the large numbers of polar bears that show up each fall, waiting for Hudson Bay to freeze over so they can go out on the ice and hunt seals. Churchill can only be reached by plane or train, which makes it feel even more remote.

Ptarmigan in Churchill, Manitoba

On our way into town from the airport, our Expedition Leader, Kurt Johnson, gave us an initial overview of the area and handed out a map of downtown. With a neon highlighter, he had marked the “safe zone” where we could walk around on our own safely and would hopefully not run into a polar bear. It wasn’t a big area, just a rectangle around the main street through town with one block on either side. He told us that the locals keep their front doors and car doors unlocked in case someone needs a quick escape when encountering a polar bear! And he told us about the Polar Bear Watch, a group of volunteers who keep people, pets and polar bears safe.

Whenever there is a bear sighting in town or close by, the Polar Bear Watch team gets called and they try to chase off the bear with lots of noise, and, when necessary, rubber bullets. If it is a repeat offender, the bear gets tranquilized, tagged and goes to polar bear “jail,” which is a holding facility for problem bears. From there it gets transported farther north by helicopter and released back into the wild at a safe distance.

When I went to bed that night, I could hardly sleep for excitement. I was still wide-awake at 10 p.m. when loud sirens suddenly went off. I briefly got a little nervous—what was going on?!? But then I remembered. This was the siren signal for older kids to head home. Curfew due to polar bears!

Polar bear on the Churchill tundra

Later, in the middle of the night, I woke up because I thought I heard a car driving by really fast. I didn’t think much of it; in most places, we are used to hearing cars go by. I also didn’t think twice about the fact that it had been absolutely quiet outside the whole evening. Then, I suddenly heard lots of noise and then bullets being fired! Ah… that fast car must have been volunteers from Polar Bear Watch and the shots were rubber bullets, trying to convince a polar bear to avoid this town. It took only a few minutes, and then all was quiet again.

I marveled at the surreal situation while I lay in the dark, listening to the absolute stillness outside. I had heard our guide describe the Polar Bear Watch, but it was a completely different thing to hear the action in “real time” and realize that yes, this is daily life here and perfectly “normal.”

Churchill was definitely a place like none I had ever visited before, and my adventure was just getting started. The real action still lay ahead, and I couldn’t wait to get out there and finally see the King of the Arctic myself, face to face.

Polar bear mother and cub

This guest post was written by Air Travel Specialist Karin Delany. All photos © Karin Delany.