By Brandi Worden, WWF Senior Program Administrator, Reporting Lead
Animal sightings in Churchill, Manitoba ebb and flow with the sea ice in Hudson Bay. In the summer as the ice melts, you’ll find the largest gathering of beluga whales in Canada. In winter, as the ice forms a shelf connected to land, polar bears reign supreme.
The human residents also live life according to seasons. Not the calendar seasons we often think of, but wildlife seasons, wild food seasons, summer solstice season, and winter solstice season.
Cultural experiences in the cold
The first thing we noticed about the season we visited was the frigid temperature. Our first day hovered around –25 degrees Fahrenheit. As we stepped off the bus and made our way into the Churchill Hotel, we were hit by the wind coming off the Bay. The hotel windows were frosted over.
After warming up a bit, our first stop was the Itsanitaq Museum which houses an impressive collection of Inuit carvings and artifacts dating over 3,000 years old, spanning Pre-Dorset, Dorset, Thule, and modern Inuit times. There was clear evidence of ancient life revolving around seasons. From kayaks and spears to woven baskets, many of the artifacts depicted hunting and gathering activities.
Season of the polar bear
The next day was our first on the tundra—what a magnificent day! First, we boarded our tundra rovers: a vehicle akin to a school bus but cozier with the largest tires you’ve ever seen. Because our trip was guided by Natural Habitat Adventures, our rover was only half-full affording each of us our own window into the Arctic sights. Despite the negative temperature, our rover was warm and comfortable.
Almost immediately after leaving the rover station, we sighted the first polar bear! The snow sparkled in the bright Arctic sunlight while a mother polar bear and her two cubs lazed on the sea ice. While mom took a well-deserved break, the cubs snuggled her and rolled in the snow, never sitting still.
As we watched the cubs bother mom, growling drew our attention to the other side of our rover. An elder bear with a scarred face chased off a couple of juveniles. The bear made it clear he had no patience for young whippersnappers in his territory. Over the course of the next couple hours, the two juveniles continued to test the elder, wandering around us. They eventually saw the error in their ways and walked off in another direction.
Expert guides make all the difference
As we returned to town that evening, the setting sun cast an orange glow on the fur of a lone bear. He was thoroughly enjoying himself as he sprawled on his back in a snowbank. Our knowledgeable Nat Hab guide shared with us that lounging in such cold conditions is made possible by the thick layer of blubber beneath their skin. Because polar bear hairs are hollow, the bears also have an insulating layer of air on top of their skin. The season of the polar bear was certainly upon us!
More than just bears!
The following day, we were reminded of the abundance of wildlife found during this season. We found all three species of fox present in the area—arctic, silver, and cross fox— roaming solo, intently listening for lemmings beneath the snow. We watched as they pranced over the tundra, stopped suddenly, and tilted their heads to better hear their prey. Our patience (and theirs) was eventually rewarded as we watched one fox leap and dive into the snow like a bird diving for a fish in the ocean. It emerged victorious with a squirming lemming clutched in its jaw.
Not much farther down the trail, hiding under the sparse plant life, we observed the master of arctic camouflage, the ptarmigan. Its white feathers perfectly matched its surroundings. Only its small, round, black eye gave away its location. And only to those of us with the keenest eyes and most abundant luck. The luck was shared as a second ptarmigan joined the first and rested, giving us ample time for observation.
Later, a snowy owl followed us, soaring from tree to tree. The bird watched us with its ochre-colored eyes as we made our way across the ice.
The northern lights give a show of a lifetime
As the sun dipped below the horizon, our rover rolled to a stop. Our group stayed on the tundra for an evening of camaraderie and snacks. Little did we know that we would still have a show even when it was too dark to see any animals.
Not to be outdone by wildlife, Mother Nature gave us the experience of a lifetime, lighting up the sky with the vivid greens of the aurora borealis. We stared in wonder and awe as the northern lights danced in the frigid night, framed by the moon and stars. Even though we all knew the scientific reasons for the aurora borealis—charged solar particles interacting with atmospheric elements—we couldn’t help but believe in the magic the lights elicit.
Dog-sledding provides a full Arctic experience
Our last day in Churchill was sunny and bright. We visited Wapusk Adventures, an Indigenous-owned dog sledding tour company. Huddled inside a cozy log cabin, we heard from musher and owner Dave Daley as he explained how he began the kennel and about his Indigenous heritage. While listening to Dave speak, we were each greeted by one of his lead dogs, who made the rounds looking for ear scratches and pets.
Soon, it was time to try our hand at mushing! Dave and the team developed custom sleds that allow visitors to stand in the musher’s spot while the actual musher controls the dog team from behind. Once I had my feet in place on the runners, there was a yell of, “Mush!” The dogs took off, doing what they do best: running! Leading us through a wooded, winter wonderland, the professional dog team followed their mushers’ every command, bringing us back to the log cabin after about a mile. Dave joked with us that they’ve named it the “Idita-mile” after the Iditarod trail race that takes place annually in Alaska.
When you plan your visit to Churchill…
remember every season is the windy season!
While our visit to Churchill felt too short, I’ll be forever grateful that I had the opportunity to see such a unique part of the world.