Every day, prospective guests ask our Adventure Specialists, “When is the best time to go to Churchill to see polar bears?” While that is an impossible question to answer with 100-percent accuracy (after all, we cannot control nature), the best time to go depends on the type of experience you are seeking and the impact of weather conditions in any given year.
The descriptions below, which detail typical weather and polar bear migration patterns in and around Churchill, are gleaned from our nearly three decades of operating polar bear trips in the region. The photos in our published materials demonstrate a sampling of different conditions, from bare autumn tundra to full snow cover. Many of the images feature close-ups of bears, which makes sense, as we want to show you the highlights. But keep in mind that it’s rare to experience close-up views throughout the duration of a trip. It could be that some trips in a given year have very few close encounters with polar bears, or even none. It’s important to be aware of these variations when you book your trip, and to travel to Churchill with a focus on the entire Arctic experience.
The first few weeks of polar bear season in Churchill are characterized by 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 relative comfort. Though we may see fewer bears than at the end of the season, it is the quality of these experiences that has left past visitors with indelible 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 open subarctic landscape. We also have a better chance to spot caribou during the earlier, warmer weeks. Milder weather is also conducive to a more comfortable experience on the helicopter portion of our Ultimate Churchill trip or on our optional helicopter excursion.
The transition to the middle of polar bear 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 color on the tundra may disappear beneath a sprinkling or blanket 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, such as an Arctic hare camouflaged in winter-white against the snow. 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.
As we approach the fifth and sixth weeks of polar bear season, the edges of Hudson Bay usually begin to freeze, and the bears start to become more active in anticipation of access to their winter home on the pack ice. We can state confidently, based on observation during previous seasons, that the highest bear concentrations generally occur during the week or so before the bay is frozen solid enough to support the bears’ weight, allowing them to depart. 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 an 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-arid environment with relatively little snowfall for a place associated so closely with the North. 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 travelers should be aware that the Churchill environment is not always white.
In Conclusion: The best time to see polar bears in their natural habitat depends on a traveler’s own goals for the experience…affected, of course, by weather conditions that particular season. It is important to approach this exciting adventure having made the most informed decision possible, while knowing that nature is unpredictable. We trust this information describes what you can most likely expect during the Churchill polar bear season, and that it will help you as you plan.
If you have further questions, please speak with one of our Adventure Specialists at 800-543-8917.