Canada: Caution! Bears crossing

Travel to the Canadian frontier town of Churchill in autumn to see the world's largest concentration of polar bears

By Sarah Barrell
Published 8 Dec 2017, 10:45 GMT, Updated 12 Jul 2021, 14:31 BST
Caution! Bears crossing
Photograph by Alamy

Miss Piggy is looking rough. Her doors and windows have blown, her fuselage is grey and flaking, and lurid graffiti covers what's left of her wings. This Curtiss C-46 cargo plane, which crash-landed in 1979, got its nickname for its bulbous fuselage and capacious hold. Judging from the graffiti and detritus in her midst — broken glass, empty cans; snuffed-out bonfires — it looks like her only regular cargo now is teenagers.

"Yeah, they come here to hang out," says Doug, one of my two guides. "But local lads are bear-savvy; they'll make noise, light a fire… I'd rather have a gun, though." The other guide — standing lookout on the rocks above the wreck — nods in agreement.

Life for human beings here in Churchill doesn't come easy. Polar bears, on the other hand, are habituated, albeit nomadic, residents. It was the 19th century's booming fur trade that saw a settlement spring up here in this permafrost-paved outpost of northern Canada. Bears come ashore in late summer to breed, before migrating back onto the ice flow from September to October to feed on plump seal pups — creating the world's largest concentration of wild polar bears.

"Juvenile bears are the main problem in town," says Doug as we hop aboard our Tundra Buggy and bump out into the flat boreal wilderness that is the Churchill Wildlife Management Area: over 2,100,000 acres of protected tundra. An increasingly enlightened attitude to conservation, and a reliance on the wildlife tourism buck, means encroaching beasts are no longer shot dead. Instead, they're scared off or relocated by helicopter. They may also get to spend a night in the 'holding facility', better known as polar bear jail.

It's a slow start — literally — travelling at a careful 3mph along mapped trails. "It's not just the bears' environment we're protecting," says our driver, Neil, "we're also avoiding UXOs." These unexploded ordinances — throwbacks to the US military's 1950s colonisation of Churchill as a strategic Arctic base — are another reason to stay on the trails: a case of low-impact (and hopefully no-impact) tourism. Hours drag by, training binoculars through the sideways sleet out on the back of the buggy's open viewing platform. So much for having to scare bears off. And then: a sighting.

A cream-coloured boulder — the kind that do maddeningly good impressions of bears — turns out to be a bear, hunkered down against the wind, its coal-black, sleep-squinting eyes the only giveaway. More sightings come in quick succession, and we trundle around the tundra tracking the hulking beasts at a distance of 10-30 metres as they snuff around in the kelp and lick lichen off rocks. An air of satisfied nonchalance settles over the group, until a bear makes a beeline for the buggy. It's sudden and he closes ground with startling speed, within seconds up on hind legs, garden sickle-size claws pawing at the truck, epic head vastly eclipsing my camera's viewfinder.

Finding yourself a metre from the world's largest land predator — eyeball to eyeball, twitching snout to gaping mouth — does something primitive to a person. Panic? Sure. The group produces some ripe expletives, jumping back like spring-loaded guns. Tear-jerking, heart-seizing wonderment? On a scale hitherto unimaginable. Once you've been within a whisker of those jaws and claws you know that awesome respect is the bear necessity of life.

How to do it: The five-night Churchill Town and Tundra Enthusiast tour costs C$5,799pp (£3,540) including pre- and post-trip stays in Winnipeg, return flights to Churchill, accommodation, transfers, transport, all activities, guides and meals.

Follow @TravelBarrell

Published in the Adventure Travel guide, free with with the Jan/Feb 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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