The season to see the Polar Bears in Churchill is short with departures running October through November. You can buy out an entire departure if you want to have your own private group, although this is one of those adventures where the people you meet share the same enthusiasm. It’s not unusual to plan in advance.
On this Natural Habitat Adventures trip you will encounter the Arctic wilderness by Polar Rover, helicopter and dog sled. The custom Polar Rovers have a window seat for each guest, plus a see-through steel-mesh viewing platforms for the closest possible polar bear encounters. You also will meeet the Inuit, Metis and First Nations peoples of Hudson Bay, and learn about their age-old customs and traditions during special cultural presentations
When is the best time to see polar bears in the wild?
While that is an impossible question to answer with 100% accuracy as it is impacted by the weather, NHA says the best time to go depends on the type of experience you are seeking and the impact of weather conditions in any given year. Also, keep in mind that seeing the polar bears is not guaranteed.
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. You may see fewer bears since as they prefer the cold. However, 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 the open subarctic landscape. You 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 the trip.
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 you 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 disappear beneath a blanket of snow. Other Arctic wildlife can become harder to spot. Moving 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.
Approaching 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. Based on observation during previous seasons, 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. Some years snow arrives by late September and remains throughout the season, and there are other 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.
The Trip (Ultimate Churchill Adventure)
Day 1: Winnipeg, Manitoba
Your polar bear trip begins in Winnipeg, once a fur-trading center and later a boomtown for the Canadian Pacific Railway. Today, Winnipeg is Manitoba’s cultural and commercial capital at the eastern edge of Canada’s sprawling prairie. Transfer to the historic Fort Garry Hotel, grande dame of Winnipeg hospitality and one of the city’s most prestigious landmarks. Meet your Expedition Leader at an orientation dinner this evening.
Day 2: Winnipeg / Churchill—Night Tundra Excursion
Fly to Churchill via NHA’s private chartered plane and explore this remote small community on a guided tour with our Expedition Leader. Originally a Hudson’s Bay Company fur-trading post, Churchill is home to just under a thousand people and, in late fall, to a few hundred polar bears that congregate at the edge of Hudson Bay. Then head to the tundra this evening in search of your first glimpse of the bears. Dinner is served aboard the enclosed Polar Rover in heated comfort.
Day 3: Helicopter Tour / Dog Sledding / Northern Culture
Soar over the tundra by helicopter, surveying the frozen landscape below. From the air you may see roaming polar bears and caribou. Landing on the tundra, disembark to explore on foot, looking for Arctic fox and Arctic hare and perhaps even crawling inside an unoccupied polar bear den. Try an age-old means of Arctic transportation on a dog sledding excursion. Learn about the life of a musher, visit with the dogs, observe the team as they prepare for the run, then head out for a ride under pure canine power behind an eager team of huskies!
Your immersion in northern culture continues as hosts from Churchill’s indigenous cultures tell the group about their traditions and what their daily lives are like. These storytellers share tales from their personal histories and offer insight into the vibrant nations that have flourished amid adversity for thousands of years in this harsh environment. You’ll also visit Churchill’s Itsanitaq Museum, with artifacts collected from centuries of local habitation.
Day 4: Polar Bear Viewing
The Polar Rovers are your mobile means for a full day on the tundra among the polar bears. Although these custom-designed vehicles accommodate up to 35 passengers, NHA takes a maximum of 16 on this itinerary, ensuring everyone a window seat and plenty of room to watch and photograph polar bears without intrusion from other guests. Expedition Leaders know the best places to look for bears, which are waiting for the ice to solidify on Hudson Bay in order to begin their winter seal-hunting season. As you watch the bears interact, you’ll be delighted by their antics and rugged beauty. You’ll have dinner back in town, and enjoy a presentation on wildlife or cultural aspects of life in the North.
Day 5: Polar Bear Viewing / Aurora Domes
Again, board the Polar Rover for a full-day excursion to explore the subarctic landscape and watch wildlife. It’s a leisurely pace as your group moves over the tundra, pausing whenever seeing polar bears to observe their behavior and capture photos. Tonight, if skies are clear, you’ll visit a heated Aurora Dome in hopes of witnessing the northern lights through the 360-degree Plexiglass roof. The phenomenon often begins slowly as a faint white glow, then intensifies in scope and color as the lights undulate across the sky, shimmering curtains of electric green, waves of blue or, rarely, even red. The Hudson Bay Inuit see the lights as the magical display of their ancestors’ souls dancing in the sky.
Day 6: Churchill / Winnipeg
After a bit of free time this morning to pick up some last-minute handicrafts and souvenirs in town, enjoy a farewell lunch in Churchill. The group will then fly back to Winnipeg aboard NHA’s chartered plane, where the group will have a final dinner before our adventure concludes.
Day 7: Winnipeg / Depart
After breakfast, transfer to the airport to fly home.
More About the Trip
NHA is one of two polar bear tour operators in Churchill to have permits to access the full Churchill Wildlife Management Area. Its custom-built Polar Rovers are designed to navigate the tundra and remote Hudson Bay shoreline to access the prime bear viewing and photography areas in comfort. While the Rovers hold 30 or more people, NHA groups are limited to 16 people. Your round-trip air transportation from Winnipeg to Churchill is included in the program fee. By chartering private aircraft, you travel to and from Churchill at the most convenient times, rather than losing a big chunk of a day to accommodate airline schedules and airport security lines. Typically, you depart Winnipeg around 9:00-9:30 am and arrive in Churchill in time for lunch. On the return journey, you normally leave in the afternoon so we you can maximize your last morning in Churchill. Expedition leaders average 10 years’ guiding experience and you can view bios here of Natural Habitat’s Expedition leaders.
The Tundra Lodge (pictured above), which your NHA group occupies exclusively during polar bear season, is a unique rolling hotel placed in an area of high bear density at the beginning of each polar bear season. It accommodates up to 35 guests, though NHA limits it to 28-30 guests. Each guest has an individual single compartment similar to a sleeping berth on a train. Guests share six flush toilets in individual bathrooms, plus four individual hot-water showers. A large lounge with sliding windows provides unimpeded bear viewing from the warmth of the “living room.” There are also several outdoor viewing platforms, each with steel-mesh flooring enabling guests to come within inches of bears that may wander below. The dining room is staffed by a world-class chef whose creative menus add an element of luxury to this most unique and remote of adventure locales.