The Polar Bears of Churchill, Manitoba

Photographers Diane and Jim Bodkin provided the details and images for The Polar Bears of Churchill destination.

The Polar Bears of Churchill

Churchill, Manitoba, Canada designates itself as the “Polar Bear Capital of the World.”  Based on our experiences, we believe that to be true!

Churchill is located on the southwest coast of Hudson Bay and is uniquely positioned to be one of the first areas to ice over in the winter.  The cooling action and counterrotating currents of Hudson Bay interact with the rocky projection near the Churchill River to encourage the formation of ice earlier than at other locations.  The polar bears, knowing of this phenomenon passed down through generations, migrate from the internal boreal forests where they spend the warm months (or more accurately non-ice months) to the coastline in anticipation of the frozen ice.  Since the polar bear’s main diet is Ring seals, which they can only capture from the ice, most have not eaten since May, or if lucky, as late as mid-June.  That is why global warming is so critical to the polar bear’s survival. Each week of shortened ice formation represents about 5% of their food source, so if the ice breaks up 4 weeks early, they have about 20% less food to survive until it freezes again.  Female bears have a mechanism which prevents multiple births in seasons with low body weight due to lack of food.

The bears accumulate on the shore areas around Churchill as the weather turns cold, awaiting the solid ice formation that will allow them to travel up to 10-20 miles offshore, to wait by the seal’s air holes in the ice to capture them.  When the polar bears are waiting near the shore is the ideal time to photograph them, but one day too late and the vast majority will be gone.  We were there the second week in November and had 137 bear sightings over 5 days in Tundra Buggies.  A friend came the two days after we left and the ice had frozen. In the week he was there they had 9 bear sightings, with some of them so far away, he called them “3 pixel bears” for their size on his sensor.  So timing is very important.

Churchill is very isolated and the site of a former Canadian Air Force Base, which is now the municipal airport. With a 8000 foot runway, it can handle any aircraft flying, but normally hosts only the two engine commercial planes.  The year-round population is around 800, which is boosted during a summer tourist season and polar bear season.  The town has one main street on which all of the commercial establishments are located.  It has one gas station, one grocery store (that also sells clothes and skimobiles, right next to birthday cards), 4 restaurants, 3 hotels/motels and numerous gift shops, a post office, a hospital and a school. During the ice-free summer months there is port access which allows heavy cargo to arrive.

Getting There:
There are only two modes of transportation into Churchill: rail and air.  Due to its remote location, there are no roads connecting it to the rest of Canada.  [When questioning one local resident why they left the keys in their car ignition, they responded “If someone steals the car, where are they going to go?” (He did note that there is sometimes a nuisance problem with joy riders taking a car and leaving it a mile away in town.]

There are a couple of travel options:
1. Flying directly to Churchill (quickest and most expensive)
2. Driving/flying to Winnipeg and taking train to Churchill (slower and moderately expensive)
3. Drive to Thompson and take train to Churchill (slowest and least expensive)

Since the train involves overnight travel, there are different sleeping arrangement options depending on your privacy and economic concerns:
1. Coach seat (least expensive and requires sleeping in your seat)
2. Berth (next less expensive/coach seats convert to curtained berths for sleeping, commode with sink and shower down the corridor)
3. Roomette (next more expensive with private curtained access to coach seat that converts to a berth, incorporates a commode, with sink and shower down the corridor)
4. Cabin (most expensive with private door access to two berths, private commode, and sink but shower down the corridor)

Where to Stay:
The rooming accommodations are limited on the commercial side to the 3 hotels, but there is a booming business in B&Bs.  If traveling by yourself, check with the hotels or ask about B&Bs.  Tour guides will have already lined-up accommodations as part of their package.

There are 4 restaurants in town.  We patronized all 4 over the course of 8 days.  All were clean and offered a variety of menu items.  Since all of the food comes in by train (or air?) meals were 10-20% more expensive than their US counter parts.  Some offered unusual items like bison burgers, but most were typical US fare.

Getting Around:
While the town is small and everything really within walking distance, the threat of polar bears in winter had us driving even the shortest distances.  (There was a bear attack a couple of years ago, where the victim and rescuer were both mauled, but survived after extensive surgery and hospitalization)  If you are not with a tour group who will ferry you from the accommodations to restaurants, there is a car rental firm (yes, only one) in town that rents SUVs, vans and pickup trucks.  In 2014 they had a fleet of 5 or 6 vehicles.  Call ahead to reserve as our tour group used 3 of them.  The Great White Bear Tour company has their own vans/small buses to move their clients around.  There was one taxi company.

Whats to Photograph:
Obviously the Polar Bears are the main attraction, with also Red Fox, Arctic Fox, Ptarmigan, Gyrfalcon as popular subjects, but finding them takes a special skill or a lucky break for a fleeting image.  There are landscapes surrounding the town and along the 13 miles to the buggy launch area, but our favorite was the Northern Lights which occurs over 300 nights a year – – – it is just you may not be able to see them depending on the cloud cover.

There are some non-nature subjects in town, but an unusual one outside of town is “Miss Piggy” a crashed transport plane from the 50’s or 60’s.

Getting to the Bears:
There are two main businesses of actually getting you to the bears which are 13 miles from ‘downtown’: The Tundra Buggy (12 licenses) and The Great White Bear Tours (6 licenses).  The Great White Bear Tours have shuttle buses to get from lodging to the take off point.

The Tundra Buggy is the original enterprise and consists of 40- person vehicles with 2 people per ‘school bus’ bench seat and a window.  The accommodations are utilitarian, but very effective.  The leatherette covered school bus seats, made the activity of moving around quickly with heavy clothing and bulky equipment relatively easy.  A safety policy of “everyone seated while moving” is very important due to the extremely uneven terrain.  A center isle, about 8 feet wide, makes moving other photographer with equipment around very possible.  There is a propane heater and a commode on each vehicle.  Each vehicle also has a ‘back porch’ area where there is a 270˚ view, but direct exposure to the elements.  Depending on your cold tolerance and weather conditions, that could be the shooting premier location, but is only accessible when the vehicle is stopped.  Our tour had a maximum of 18 photographers so there was one photographer per window.  Even then, depending on where the bears were, we had to double up on windows at times.

The Great White Bear vehicles appear to be upgraded with cloth covered reclining chairs (similar to an airplane or bus) and would be difficult for serious photography, due to confining space and easy movement.

Unless you have made prior arrangements, you may be thrown in with a general public trip with every seat taken by tourists, not photographers.  They have a very different idea as the point and shoot/iPhone crowd who photograph through window because they don’t want to be cold.  Consider a ‘photography only’ tour, even if it more expensive.  It will definitely improve your images and lower your blood pressure.

‘Shooting’ the Bears:
In the Tundra Buggy, ideally each photographer will have his or her own window, which decreases the capacity from 40 to 20 photographers.  A bean bag is essential to getting excellent images, even at high shutter speeds, and is a welcome resting place as the camera and lens becomes heavy while waiting for the next bear pose.  We were on a full day trip from an 8 am push back from the loading platform to 5:00 pm arrival back.  Thus, we were able to take sunrise and sunset images, when the weather permitted.  Plan on several days in the buggy, if possible, because of the variability in weather and bear movement patterns.  The number of bear sightings ranged from a low of 9 to a high of 43 and the weather from clear blue skies to overcast to snow.  We had great flexibility and excellent images resulted.

When ‘photographers’ shoot bears, they lower the window to eliminate the loss of clarity and reflection of shooting through glass.  That action causes a large volume of cold air rushing in, so warm clothing is essential to comfort.  Most people kept their outside coats on full-time with gloves and hats.  It just made life easier.  The cold air rush turned into a polar wind tunnel when there was bear activity on both sides of the buggy and ALL the windows were down.

A DSLR with a zoom lens is ideal.  A 100-400mm lens on a cropped sensor DSLR (160-640mm effective focal length) was very effective.  A 150-600mm lens was better for the distant subjects (240-960mm effective focal length), but not as useful on closer subjects.  A second body with an 18-270mm lens (29-432mm effective focal length) was essential when the bears were along side the buggy or right below the ‘back porch’.

Prime long lens (500mm, 600mm, etc.) were effective on distant subjects, but their lack of flexibility was crippling.  A zoom lens was much more effective.  A tripod was not useful due to close quarters and bouncing.  Even when stationary, people moving within the vehicle caused some blurry images.  Bean bags are the answer.

A camera with continuous shooting capability is desirable, as the bears are moving quite a bit with great animation, especially when sparring.  The only downside is that it sounds like WW III is happening when a buggy full of 18 enthusiastic photographers try to capture that perfect shot.

Typical ‘good’ bear sighting occurred from 10 feet to 150 feet (60-75%).  Some were 200 – 300 feet (15-30%) , and a few beyond that (10%).  A good buggy driver can make all the difference in location knowledge and anticipating bear movement – – – we had one of the best – – – often being the first Buggy on a bear.

If you are interested in photography, go with an experienced guide/company that will arrange for lodging, local transportation and Tundra Buggies with photography in mind (low occupancy, multiple days, long time on the tundra, willingness to wait for the shot, experienced drivers, etc.).