By: Dawn Wilson
“Welcome to the Polar Bear Club,” I said to my group on our last morning in Churchill. “This is a rare opportunity to see polar bears in the wild, and you just spent a week with them.”
From November 7-14, myself and four fellow nature photographers traveled to the west shore of Hudson Bay in northern Canada to observe and photograph polar bears and other wildlife from the Arctic with a local guide company. We have had great success with up to ten different polar bears in one day.
Churchill is a remote town in the Canadian province of Manitoba with a population of approximately 800 people made up primarily of Indigenous people, including First Nations, Métis, and Inuit. The small town, nicknamed the Polar Bear Capital of the World, is 1,361 miles as the crow flies from Estes Park. But there are no roads to Churchill; you must arrive by plane or train. While I would love to take the two-day train trip one day, I chose the airplane option, which took me through Denver, Vancouver and Winnipeg.
As a photographer, I want to come home with the best photos of the animals I’ve seen. As a writer and conservationist, I want to document the story unfolding in front of me. This trip produced both.
Polar bears visit Churchill in the fall as part of their migration to the sea ice in Hudson Bay. These large bears – they can weigh up to 1,700 pounds – spend up to eight months on the ice hunting their favorite seal meal. Polar bears then live on these fat stores for the remaining three to four months of the year they spend on earth.
Climate change has increased temperatures, especially in the Arctic. The result is an extended ice-free period, reducing the time bears have to hunt on the ice. Latest estimates show that the ice-free period in Hudson Bay has increased by 20 days per year.
Churchill is one of the first places where water freezes in Hudson Bay due to a large influx of fresh water from the Churchill River into the bay’s salt water. The prevailing northerly winds also push back any ice that forms on the shore near Churchill, creating the first pack ice in the bay.
This was my second trip to this remote city and the third time I photographed wild polar bears. On my previous trip to Churchill in November 2013, there was already snow on the ground when I arrived on November 5th, and ice started to form in the bay on November 6th. less than a week later than average.
This trip gave another vivid representation of the impacts of climate change. I arrived in Churchill this year on November 8th. The first layer of snow had only arrived a day earlier, and we saw no significant ice until the day we left, November 13th. Another week of ice had been lost even in the seven years between my visits.
The snow was a welcome opportunity to photograph polar bears against a white landscape. Polar bears look creamier on a snowy landscape. Snow also helps clean dirt from bears’ coats after a summer of roaming the land.
In addition to the polar bears, our group also took advantage of several photo opportunities with the willow ptarmigan, a very close cousin of our local white-tailed ptarmigan, several snowy owls and a rare sighting of a gyrfalcon. white form, the world’s largest falcon. For those interested in birds, Churchill can offer a wide variety of northern species, especially in early summer. On this trip we didn’t spend much time looking for other birds, but we did encounter a group of Common Eiders in winter plumage and lots of Snow Buntings scurrying through the snow.
What escaped us were the Arctic hares, although their abundant tracks in the snow prove they were there, and the arctic fox, another historically common animal that relies on polar bears for food scraps on ice floes. .
If you love the cold – we’ve rarely seen temperatures above freezing – and are ready to spend whole days outdoors in search of white animals against a white landscape, Churchill is a truly epic destination where you you too can become a member of the polar bear club.
If you would like to join me on future arctic adventures or would like some prints of these white kings of the north, email me at email@example.com and I can keep you posted on the next ones. trips.
Dawn Wilson is an award-winning, professional naturalist photographer who lives in Estes Park year-round. You can see more of his work, take part in one of his Rocky tours, and purchase prints at AuroreWilsonPhotographie.com or follow her on Instagram: @dawnwilsonphoto.