Lords of the Arctic

Paying homage to the polar bear capital of the world

Near Churchill, Manitoba / Photo by Jen Twyman

The sky is jet black as our plane makes its descent into Calgary.

“You know Jen,” I say. “When we wake up tomorrow morning, this day is going to seem like it was a dream.”

Jen Twyman (otherwise known as the “Toque” in Toque & Canoe) nods thoughtfully. We’re both a little speechless and a little tired. Then again, we should be exhausted. Our seriously epic adventure started at 3:30 a.m. This was no ordinary day.

I mean, who can sleep when they know they’re going to be jumping on a 6:15 a.m. flight from Calgary to Churchill, Manitoba (arriving at 9:45 a.m. local time) and then, before returning home that night, spending the day on a polar bear safari?

We sure couldn’t and judging from the excitement of other passengers on our Canadian North Airlines flight, we weren’t the only ones.

We initially heard about Calgary’s Classic Canadian Tours and the company’s one day polar bear adventure from our friends Doug and Debbie Davis of BC’s Prince Rupert Adventure Tours. Doug and Debbie escort travelers by boat along the shores of the Khutzeymateen – a wild grizzly bear sanctuary located on Canada’s northwest coast.

Turns out, the two operators have begun collaborating on wildlife adventure opportunities. One thing leads to another and next thing we know, Jen and I are boarding a packed plane in the dark of morning and jetting in the direction of the arctic circle.

En route – as a crimson sunrise filters through the plane’s tiny windows – we’re eating a hearty breakfast and paying close attention to safari naturalist Les Stegenga (a zoologist from the Calgary Zoo) as he passes around a bleached white polar bear skull and dishes on the day ahead.

We learn that the polar bear – Ursus Maritimus in latin meaning “sea” bear – is the only bear considered to be an aquatic animal. The animal’s front paws are even slightly webbed. We’re also reminded that a visit to observe the annual polar bear migration – where the bears will eventually head out onto a frozen Hudson Bay in search of ringed seals – is a world-class wildlife event.

“I’ve been to Rwanda to see mountain gorillas, to China to observe giant pandas and to the Serengeti to watch the wildebeast migration,” announces Stegenga to his hushed, captive audience. “You’re about to experience the Canadian equivalent.”

Before we know it, we’re touching down in Churchill on the edge of the arctic and we’re struck by how unbelievably excited we are. We’re reminded of Canadian singer Matt Mays who told us, in our earlier story about The National Parks Project, how he felt when he first experienced Canada’s north.

“I’d been to most Canadian cities many times but I’d never been to Churchill. This region really defines the rest of the country. We all know it exists, that true Canadian northern soul. Subconsciously, we celebrate it as Canadians, ” said Mays – who would also spend time in nearby Wapusk National Park (home to one of the largest known concentrations of polar bear maternity dens on earth.)

“It’s a trip to imagine places like this,” Mays continued. “But to be there for real, to make music in a place where I feel my music exists already? It was something else.”

It’s true. Being there, on the ground, is something else.

Landing in Churchill, piling onto a tundra buggy (run by Frontiers North Aventures) and making our bumpy way along the frozen ground, taking in the pale pink and blue and lunar-looking landscape – the whole experience is otherworldly and strangely familiar all at once.

Seeing our first polar bear – a distant, tiny white blob on the horizon and one of the estimated 1,000 bears in the Western Hudson Bay population – sends our cameras snapping and our hearts racing even faster.

Over the course of the day, lucky for us, we get to observe a handful of these arctic circle inhabitants more closely.

They’re like sleepy white giants – either curled up beneath bushes or lounging in the open tundra, occasionally amusing us with impressive yoga-like stretches. Our resident naturalist refers to this lazy state as a “walking hibernation” of sorts. The bears are conserving their energy for the winter hunt ahead.

For the most part, our furry rock stars ignore us. And we, the spectators? Well, we drink them in. They are magnificent to behold and in spite of a ferocious reputation, they’re so chill and sweet looking it’s hard to imagine them otherwise.

The day zips by. We see arctic hare hiding like velvety statues beneath nearby bushes. We see, when we look closely, snowy white ptarmigans blending into the horizon. And we see very cool looking, wind-blown black spruce dotting the landscape. These trees are tiny but they are, in fact, “old growth” – barely able to develop given their harsh winter climate.

One of our guides observes that the spruce are one-sided because of unrelenting and fierce northern winds that blow in one direction. “We joke that it takes two trees to make a Christmas tree in our part of the world,” he says with a laugh.

Near the end of our tour, just before we head to the town of Churchill to shop for souvenirs (a sealskin Ookpik and a beluga whale pin carved from antler), we spot a silver fox trotting in and out of view on the horizon.

He’s extraordinary, we all agree, with a tail the size of a small sleeping bag. Given that we weren’t expecting to see him, this enchanting northern critter made our day.

Now that we’re home, you can bet we’ve zeroed in on other operations, like the reputable Churchill Wild and Churchill Northern Studies Centre, which offer lengthier and more in depth travel opportunities in the region.

Our whirlwind polar bear safari was most definitely a teaser. Call it the “amuse-bouche” of arctic travel if you will.

We’re hungry for more from this legendary corner of Canada. It’s a place that’s deep in our bones, more now than ever.


*Note to reader: We traveled to Churchill courtesy of Classic Canadian Tours. Our host did not review or approve this article.

Toque & Canoe is an award-winning digital platform featuring stories about travel culture in Canada and beyond. Follow us on Twitter/XInstagram and Facebook

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  1. Don Enright commented:

    Thank you for this tantalizing glimpse into the world of the great white bears. The Churchill population are so important- as ambassadors, and as canaries in the metaphoric coal mine of climate change.

    You two are experts at inspiring wanderlust, I must say.


  2. Lorna Crozier commented:

    Love the description of the fox with a tail “the size of a small sleeping bag.” I’m amazed at what you saw in a day. All my blessings to you two intrepid travelers and those bears, those bears.


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