Take a bear-watching break in Canada

Posted on: 05 May 2010 by Mark O'haire

Head into the vast Canadian countryside and enjoy a spot of breathtaking polar bear watching.

After studying us carefully for several minutes to see if we might make a suitably tasty lunch, the giant bear finally lost interest in us, turned, and headed off across the snow.

"In the bear world, the bigger the bum, the better," explained our expert guide Patrick Rousseau.

Despite warnings from climate change experts, many bear bottoms look rudely healthy these days. It seems colder winters kept the ice frozen for longer periods, enabling them to eat more seals as the weather turns colder.

We're out on the tundra near Churchill, a village in northern Canada about 600 miles north of Winnipeg, and about 600 miles south of the Arctic Circle. It calls itself the polar bear capital of the world, and with good reason.

Key Facts

Best For: Polar bears and other wildlife.

Time To Go: October/November for the annual polar bear migration.

Don't Miss: A helicopter flight over tundra.

Need To Know: Bears are completely wild, so there's no guarantees what you will see.

Don't Forget: Warm clothes, thermals, camera.

Getting here isn't easy. After an eight-hour flight into Winnipeg, a 20-seater plane takes you north over frozen wastes for another two hours.

Barely 1,000 people live in Churchill, but each autumn, hundreds of polar bears gather here on the shores of Hudson Bay.

It is not just their bottoms that are big. Polar bears are the world's largest carnivore found on land, and everything from their dinner-plate sized feet, to their highly-sensitive black noses, is absolutely enormous.

Males weigh 1,600lbs or more, but only when a polar bear rears up on its hind legs to look you in the eye do you realise how powerful and fearsome they are.

Luckily we were secure inside a 'tundra buggy', a large, solid vehicle on six-foot-high tractor wheels that carried us around a frozen coastline on military roads once used to practise the invasion of Russia.

The vehicles even have toilets on board, because there's no popping behind a bush in sub-zero temperatures with hungry bears on the prowl.

You can get a sense of the scale of the vast, cold wilderness from a helicopter, from which we spotted bears and other wildlife including moose.

With Patrick, who worked as a wildlife biologist for the Canadian National Park Service for 34 years, sharing his knowledge - and a few hair-raising tales of working with bears - we gained a great insight into their lives.

Although bears can look cute and sometimes strangely human, they are 10 feet tall on their hind legs, and easily able to peek in through our driver's window.

We were warned that if we leaned too far over the side of the open-air viewing platform at the back of the vehicle, where bears could sniff our toes through the metal grill floor, we might be in trouble.

One bear peered at us through the front windscreen, allowing us to see how they can wiggle their noses - which we were told can smell through six foot of ice, and pick up the scent of a seal five miles away - from side to side.

The male bears - which have been in a 'waking hibernation' inland since the ice melted - were not just interested in the tourists. They were also sizing each other up as potential sparring partners to give themselves some exercise.

And as for those big bums, Patrick told us the ice had lasted longer than normal in the summer, allowing them more time to feed, and the bears were in better shape than they have been for some time.

However, the earlier summer melt as a result of climate change has been reducing their hunting season, and the females are around five per cent thinner than they were 25 years ago, when they come off the ice ready to produce young.

As the embryos will only develop if the mother is healthy enough to bring up the cubs, the lower weight could be affecting the number of young being born.

Bears are also threatened by pollution from chemicals known from persistent organic pollutants, and continued hunting, although the practice - which once threatened the species - is now strictly regulated in Canada.

In Churchill, the proximity of polar bears to humans can cause problems. Visiting bears are generally run out of town, but repeat offenders can find themselves in the polar bear 'jail' until they are airlifted out by a helicopter.

Life is more comfortable for the human out-of-towners; we were chauffeured around the small town in an old school bus for a history tour, a visit to the Eskimo Museum and a slideshow and talk by local photographer and wildlife expert Mike Macri.

While we were out on the tundra all day - with picnic lunches on the buggy - hearty breakfasts and dinners were provided in town at Gypsy's restaurant, and there was even time to brave the cold for a bit of shopping in the gift shops.

Polar bears are not the only wildlife seen in Churchill, which is also home to Arctic and red foxes, birds such as ptarmigan and, in summer, beluga whales who venture up the Churchill river. You might even see the Northern Lights if conditions are right.

However, for six to eight weeks in the autumn, it is all about the bears.

The trip to see them begins and ends in Winnipeg which, with sights including the Manitoba Museum, Winnipeg Art Gallery and walking tours of the historic downtown Exchange district, can be more than just a stopover on the way to Churchill.

For more of the Canadian experience, I took the train from Winnipeg to Toronto, a journey of around 36 hours through miles of forests and lakes that give you a feel of just how vast the country is.

The train has compact cabins and bunks, a restaurant dining car where you can chat to other passengers as the landscape flies by, and a glass-domed viewing carriage.

By the time I arrived in the city of Toronto, I already felt a world away from the stark beauty of the tundra.

But I will never forget coming face-to-face with the most famous inhabitant of the increasingly-fragile Arctic, the polar bear.

Further destination information is available on Canada Travel.

By Emily Beamount

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