I found myself back in the icy cold of Churchill, Manitoba. The polar bear capital of the world to watch the Polar Bear Migration. I was preparing for my final trip into Nunavut on a single otter plane. We flew into an old hunting camp near Gellini River, now a viewing site for tourism. The Polar Bear Migration was underway. It was mid-October, and as temperatures were dropping quickly, the sea ice was beginning to reform. With this annual occurrence, the polar bears headed north to more abundant hunting grounds and ever lessening daylight hours.
The polar bear is a true king of the Arctic. Considered the world’s largest land carnivore and oddly contradicting, also a marine mammal, a master of both worlds. I’d seen many of these amazing animals throughout the past 3 years doing contract work here in Nunavut, but never like this.
In a small compound of 6 cabins total, an electric fence was set up for our protection. Ultimately, a false sense of security. With just cause in the bears mind, it could easily bypass this. For those just a little too curious though, it did work as a great deterrent. If their curiosity brought them close enough to get a shock, it usually sent them running with a jolt. Not too far as it was just a shock, but it did prevent them from testing the saying ‘curiosity killed the cat’, any further.
Over the 5 weeks I was here, it was interesting to see the different dynamic of how this camp worked. Normally we would head out on the land in search of the wildlife, but here, the wildlife came to us. A more natural form of encountering these beautiful creatures. It created a more intimate experience and the time spent observing was ultimately on their terms. This allowed for some close encounters as well as unique viewings at night while the Northern Lights danced overhead.
Of the many dozens of polar bears that casually clambered by us in search of ‘greener pastures’, there were a few special moments that have stuck with me. When the first cubs of the year were spotted I was giddy. We watched quietly and still as a mother with their strong maternal instinct cautiously brought her two cubs to check us out. The cubs were clearly much more carefree, still learning of the world around them. They looked like harmless poofy marshmallows, but little known is the young ones with their curiosity are the most dangerous.
The final day with our last group of guests, we saw what I always wanted to see, but never thought I would without David Attenborough’s voice narrating. Over the course of a morning, a parade of 5 bears came by, but two of them connected. At first sniffing I was starting to expect a different kind of show and then wham! They stood up, barred teeth and exchanged ‘punches’. They brawled for at least ten minutes with a mix of ‘stand up’ and ‘grappling’ until finally one turned tail and made a getaway. It wasn’t necessarily meant to draw blood, but they would remember this outcome if they met in the future as full grown adults and know to stay clear of one another. Well, the loser in particular.
While of course, these experiences were unbelievable and what everyone travels here for, I found a new love of the Arctic tundra. The sly, curious scavenger. To me, the racoon of the north. The Arctic fox. A few hung around, shy at first, but they became more and more comfortable as the days passed. We even had names for them based on the markings on their coat. One in particular, ‘Spot’, seemed nearly domesticated by the time we left. Scavengers as they are, they would make any attempt possible at getting into garbage that awaited being flown out or dig in the washed up seaweed beds where I dumped slop water in hopes of a morsel of food that may have gone with it.
As they quickly discovered we meant them no harm, they soon became braver and paid us little attention as our cameras clicked away. Then one day it happened. Lying on my belly to get shots from their level, Spot quickly came to close for my lens. Literally right in front of me, I could have reached out and touched it (not that it’d allow that). Nose in the air, sniffing cautiously, it dipped under the fence at my kitchen clogs and gave them a sniff. I couldn’t believe it as I lied there in awe, wanting to think Spot had grown to like me. I knew though, in actuality I smelt of food spending most of my hours cooking. By the time we packed up and left, I was able to military crawl within arms-reach and captured him on camera right up against my lens sniffing away.
The day came to close camp for another year and as we flew out on a single otter plane, the cabins vanished behind us. Crossing into Manitoba, a herd of caribou ran through the fragmented treeline. I left Nunavut for the last time, but not empty handed. I’ve made new friends amongst the wonderful Inuit. Genuinely kind with a sort of carefree, childlike happiness about them regardless of the difficulties living in the north. I watched the Northern Lights dance across the night sky like I’d never seen before, pink and green pixies performing. I jumped off the floe edge into the frigid waters, not once but twice. I’ve snowmobiled and boated between icebergs in the endless expanse and eaten the game meats unique to the Arctic, freshly hunted and raw.
Above all though is the up close, intimate encounters with the wildlife here. Kayaking with narwhal and beluga, boating by walrus, bowhead whales diving right below me, watching a snowy owl hunt, holding a lemming in my hand, crawling within arms-reach of an Arctic fox and of course observing the King of the Arctic, the polar bear from mere meters away. These are all things I will never forget. While I don’t know when I will ever return, in the words of ‘Gladiator’, “I will see you again my friend, but not yet… not yet.”
To experience the Polar Bear Migration for yourself check out Arctic Kingdom, for this adventure or many others in the Canadian Arctic.
There are many other companies based in Churchill, Manitoba, but I do believe Arctic Kingdom to be the best for numerous reasons. Most importantly, being up close on ground level really gives a unique, intimate experience like no other.