This article originally appeared in the second issue of Boundless Magazine in March 2021.
Author: Jody Robbins
Bobbing in the bracing waters of the Churchill River, I don’t feel a lick of cold, only pure adrenaline. I’ve come to Churchill, Manitoba, known as the polar bear capital of the world, with high hopes of seeing these lumbering white giants, and quickly discover that this special spot is also home to an abundance of other Arctic animals.
Thousands of beluga whales visit the Churchill River each summer, and while the purpose of my trip is to view polar bears, it seems only right to take advantage of another opportunity to experience more of Manitoba’s natural environment.
We float in the river and our guide submerges a hydrophone, a device that detects underwater sounds. Within minutes, we hear squealing and whistling. The sounds are frequent and, to my untrained ear, joyous, as though listening to an underwater celebration.
As I swim lazy circles around our boat, my goggles reveal cloudy formations floating nearby. And then, their air bubbles surround me! Too excited to swim, I simply hold onto the side of the boat and watch the ethereal shapes of these distinct white whales drift by.
After snorkeling, we expect to dart back to town, but instead, our guide directs our boat toward Hudson Bay. When a white mound comes into focus, the reason becomes apparent. A polar bear and her cub are strolling the boulder-strewn beach.
I haven’t brought my camera, but this is a blessing in disguise. Not focusing on capturing the moment allows me to simply live it. I’m mesmerized by the mother, who’s more massive than I expected. Her sheer bulk is offset by her furry, white coat — excellent camouflage for winter’s blanket of snow.
After patrolling the shore, the bears decide it’s time for a swim. The frisky cub clambers over a rock and belly flops into the bay, narrowly missing its mother, who’s floating on her back, lifting her paws in the air as though waving to us. We are spellbound, watching what looks like a National Geographic documentary play out in front of us.
Churchill’s remote subarctic community, accessible only by plane or train, lies smack-dab on the polar bears’ migratory path to Arctic ice. Sightings are especially common along the coastline during the fall when hundreds of bears are on the move. Though polar bear sightings aren’t uncommon in Churchill during the summer, most wildlife viewings take place on Tundra Buggy tours. A Tundra Buggy is a large, all-terrain vehicle with wheels that are 5.5 feet high, with protected viewing openings as high as ten feet above ground.
Snug inside the buggy, we carefully cruise across the rugged terrain in search of wildlife. Eyes roaming over the tundra, I spot ravens, tundra swans, and a family of Arctic foxes.
I feel like a paparazzo searching out an elusive A-lister, but every celebrity has their favoritebolt-hole. Our guide makes for Polar Bear Point, where he motions to a white rock not too far away. Ever so slowly, the rock rises to all fours. The bear sniffs the air and plods in our direction, curious to view us in our enclosure.
Stepping onto the buggy’s outdoor viewing platform to safely observe these predators in their natural environment is euphoric—raw and free and yet, so natural. We’ve become part of something larger than ourselves. This transient moment leaves an impression that will stay with me long after I’ve left these wilds.
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