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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 30, 2010

Polar bears, whales in sight in summer

By John Bordsen
McClatchy-Tribune News Service

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Polar bears live on the Hudson Bay ice in the winter, and along the shore in the summer.

Great Canadian Travel Company via MCT

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Max Johnson, 53, owns the Great Canadian Travel Company (greatcanadiantravel.com). He's a tour operator based in Winnipeg who assembles trips to the Canadian wilds and other places. Johnson recently bought a hotel in Churchill, Manitoba, on Hudson Bay, where his firm operates beluga- and polar bear-watching expeditions in the fall.

"There's not that much going on in Churchill in winter. We run the polar bear tours in October and November, when it gets down to about minus-10 Celsius (14 degrees Fahrenheit). Come January, when it's minus-40 Celsius, we don't operate there," Johnson said.

Great Canadian Travel Company's six-day polar bear adventures start at $3,475.

What else is there to see and do in Churchill?

There's a great deal of the history of the Hudson's Bay Company traders. Fort Prince of Wales is an extraordinary structure. It was built in 1680 and never had a shot fired at it in anger. It's in pristine condition.

The spring wildflowers are remarkable.

Whales start to come at the beginning of July. From that point until the end of August and start of September, there are literally hundreds of beluga whales in the Churchill River. You go out in boats to the middle of the river and drop hydrophones into the water to hear them chattering and talking.

Where are the polar bears right now?

Coming off the ice about 100 miles south of Churchill. They make landfall. The pregnant bears stay there; the others will wander up the coast. They stop at the Churchill River, a barrier that prevents them from going north. By the middle or end of November, they'll go to the ice and spend six to eight months there.

So someone could run into a polar bear in town?

Yes. In October and November, Churchill has bear patrols. When all the kids go out trick-or-treating for Halloween, people watch carefully for bears, which will come into town. Last year, a guide was picking up someone from the train station and 400 yards away, on Main Street, he encountered a big polar bear.

What happens at that point is this: The bear patrol comes and fairly quickly tranquilizes it and takes it to polar bear jail.

Where is polar bear jail?

It's just on the edge of town. Google an aerial image of Churchill, and you can see it. It's a collection of Quonset hits they stick the bears in. There frequently will be 10 to 12 caught around town and placed there. When the huts are full, they helicopter the bears 1,500 miles north of town and that's that.

What if they come back?

The second time, they'll again be locked in polar bear jail and later flown out. If they're back a third time, it's because the animal has become too accustomed to the town and being around humans. That third time, the bears are killed, but it doesn't happen often.