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Polar Bear Week: On Safari in Churchill, Manitoba
It's Polar Bear Week
In the tiny town of Churchill, Manitoba (nicknamed the Polar Bear Capital of the World) temperatures are dropping and snow is beginning to fall. During October and November, polar bears begin migrating through the tundra toward the shores of Hudson Bay, where they wait for sea ice to form so they can hunt for seals. Churchill sits near the point where the first ice forms each year, making it one of the few human settlements on the planet where the world's largest land predators can be observed in the wild.
Polar Rovers take visitors out onto the tundra along the banks of the Hudson Bay, where the world's greatest concentration of polar bears gather each year. These vehicles, especially designed for polar bear viewing, let visitors safely observe bears from close range.
Since Churchill sits in the middle of a major polar bear migration path, it's not uncommon to have bears wandering through town. Conservationists try to prevent encounters between polar bears and the town's human residents. If a bear comes within the town's perimeter, a team of responders try to scare it away. If that doesn't work, the bear is trapped or tranquilized and held in a special facility until it can be relocated back to its habitat far outside of town. A polar bear emergency alert line, staffed 24/7, often gets called five to six times per day during peak season.
When it's time for an "inmate" of the Polar Bear Holding Facility in Churchill to be released, the animal is tranquilized and flown by helicopter out into the tundra. While visitors aren't permitted inside the holding facility, they can watch bears being brought in or released from outside a safety perimeter.
Guests at the Tundra Lodge, a rolling hotel positioned in an area of peak bear density, offers visitors the possibility of observing polar bears around the clock. This mobile hotel includes private cabins, a dining car, a lounge area complete with a fireplace and outdoor viewing platforms for close-up encounters with the kings of the arctic.
There's more to Churchill than polar bears. In springtime, the region is a popular destination among birders who come to see more than 250 species of birds. Even in these chilly fall months, it's possible to spot snowy owls perched near the ground, scanning the tundra for lemmings.
A much smaller predator than the polar bear, the arctic fox is also a common sight in the tundra surrounding Churchill. As autumn gives way to winter, their coloring turns white to help camouflage them in the snow and ice. Arctic fox can be spotted foraging for lemmings, hares and even the occasional snowy owl.
More difficult to spot is the arctic hare, another mammal whose fur turns white during the winter months. When temperatures plummet, the arctic hare often burrows into the snow to protect it from the elements, and its thick coat helps it conserve heat.
Another iconic Churchill experience is dog sledding. For decades, fur traders in the northern reaches of Manitoba used dog sleds to get around, and while there are now other ways to get around in the ice and snow, sledding remains a popular pastime.
Churchill is one of the best places on the planet to see the aurora borealis, or northern lights. While the best viewing opportunities happen between January and March, a clear night during polar bear season might reveal this otherworldly show of ethereal dancing lights.
Lydia, Senior Photo Editor and Readers' Choice Production Manager for USA TODAY 10Best, has traveled to more than 40 countries in Europe, Asia and North and South America, and has lived in Albuquerque, Galveston, Austin, Thailand, Korea, China, Ecuador, Colombia, Argentina, Brazil, Spain and now Houston. When she's not at her computer in a cafe, she's out photographing the city, writing fiction or cheering on Barça.