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Churchill (Autumn)

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Nestling on the western shores of Hudson Bay you will find Churchill, the self styled "Polar Bear Capital of the World". It is the most accessible and best equipped Polar Bear destination in Canada, and home to the largest and most southerly population of Polar Bears in Canada.

The Churchill bears spend the winter months hunting for seals out on the sea ice in Hudson Bay. They come ashore in June during the ice break-up and unique amongst Polar Bears, most excavate dens in the soft, peaty earth and see out the summer in semi-hibernation, slowing their metabolism and going without food for 5 months or more. In October and November however they emerge from their dens and congregate in large numbers near the shoreline, waiting for the first sea ice to form so they can again venture offshore in search of prey, and visitors have been flocking to this frontier town since the 1970s to witness the largest gathering of Polar Bears anywhere in the world.

During this relatively short season (6-8 weeks) a fleet of large, purpose built, wheeled Tundra Buggy vehicles take visitors out onto the tundra around Cape Churchill to see the bears massing in the staging area for this offshore migration. A number of factors have made Churchill the most popular Polar Bear destination in the world. The first is the reliability and sheer number of sightings, but one of the things that makes a visit to Churchill so special is the opportunity to observe interaction between these normally solitary animals, for example males sparring.

For those visitors wanting to spend as much time as possible in the company of the Polar Bears, for example photographers, a popular choice is a stay at one of two tundra lodges on Cape Churchill, right where the bears are massing. These are train-like arrangements of wheeled lounge, restaurant, and sleeper cars that are towed out onto the tundra in preparation for bear season. The accommodation tends to be fairly basic, consisting of 2 sleeper cars, each with 18-20 single bunk berths, with either privacy curtains or proper partitions, and shared bathroom facilities, but the unprecedented 24 hour access to the bears more than compensates.

Another interesting accommodation option is a first class wilderness lodge to the west of Churchill. Accessible only by helicopter or ski-equipped bushplane, it is in an area frequented by mothers with young cubs seeking to avoid the big males who tend to congregate further to the east. Bears can often be observed in close proximity to the lodge, and when there are no bears in the immediate vicinity, the resident naturalist guides lead guided hikes looking for bears and other Arctic wildlife. While bear sightings aren't quite as predictable as they are at the tundra lodges, the unique opportunity to explore the tundra and perhaps see a Polar Bear on foot makes for a very memorable stay.

Churchill doesn't begin and end with Polar Bears though, possessing as it does an extensive cast of characters including the Red Fox, Arctic Fox, Arctic Hare, Snowy Owl, Gyrfalcon, and Willow Ptarmigan. Churchill is also of historical and cultural interest having been at the centre of the fur trade in the 18th and 19th centuries, and been home to no less than 3 disparate First Nations, the Cree, Dene, and Inuit, at the time of first European contact, all of whom are well represented in Churchill's present day population.excursions further out onto the tundra in a private Tundra Buggy.

Churchill also shouldn't be underestimated as a place of great historical and cultural interest. It has been at the forefront of many pivotal periods in the history of North America, including the Fur Trade and Cold War (US strategic bombers were based here, poised for a reprisal strike on the Soviet Union). It is also unique within Canada in that at the time of first European contact 3 very different aboriginal groups co-existed here: the Cree from the south, the Dene (Athapaskans), caribou hunters from the sub-arctic barrenlands, and the Inuit from the arctic. There have also been major archaeological find in the area from the Dorset and Thule cultures, the forbearers of the Inuit. There is an excellent Eskimo Museum in the town, as well as many places to buy native arts & crafts.

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