Churchill, Manitoba

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Churchill Manitoba, aka Polar Bear Capital of the World, is located 1000 km north of Winnipeg on the western shores of Hudson Bay.  The permanent population of Churchill is approximately 800 but during bear season the population can explode to over 1200 with the annual arrival of seasonal workers and visitors during polar bear season from September to mid-November.  Polar bears annually start to gather in September on the shores of Hudson Bay east of Churchill waiting for the bay to freeze over, usually by mid-November, so that they may once again venture out on the frozen ice shelf to hunt bearded seals, their main food source.

Geographically, Churchill sits in a transition zone between the boreal forest to the south and the tundra to the north.  Because of its location, its not un-common to see black bears, polar bears and sometimes the barren ground grizzly bear, or arctic fox and red fox.  Spring/summer time is a bird watchers mecca as hundreds of bird species migrate to Churchill to nest. Its also a great place to see Beluga whales ; starting in July, they swim into the warmer, fresh water estuary of the Churchill River to give birth.

Churchill has a long, rich cultural history. The Dorset were the first nomadic peoples to arrive in the area. They were later displaced by the Thule around 1000AD, descendants of the present Inuit.  The Athabascan Dene people from the west appeared around 500AD followed by the the Cree from the south. Europeans explorers appeared almost 400 years ago in the early 17th century. The British built forts on the Bay at the mouth of the Hayes and Nelson Rivers, ‘Fort York’, and on the Churchill River, ‘Fort Prince of Whales.’ In the late 1600’s and 1700’s, battles were fought between the French and English for control of the forts and the fur trade. The French were able to capture the forts but they were later re-captured or returned to the English. 

The late 17th century saw the beginning of a lucrative fur trade with the Hudson Bay Company setting up trading posts along Hudson Bay. Native people travelled long distances to these posts in spring/summer to trade their fur pelts for guns, cloth, blankets and tools. Today the commercial fur trade has virtually disappeared in the Churchill area and has been replaced mainly by tourism and the Port of Churchill. The Port of Churchill is North America’s only deep water arctic sea port. The port exports grain, manufactured, mining, and forest products, as well it imports products for distribution in Central and Western Canada and the United States.

I was very fortunate to have had the opportunity to travel to Churchill from 2000 to 2008 as a guide for Frontiers North Adventures, leading Polar Bear tours. This gave me many photo ops of these wonderful creatures as well as other wild life. I also visited Churchill three times in the summer which is spectacular with flowers, birds, beluga whales and scenic landscapes! Its my favourite Manitoba photo location by far!