When visiting Churchill, you should be aware that a polar bear may be encountered anywhere at any time of the year
Polar bears come ashore in mid-to-late July when the ice on Hudson Bay melts. The risk of encountering a polar bear increases from July to freeze-up. The highest risk of bear encounters is during October and November, which corresponds with the busiest time of the tourist season. The bears return to the ice to hunt seals in late November to early December when ice forms on the bay. The lowest risk of an encounter is from December to July, but there is still always a chance of encountering a bear. Whether you live and work in Churchill, or are just visiting, you should be aware of the risks of encountering a polar bear.
There are many differences between black and grizzly bear behavior and polar bear behavior. Unlike other bears, the polar bears of Canada’s Arctic are true predators and can view humans as a potential food source. Playing dead will only put you at greater risk for an attack by a polar bear.
Polar bears often show no facial expressions or change in body language that will tell you what to expect. A “dead pan” look could mean that the bear is ambivalent, curious, protective or ready to attack. If you are close enough to see the face of a bear, you should be well within a safety zone and definitely not without protective surroundings.
Bears ambling across the ice or land are deceptively quick. Their strides are more than a meter long. They walk with their heads down, occasionally lifting them to look around. A bear moving toward a target will have its neck extended and look directly at the object/spot it is walking toward. A bear that has caught scent of you, or something of interest, will stop and lift its head, or may stand on its hind legs as it tries to pinpoint your location. Once it has acquired your location it may move toward you purposefully or may just be curious and move toward you while stopping frequently.
Polar bears are very skilled hunters. Their prey are usually not aware there is a polar bear in the vicinity until it attacks.
An adult male polar bear can weigh up to 600 kg and females are half to two thirds of that. Cubs, depending on their age, are between 25 and 100 kg. The size of a sub-adult polar bear is comparable to that of a large black bear or a medium sized grizzly bear. They are extremely powerful, agile and fast. Their environment is often drifting and broken ice so polar bears are adept at jumping and able to leap surprising distances.
The polar bears in the Churchill area are part of the Western Hudson Bay sub-population. They are one of 19 sub-populations of polar bears that inhabit the circumpolar area of the Arctic. Their main food is the ringed seal which they hunt on the sea ice. Every summer the ice on Hudson Bay melts and this entire population of polar bears is forced ashore. They remain on land until the bay freezes again in late November.
Before your trip, discuss possible plans of action for dealing with bears in a variety of circumstances and be sure everyone understands what to do. The actions of each individual either contribute to or detract from the safety of everyone else. Consider the following situations when avoidance is impossible.
Notify everyone in the group in a calm voice that you see a bear, be aware of your surroundings and assess the situation. What is the bear doing? Where is the escape route? What is the bear’s behavior?
Get to know your neighbors. Local people have knowledge about polar bears and how to deal with them. Ask them about their experiences – how they avoid encountering a polar bear and about plans of action should you encounter a bear. Polar bears can be encountered in town, where there are many places for bears to be hidden from view. Keep in mind that every encounter is different.