Churchill, Manitoba, the “Polar Bear Capital of the World,” is located on the southwestern shore of Canada’s Hudson Bay. Central to the frozen Arctic tundra of northern Canada, with a boreal forest to the south, an Arctic tundra to the northwest and the bay’s marine ecosystem to the north, each area has a variety of flora and fauna, offering photo ops year-round. Most of the local economy in the small community is based on tourism because of it. The town isn’t accessible via roads, so most visitors arrive in the area by plane or train from “nearby” Winnipeg (1,100 miles away) or by boat in the seaport. There are hotels and restaurants in the area, as well as local commerce, and travel to wildlife areas is provided through a variety of tour operations and “tundra buggies,” which are safely enclosed, heated transports that can travel the Arctic terrain by following existing trails.
Churchill is very, very cold. It’s a subarctic climate with long winters that average between -10º and -20º F during the coldest month of January. There’s snow almost all year around, except July and August, with the apex month of November averaging 16 inches of snowfall. The cold lasts through the fall and spring, and the short summers are mild, with averages between 40º and 60º F in the warmest months, with occasional highs in the low 70s. Summer provides photographers with especially long shooting days, however, with morning twilight happening very early in the morning and evening sunsets occurring after 9 p.m. from May through August.
Most photographers make the journey for the polar bears. Photographing from an enclosed tundra-mobile is necessary for safety, but it presents challenges when it comes to getting close to the animals, so a tele-zoom is essential. Additionally, many of the curious creatures will come right up to the enclosure, so a wide-angle, or at the least a prime lens in the 50mm range, is important for photographing bears outside the windows. The intense cold presents its own set of difficulties for cameras—and photographers. Condensation can ruin a camera, so use a well-padded camera bag when entering heated rooms after being in the cold. Closed camera bags adjust more gradually to room temps, and keeping a plastic bag around your camera and lenses acts as an extra step to help reduce moisture. Carry extra charged batteries as they won’t last long in extreme cold. Be sure to wear warm clothing, hand warmers, good gloves and insulated boots.
During October and November, Churchill is smack dab in the middle of the annual polar bear migration to Hudson Bay for hunting seals from the newly formed ice. A variety of tours provide safe tundra vehicles for getting up-close and personal with these majestic and endangered animals. During spring, birdwatchers can find more than 200 species of migrating birds between late May and mid-July; throughout summer, more than 3,000 beluga whales make the warmer waters of the bay and the Churchill River estuary their calving grounds. The area is an amazing location for capturing the vivid colors of the Aurora Borealis in the winter.
There are several tours based in the Churchill area to help you take home the best polar bear pictures possible, such as the Tundra Buggy Adventure from Frontiers North, the largest company in the area. Frontiers North offers programs catered specifically to photographers, including a safely enclosed tundra vehicle for getting up-close and personal with the polar bears. A variety of packages are available for choosing airfare, lodging, meals and accommodations. Contact: Frontiers North Adventures, (800) 663-9832, www.frontiersnorth.com.