Manitoba offers surf and turf sightsWritten by Art Weber | | firstname.lastname@example.org
The French-Canadian guide rushed up to the group of hardy tourists, his demeanor suddenly altered from spirited and accommodating historian to concerned leader.
“We have to head back now,” he said calmly but firmly. “A polar bear is heading this way. We don’t want to get caught out in the open.”
That’s the way it is in and around Churchill, Manitoba, appropriately dubbed the “Polar Bear Capital of the World.” That’s especially true in the fall when polar bears by the hundreds gather near Churchill. They’re waiting for pack ice to form on Hudson Bay so they can strike out against the seals that are their main source of food.
Tourists gather in even bigger numbers to see them, usually from the safety of the now-famous tundra buggies that venture onto the taigra — a sub-arctic habitat that’s sort of tundra with scattered small stands of stunted and wind-wizened spruce — to give riders close-up looks.
A few bears hang around even in warmer weather, though they take a backseat to summer’s main attraction. From June into September, tourists gather to view the three thousand or so 15-foot-long beluga whales that make their way from Hudson Bay up into the food-rich waters at the mouth of the Churchill River.
Polar bears, in contrast to the friendly belugas, have a way of altering plans in Churchill, like cutting short that tour of Fort Prince of Wales, an amazingly unlikely behemoth of a fort that leaves visitors marveling at the extraordinary hardship and effort it took to build and garrison such a sturdy stone fortress in sub-arctic Canada during the 1700s. It wasn’t technically a military fort, but one of a string of forts established by the legendary Hudson Bay Company to protect its interests in and around Hudson Bay, including access to the plentiful food and fuel provided by whaling.
There was no time to reflect on all those amazing facts as the group was hustled back to Mike Macri’s custom-built Sea North II that had ferried them across the river from the small town of Churchill, population 1,000.
From high on his bridge, Macri saw the bear in the water, swimming from the far shore, his crossing encouraged by the town’s polar bear patrol, which fired some harmless cracker shots — noise-making shells fired from shotguns — to ensure that the polar bear was moving away from town quickly with no harm coming to him or to the townspeople.
It was a wildlife enthusiast’s dream — beluga whales by the dozens and a polar bear all visible at the same time. Macri, whose boat features jet propulsion to ensure no harm comes to whales or bears, pulled alongside the swimming bear and paced its progress, giving everyone aboard a close-up look at the giant of the north before the bear climbed onto shore, shook his great coat, and lumbered into the distance.
Among the delighted visitors on board was a small group that would climb into one of Macri’s inflatable Zodiacs for a much more intimate experience with the Churchill River. The group would don wet suits and snorkels and have a very personal up-close experience with the whales.
“Belugas are playful, beautiful and intelligent,” said Macri, an accomplished nature photographer as well as owner of Sea North Tours. “They often swim up within a few feet turning on their side to check you out, and you’ll hear them because they are the most vocal of whales.”
So vocal, their nickname is “sea canaries.” Everywhere the whitish forms of belugas could be seen moving in squadrons up and down the Churchill’s main channel, occasionally arching to blow, sometimes just to be playful and give the boats and the snorkelers an extra personal above-water look.
The group floated for more than an hour, spread-eagled on the river surface as the whales moved along and under them, their fascinating vocalizations clearly heard as the whales brushed past.
“Absolutely amazing,” said a broadly smiling snorkeler of this intimate one-of-a-kind experience.
Best place for polar bears, best place for belugas. Great place for wildflowers, the Northern Lights, birding, First Nation culture, frontier history and a great place for a true sub-arctic experience. Mark it down as a great place to visit.
PHOTO: A diver watches a beluga whale swim the waters of manitoba.— Toledo Free Press photo by Art Weber