Polar Bears of Churchill
Polar bear tours are primarily held in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area, a provincially managed zone 25 kilometres east of Churchill. It has traditionally been one of the areas in which polar bears gather each fall. It has also become an area where tundra vehicles filled with eager tourists gather each fall.
There are eighteen permits issued for use by tundra vehicles. Starting at a place called Halfway Point, the polar bear viewing trails stretch another ten kilometres east to Gordon Point and the location of the original tundra vehicle lodge.
Many of the tundra vehicle trails near Gordon Point were first used when it was a military training grounds. The United States military first moved into the Churchill area in 1943. Practically overnight, they set up a tent city in Hudson Square, right in the middle of town and eventually developed an entire military community near the present-day airport. In the early years, the Churchill area was primarily used for cold weather exercises to test both men and equipment. One of the few landmarks in the Wildlife Management Area is First Tower, a military observation tower, located near Gordon Lake. It is a holdover of the cold weather exercises held in this area. By the late sixties, the bulk of the military presence in Churchill had departed. With this decline in activity, polar bears began appearing in and around the community of Churchill.
Soon, a few local residents began offering polar bear watching tours on assorted off-road and track vehicles. This started a wildlife viewing industry that is now over twenty five years old.
One of the more famous entrepreneurs was Len Smith, creator of the world famous Tundra Buggies®. These vehicles were first featured in the 1982 National Geographic special ‘Polar Bear Alert’. Tundra vehicles based on his design are now the primary means of viewing polar bears.
On average, about 300 polar bears pass through or near this area each year. Bears that choose to stay, generally become acclimatized within only twenty four hours, gaining confidence and an ease amidst the tundra vehicles.