No, this is not a counselling page for recent arrivals in Churchill… but a quick backgrounder on why bears gather here each fall.
The main reason is, of course, ice. Churchill sits on a 50 mile long shelf that juts east into Hudson Bay. So, basically the rest of the western coast of Hudson Bay runs north-south minus the odd blip, Churchill is one of these blips.
Churchill has north/northwest wind about 30-40% of the time. This wind combines with the counter-clockwise current in Hudson Bay to push ice onto this shelf, known as Cape Churchill. The flow of fresh-water ice from the Churchill River also compounds this effect and, as a result, ice usually forms earlier here than in other parts of Hudson Bay.
The bear population knows this and after coming ashore (usually) south of Churchill in late July, they generally start moving north in September once the cool weather kicks in. The whole plan is to arrive at Cape Churchill just in time for freeze-up. Some arrive early and entertain tourists or get into trouble in town, other avoid Churchill altogether sticking to the eastern side of the cape and still more try to sneak through the Churchill area, spending only one or two days in buggyland before heading out on the ice.
The freeze-up process usually runs from a greasy soup of icy water in mid to late October that eventually congeals into a stronger platform by early November. You will see bears out testing the ice on a regular basis over the course of the season. By mid to late November, there should be 1-2 kilometres of ice built up along the Churchill coast. While much of Hudson Bay remains open until late December, there is enough ice for the bears to ‘leave’ Churchill at this point.
‘Usually’ is, of course, a key term in all this description. Recently, wind patterns and weather have changed a bit so that ice is forming north of Churchill in some years. With increasingly common winds from the south, there have been years where the late season ice has dispersed and shore ice has actually locked in along the coast north of Churchill instead. Many of us believe that this has led to a change in the seasonal migration pattern of polar bears, with more bears now spending the summer north of Churchill and consequently ending up around Arviat, Nunavut in the fall.
Either way, polar bear season is an exciting time of year. Always something new waiting for us there whether it involves bears, people or both…