Carla Cook/Polar Bears International

As the tundra changes from green to vibrant fall colors, polar bears begin to gather near Churchill to wait for the sea ice to return.

© Carla Cook/Polar Bears International

9/28/2020 1:56:15 PM

Summer's End in Churchill

By Dave Allcorn

Summer in Churchill is always very brief. 

The flowers have come and gone, and the lush greens of the tundra have turned to vibrant reds and golden yellows. Many of the migratory birds have started their annual journey back to the south, and even the beluga whales that commanded the Churchill River estuary during those few weeks of seemingly endless daylight have turned their heads towards the slightly warmer, ice-free waters beyond Hudson Bay. 
 Close up of the red leaves of a bearberry plant
A bearberry plant blazes with fall color. Photo ©Dave Allcorn/Polar Bears International.

Summer in Churchill also includes the return of polar bears from their seasonal hunting grounds. The sea ice of Hudson Bay melts in July, forcing all the polar bears ashore until the ice reforms again in late fall. 

Summer is a great time to see polar bears in the region. However, they can be quite challenging to spot at that time of year as they seek shade among the leafy willow bushes. They also have a tendency to choose cooler, northern aspects of windswept rocky outcrops as prime summer real estate. 

A polar bear hides in the willows

A polar bear rests in the willows as summer turns to fall. Photo ©Carla Cook/Polar Bears International.

Quite a few polar bears were spotted near Churchill throughout the summer, including many females with cubs, and, as temperatures drop, the number of polar bears in the area is increasing. There have been a couple of reports of beluga whale carcasses washed up on beaches, too, providing opportunistic meals for a few lucky bears that don’t typically have access to high-fat, calorie-rich food resources during the ice-free time.

Only a few polar bears were reported physically in town this summer, which is probably a good thing, as there are still a lot of construction crews in Churchill. The season brought a new surface on the main road, new sides on the Anglican church, repairs on the runway, the dismantling of a condemned fuel storage facility, and a lot of general tidying of old vehicles and buildings around town. Things are looking very nice! 

Some local history …

On September 14th 1960 the SS Ithaca, a freighter ship, left the Port of Churchill in heavy seas. It didn’t make it very far! Shortly after leaving the safety of the port, the ship lost control of its rudder, making steering almost impossible. It was high tide, the wind was howling from the northwest, and daylight was vanishing. After a futile battle at the helm, the ship ran aground in a shallow bay east of Churchill where it sits to this day, in its final resting place, Bird Cove.

All crew on board survived and were rescued within a few hours by local search and rescue teams. 

A few of us decided to take a walk out to the wreck in remembrance of its 60th anniversary. It’s in rough shape to say the least after six decades of ice and waves smashing, pounding, and bulldozing into the hull. 

There was also a polar bear protecting it!

A polar bear guards the SS Ithaca

A polar bear guards the SS Ithaca. Photo ©Dave Allcorn/Polar Bears International.

We waited for some time to see if the bear would let us pass… 

Eventually, the bear moved on and we continue on our quest to view this once-proud vessel.

Churchill resident Dave Allcorn is a naturalist and guide who provides seasonal support to Polar Bears International. 

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