The Way of the Wolf: The Migration


Experience the migration of one of the largest and most powerful carnivores on Earth—the polar bear.


On the west coast of Hudson Bay in the town of Churchill, Manitoba, the migration begins when the calendar flips to the month of October. The thermometer drops like a guillotine as the northwest wind howls down the coast. The days are shorter, and the dark nights are brightened by the dancing mystery of the aurora borealis.

This isn’t a migration of the feathered kind as most of all the birds have flown south, leaving only winter-hardened species like snowy owls, willow ptarmigan and snow buntings to represent their species. Instead, it’s a population influx of two very distinct apex predators.

Water begins to freeze, and this is what sets everything in motion. With the high volume of freshwater flooding into the Bay from the mighty Churchill River, Seal River and numerous other flumes, the diluted sea starts to harden up on the west coast quickest, since freshwater solidifies at a higher temperature than saltwater. 

To the Ursus maritimus, more commonly known as the polar bear, the early ice means means one thing: food. With the freeze-up, the largest terrestrial predator on Earth breaks a months-long fast where they survive primarily off their own body fat and can finally head out on the sea ice to begin hunting seals. They primarily eat ringed seals, the most abundant species in the Arctic, and need to eat an average of 45 of these 130-pound balls of blubber annually in order to layer on the several hundred pounds of fat they’ll need to get through the next lean summer. They could never hope to catch these pinnipeds in open water because they would never get close to them. When the sea freezes, however, they use their stealth and patience to catch the seals coming up for a breath at one of their breathing holes or pounce on them unawares in their maternal dens along pressure cracks in the ice. That is why ice is key to the polar bear’s survival.Frank Wolf

Polar bears don’t ever hibernate but rather exist in a low-energy “walking hibernation” during the summer that consists of napping and slowly ambling the shoreline in hopes of bumping into an easy meal—like a washed-up whale carcass. The cool fall air triggers the bears to move north toward Churchill from Wapusk (which means polar bear in Cree) National Park where they steadily grow in numbers, waiting for their icy tablecloth to be laid across the mighty Hudson Bay—the second-largest bay on earth with an area of 1.2 million square kilometres. As they congregate, these beasts mostly lay around in the tundra, behind shrubby willows that shelter them from the wind—until the ice thickens in November and they become more active. Young males will mock fight, sharpening up their skills and reflexes for the upcoming hunting season and shaking off the torpor of the previous months—like hockey players in a preseason game brushing off the rust to get ready for the next NHL campaign.Frank Wolf

The bears have been doing this in Churchill for thousands of years but, in recent times, have inadvertently spurred the migration of another apex predator: Homo sapiens. We are historically the polar bear’s only predator, but times have changed in Manitoba. We are no longer allowed to hunt bears in that province, which protects the species and the economic benefits they provide in the form of nature tourism. 

People from around the world come to see the Nanuq (polar bear in Inuktitut) in Churchill, flocking to the small town of 900 people and filling the hotels and restaurants to capacity for the six-week bear-watching season.  We humans roll around the barren landscape on huge Tundra Buggies with companies like Frontiers North Adventures who have built a whole industry around the bears that come every fall.Frank Wolf

Folks from five to 95 years of age speaking all the languages on the planet bond with each other and look in awe at these unique, curious creatures lolling about the land from the safety of a perch 10 feet up in their metal chariot. It’s like a reverse zoo, where the bears roam freely while the people photograph and admire them from rolling cages, hoping one of the animals will stroll by and pay a visit. 

Also part of this human migration is the hundreds of restaurant workers, hotel staff, buggy drivers, town drivers, guides and other support staff who utilize this quiet time in the shoulder season between summer and winter to make a few extra bucks and be a part of the transient community that come together for “Bear Season.” In my role as an interpretive guide, I’m a part of this flock and I love sharing my knowledge and enthusiasm with the guests that come to take part in this unique experience.Frank Wolf

When the ice fully forms in late November and the polar bears leave for the frozen expanse of Hudson Bay to hunt for the next eight months, the people likewise depart Churchill like a gaggle of geese flying back to their homes or other work. The town goes quiet, leaving the scant few human locals of Churchill to their own hibernation through the coming long, dark winter while the Nanuq endlessly roams the icy wilderness of Hudson Bay in search of prey.


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