Great Bear Foundation
is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization in Missoula, Montana, dedicated to the conservation of the eight species of bears and their habitat around the world.
- Great Bear Field Courses
- Polar Bear Ecology Field Course at Churchill, Manitoba
- FAQs for Churchill Travelers
- Berries, Belugas & Bears–Churchill in Summer
Great Bear Field Courses
Always wanted to see polar bears in the wild, but think it’s too expensive? Are you worried about the impact your visit to Churchill might have on the polar bears? The Great Bear Foundation offers the most ethical, low-impact, and lowest cost Churchill tour available.
100% of the proceeds from our field courses directly fund bear conservation projects.
Travel to Churchill with the Great Bear Foundation and learn about polar bears, ecology, local culture, and Hudson Bay’s unique geology. GBF president and co-founder, Dr. Charles Jonkel began the Canadian Wildlife Service’s Polar Bear Project in the 1960s, developed capture-and-handling procedures for polar bears, helped to form the IUCN’s Polar Bear Specialist Group, and has played a central role in international polar bear conservation and management for the last 50 years. Jonkel brought the first tourists to Churchill, and has been teaching polar bear ecology field courses there for 30 years. Today, GBF continues to carry on the legacy that Jonkel has created, by offering the only Churchill polar bear trips that genuinely place the well-being of the bears and their habitat first and foremost, while also making sure to support the local economies in the process.
GBF and Salish Kootenai College Media have been working on a documentary film on Jonkel’s life work, utilizing archival footage from his Hudson Bay polar bear research in the 1960s. To learn more about Dr. Jonkel, watch this excerpt from the rough cut of the documentary.
Great Bear Foundation’s unique courses take participants to some of the most spectacular landscapes in North America to experience, first-hand, the habitats of black, polar, and grizzly brown bears. We offer a captivating learning experience that is both economical and environmentally sensitive. Field courses are taught by Great Bear Foundation staff, dedicated individuals who draw on years of experience to offer the most environmentally sensitive bear-viewing field courses possible. These courses have been life-changing for many participants.
Check out our classes in Churchill, like the Polar Bear Ecology Field Course (see the slide show) and Summer Trip to the Arctic and our FAQs on going to the Churchill Northern Studies Centre. You can get information on registering and field trip deposits.
GBF President, Dr. Charles Jonkel, and Executive Director, Shannon Donahue offer guest lectures and workshops with other organizations, too. Jonkel is a guest lecturer for The Nature Conservancy’s Spring Naturalists Tour of the Rockies workshop on the Rocky Mountain Front and intermittently offers guided walks in bear habitat during Waterton Wildlife Weekend in Waterton Park, Alberta. Contact us to book Dr. Jonkel or Shannon Donahue to speak to your group, school, or organization on bears and bear conservation. Shannon is available for classes and speaking engagements in Southeast Alaska, Yukon, and Northern British Columbia between the months of May and October. Shannon will be available to teach bear safety and ecology classes and workshops in Haines, Alaska starting in May, 2013 Contact us for more information on educational opportunities in Southeast Alaska.
Polar Bear Ecology Field Course
- 2014: November 1-11 from Missoula, or Nov 2-10 from Winnipeg
- Location: Churchill Northern Studies Center, Manitoba, Canada
- Costs: $2,450 (includes $250 reservation deposit, refundable until September 1)
Cost includes overland travel from Missoula or Winnipeg, accommodations, and meals in Churchill. All proceeds directly fund our bear conservation projects.
- Student discount: $2250 for students enrolled in an accredited high school, college, or university
- See registering and deposits
- Faculty: Shannon Donahue, M.S., Dr. Frank Tyro and Bob Mires, M.S.
“Everyone should experience that feeling of being a small but significant part in something much bigger. With it comes a sense of childlike wonder and appreciation, as well as a view of the consequences of our actions. – Jenny Rasche, 2005 Polar Bear Ecology Course
Join us for our annual trek to Churchill, Manitoba for an experience filled with polar bear viewing, tundra walks, cultural explorations, animal tracking, and igloo building. This is an ideal time of the year to observe polar bears and learn about their amazing ecology as well as the ecology of the Canadian Arctic. Participants will also gain an understanding of the regional culture and the conservation challenges facing polar bears today.
Each year, in mid to late October, polar bears move to the Cape Churchill area on the west coast of Hudson Bay. Some of the bears walk northward along the Manitoba Coast, some head northeast from the Owl River Denning Area, and some even move south and cross the Churchill River to get to the Cape. The bears somehow “know” that fresh water ice floes will be coming down the large rivers and packed against Cape Churchill by the “wagnertok,” or northwest winds. This process forms harder ice which becomes the first ice shelf from which the bears can hunt ringed seals; the bears come and they wait, walking up and down the coast, watching the sea, and sniffing the winds, sleeping in kelp beds, or play-fighting until they can go out onto the ice.
Usually in early to mid-November, the shelf forms, and the bears move onto the ice and begin to hunt. Some years the shelf freezes earlier and some years it freezes later. Occasionally, it does not freeze until the first week in December. In recent years, the ice season has been getting shorter, leaving the bears less time to hunt ringed seals. However, the longer the ice is delayed, the larger the bear concentration around Churchill, so we try to time our visit to Churchill to coincide with this freeze-up.
Participants may choose to travel to Churchill by bus and train from Missoula, MT with the course instructors, or to begin their trip by rail in Winnipeg, meeting the Montana travelers when they board the train further north in Canora, Saskatchewan. Read the FAQs
From Missoula we will follow Montana’s water flowing from Glacier National Park into the Saskatchewan River, to Lake Winnipeg, to the Nelson River, and finally to the Hudson Bay. As we travel north, we cross the Hudson Bay Divide, observing steady changes in the land and vegetation – passing through the long grass prairie, the montaine forests, the short grass prairie, three forest zones, and down to the sea. We will explore natural history “out train windows” and meet all sorts of people. In the past we have met Cree trappers, fishermen, hunters, their kids and families.
We will spend time exploring the natural history of the Churchill area including the following activities:
- ask local people such as school children, researchers, and natives to join us
- spend time on nature walks and beach combing until we see the first ice
- look for wildlife including caribou, foxes, wolves, ptarmigan, arctic hare, and snowy owls
- build igloos
- learn arctic plants and pick berries under the snow
- do outreach in local schools for those interested
- visit the Eskimo Museum and the Town Centre art museum
Transportation: Getting to the Train: We will meet at the Great Bear Foundation office at 802 E. Front Street. We will caravan to Pablo, MT, board the Salish Kootenai College bus, and depart. We will spend two days driving about 800 miles to Canora, Saskatchewan, where we will board the train to Churchill. We will spend the first night in a motel in Swift Current, SK.
There will be limited free parking at the GBF office. For those caravaning to Pablo, there will be ample free and secure parking within a gated lot at Salish Kootenai College. Additional vehicles will be helpful for getting people to Pablo. Therefore, if you can help out by driving a personal vehicle please let the office know prior to the departure date.
The Train: We will board the train and arrive in Churchill the morning of the next day, sleeping overnight on the train. The train travels slowly through the boreal forest and tundra, making for great opportunities to view wildlife and the landscape, and it’s a great opportunity for the group to get to know one another, bond, and experience the changing landscape from prairie to boreal forest to tundra and Hudson Bay.
Learning: There will be informal interpretation on the train about plant and animal identification, tracks, and the forest. This includes interaction with other passengers and participants. If time and weather allow, we may take a nature walk during our long stop in Thompson, for those who are interested.
Food: It’s a good idea to bring food to eat on the train. There is a dining car on the train, and during polar bear season, there may be a cook on board preparing food to order, but some years, the food service is limited to frozen entrees. We always bring plenty of food to share with the group, including wild game meat, cheese, crackers, bread, trail mix, and fruit. We encourage you to bring your own snacks, too. Although the meals in Churchill are covered in the cost of the field course, you will be responsible for your own food on the road and on the train. Those traveling via Winnipeg may want to stop at a grocery store in Winnipeg to stock up on supplies before boarding the train.
Sleeper Car Option on the Train: If you would like a sleeper car you will need to pay extra money. You can reserve a sleeper car prior to departure (usually costs around $1000 extra for round trip) or you can try to purchase a ticket once on the train. The cost is significantly cheaper if purchased on the train, but there is no guarantee of availability.
While in Churchill: We will rent our own bus while we are in Churchill for flexibility and explore the terrestrial habitat of the polar bear while keeping our impact on the wildlife and habitat to a minimum. We can arrange for extra day excursions for those interested, for an additional price. Please let us know of your interest well in advance, because it is very difficult for us to make these arrangements after we’ve arrived in Churchill.
Our Return: We will depart from Churchill by train (learning never stops, so expect the educational opportunities to continue) and arrive in Canora the next day, load up and head for Missoula. Again, we will take two days driving back, stopping for the night in Taber or Medicine Hat, Alberta. Those traveling to Winnipeg will arrive there two days after departing Churchill.
Accommodations: The accommodations at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre are very comfortable with dorm rooms, lounges, and a dining room. We are expected to help with the dishes, fix our lunches, remake our beds when we leave, and clean rooms. The food at the Centre is great, with ample options for vegetarians upon request. Please let us know of any dietary restrictions in advance, so the kitchen staff will have plenty of time to prepare–supplies are not as readily available in Churchill as they are down south.
We will all need to take great care regarding bear safety while we are in Churchill. You will need to peek both ways before going out the door and take wide corners around buildings and cars. Don’t worry, we will have lectures on bear safety, and our staff is highly experienced in this department. Still, do not underestimate the risk of encountering a bear! The Centre is in the heart of polar bear habitat, and it is not uncommon to see bears all around the Centre.
Packing: Clothing: Expect cold, variable weather in Churchill. Plan to bring a warm parka with a good hood, warm boots, a scarf, a hat, and windproof mitts. Synthetic, wool, or silk long underwear, turtlenecks, sweaters, and warm trousers are necessities. Spotting scope or binoculars. Camera. Blanket and travel pillow for the train ride. Food like fruit, cookies, trail mix, nuts, or jerky for on-the-road to reduce costs and make friends. Shampoo, soap, toiletries, earplugs, medication, extra batteries and memory cards, reading material, hand and foot warmers.
The Inuit Transient Centre can always use donations of winter clothes for adults and children. They may also be in need of household items, so check with us if you have anything you’d like to donate to the Centre or the local schools.
FAQs for Churchill Travelers
What is meant by dorm-style accommodations?
The rooms at the CNSC are set-up like dorms with bunks and shared bathrooms. Each room has four bunks, and bathrooms and showers are nearby. Generally, the rooms are arranged by gender. It can be difficult to arrange for couples to share a room because of limited room options, but we will do our best to accommodate your requests–please let us know well in advance if you have a rooming preference. We’ll likely try to put two couples together in the same room, as long as everyone is comfortable with that arrangement. GBF and CNSC Staff try to accommodate special requests, but we are not always able to do so. Also, if you have special physical needs (i.e. cannot access a top bunk), please notify GBF staff so we can make prior arrangements. Linens for the bunks and towels are provided by CNSC, but you will need to bring your own soap and shampoo. The Centre provides delicious meals served cafeteria-style, with vegetarian options. We take turns helping out with the dishes after each meal.
What if I would like to add an additional excursion, such as a dog sled tour?
Please tell us well ahead of time, and we will arrange day tours at an extra cost. We encourage course participants to support the local economy in Churchill whenever possible, rather than the large, industrial tourism companies operating there, and we are happy to discuss options with you. We do not support the use of tundra vehicles (also known as Tundra Buggies), due to their impact on the bears and their habitat, and instead, we encourage participants to help keep our impact minimal. However, we prefer for participants to make up their own minds on this issue, and we will help arrange these tours if desired. Please let us know well in advance, because it becomes much more difficult to reserve day tours, especially tundra vehicle tours, once we get to Churchill.
How is this course different from a tour?
This is a field course on arctic ecology, and the emphasis is on learning. We also strive to minimize our impact on the wildlife, its habitat, and the local people, while also supporting the local economy. Typical commercial Churchill tours are more geared towards tourism and entertainment, and while you may have memorable experiences viewing the polar bears up close, chances are your tour may actually be causing negative impacts on an already threatened species.
GBF offers a non-commercial, inexpensive, low-impact alternative to the rampant industrial tourism of Churchill. We work hard to keep the cost of this course as low as possible to offer this opportunity to as many people as we can. It is for this reason that we make/bring many of our own meals, stay in affordable, locally owned accommodations, travel overland, and do not book sleeper cars on the train. We also take advantage of the driving and train time to teach about the landscape instead of flying to Churchill (which would increase the cost significantly, and contribute to a larger ecological footprint). We operate our program as close to actual cost as possible. Keeping that in mind, we gladly accept donations to help keep this program affordable and accessible, offering a once-in-a-lifetime educational opportunity to people of all walks of life. Please contact us if you are interested in sponsoring a trip for a student or someone of low economic income.
Do I need a sleeping bag?
Cargo space is limited, so we encourage you to bring a small travel blanket and pillow for the road and train. Linens, towels, and pillows are provided where we stay in Churchill.
Just how cold is it in the Arctic?
The temperature varies from year to year, but generally the average temperature is around 10 to 20 F. It is necessary to anticipate a storm and to be prepared for wind (which, of course makes it feel much colder). You can expect temperatures anywhere from -20F (or colder!) to +32F. We often see ALL of those temperatures over the course of our trip….
What food is provided and what do I need to bring/buy myself?
Throughout most of the travel time on the road and train, food will be your responsibility. Feel free to bring food that can be passed around and shared (this is usually what happens). On the train, we pass around fruit, elk/deer roast, crackers, cheese, trail mix, and other snacks. There is also a dinning car on the train, but you are responsible for your own meals there. When in Churchill, all meals are provided by the Centre, and included in the cost of the trip. Please let us know ahead of time if you are a vegetarian or have any other food requirements or allergies.
Berries, Belugas, and Bears–Summer Trip to the Arctic
This course explores the Hudson Bay basin and travelers on this field course will learn about the ecology, history, climate, tundra, boreal forest, natural history, people, and culture of the area. It is a great time to be in Churchill with light from 3am to 11pm and many migratory populations moving through. The Aurora Borealis may put on a good display this time of year as well, with clear weather conditions.
This will be an experiential learning course of the many ecosystems and we will also focus on the important relationship between the people of Churchill and the land they live in. This includes seeing the Eskimo Museum, the cultural Town Centre, and getting to know the ways of living in such a remote area.
Seeing bears in the summer is not always predictable, but we usually see a few in the area. We will see many migratory birds in the area and beluga whales in the Churchill River. We will also be arranging a boat tour to better observe the whales for anyone interested. This costs a bit extra and is optional – contact us for more info. In Churchill, we will also go on hikes and beach-comb. At least one day, we will plan to drive to an area called Twin Lakes where there is a possibility of seeing Caribou and fox.
From Pablo, we will follow Montana’s water flowing from Glacier National Park into the Saskatchewan River, to Lake Winnipeg, to the Nelson River, and finally to the Hudson Bay. As we travel north, we cross the Hudson Bay Divide, observing steady changes in the land and vegetation – passing through the long grass prairie, the montaine forests, the short grass prairie, three forest zones, and down to the sea. We will explore natural history “out train windows” and meet all sorts of people. In the past we have met Cree trappers, fishermen, hunters, their kids and families.
Getting to the train:
We will meet at the Great Bear Foundation office in Missoula — 802 E. Front Street. We will plan to leave Missoula by 7am and camp the first night. If you do not want to camp, we can help you arrange a motel at your own cost. Alternatively, participants may choose to begin the journey in Winnipeg.
The train to Churchill:
Winnipeg travelers will board the train at noon on Saturday, and will be joined by the rest of the group that night in Canora, SK.
Montana travelers will arrive in Canora, Saskatchewan Sunday afternoon and board the train to Churchill, arriving early on Tuesday morning. We will have five full days and four night in Churchill.
Learning: There will be natural history interpretation on the train about plant and animal identification, tracks, and the forest. This includes interaction with other passengers and participants. If there is time and interest, we will take a walk in the boreal forest when the train stops in Thompson.
Food: Meals in Churchill are included in the cost of the trip, but you are responsible for your own meals on the road and train. We bring a lot of snacks for the group to share, and you also have the option to purchase food on the train from the dining car. It is good and reasonably priced, but is not included in the cost of the trip.
Sleeper Car Option on the Train: If you would like a sleeper car you will need to pay extra money. The cost
is significantly cheaper if purchased on the train, but there is not a guarantee of availability.
While in Churchill:
Arrive in Churchill (on Hudson Bay) about 9:00 AM on Tuesday and travel to the Churchill Northern Studies Centre. We will spend the day and evening watching whales, looking for bears and fossils, studying arctic ecology, and other fun things.
Continue the same activities; daylight from 3am to 11pm allows us to have a full, flexible, fun schedule. We board the train to Canora and Winnipeg at 7:30 PM on Saturday .
Camping on the road (Montana travelers only): Tents will be arranged for the group and some people will be able to sleep on the seats of the vehicle. Please plan to bring your own sleeping equipment; sleeping bag, mat, pillow, etc. If anyone is unable to camp, a motel room can be reserved at additional cost. Please contact GBF staff well ahead of time so those arrangements can be made in advance.
The accommodations at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre are very comfortable with dorm rooms, lounges, and a dining room. We will help out with dish duty at breakfast and dinner, and prepare our own sack lunches each day. The food at the Centre is great! If you have visited CNSC before, you may be surprised by the brand new (opened in 2011), state of the art, LEED certified facility!
Fall is peak season for polar bears in Churchill but even during the summer months we almost always see a few (in 2010 we saw about 10!). We will all need to take great care regarding bear safety while we are in Churchill. You will need to peek both ways before going out the door and take wide corners around buildings and cars. Never stray from the group and always look around while we are outside. Don’t worry, we will have lectures and on bear safety and we’ve never had a problem on our trips. GBF staff is extremely experienced with bears and bear country.
This is offered through Sea North Tours, a locally operated company that engages in ethical tourism practices. Before the tour, we will listen to a discussion on the beluga whales. The tour will take us up the Churchill River where we will be able to observe pods of beluga whales. They congregate in the river this time of year feeding on capelin and having their calves. We will be able to see many calves with their families while on the boat and will be able to listen to them talking with the aide of hydrophones. Belugas are the most vocal type of whale in the world and this provides a very neat experience to be able to listen to them as they swim past. The second part of the tour takes us to the opposite shore of the river where we will be able to explore the reconstructed remnants of the Prince of Wales Fort and learn that part of Churchill’s history. It’s about 4 hours total and the price per person is $90-100. Alternatively, at the same location a kayak rental is also available where you can paddle in the Churchill River and observe the whales. Each of these options is optional and any costs are in addition to the cost of the trip. For anyone not wishing to participate, alternative activities will be provided with GBF staff.
Things to bring: It will mostly be warm, but wind off the water can make you chilly quickly, and weather can change dramatically without notice. Bring layers of warm clothing including a sweater and a wind-breaker (not optional). Long pants are recommended to help with insects, which shouldn’t be too bad in early August. Sleeping bag for the train ride (optional, but nice to have). Spotting scope or binoculars. Camera. Food like apples, cookies, trail mix, nuts, or jerky for on-the-road and to reduce costs and make friends
Get Information and Register for a Class
Use the email form at right to get information about room on the Polar Bear Ecology or Summer Trip to the Arctic class.
Both field trips require registration deposits. Please ask via email or phone if there is room on a trip before placing a deposit.
Both Churchill field trip reservations require a $250 deposit, refundable up to September 1st for the Polar Bear Ecology Trip and June 1st for the Summer Trip to the Arctic (minus the 4% card processing fee).
GBF President, Dr. Charles Jonkel, and Executive Director, Shannon Donahue offer guest lectures and workshops with other organizations, too. Jonkel is a guest lecturer for The Nature Conservancy’s Path of the Great Bear workshop on the Rocky Mountain Front and offers guided walks in bear habitat during Waterton Wildlife Weekend in Waterton Park, Alberta. Contact us to book Dr. Jonkel or Shannon Donahue to speak to your group, school, or organization on bears and bear conservation. Shannon is available for classes and speaking engagements in Southeast Alaska, Yukon, and Northern British Columbia between the months of May and October.
Please contact Great Bear about registering for either Churchill Arctic Field trip before making a deposit to be sure there is room on the trip you’re interested in taking.
Both Churchill Arctic trips require a $250 deposit (per traveler) for confirmed reservations. (This deposit is refundable – $240; minus the 3% card processing fee if paid by CC – up to September 1st for the Polar Bear Ecology Trip and June 1st for the Summer Trip to the Arctic.)
Field trip costs for 2013:
These costs are if paid by check; trip cost is 3% more if paid by credit card.
- Polar Bear Ecology Field Trip: Leaving from Missoula or Winnipeg – Full cost of trip: $2450. Balance due after $250 deposit: $2200 1 traveler or $4400 2 travelers
- Summer Trip to the Arctic: To Be Announced
Once Great Bear tells you there is room, secure your place by making a deposit below through PayPal or by mailing us a check at Great Bear Foundation, PO Box 9383, Missoula, MT, 59807. (Please allow five days for mailing).