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 Courses 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.
Executive Director, Shannon Donahue offers guest lectures and bear safety and ecology workshops by request. Contact us to book 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. Contact us for more information on educational opportunities in Alaska and Northwest Canada.
Polar Bear Ecology 2016~Two Sessions
Our Autumn 2016 field courses are now open for enrollment. We are also offering a summer field course during beluga season.
- Session I–Polar Bears 101: October 23-31 (in Churchill Oct 25-29)
An overview of polar bear ecology, conservation, and behavior, with lessons on photography, the Arctic, and northern cultures.
- Session II–Sharing Habitat with Polar Bears: how people & polar bears coexist: October 30-November 7 (in Churchill Nov 1-5)
In addition to general polar bear ecology, this course focuses on how humans and polar bears coexist—community responses to living with polar bears, how Indigenous peoples have historically coexisted with bears, and how we as global citizens share a planet with polar bears in rapidly changing times. This course includes slightly more physical activity, and a more engaged curriculum than our general course, Polar Bears 101.
- Location: Churchill Northern Studies Center, Manitoba, Canada
- Costs: $2,450 (includes $500 reservation deposit, refundable until August 15)
Cost includes train travel from Winnipeg, accommodations, course tuition and meals in Churchill. Travel from other train stations on the Winnipeg-Churchill line can also be arranged for an adjusted price.
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. and Dr. Frank Tyro
“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
See our Flickr photo sets from Churchill 2008 and Churchill 2010. (slideshows may take up to 30 seconds to load.)
Join us on the western shores of Hudson Bay for an experience observing polar bears in their natural habitat, taking walks on the tundra and boreal forest, learning about cultural and natural history, and exploring. Participants will 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.
In early to mid-November, the ice shelf usually starts to form, 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. We try to time our visit to Churchill just before freeze-up.
Click here to read the FAQs
Train travel beginning and ending in Winnipeg, MB is included in the cost of the trip, and we will arrange your train travel. We can arrange travel from other train stations, such as Canora, SK, The Pas, MB or Thompson, MB upon request, and will adjust the trip price accordingly. We are also happy to help coordinate carpools and caravans to the train station if multiple people are traveling from the same region.
Winnipeg: The train departs Winnipeg at noon on Sunday, and is scheduled to arrive in Churchill at dawn on Tuesday, so travelers will spend two nights on the train each way. The train travels slowly through the boreal forest and tundra, making for great opportunities to watch wildlife, slow down, and experience the transitions from urban Winnipeg through farmland and prairies, up through various stages of boreal forest and finally to the tundra and Hudson Bay. On the return trip, the train departs on Saturday night, and is scheduled to arrive in Winnipeg on Monday afternoon.
Course instructors will travel north on the train with Session I, and south on the train with Session II.
In Churchill, observing wildlife is our top priority. We will spend the days touring the back roads, exploring polar bear habitat, learning about natural history, and visiting cultural sites. We’ll spend evenings in the classroom with lectures, slideshows, and guest speakers. If we’re lucky, we may get to watch the northern lights!
Credit: Participants are eligible for Continuing Education Units (CEUs) through Salish Kootenai College at no extra cost. We are happy work with students enrolled in an educational institution to develop independent projects for credit through their home institution.
Food: It’s a good idea to bring food to eat on the train. There is a dining car on the train, with good, reasonably priced meals and a vegetarian option, but meals are limited to designated times. Although the meals in Churchill are covered in the cost of the field course, you will be responsible for your own food on the train. You may want to stop at a grocery store in Winnipeg to stock up on supplies before boarding the train, and again before departing Churchill.
Sleeper Car Option on the Train: If you would like a sleeper car, you can reserve a sleeper car prior to departure (usually costs around $1000 extra for round trip). We will ask you to make your own train arrangements in that case.
Alternative Travel Options: We can arrange your train travel from another community on the Churchill line, such as Canora, SK, The Pas, MB, or Thompson, MB upon request, and will adjust your trip price accordingly. If multiple participants are traveling from the same region, we are happy to help coordinate carpools. It is possible to fly to Churchill on a small plane on Calm Air, but flight schedules are unreliable due to weather, and we recommend the train experience.
While in Churchill: We will spend the days in Churchill exploring the terrestrial habitat of the polar bear by bus while keeping our impact on the wildlife and habitat to a minimum. We can arrange for extra day excursions such as sled dog tours 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.
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 sack lunches so we can spend the day in the field, and strip our beds when we leave. 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.
Bear Safety: 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 snacks on the train. Shampoo, soap, toiletries, earplugs, medication, extra batteries and memory cards, reading material, hand and foot warmers.
FAQs for Churchill Travelers
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, to keep it affordable. 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.
40 Continuing Education Units (CEUs) are given at no cost from Salish Kootenai College for each session. GBF also provides an attractive certificate that can be framed attesting to your completion of the trip. While in Churchill, the staff provides lectures and programs and we include local cultural speakers and residents. If you are enrolled in a school, college, or university, we are happy to work with you and your advisor to develop an independent project for credit at your home institution.
What is the difference between the courses, Polar Bears 101 and Sharing Habitat with Polar Bears?
Polar Bears 101 is a general introduction to polar bears, their biology, ecology, behavior, and conservation status, aimed at people of all ages, interests, and abilities. This course offers an overview of polar bears, climate change, the Churchill area, Hudson Bay and arctic ecology, as well as lessons on photography, northern cultures, and the impacts of human activities on wildlife and habitat. This is a great entry-point to the world of the polar bear, and for people interested in a broad overview of the polar bear and its habitat. Families with children will be well-suited to this course.
Sharing Habitat with Polar Bears: how people and polar bears coexist takes an in-depth look at the relationships between people and polar bears, both historically, and in the present. We’ll look at community responses to living with bears, the history of polar bear biology and management in Canada and internationally, changing perceptions of polar bears as they have become a tourist attraction and a living symbol of climate change, how people have shared habitat with polar bears in the Arctic over tens of thousands of years, and how we as global citizens share a planet with polar bears in a rapidly changing world. With field trips and guest speakers, this course takes a more in-depth look at polar bears in Churchill, with a more rigorous curriculum and a little bit more physical activity. Polar Bears 101 is not a necessary prerequisite.
Do I need to take Polar Bears 101 first?
Our two field courses offer different perspectives on the polar bears of Churchill, with some overlapping material. It is not necessary to take Polar Bears 101 before Sharing Habitat with Polar Bears. If you are considering taking both courses, we recommend starting with Polar Bears 101, but reversing the order will not take away from your experience. Both courses are primarily based on field observations, so no two sessions will be the same, and depending on what we encounter, the same course will vary significantly from year to year. Both courses are timed at the peak of Churchill’s polar bear season. Being at the mercy of nature’s whims, we do not anticipate bear-viewing opportunities to be significantly better during one session than the other.
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. All rooms are close to bathrooms. 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 upon request in advance. 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.
Do I need a passport?
If you are traveling from the US, passports are required for travel to Canada. A passport card may be used for overland travel to Canada, but we recommend a full passport, in case you need to fly home for an emergency.
Do I need a sleeping bag?
Linens, towels, and pillows are provided where we stay in Churchill, but you may want a small blanket or throw and travel pillow for the train. Baggage is limited on the train to two carry-ons and two checked bags.
Just how cold is it in the Arctic?
The temperature varies greatly from year to year. Generally the average temperature on the Autumn trip is between zero and 20 F, but it’s also common to see subzero temperatures. Fierce winter storms are not uncommon, and it can be very windy wind even in “good” weather (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….
The summer trip can also see variable temperatures and conditions from very cool (45F) and rainy to as high as 80F. Bug screen headgear is essential and long sleeve layered clothing is highly recommended with a good wind resistant jacket and hoodie.
What food is provided and what do I need to bring/buy myself?
On the train, food will be your responsibility, so bring snacks, and be prepared to pay for meals on the dining car. Meals on the train are tasty and reasonably priced, but options are limited (there is always a vegetarian option). When in Churchill, all meals are provided by the Centre, and are 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 or kayak tour to better observe the whales, included in the price of the trip. 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.
We’ll board the train in Winnipeg or Canora (we can also make arrangements from other stations on the Churchill line), and spend two nights on the train each way. We will explore natural history out train windows, witness the transition from prairie grasslands to boreal forest, taiga, and tundra, and meet all sorts of people. In the past we have met Cree trappers, fishermen, hunters, their kids and families.
The train to Churchill:
Winnipeg travelers will board the train at noon on Saturday, and will be joined later on that evening by those boarding in Canora, SK. We can also arrange travel from other stations, such as The Pas or Thompson, MB. It is not possible to drive to Churchill.
Learning: There will be natural history interpretation on the train. This includes interaction with other passengers and participants. We have a long stop in Thompson, MB, where we can take a walk and explore the town. Thompson is the last large community en route to Churchill, with shopping centers and restaurants a 10 minute walk from the train station.
Food: Meals in Churchill are included in the cost of the trip, but you are responsible for your own meals on the train. We suggest bringing snacks for yourself and to share with the group, and you also have the option to purchase food on the train from the dining car. It is good and reasonably priced, with a vegetarian option, 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, usually about $1000 extra. We’ll likely have you make those arrangements, for a rebate on the price of your trip.
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 .
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. 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.
Boat or Kayak Tour:
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 included in the price of the trip. Alternatively, at the same location a kayak rental is also available where you can paddle in the Churchill River and observe the whales.
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 $500 deposit, refundable up to August 15 for the Polar Bear Ecology Trip and April 15th for the Summer Trip to the Arctic (minus the 4% card processing fee). Balance of payment for the November trip is due September 1st, and balance of payment for the Summer trip is due June 1st.
Executive Director, Shannon Donahue offers guest lectures and workshops with other organizations, too. Contact us to book 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.
Please contact Great Bear about registering for a Churchill Arctic Field trip before making a deposit to be sure there is room on the trip you’re interested in taking.
All Churchill Arctic trips require a $500 deposit (per traveler) for confirmed reservations. (This deposit is refundable, minus a 4% card processing fee if paid by CC – up to August 15 for the Polar Bear Ecology Trip and June 1st for the Summer Trip to the Arctic.)
Field trip costs for 2016:
We charge a service fee of approximately 4% for credit/debit card payments on trip balances (but not deposits) to cover Paypal’s processing fees. To avoid processing fees, you may pay by check. We do not charge the processing fee when you pay your deposit, just on your final payment, or if we have to refund your deposit.
- Polar Bear Ecology Field Trip, Session I or II: Full cost of trip: $2450 by check or $2550 by credit/debit card. Balance due after $500 deposit: $1950 by check or $2050 by credit/debit card.
Contact us for prices for alternative travel arrangements.
- 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 a check to Great Bear Foundation, PO Box 9383, Missoula, MT, 59807, or PO Box 1616, Haines, AK 99827.