Terry Ward’s 6-year-old son stands in front of Churchill’s “Polar Bear Jail,” where nuisance bears are held before being released back into the wild.

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My son’s eyes pooled like a melting glacier. We were in Churchill, a town of roughly 900 people nicknamed the “Polar Bear Capital of the World,” in Canada’s Manitoba province.

It was mid-August, and I’d pulled Nico out of his first week of first grade in Florida for a “Family Learning Adventure” with Frontiers North Adventures and a trip I was sure would be worth missing a week of school to attend.

But I’d been wondering whether anything was sinking in. Together with several other kids in our group aged five to 10, my restless boy was suddenly rapt with attention in the town’s Polar Bears International officeHe was listening to a story about a bear named Ursula who had been tracked for several seasons around Churchill and finally far out on the sea ice in the middle of Hudson Bay with her two cubs before her tracking signal went offline.

The device was eventually found washed ashore on land. Ursula made it back, but the fate of her cubs was unknown.

Nico, 6, had just seen his first polar bear in the wild, a thin male splayed across rocks in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area, just outside of town, where our Tundra Buggy driver, Jim Baldwin, had spotted the bear from a couple football fields away. As we approached in the towering vehicle with tires up to my shoulders, Baldwin told us the bear was too skinny for his liking.

A male polar bear rests during a Tundra Buggy ride into the Churchill Wildlife Management Area in August. People have to learn to co-exist with polar bears in Churchill, where some of them stay waiting for sea ice to refreeze.

By mid-August, Churchill’s polar bears had been off the Hudson Bay sea ice for 60 days, essentially fasting until it would freeze over in late October or November. Then they could hunt for seals again.

We learned the window of ice-free time in Hudson Bay was getting longer, with the ice melting earlier in the year and freezing later each year. Hudson Bay polar bears are among the most vulnerable on Earth because of loss of sea ice, with their numbers in sharp decline.

We didn’t have all the facts about what happened to Ursula and her cubs, but I could see my son was putting two and two together. “Did they … die?” He turned to me and whispered, tears spilling over.

I told him we didn’t know.

Unexcused absences and a different kind of classroom

Bring your binoculars! Young Tundra Buggy passengers with Frontier North Adventures scout for wildlife during a stop in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area.

Back home in Florida, the stories we share usually have a happy ending, all the better for a good night’s sleep. But as a firm believer that travel is the best education, I’d called in a week of “unexcused absences” to Nico’s public elementary school in Tampa and came to this remote place with no road access.

Most visitors arrive in Churchill via a two-day train journey from Winnipeg, Manitoba’s capital, more than 600 miles (965 kilometers) south, or by commercial flights on Calm Air, which can cost around $2,000CAD (about $1475 USD) roundtrip for the 2.5-hour flight from Winnipeg.

Once you’re on the ground, things are similarly pricey. A comfortable but no-frills room at the Tundra Inn  in town is $335 CAD ($247.26) per night during fall’s peak polar bear season. Summertime beluga-watching tours by Zodiac cost $125 CAD ($92.26 USD pp). And groceries cost a pretty penny, too.

Terry Ward and her son take a selfie in front of a warning sign near Churchill’s city beach, fronting Hudson Bay.

I’d ventured this far with my son in hopes of painting a real picture for him from the Arctic animal books we’d paged through and talks we’d had about the climate crisis. This was a place that was changing forever in our lifetimes, the time to see it was now.

The last time I’d been among polar bears was just before I got pregnant with Nico, on a sailing adventure in Svalbard, an Arctic island off Norway. Together with friends on a small boat named Barba, I witnessed open coastline where sea ice should have been, saw a polar bear scavenging for bird eggs because the seals were out of reach and even used a wooden pole to fend off a hungry bear that tried to board our boat, perhaps smelling the cod we’d left out to dry. 

I wasn’t looking to get that up close and personal with the animals with my son. But considering the impact traveling in the Arctic had on me in my early 40s and knowing how quickly the region was changing, I was eager to give Nico a head start on lessons you can’t get in school.

Our Frontiers North Adventures guide, Jennifer Diment, briefed us on our trip, telling us we’d witness the largest migration of beluga whales in the world. It happens every July and August in the Churchill River and nearby estuaries, when the cetaceans arrive to feed, mate and calve in the sheltered waters.

We’d learn about the region’s Indigenous peoples and the perils a warming Arctic brings to their way of life. And we’d likely see polar bears, she said, with unusually high numbers of them spotted around Churchill, their natural migration corridor, this summer.

Nico pushed his toy car across the airport’s floor as she talked.

“Churchill is the most representative place for kids to get a clear picture of what is happening with our environment and climate change,” Diment, a biologist, reassured me.

“When you see the number of days the polar bear population here has gone without eating because of the number of days the area has been free of sea ice, then you see a polar bear on land, it really puts things in context.”

Into the realm of the polar bear

An Inukshuk, a structure of boulders piled to look like a person, fronts Churchill’s city beach.

Context in Churchill, which sits at roughly the same latitude as Scandinavian cities such as Stockholm and Oslo and is the southernmost place in the world to see wild polar bears, comes in being immersed in a surprisingly accessible slice of true wilderness.

Helicopters patrol the town’s perimeter to keep children safe while trick or treating on Halloween night (when nobody would dare dress like a bear). And a large sign with the Polar Bear Alert Line’s phone number and a warning to never go outside after 10 p.m. is the first thing you see upon landing at the airport.

Together with our group of four other families – hailing from Toronto, Denver, Vancouver and Washington, DC (including two kids who were similarly missing their first week of school) – we set out to learn all we could.

A group of parents and children on a tour with Frontiers North Adventures walks to the wreck of the Ithaca.