Get up close and personal with arctic animals when you visit the Journey to Churchill exhibit at the Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg!
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The giant white mammal on the other side of the glass looks positively gleeful as he tosses a weighted diver’s belt from his mouth, racing through the icy water to grab it again before it reaches the bottom of the pool. He is so playful that it is difficult to remember that even as an adolescent, he outweighs me by a good 300 pounds and is a member of the most carnivorous species of bear, and not an overgrown puppy of some sort.
Watching the bear (his name is York, for the York Factory First Nation whose land includes polar bear dens) and his brother Eli (named for a venerated elder from the York Factory First Nation) frolic in the water above from the plexiglass tunnel of the Sea Ice Passage isn’t an experience I knew was missing from my life, but it was!
A visit to the polar bear capital of Churchill Manitoba may not be feasible, but a day spent in the exhibit Journey to Churchill at the Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg is an ideal way to learn about the animals and the land they inhabit in our country’s frozen North.
It isn’t just polar bears in the exhibit, although they are one of the star attractions. Other northern animals include muskoxen, Arctic fox, wolves, and others. The exhibit is one of the premiere Arctic zoo exhibits in the world, carefully designed to emulate the animals’ natural habitat. Enclosure walls are positioned to be unobtrusive allowing animals (human visitors included) to gaze across the landscape and feel as though they are on the wide open Tundra.
Predators and prey are kept within smelling distance of each other to keep the animals on their toes. The Woodland Caribou (the “Golden Girls” named Bea Arthur and Betty White) stand not far from the wolves. As we tour the wolf pen a brave bird does a fly-by, optimistically hoping to score some scraps. The wolves bristle but the bird keeps his distance. Birds are not always so lucky, we learn from the zookeeper. One imagines mice and squirrels are not a big problem around the wolf enclosure either!
There is plenty to do in the Journey to Churchill exhibit, from the magical experience watching polar bears in the underwater tunnel, to watching a short documentary film in the Aurora Borealis Theatre, Manitoba’s largest 360 degree domed theatre, or getting a real Churchill feel in the Churchill Coast area. Throughout, informative signs educate visitors on many aspects of conservation and environmental stewardship.
To really take the experience to the next level, you will want to investigate the Canadian Signature Experience, a 90 minute, in-depth tour of Journey to Churchill that runs once a month, or for groups of 6 or more. Knowledgeable educator-guides shepherd you through the exhibit, giving you an exclusive look at the work of the zoo. I loved watching the shy muskoxen as they stood cautiously appraising us, the adults keeping their distance while the teenager took a few timid steps forward before thinking better of it to languidly scratch himself against the bristles of a used car wash brush provided for just that purpose.
The Canadian Signature Experience will also take you behind the scenes into the labs at the Leatherdale International Polar Bear Conservation Centre (LIPBCC.) With its sister outpost in Churchill, the facility is unique in Canada. You will get the chance to learn more about the plight of the polar bears and their shrinking habitat, and the work being done to help.
You will also say “awww” roughly a thousand times as you find out how the LIPBCC acts as a rescue and transition centre for orphaned polar bears who face certain death had they been left on the tundra. You’ll also learn fascinating tidbits like the fact that the polar bear poop at the zoo glitters. The bears feed is mixed with a non-toxic, indigestible glitter (each one a different colour) that allows researchers to identify and diagnose which bear may be experiencing *ahem* digestive issues.
The Canadian Signature Experience of the Journey to Churchill at the Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg requires pre-registration and a minimum of 6 people to run. It costs $54.50 per person and includes the guided Zoo tour, with admission and taxes.
The Assiniboine Park Zoo is located close to the family friendly Holiday Inn Winnipeg Airport West Hotel, a great base of operations for a family trip to Winnipeg.