Photo: Kieran McIver / Polar Bears International

Rebuilding the Cape Churchill Cams

By Kieran McIver, Manager of Churchill Field Operations



22 May 2024

Spring in Churchill is always a pleasure. The longer days and mild weather are accompanied by unmistakable signs of our transition out of the long and cold winter. The return of snow buntings marks the season's onset, swiftly followed by the honking of Canadian geese and the arrival of snow geese flocking overhead in the thousands en route to their northern nesting grounds. Among the migratory visitors, the eiders hold a special place, congregating in the open water near the river mouth. Their gentle cooing welcomes the beluga whales as the ice recedes and the whales arrive for another summer.

April marks the time for my annual trip to check on the live wildlife cameras stationed at Cape Churchill in Wapusk National Park operated by Typically, this trip involves routine maintenance and inspections, while offering a welcome break from my office to enjoy a few days outdoors. However, last year, we embarked on a different mission—to dismantle our cameras and equipment from the historic Cape Churchill Tower. This step was part of a larger effort aimed at replacing it with a new and improved mobile tower, which we hoped to have operational by this spring.

Photo: Kieran McIver / Polar Bears International

From old tower to new

It was sad to vacate the old tower. Its history goes back all the way to the 1970s when it was first erected in the park as an observation tower to study polar bears. You can see evidence of visitors over the years: researchers, scientists, and others have inscribed their names on the interior walls. Some ink is faded from many years past, while other signatures are fresh and still legible, like my own from my first trip to Cape in 2017. 

Finally, last fall, the arrival of the new tower in Churchill marked a milestone in our project. The tower was custom-built in Florida, and then made its way to Bozeman, where it underwent the transformation into a wind- and solar-powered remote camera tower. From there, it journeyed to Winnipeg before boarding the train bound for Churchill. With the arrival of the tower in Churchill, our focus shifted to planning the final leg of its journey to Wapusk National Park. This involved careful consideration of various factors, including weather, travel conditions, and polar bear safety. For us, the optimal time for the move was in April.

Photo: Kieran McIver / Polar Bears International

Slow journey by Snowcat

The journey from the town of Churchill to Cape Churchill spans approximately 65 kilometers or 40 miles, with less than half of this distance covered by road. While the road portion of the trip posed little challenge, the remainder of the journey required some creativity and planning. With the tower weighing approximately 1,430 pounds, and an additional 920 pounds of batteries, no ordinary snow machine could safely transport such a heavy load safely. Fortunately, we enlisted the expertise of a local equipped with a BR400 Groomer, more commonly known as a Snowcat, as well as a purpose-built sled made from steel and lumber that was large enough and strong enough to support the trailer. You may have seen a track machine like this one on the side of a ski hill grooming trails, but in this case, their formidable towing capacity made it the ideal choice for our task.

The Snowcat travels slowly, and we had a lot of ground to cover, so this prompted an early morning departure. The cool weather ensured the snow and ice remained firm beneath our tracks, and fortunately, we encountered no water or slush along the way. It can be a fine balance finding the most opportune time to travel during the spring. Increasing sunlight and warmer temperatures help to smooth out the terrain and level the once hard-packed and bumpy snow drifts that make travel rough and unpleasant. However, if the weather is too warm you may encounter flooded or wet conditions that can impede travel and make a project like ours very difficult or impossible. 

With sensitive equipment onboard we were grateful for the conditions we encountered, which made for a slow and uneventful journey to Cape.

I can’t imagine I was the only one feeling anxious about this last leg of the journey to Cape. Despite thorough planning and preparation, the unpredictable nature of such endeavors always looms large. No matter how meticulous our plans are, unforeseen challenges can arise, making success far from guaranteed. Had we missed the narrow window of opportunity in spring it would have forced us to wait another seven months until the following fall, when conditions once again permit travel over the snow and ice.

As we finally arrived at Cape Churchill, tensions eased, though the collective sighs of relief could not be heard over the rumble of the idling Snowcat's engine.

Photo: Kieran McIver / Polar Bears International

Setting up the cams

With the tower finally reaching its destination, the Snowcat was free to begin its slow amble back to Churchill. However, there was still work to be done; the cameras, networking equipment, radar systems, and battery bank awaited assembly, and we still had to set earth anchors for the guy wires that would stabilize the tower against the relentless winds that frequent the Hudson Bay coastline. 

Just as we carefully delivered the tower, we moved the cameras and gear from town to the tower site for installation. Over the next two days, a colleague and I diligently worked to complete the install and establish an internet connection.

Wapusk National Park is remote even for me, despite living just next door. With no roads leading into the park, visiting is a considerable challenge. I feel privileged to have the opportunity to experience this ecosystem firsthand each spring and to play a small part in sharing the beauty of Cape Churchill with so many others around the world through the live cameras on

Thanks to the many individuals who were involved in the project. And a special thank you to Polar Bears International,, and Parks Canada for their dedication and support, which makes these live cameras a reality. You can watch them here.