With all of the news the last few years about global warming and the declining habitat for the world’s polar bears, I was afraid they would all disappear before I could see them in nature. A friend had taken a trip to Churchill several years ago, and I vividly recalled her photos and had a desire to go there ever since. So one November I traveled north near the Arctic Circle to view the bears up close and in the wild.
This and subsequent posts will describe my 7-day safari to find the polar bears.
Day 1 was a flight into Winnipeg and evening dinner with our guide and the rest of the group at the hotel. My tour group provided pickup service from the airport to the hotel, then met us at the hotel to get registered. My shuttle driver was chatty and said “eh?” at the end of nearly every sentence (I guess Canadians do say that). She said there’s lots of snow and bears in Churchill, so I got pretty excited.
Our hotel was the Fort Garry Hotel, a stately old hotel. My room was a bit small and noisy, but had comfy down pillows and blankets.
Mike, our tour guide through Natural Habitat Adventures, was great. He’d done the polar bear tours for 11 years. At the group dinner that night, I first met our fellow travelers, who were all avid wildlife lovers like myself and we all became pretty good friends by the end of our adventure. We were also outfitted with warm weather gear (coats and boots) that we would need for our time on the tundra.
We flew into Churchill on a private charter in a propeller plane that looked out of the 50s Logo on charter jet to Churchill and was a bit loud. But we were the only group on the 50-seater, so we got to sit wherever we wanted and we got free refreshments, so it’s all good. The flight was about two hours long and mostly bump free.
Churchill is small, about 800 people, and you can walk the entire town easily. We got on a minibus and first toured the town so Mike could show us where all the shopping is. There are actually quite a few souvenir shops with Indian art in the town. We lunched at Trader’s Table, the big draw being the female sled dog puppy living outside. She was adorable and lonely and we lavished it with attention. After lunch, we checked in at our hotels then I spent two hours walking the town and shopping, spending most of my Canadian funds already, but most places take American money and credit cards too. I saw several of my group stocking up at the grocery store. I also went to the post office to get my passport stamped with a special Churchill stamp.
Our first night in Churchill, Mike gave a lecture on Churchill and the polar bears. Some facts I retained: Churchill is at 58 degrees 30 minutes in the Arctic, but not in the Arctic Circle. Churchill gets its supplies by train, which is frequently late, and there are no roads to get here. The top industries in Churchill are (in order) the Grain elevator, hospital and tourism. Churchill’s electricity comes from a hydro-power plant in another town.
Bears come to Churchill because three freshwater rivers converge on Hudson Bay here. Hudson Bay is saltwater and saltwater freezes two degrees lower than freshwater, so the freshwater makes this area freeze faster, giving bears a longer hunting season.
The “bear free zone” near the village spans from Hudson Bay to the railroad tracks at the edge of town to the airport. Bears in this area are trapped, taken to “bear jail” and released when the ice freezes. Mama bears give birth in December/January and in March baby bears emerge from the den. Mama bears nurse their young until they go off on their own, which could be 2-3 years. Polar bears can smell prey up to 20-25 miles away. They have longer necks to help catch the scent. Polar bears have black skin and clear, hollow fur (the light is absorbed and makes it appear yellow) and do not hibernate.
A storm blew in the night before our first day on the tundra. We drove out to the launch pad in white-out conditions. We pulled into the parking lot and happened upon a group of people trying to push their van out of the deep snow.
The launch pad was for the Great White Polar Tours tundra buggies (they prefer the term “Polar Rovers”). Val was our buggy driver for the week and her dad builds the Polar Rovers and her brother runs the company. Great White had permits for 6 buggies in the area, and Tundra Buggy had permits for 12, so there is not an overabundance of buggies on the tundra, as there are jeeps in Tanzania (see prior Tanzanian safari posts).
The buggies were nice, roomy and comfortable, made for about 32 people (we had 16 in our group) and trundled along very slowly. We couldn’t see out of the windows because of the ice and snow, though, so they were frequently open making it frigid inside (thank goodness for our warm winter gear).
We roamed around on the tundra all day. We saw nothing until we were adjacent to Hudson Bay. There, we watched two bears crossing the ice to a little island, then spar behind some bushes. You could see them, barely, with binoculars, but you couldn’t get any pictures because of the poor visibility.
Around noon, we lumbered to the other side of Hudson Bay where the wind wasn’t so harsh. We found a young female bear (around 5 years old) snoozing in a snow bank and we halted 25 feet away from her.
We lunched as we snapped her picture and she obliged by rolling around, standing up and scoping out a nearby buggy, walking away across the ice, then returning and reburrowing into the snow.
We drove on and encountered two more bears far off that you could see with binoculars and two arctic hare sitting by the side of the road, which were oddly easy to spot in the blizzard conditions. One ran off when we stopped, but the other stayed and snacked on twigs. We also saw a ptarmigan, which is a bird that looks like a fat pigeon.
When we returned to the launch pad, we were informed that Churchill was at a standstill and even 4x4s were getting stuck in the snow. It didn’t seem so bad as we drove back into town, however, a little icy maybe. We caravanned back in a group of vans in case one ran off the road.
We dined at Gypsy’s restaurant, the bakery which supplied our delicious lunch on the buggy. The wind was biting and snow was drifting. Only the hardy souls from California and Maryland were adventurous enough to walk down the block to dinner.
Afterward, all of us rode to the Anglican Church where our talk that night was on the history of Hudson Bay – given by Bill from Boston, whom we met at dinner (he lives here now). At the church, the snowdrifts to climb through were up over my knees. We convinced one of our youngest tourmates to get out and shovel a path to the door.
Two other tour groups joined us for the talk. Bill discussed the history of the church we were in (built in the 800s and moved twice to its current spot), Henry Hudson (who disappeared in the area after his crew mutinied), A Danish explorer Monk (whose crew died from trichinosis after eating polar bear meat, however he made it back to Denmark), and John Franklin (there’s a window in the church donated by his wife after he disappeared and apparently died while trying to find the NW Passage). It was all interesting.
We returned to our hotel to discover people living in the lobby. We learned later they were waiting for the train, which wasn’t to depart until midnight – late, of course.
The day was cold and cloudy, but visibility was great, perfect for bear viewing. We went out on the Polar Rover again with our driver Val. Val said yesterday was the worst weather she’s seen in 7 years and today was one of the best bear days.
There were bears everywhere, mostly observed from afar. We glimpsed our first bear about 10 minutes in, snoozing under tree, then spotted four more bears by a lake. We viewed one red fox carrying what looked like a stick in its mouth, then a flock of ptarmigans. We ended up in an area near the Tundra Buggy camp where there were bears all over – bears in snow banks, two bears sparring, lone bears walking and a mom and two yearlings (i.e., born the previous January). We followed this trio for miles and at one point we cut across their path, which steered them across behind our buggy.
We could have reached down from the viewing platform and touched them, they were that close, and they glanced up at us interestedly as they passed by. Mama was looking for a place to bed down with her babies and kept running into other bears that scared them off. One bear followed them a while, then gave up. The trio rousted another sleeping bear from his nest and he ran away, but then circled back to his spot and tailed them for a bit. Another sleeping bear left his roost to stand out on the ice to guard his spot when the trio walked by. We lost track of the threesome for a while, but when we last saw them, they were lying cuddled together on a snow bank by the Bay. Good mom.
I frankly lost count of all the bears we saw, but I wish we saw more up close. We were about 20 feet from one bear, who slept the entire time, but our closest encounter was with the mama and babies.
Back in town, I visited the baby sled dog pups behind the Trading Post.
These pups weren’t even two months old and they were out back in a sunken pen. There were three black ones and one black with a white stripe on his head like a skunk. They swarmed me. I picked one up and he just hung there. Then, they all began jumping out of the pit. That couldn’t be good. I was holding one, one chewed on my scarf, and another chewed on my backpack. I kept trying to put them back in their den and they kept leaping out; then they followed me as I left! I hurried away, then turned to wait and see if they followed me out of the back yard, which they fortunately didn’t.
There was also a mama and 5 black and white sled dog puppies at the Wapusk gift shop. The babies were cute but mama was very protective. She kept a close eye on me and began dragging her pups back to the doghouse.
That evening, instead of attending a lecture, my Canadian tour companions and I attended a concert at the Town Center. My tourmates know the music teacher at the school and I was curious what people in Churchill did for entertainment. The concert began with the school choir (most of whom didn’t sing) and kid fiddlers, then the main act: Fred Eaglesmith and the Salvation Army, with Washboard.
They ride the rails around Canada and US playing bluegrass. There was Fred, who sang too little and told really bad non-jokes too much, a guitarist/banjo picker, a female drummer, a bass violin player, and Washboard, who had thimbles on his fingers, a hat and washboard made out of various metal objects such as a bell, cowbell, etc. They sang such memorable hits as “My Girl has Big Hair” and “Chompy the Head Biter Offer” and “I Shot Your Dog”. We liked Washboard, though. It was a unique experience.
Day 5 was town and area day, which means we rode around Churchill and the surrounding areas on a bus and got off for photo opportunities. We drove down Grant’s Point Road first, which goes out to the water pump, although we only got as far as Weir Point (a lookout tower). We stopped to admire spruce trees (part of the boreal forest habitat), climbed to the top of the lookout tower for the views (we could see Churchill in the distance), and oohed and aahed over sled dog puppies at a home nearby. This area is made up of three types of habitats – Tundra, Boreal Forest and the treeline and three Indian groups met here – Algonquin, Inuit and Athabasca.
We visited the bear jail and some bear traps scattered around town.
There were 13 bears in bear jail, although you don’t get to go inside to see them. The first year of the jail they fed the bears, but the next year the bears tried to break back into the jail, so they don’t feed them anymore. We learned about Bear bombs, which are firecrackers set off in the bear free zone to scare bears away when they get too close to town.
We then went to take each others’ pictures at Hudson’s Bay, the Inukshuk (an Inuit marker), a polar bear warning sign and the Welcome to Churchill sign. We went down a back road and saw hundreds of sled dogs at a breeding farm (they’re just chained out in the snow, how sad) and spotted Snow Bunting (brown and white birds) and a red fox on the hillside (see pix below). We rode out to the grain elevator then tried to go to Cape Merry to overlook the fort, but the road was unplowed and unnavigable so we drove down to the Churchill River instead. I was wet and cold afterward from slogging through knee deep snowdrifts.
We visited the museum, which had Indian artifacts as well as a pretty good, though pricey, gift shop.
We had our evening on the tundra that night. We saw three bears – one before we even got to the launch pad. He was standing 10 feet from the road and walked right around us.
In the buggy, we drove out a short distance onto the tundra and planted ourselves. We had wine – lots of wine – and appetizers of cheese, crackers and fruit. I’m not much for wine but had some (ok, nearly a tumbler-full). We stood, chatting in the dark until dinner. During dinner, two more bears appeared at our back deck.
The first bear came right up to the back deck, but he was pretty skittish. When he heard a noise he’d take a step or two back before trying another part of the buggy. He worked his way up the left side to the driver’s window and looked up at us before moseying along. The second bear was tentative – he took his time zig-zagging his way to the back of the buggy, but ultimately laid down for a nap before he made it. I could see him pretty well with binoculars in the dark. When the buggy’s engine started, he got up and moseyed away.
On our way back to the hotel, we stopped to look at the beginning of the Aurora Borealis. It wasn’t colorful, just a milky white band across the sky. We had the option of staying on the bus to see more of the Northern Lights, which I and a few other hearty souls did. We drove back out to a bear trap outside of town. The borealis band had widened and gotten whiter, then moved overhead and disappeared, probably behind clouds. We also saw a bright shooting star. We once had to quickly reboard the bus because Evan, our driver, thought he saw bears (he didn’t, it was probably just waves from the bay). We returned to the hotel at 10 p.m., as that’s curfew in Churchill (due to the bears).
Our last day in Churchill began with an optional dogsledding experience. We went just outside of town to the launch. The owners are Kelly and Rich. Kelly gave us a talk initially on sled dogs and owning and caring for sled dogs. According to Kelly, sled dogs are bred to live outdoors and would be overheated if they lived indoors, but they’re given shelter if they want it and of course food. We got ample opportunity to play with the dogs, which were staked outdoors. One, King, a large husky who had one brown and one blue eye, seemed to especially like me.
The dogs would jump up on you. One, Blondie, wanted to lick faces. There were three puppies as well, one of whom wanted to play rather than be petted.
For the rides, everyone went out in twos, two sleds at a time. The rides were 10 minutes long, which was way too short. I went out on the last sled and we were bundled down in the seat under numerous blankets. We bumped along some small inclines and crossed a frozen lake. At one point, the dogs decided they wanted to go elsewhere and we had to stop while Kelly got them back on track. There was a lead dog (which he called Monkey) and a lead dog in training (Ellie) who was distracted.
We saw two bears on the horizon nearby. Those bear bombs mentioned previously were set off when we were dogsledding, which is how Mike knew to look for bears nearby.
One of the advantages of taking a small tour is getting to know others on the tour. Nature/ wildlife tours are niche tours, so your co-travelers are likely to be as avid lovers of nature as you are and you have an instant bond. I learned a lot about other trips they’ve been on, pets they’ve had and hobbies and other interesting facts. On our first group dinner, we had an introductory exercise which included stating our favorite animal. There was the couple from the Netherlands who spent most of the trip setting up a videoconference with their rabbit back home; a woman who was a Drapette in the Johnny Depp movie Cry Baby; a couple from Virginia (he was French, however), to whom I had to explain what Jell-o salad was for at Thanksgiving; a woman from Canada who was an avid figure skater when she was younger; a couple traveling with their young grandson, who loved to discuss politics; a father traveling with his daughter and granddaughter, a girl who took riding lessons and fostered kittens. I grew to really like all of them during the trip.
Mike, our tour guide, was great. He’d done the polar bear tours for 11 years. When we said goodbye at the end of the trip, he gave us hugs and personal notes.
There are several places to dine in Churchill. We lunched a couple of times at Trader’s Table (attached to the Trading Post above). The big draw was the female sled dog puppy living outside. She was adorable and lonely and we lavished it with attention. We also lunched at Gypsy’s restaurant, the bakery which supplied our delicious lunch on the buggy.
For dinners, we dined at the restaurant at the Northern Lights Hotel and the Seaport Hotel.
Half our group stayed at the Seaport Hotel and half (including me) at the Polar Inn.
Our bags and keys were already in our rooms when we arrived. The room was clean and actually pretty nice and spacious with a fridge and it was quiet, not as a bad as I was led to believe the hotels would be in Churchill. Both hotels offered breakfasts, continental breakfast at the Polar Inn and a nice hot breakfast at the Seaport Hotel, which is where we ate.
I spent two hours the afternoon of our arrival shopping, spending most of my Canadian funds already, but most places take American money and credit cards too. I saw several of my group stocking up at the grocery store. I also went to the post office to get my passport stamped. There is good Inuit art at several of the shops and for sale at the museum, but be prepared because they are expensive. I enjoyed shopping at the Trading Post, Wapusk General Store, and the Arctic Trading Company.
Most of the prime polar bear watching takes place from approximately mid-October through mid-November. I went during the first week of November. You will likely encounter winter weather (read: blizzards) during your visit, so be patient and plan for delays and possible disappointments, but tell yourself it’s all part of the adventure of vacationing near the arctic circle. Being from Minnesota, this weather was pretty normal for me, but for those from warmer climates, it will be a shock to the system. My tour company gave everyone hats, gloves and scarves as part of our fee, and parkas and boots upon arrival in Winnipeg.
It gets dark early up there too, by about 4 p.m.
A winter storm blew through our first night there and the electricity went on and off periodically starting at 3 a.m. Apparently, Town Center is the emergency shelter if necessary. Vacation on a cot – not! Fortunately, the electricity stayed on. We were told afterward this is one of the worst storms Churchill has had.
How to get there
My tour was through Natural Habitat Adventures: http://www.nathab.com. The advantages were the small group sizes, arranging the inter-country flight from Winnipeg to Churchill (difficult to do independently), arranging hotels (also difficult to do during the busy season), and transportation around Churchill and out onto the tundra. I also met a fun and interesting group of people. They also have Tundra Lodge camps, where you reside out on the tundra for the entire visit, maximizing visits by the bears.
Winnipeg is the main starting point in Canada for getting to Churchill. My tour group provided pickup service from the airport to the hotel, then met us at the hotel to get us registered.
You can do a cheaper do-it-yourself tour. We met people who flew into Winnipeg then took a train to Churchill. The train is prone to interruptions, however, and was delayed by the weather while we were there. You can only get to Churchill from plane or train – there are no roads going there. Tours you arrange separately will fill the tundra buggies so it’s more difficult to move around and get a good view of the bears.
If you can afford to do this right, I highly recommend a tour.