To polar bear people, Churchill is the holy grail. Not only is it the “polar bear capital” of the world, its reputation for being a little like the Wild West infuses adrenaline for the adventuresome soul.
But when Polar Bear Habitat Conservation Coordinator Dylan McCart and I arrived in Churchill I really had no idea how special the town on the Bay really was. Everyone and everything is literally there because of one thing. Polar bears.
Imagine how you feel when you spend time with your best friends doing something you all really love. Now imagine an entire town gathered in one place, at one time – all for the same reason. Frontiers North Adventures has created a niche that is so unique it boggles the mind. From custom-made equipment, to portable accommodations in the middle of the action, to logistical arrangements more difficult than the most complicated choreography, to the incredible Tundra Buggy’s – all in temperatures that are seriously challenging, the trip illustrates the power of people dedicated to their dream.
And it isn’t because it’s easy. Note the prices of the food in the grocery store in the pictures below. And it isn’t because it’s not dangerous. Just look at how many polar bears the Polar Bear Alert Office, run by Manitoba Conservation, had already handled that week. All our shuttles and buses were equipped with a gun and drivers who knew how to use them. Everyone in Churchill knows the risks, takes them incredibly seriously, and is literally willing to pay the price of living a real life adventure novel.
Our Frontier’s North guide was David Reid, a renowned arctic explorer and recent “Canada Goose” centrefold. David did his best to ensure our group of 22 didn’t slip on the crazy ice which had covered the town, and that we all kept in mind we were on an expedition, not a vacation.
After getting acquainted with Churchill and being treated to some amazing food on the first day, we were ready for our first Buggy day out on the tundra. Although I know none of my descriptions can do it justice, my best attempt is Mad Max meets a moon rover. The Tundra Buggies back up to a launch platform and guests enter from the back onto their private bus on steroids. Ours was lucky number 13, and was equipped with its own gas fireplace for heat and lined with school bus style windows that go down for camera lenses. While you’re out on the tundra, your feet never touch the ground – because that’s polar bear territory.
Our fearless driver, Emma, coined the phrase we would hear many times over the next two days, “Big bump, hold on and hold on to your cameras!” The buggies are high enough to handle the rough terrain, and the probability of curious polar bears reaching up onto the vehicles. A word to the wise, if you’re prone to motion sickness, a Tundra Buggy may not be for you.
The first day out on the buggy was foggy and warm by Churchill standards, with lots of snow. Still, we were treated 16 polar bear sightings, all doing what polar bears do naturally; sleeping, rolling, curiously investigating the Tundra Lodge or just walking towards the bay. We saw several mothers and cubs, one pair sauntered by a male who paid little attention, we hope because he was in good enough body condition to ignore them.
Our ecstatic group was treated to yet another amazing dinner in town and some of us stuck around to enjoy the friendly hospitality at the local (and only) watering hole.
Day 2 saw fewer of possibly the same bears, but was far more meaningful. 2 males decided to spar, we saw a cub on its own (who we believe has since been rescued), and the trip’s highlight, what looked like a bear making its first foray out onto the emerging ice. Victor, a well-known big male named for his sparring scars on his head in the shape of a V even waved goodbye to us.
Never in my life have I heard so many people praying for more cold temperatures and ice, while at the same time commenting on their frozen toes and wind burned skin. Our group were united in their hope the bears’ long fast was finally over, and they could return to the ice to hunt.
On our last day in Churchill Dylan and I had a wonderful opportunity to chat with Krista Wright and Geoff York from Polar Bears International and stop in to the Polar Bear Alert office. To top it off, we are now proud certificate bearers of the “Ididamile” with Wapusk Adventures dog sledding.
It was disturbing to see that by November 18th, the ice had not yet formed on the Bay in Churchill. By all accounts, it was going to be a late start to the season, and many experts have commented the only thing saving the bears this year was a very good seal hunting season last year.
Going to Churchill solidified for me how precarious the position of polar bears is. If spring is early in 2017, the bears of Hudson’s Bay could face devastation by starvation. But it was encouraging to see the caring, educated response of the people in our group. They were unified and empowered by the trip, knowing we all experienced the same things together, and felt the desire to do something about it.
That sense of camaraderie, of becoming united in the face of challenge, makes the trip a must do for anyone who loves polar bears.
I want to thank Frontier’s North Adventures, Emma our Tundra Buggy driver, David Reid our guide, Krista Wright and Geoff York from Polar Bears International, the staff at the Polar Bear Alert Office, Wapusk Adventures and the lovely people of Churchill who’s warmth and hospitality was genuinely humbling for a trip that definitely wasn’t a vacation … but a once in a lifetime adventure!
To book your own polar bear expedition, go to https://frontiersnorth.com/.
For more information on the Polar Bear Alert Program, go to http://www.gov.mb.ca/sd/wildlife/spmon/pbear/pbear_alert.html
For dog sledding go to www.wapuskadventures.com
Blog and Photos By: Karen Cummings, Manager PBH