I had the good fortune to partake in a trip-of-a-lifetime expedition right here in Canada. I flew to Churchill, Manitoba, and participated in a Tundra Buggy Adventure Tour with Frontiers North tour company.
Churchill is located on the south shore of Hudson Bay and it’s here, in what’s known as the Polar Bear Capital of the World, that a large number of polar bears traditionally gather each year in late October and early November, awaiting the inevitable freeze. That’s when the largest land carnivores in North America wander out onto the frozen ice and spend the next several months hunting and eating their most cherished food: seals. The bears return to shore when the ice breaks up, usually in early July.
I soon discovered that polar bears rule in Churchill. There are many signs, murals, and statues devoted to bears. The street signs have polar bears on them, and even the “please do not disturb” sign at my hotel had a picture of a sleeping polar bear on it. There are posted warnings at the beach and around town cautioning about the danger, for these curious bears often come right into Churchill at this time of year. As a result, I learned that many locals leave their cars unlocked just in case someone needs to find a handy refuge!
The best and safest way to get as close as possible to these “Lords of the Arctic” is aboard a specially designed tundra buggy. I found this rugged vehicle to be surprisingly large and spacious. It’s equipped with both a washroom (necessary since the tour takes an entire day) and a propane stove, which provides welcome heat as it can be very cold out on the tundra. The windows can be opened to help capture those special photos, and there’s an outside viewing platform that can be used when the vehicle is stopped.
Ptarmigan Alley and Polar Bear Point
Our tundra buggy traveled along Ptarmigan Alley and Polar Bear Point, and we saw both ptarmigan and bear! It was that first sighting of a mammoth polar bear in the wild that was particularly euphoric to me. Judging by the sound of rapidly clicking cameras, it was the same for the others in the vehicle. Everyone seemed to want to preserve that first sighting!
There were several more sightings, of course. We saw bears walking along the shoreline and on patches of frozen ice, and learned that polar bears place their back paws in the exact spots where their front paws had been and that these mammoth creatures distribute their weight in such a way that they can walk on ice that’s too thin even for humans to walk on! We also saw bears burrowing in the kelp and in small accumulations of snow, making a kind of makeshift bed to take a rest. We even had the good fortune to witness large males sparring, or play-fighting, which is simply an exercise to prepare them for the upcoming hunt.
We had lunch out there on the tundra, on a fantastically clear, sunny day, while the bears put on a show for us just outside the buggy’s windows. Polar bears are usually quite solitary creatures but this is their social season as they rest, cavort, and wait for Hudson Bay to freeze. Indeed, there’s something amazingly special about seeing these enormous, magnificent creatures in their natural habitat.
The bear-watching season is rather short and the tours are very popular, so I’d recommend booking far in advance. You probably won’t find any bargains during peak polar bear season, but you’ll never forget this awesome wildlife experience.
I also checked out the beautiful Town Centre Complex which contains the school, library, pool, cinema, bowling alley, curling rink, and children’s play area, the Parks Canada Visitor Reception Center featuring exhibits about the human and natural history of the area, the Eskimo Museum which displays sculptures of stone, bone, and walrus tusk and archaeological and wildlife specimens, and St. Paul’s Anglican Church, said to be the oldest church in the North that’s still in use.
Churchill grew from a remote outpost to a bustling seaport, and it later became a thriving military community. However, the base was decommissioned in the mid-1960s and tourism has become increasingly important to the survival of this tiny community.
There are no roads leading to Churchill, so one must fly in or take a train.
Despite its remoteness—or perhaps because of it—Churchill is becoming increasingly popular with birdwatchers, wildflower enthusiasts, and beluga whale fans during the summer months (but watch out for the bugs!) And in the winter months, tourists are treated to those colorful, artistic light show of the aurora borealis that occurs on cold, clear evenings.
However, if I had to choose a particular time to visit Churchill, it would be early November to see the awesome polar bears awaiting winter!
More information: www.travelmanitoba.com
Frontiers North: www.frontiersnorth.com
John M. Smith is a travel writer and photographer who resides in Ontario’s Prince Edward County.