Arriving in Churchill
After a two-week journey of moving and driving nearly every day in the RV, we finally arrived in Churchill, the Polar Bear Capital of the World. See Polar Bear Migration Tour – Part 1 Getting to Churchill in the previous post.
A welcome break in the schedule, Part 2 included a flight to Churchill and a hotel stay so we could spread out a bit more than the RV. Greeted at the airport with warning signs about bear safety was a little unsettling but raised our expectations about seeing bears (just a tad).
Living in Churchill
The very small community of Churchill, is accessible by plane or train. There are no connecting roads to other communities. Train service had just been restored after a bridge repair and the locals were pleased that their grocery prices were starting to come down again. This community largely shuts down in November due to extreme weather, leaving the die-hard locals to themselves.
For such a small community, there were plenty of gift shops with locally made handcrafts and plenty of bear themed items.
Seeing the Polar Bear Jail is when it got real for me. It can be dangerous here! Bears that can’t be scared away are detained in the holding facility, called the ‘jail’ by locals. They are air lifted by helicopter back to the bush in hopes of discouraging them from hanging around the town and getting into trouble.
The one-room Itsanitaq Museum displayed a small but impactful collection of Inuit carvings and artifacts dating back to 1700 B.C. The whalebone, soapstone, and antler carvings were beautiful! We learned about the inuit history and culture thanks to a knowledgeable docent.
Churchill is known for it’s wildlife throughout the year. Besides Polar Bear, fox and snowshoe hare that can be seen in the Fall. Beluga whale and bird watching are popular activities in other seasons. It is a truly magical place that really thrives on tourism.
A local part Cree artist (who also happens to be the wife of our Tundra Buggy driver) spoke eloquently about the realities of living in Churchill. Hearing from their children about school and how they learned from an early age to live where bears are plentiful was captivating. For example, they automatically spread out in a triangle shape while walking down the street with their friends and always actively scan for bears.
Polar bears fast during a state of walking hibernation from the time the ice breaks up in early Summer until it freezes again in Fall. The ice season has become shorter and shorter each year making survival of the bears a big concern. They really need the fat from the seals to sustain them because they don’t eat berries, fish or other foods that other bears do.
Traditionally, October to November is Bear Season in Churchill. The great white bears gather and wait for the Hudson Bay to freeze up so they can hunt seals miles out onto the ice.
The Canada geese were still around this 2nd week of October, way after they would normally migrate South. That means the concentration of bears is still very low as the bears only begin to come into Churchill when the weather turns cold and ice starts to form.
The water in the bay near Churchill is shallow and the cold wind is constantly blowing across the water. Wind combined with cold temperatures create the perfect conditions for the edges of the water to freeze in layers eventually creating a solid sheet of ice.
Excitement was in the air hoping for good sightings of polar bears on the two-day Tundra Buggy excursion to Cape Churchill, about 40 minutes from town. Within the remote Churchill Wildlife Management Area in the Wapusk (Cree for ‘white bear’) National Park, Cape Churchill is only accessible by helicopter or buggy. Guests are not allowed on the ground here. Elsewhere in Churchill, an armed guard is recommended to walk around the coastline where the bears can be sleeping among the rocks. However, even in the middle of town, the evenings can be dangerous.
Riding around in the Tundra Buggy was like nothing we had experienced before. With wheels almost as high as my shoulder. With a very wide body, the moon-explorer-like machine SLOWLY rolled through mini lakes and huge boulders while rocking wildly from side to side.
The prior Fantasy RV tour group saw one bear and we worried that the stuffed bear at the museum at the Peace Gardens might be our only sighting. However, within the first fifteen minutes on the buggy, we saw the first of eight wild Polar Bears. What a way for Mom and Dad to celebrate their 65th wedding anniversary!
Spotting a bear created lots of activity as guests threw open the windows or piled out onto the observation deck to watch them. With 38 guests maneuvering into position the buggy shook enough that it was hard to get super sharp shots but it was fun to try! in addition, strong wind blew the cameras around and there was no room for tripods. Negotiating in the crowd rushing to windows or the deck with a mono pod wasn’t an optimal choice either.
I relaxed into the experience and enjoyed the thrill of seeing the bears, deciding that any photos are just bonus! To capture the pro shots, special arrangements for a private tour might help.
On the second day, a couple of bears approached our buggy. That provided really awesome, up-close views of their sweet faces, ferocious claws and bright white fur blowing in the wind. My heart was happy to witness these beautiful creatures!
Despite the Aurora Borealis visibility forecast being only 50%, about half the group took a tour to a yurt in hopes of seeing lights. They were rewarded with awesome sightings after having a wine and cheese party for three hours and being ready to call it quits. After midnight, the Northern Lights started up and they all rushed outside the yurt to watch the magical phenomenon.
Some others took excursions to see dog sledding and wildlife viewing by helicopter. We had already seen dog sledding demonstrations in Alaska and viewed animals from the air several times in Africa so we opted out of these tours.
In hindsight, I wish I had gone on the Northern Lights trip despite the 50/50 chance of seeing any.
The Trek to Winnipeg
Now that we finally earned our bear watching badge, it was time to depart Churchill. It is a beautiful, wild and foreign place to visit and to learn how people and animals can coexist.
Our RVs and some pets were awaiting our return and the last leg of our tour moving on to Winnipeg, Manitoba. The final post of the Polar Bear Migration Tour is up next.