We met our group and our guide, Drew, Friday night before our Saturday morning departure to Churchill. Drew introduced himself to us, told us of his “bear” passion (both Polar Bears and Grizzly Bears) and we all introduced ourselves. Drew told us about what we should expect in Churchill and on the Tundra, went over the area we would be enjoying for the next 5 days and gave us a great introduction to Polar bears.
Right after breakfast Saturday morning it was off to Churchill on the Natural Habitat charter plane. There were 2 other groups on the plane so there were almost 50 of us heading 2 ½ hours North. We received our boots and parkas from the hotel last night so we were all ready for the Arctic weather: wind, cold and maybe snow. Drew had warned us as we would step off the plane that many times the cold just takes your breath away. Well the locals told us this year is a bit different, and instead of temperatures below Zero, as expected, the entire time we were in Churchill it was between 26 and 34. It seems this is a very odd year, the “ice” (which the Polar Bears wait for) is not close yet, temperatures are much warmer than normal and there was little, if any, wind. The Hudson Bay usually freezes over mid to late November, and all the Polar Bears in the Churchill area head from their dens and the frozen tundra out into the ice as soon as it freezes. The Polar Bear season is pretty short, early October to mid-November, and as soon as the Hudson Bay freezes over it only takes a few days for all the Polar Bears to head out to go seal hunting until they return in late June/early July.
The accommodations in Churchill are, as Drew says, “utilitarian,” which means it’s no Four Seasons, actually it’s no Holiday Inn either. However, the rooms are really clean, we had plenty of room and they served their purpose very well: keep us warm and provide a good night’s rest. The selection of restaurants in Churchill is slim, which means there were 3 places we ate, and we rotated between them for breakfast, lunch and dinner. But the food is really good, hearty and hits the spot. Churchill is only accessible by train or air, so the fresh fruits and vegetables are sparse. The prices in the local market are really expensive (for example: $30 for a 24 pack of Aquafina water) but they manage to put together some really good meals. One of my favorite places, a sort of local spot, Gypsy’s, lets you go by their bakery case to pick your dessert after lunch and dinner (hint ~ get the apple fritter!).
Our days were somewhat similar, breakfast at the Seaport Hotel (1 minute walk from the Polar Inn, where I was staying). I liked their breakfast because they made omelets to order, whereas the Polar Inn had food you could heat up or cold cereal. On Natural Habitat trips all the meals are included so I could go to either place. The breakfast times were 6:45am or 8:00am to coincide with your group’s departure time.
We went out to the Tundra for 2 full days, 8am to 4pm, and one evening drive (really just to have dinner since it is so dark we couldn’t find any polar bears). We did have a “town day” which was a great way to explore Churchill. The city is about 1 mile long by ½ mile wide. Drew taught us how to curl, which we got to do, visited the Inuit Museum, went to the Post Office to get a Churchill Polar Bear stamp in our passports, and we drove along the coast road looking for foxes, birds, polar bears, etc.
Our days on the tundra were great. The rover has almost 40 seats and there are only 16 of us, by design, so everyone has a window. There’s a large deck out back, a bathroom with a flush toilet (bring wipes since there’s no running water) and plenty of room to wander around. You could not go outside or in the bathroom while the rover was moving, but you could walk around so you could see out either side. Our driver, Stu, was great, an ex-RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) so he ran a great rover. He was really good at letting us know what to expect, how to act (as to not scare the Polar Bears) and drove the bumpy roads like he made them himself. Midway through each day we had lunch on the rover, always great, and well matched for everyone’s dietary restrictions and tastes.
We cruised through the tundra daily looking for Polar Bears. Some of our time waiting was strategic…we waited where Stu thought the bears would come by, and many times they did. It’s amazing to see these majestic animals walk right up to the rover, look around then head off continuing on their path. Remember, it’s a really good thing to not remember the entire trip through the lens of a camera (or iPhone). There were times when I just put my camera down and just looked into the Polar Bear’s eyes, it was so amazing, so close, so mesmerizing.
Being out on the tundra was such a great escape, all day, no cell service, no distractions, nothing but looking for wildlife, looking for Polar bears, and just enjoying this beautiful part of the world. Now, I fully understand that if thetemperature was as expected (near Zero) it may have been a bit different, but regardless it’s amazing. It’s a privilege to experience the Polar Bears waiting for the ice to freeze over on Hudson Bay then head out for seal hunting. Each year the ice takes longer to freeze over, and there’s less ice, too. It could be Global Warming, it could be natural global changes, who knows, but it’s here, it’s wonderful, and it’s definitely worth the trip!