In 2018 I visited Churchill, a small frozen town on the western shores of Hudson Bay in northern Canada. Archaeology research suggests the local area has been populated by nomadic Arctic communities since ~500 AD, but the first permanent settlement was established in 1717 by fur traders from Hudson's Bay Company. Today, Churchill and the ~900 residents act as a hub for the ~12,000 ecotourists that arrive each year to see bears, belugas and the thriving bird population.
Polar Bears might be a crowd favourite and look cute, but they are highly skilled, incredibly dangerous, stealthy predators. The largest bear species in the world, males can weigh up to 700kg and stand 3m tall with a running speed of 25mph. Once caught, they crush the heads of their favourite food, the Ringed Seal, between their jaws exerting over half a ton of pressure per square inch. Quite the way to go! Worldwide population numbers are believed to be between 20-30 thousand, with about 1000 thought to live around the local Churchill area... You start to understand why locals say always check your surroundings and look round corners before walking ...
October is the best time to see Polar Bears in Churchill as they gather along the icy shoreline patiently waiting for this marginalised part of the Artic Ocean to freeze over. After months of warm summer weather, surviving on frugal inland snacks, their depleting body fat reserves need topping up. Winter turns these salty waters into a vast frozen feeding platform, enabling them to hunt and bulk up on their favourite calorie-rich Ringed Seals, Bearded Seals, Walrus and Beluga Whales. So before the big freeze when these white bears scatter over the expanse of frozen ice, tourists get to enjoy them from the comfort and safety of organised Tundra Buggy tours.
The start of my 4-day Tundra Buggy Adventure begins 1000 km south in the city of Winnipeg. At our airport hotel we meet our friendly Frontiers North tour guide and throngs of excited tourists before boarding the 2hr 30min chartered flight direct to Churchill, ready for the start of our chilly adventure. On arrival we divide into our 18-person tour group and meet our bus driver, a local resident. In his 50's, dressed in jeans and a checkered shirt, with a weathered face, long bushy beard, and his shotgun casually leaning against his old rickety bus, we know we are in Polar Bear country.
Our first stop is Polar Bear Jail, a holding facility for naughty bears caught straying too close to town in search of tasty locals. The facility usually captures around 50 'problem' bears a year, individuals that conservation officers have not been able to scare away from town with crackers and sirens. These problem bears are usually held without food for 30 days in the facility before being airlifted to a safe spot far away from town.
After a lunch stop, the group is led to a fun dog-sledding experience with champion racer Dave Daley and his pack of furry hounds yapping around a mile-long track in the surrounding boreal forest. As the evening starts to draw in we are dropped off at our Tundra Buggy, an American school bus on steroids, painted white, with monster truck wheels and a viewing platform out the back for those hardy enough to brave the cold and wind. We slowly meander along the icy tracks through Wapusk National Park towards our Tundra Buggy Lodge. The reserve is flat and wide, covered in wind swept snow with tufts of grass and a myriad of frozen lakes and ponds. A bleak, hard environment that makes you appreciate the wildlife and people that survive out here. As darkness descends, an orange glow of light in the distance slowly grows as we near 'home' for the next 3 nights ...
The Tundra Buggy Lodge consists of a series of large units on wheels connected in a long line like a centipede; two comfy accommodation units house bunk beds that can sleep up to 40 guests. These in turn link to a suprisingly homely lounge area and dining hall. Both of which have large windows, allowing guests to watch the passing wildlife over their morning coffee or tasty home-cooked dinner. Despite being positioned in the middle of nowhere, far from civilisation, exposed to harsh winds and freezing temperatures, the cabins are modern and cosy, the food equal to any swanky restaurant, and the service, warm and inviting, contrary to the surrounding landscape.
Each morning starts with a hearty cooked breakfast before boarding our Tundra Buggy for the days' wildlife spotting with our knowledgeable tour guide and friendly fresh-faced buggy driver. With only 18 guests in our tour group we have plenty of room to move around the buggy and take photos, either out of the windows while in the warm with a mug of cocoa in hand or wrapped up on the outdoor viewing deck with a -20°C wind blowing against your cheeks.
We were very lucky and saw 60 Polar Bears over the 4 days, though sightings do vary wildly week-to-week. The range of individuals and behaviour we witnessed was amazing, from family units with cute cubs to big males wandering alone, we saw fighting practice and snoozing bears rolling in the snow like blankets. On a few occasions they ventured close to the buggy, sniffing the air, standing on their hind legs against the buggy as we peered down from the safety of the viewing platform, only a few feet above their grasp. "Mmmm lunch" they must have thought as the flicker of camera shutters could be heard.
This is by far one of the best trips I have ever done. It is a comfortable, warm, and friendly tour, no tourist conveyor belt here. The amazing access around the park in the safety of the buggy, with so many bears to see, allowed for some great opportunities to photograph these majestic beasts. I can't recommend it enough, though it isn't a cheap trip for sure!