Fly to - Churchill, Canada
Travel date - Nov 2010
David travels to Churchill, Manitoba, Canada for what is surely one of the most unique and rewarding experiences anyone remotely interested in wildlife could possibly wish for in their lifetime, the chance to get close to the Polar Bear. For just 2 months of the year (October-November) these awesome creatures congregate on the banks of the Hudson Bay close to Churchill anticipating the big winter feeeze and their chance to get onto the ice and hunt for their favourite meal, the ringed seal. David will be providing us with daily reports from Churchill, a town not accessible by road, so that you can get a real insight into the Polar Bear experience.
Sunday 14th November
The start of my Polar Bear expedition begins with the 120 mile journey to Heathrow for the first of 6 flights in 6 days.
I opt to use the meet and greet parking service offerred at Terminal 3 ( al terminals offer this option) which is a real bonus, it may cost a little more, approximately £20.00, compared to regular parking but is such a convenience and great time saver.
I pull up to the parking bay next to the terminal building drop off my keys and walk into terminal 3 to check-in, the perfect way to start the journey, ask our team for more details if you wish to use this option for your holiday.
I have not flown Air Canada before so the first of many new experiences that are to come this week.
The service onboard and the amount of comfort and leg room is excellent in the economy cabin and the new upgraded entertainment systems recently installed across their fleet is as good as any I have used.
Dozens of movies to choose from including very recent releases and the usual music, tv and games options prove to help pass the time on my eight hour flight to Toronto.
Two meals were served with a choice of options and all beverages, including alcohol, is free!
The time quickly passes and me and my fellow explorers disembark the aircraft at the very modern Toronto Pearson airport, very quickly clear immigration and re-check our bags for the onward journey to Winnipeg
Again the service onboard, along with the same entertainment system make for a pleasant two and a half hour flight.
We grab our bags and walk across the road into the Four Points by Sheraton at Winnepeg airport, very comfortable hotel with spacious well equipped rooms, perfect for a quick overnight stay before the third flight of my trip tomorrow morning.
The trip I am embarking on is a three day 'package' to not only see the amazing Polar Bears but to learn about their habitat and the people of North Manitoba, we are all so priviliged to be able to have the opportunity to view these amazing creatures in their natural habitat. Churchill, Manitoba in Canada is one of very few places on the planet where this is possible and certainly the best.
I settle into my room, no point in unpacking as it is an early start tomorrow morning, I just make sure I have my warm layered clothing ready for the icey weather ahead, I check the forecast and it is -17 degrees up in Churchil and that's without the windchill!! I may be from Yorkshire but it's never been that cold even on the East coast!!!!!
Dinner is had in the hotel who offer an excellent choice of food before our pre-tour briefing by our Glaswegian Polar Bear Tour Guide.
The briefing lasts 30 minutes where we are all informed about our adventures ahead, and we get a chance to introduce ourselves to our Delos travellers, typical North American style!!
That's it we are all set for what lies ahead and as it is now 4am in the UK ( there is a 6 hour time difference in Manitoba versus te UK) I think it is time to hit the soft pillows of my huge king sized bed.
Monday 15th November
As is ususal for most travellers I wake around 3am on my first morning, but thankfully I quickly return to a deep sleep to be woken by my 5.30am alarm call!!
I meet in the hotel lobby with my fellow travellers and board the bus to the private air terminal for our charter flight with Nolinor Aviation up to Churchill
I watch our wings sprayed with de-icer from the 737 plane window, 116 seats and only 25 people on board, it is like having your own personal jet!!
Off into the sky just as the sun is rising, breakfast is served on board and lashings of hot chocolate is to be had for this one and a half hour flight into the icey town of Churchill.
Churchill is a small town situated on the banks of the Hudson Bay with a population of just 750 permanent residents, and as there are no roads to the town there are only two ways of getting there 1/ by aircraft as we are doing or 2/ by Train on the Via Rail service for the 700 mile journey lasting 40+ hours over two nights onboard!! As a company we can arrange either for you but the aircraft option has to be the most convenient.
Upon arrival in Churchill we disembark the aircraft and feel the icey blast, it is -4 degrees but the wind chill is making it feel a lot colder. It is now 9.30am and we all board an ex-school bus for a tour of the town of Churchill.
First the Polar Bear jail where the naughty bears are housed until the ice has come and then they are flown by helicopter deep into the icey areas north of Churchill.
The Polar Bears can be regularly seen wandering around the town looking for food, they haven't eaten since July and won't eat again until late November hence all rubbish must be carefully disposed of to stop these hungry chaps getting an easy meal!!
Keeping the residents and tourists safe is a major priority in Churchill and traps are placed all around town with Seal Fat bait to attract stray Polar Bears, the traps capture the bears and they are in turn carted off to 'prison'.
The local community fully respect the bear population and take great care in protecting themselves from bear attacks, a ten o'clock curfew exists in the town, it's clear they feel so fortunate to live amongst the bears at this period of the year.
Polar Bear watching in Churchill has a very short season running from mid October through to mid November so if you are wanting to see Polar Bears your window of opportunity is very limited. Once Hudson Bay and The Churchill River freeze over the Polar Bears cross the ice to seek out food, seals primarily, up in the Arctic Circle.
After a couple of hours touring this very interesting town we stop for Lunch at The Seaport Restaurant the cost of which is all included in the tour and the food and service is excellent not to mention the warm and cosy atmosphere!!
Staying warm and dry while out and about in the area is critical as temperatures can drop to -20 and colder, layers are the order of the day, boots, gloves, scarves and warm hats are all a must for anyone up in Polar Bear country!!
Our tour of the town continues after lunch, we see the 'husky' dogs which live outside all year round whatever the weather, it looks a sad site but this is their environment and they are perfectly equipped to cope with the extreme cold.
Keeping your eyes peeled is key to viewing various wildlife and when something is seen you just shout it out to inform your fellow travellers and for the bus driver to stop.
We are so lucky, we see a mummy Polar Bear with her cub wandering around just outside town, amazing, the bus is buzzing with excitement, the bears are almost 100 metres away and quickly dissapear into the trees but at least we have caught site of our main aim, much more to come in the next couple of days...........hopefully!!!
We also spot an arctic fox in a very rare shade of grey, the bus driver has lived in the town for 20 years and only seen two of this colouring before!! We also see a red fox which circulates our bus, the cameras all going crazy, it has been a great start to our wildlife adventure.
We make a call at The Eskimo Museum, a fabulous collection of artifacts are beautifully displayed, each with their own story of the fascinating Eskimo way of life and their history. We have time to have a wander around town before checking in to The Tundra Inn, one of the best hotels in town but still very 'rustic', there are no five star hotels in this town!! But it is clean and comfortable and we are made most welcome.
Our suitcases await us after being collected from the Four Points by Sheraton Hotel this morning in Winnipeg and I make my way to my warm and well appointed clean and comfortable room.
Churchill has about a dozen hotels of similar grade, all warm and cosy and very hospitable, please don't expect Ritz Carlton or Four Seasons or Spas and Pools. This is a town geared towards the wilderness and the nature that surrounds it which I am sure all visitors will respect and acknowledge. There are many good restaurants in town that offer local produce on their menus, tonight we eat at The Tundra Inn, with a small bar area and large restaurant area we all tuck into our hearty meals Elk Burger is the speciality tonight!!
Time to cross the road back to our hotel, don't worry about looking out for cars I am told it's the curious and very hungry bears that you need to be careful of!! Safely back in my room, heating turned up high, just minus six tonight so quite mild, we have -20 on the way so I hope the heating can cope!!!
Tuesday 16th November
It's Polar Bear watching day, this is the big one! Again I take my life in my hands to cross to the Tundra Inn in the dark at 7am, I make it without trouble, and breakfast is much needed for a long day ahead of Polar Bear viewing. The Tundra Buggies depart from a launch station, as you will see from the photos they are specially made vehicles with huge tyres costing $4000 a piece perfect for the terrain we will encounter. Thankfully the buggies are heated with propane fires and even with the luxury of a bathroom, luxury!!! We're off and the going is tough initially with the huge holes in the ice to cross it makes tough going. Within 20 minutes we see our first bears, the driver Jim gets a positive vibe from the group which he firmly believes brings good fortune and lots of bears. Just half an hour later we are shaking hands with mum and her cub, wow how amazing is this, the whole bus is buzzing with excitement. The two bears come right up to the buggy, the key is to be as silent as possible to not scare them away, they can smell us from 100's of yards away which is why they make their approach.
For an hour we observe and take thousands of pictures between us of this once in a lifetime experience. The windows in the buggy drop to allow clear photos and there is a viewing deck at the back of the buggy for a close up expereince. We are lucky, the bears stand up curiously against the vehicle and the baby hovers below the vehicle staring up through the grate in the viewing deck, by lying down we were face to face with the bear, touching her nose and face........amazing!!! Jim the driver has only ever known bears do this once before, we are once again so so lucky for this rare expereince, the cameras and videos are working overtime. Camera batteries run out so much faster at this temperature so be sure to fully charge your various batteries and bring spares and spare memory cards too!! Another bear heads towards our buggy, mum returns for her playful cub and gives her the nod to move on, bears do not socialise well and making sure her cub is protected walks away to let the new bear have some fun with the humans, who is locked away in captivity now!!!?? Once another thousand photos have been taken the bear moves on and we are again on the way, bear watching is totally safe in the buggies if you stick to the rules, no feeding the bears, no dropping of litter and keep on the buggy at all times, the bears may look cute and cuddly but they are one of the most fierce creatures on the planet, follow buggy rules and all will be good.
Following a busy morning seeking out the Polar Bears it is time for lunch or should I say banquet!! Hot vegetable soup for starters and lashings of it too followed by a choice of huge sandwiches, mine was ham and cheese, and a choice of pastries for desert and a choice of Hot Chocolate,coffee or a mix of both for a Tundracino!! Refreshed and ready for more wildlife spotting.
The afternoon has proved almost as succesful as this morning, more bears in a variety of settings and poses are seen in this most barren of landscapes as they wait patiently for the sea to freeze to take them to their own banquet of seals, they won't have to wait too much longer though as the sea is freezing almost before out very eyes.
Churchill is 'home' to approximately 1000 Polar Bears, their reason for being in this part of Manitoba is die to the fact that the Churchill River flows into the sea at this point and as freshwater freezes sooner than sea/salt water it gives the first chance to get on the ice and their prey. This is easily the most accessible point in the world to see Polar Bears, just 90 minutes north of one of Canada's major cities it is a must do and see for any true wildlife enthusiast.
Dusk has come on our first day on the tundra and we head back into Churchill after disembarking from our huge space like vehicle, everyone comparing their photos to check out who got the best shot, what a day, what an experience, what a memory!!
We all arrive back at The Tundra Inn warmed through from the transfer from the buggy launch.
The weather forecast is bleek for the night with temperatures plummeting and snowfall forecast, looks like I will need to wear another layer tomorrow!!
Dinner tonight is at The Traders Table restaurant, we all brave the strong winds after wrapping up warm and head out for the restaurant just a two minute walk from our hotel.
Thankfully we are only exposed to a few minutes of the snowy, freezing conditions. It is critical in this weather to wear layered appropriate clothing, there is nothing worse than being cold not to mention the potential danger this can bring in such low temperatures.
Filet Mignon for me tonight, cooked to perfection with a local Manitoba Ale, beautiful, all in the very warm surroundings of this authentic Churchill restaurant.
Following dinner we are transported only two blocks away to a slide show presented by a local photographer showing the changing seasons for the Polar Bear, as I have previously eluded to this is not just a Polar Bear watching trip this is a full on nature experience allowing every visitor the opportunity to understand the amazing life in this fascinating and unique part of the world.
The slideshow and questions last half an hour and we are transported back to the inn for another cosy night before our second day in the Tundra Buggys on the shores of Hudson Bay.
Wednesday 17th November
Another early start with breakfast at 7am, and greeted with news that the weather will be -30 degrees today due to the chilly wind, good job
I got a job lot of jumpers for my birthday!!
Today the sky is slate grey and the visibility is very short, the buggy windows have ice on the inside, it's gonna be a challenging day keeping warm, probably won't go outside on the back of the buggy today!!
The chances of seeing bears today maybe a little remote as they are likely to stay low from the winds and therefore out if sight. Whilst Polar Bears cope well in the cold they aren't great fans of the wind so will seek shelter where they can and place their backsides in the direction of the wind to keep the cold from their bodies.
We have been out in the buggy for an hour when we spot a Bear in trouble, stuck in a spot that resembles porridge, half ice half water. Polar Bears can walk across thin ice but this one has somehow fallen into the freezing water and struggling to escape.
We park the buggy and observe, hoping it will survive this ordeal. He doesn't appear to be making any progress as we are all transfixed on this poor bear, moving deeper into trouble rather than safety.
The watching and waiting continues as we watch expecting the worst for this huge creature, remember he hasn't eaten since July and has very little energy to deal with this situation.
The bear struggles to keep his head above the watery ice, regularly slipping under before a paw then his head would emerge. We watch for an hour, little hope left for the big white bear, but he is nothing but tenacious and there seems light at the end tunnel as the 100 Yard journey looks as though it could end in success for the big guy.
We all watch in hope at our adopted friend as land is close by. Alas after watching for two hours this magnificent mammal climbs onto firm ice and is safe, he rolls around the ice to dry himself and we expect he will just drop with exhaustion.
But we are given another Polar Bear treat as he heads towards our buggy and even has the energy to stand on his back legs and try to peer through the window, what an adventure, these bears are certainly made from special stuff!!
Following another excellent lunch and a few more thousand photographs our buggy heads off to seek out more Polar Bear photo opportunities.
We are not dissapointed as many bears are seen wandering around the freezing landscape just waiting for the bay to freeze to be able to gorge on dozens of seals in the coming months, an average Polar Bear will eat between 40 and 50 seals each from November to July.
Unfortunately our day comes to an end, I have a camera full of polar bear and tundra pictures to boast about when I get home and many memories of the awesome white bear.
This evening dinner is held at 'The Gypsy's Bakery', probably the most basic of the restaurants we have visited but once again local produce adds to an excellent menu in a very busy environment. The multi-day tours to Churchill are inclusive of all meals and a different restaurant is reserved for each lunch, if in town, and dinner which is a nice way of sharing the business across the restaurateurs and allows the traveller the opportunity to experience different menus and ambiances across this small town.
Following dinner we have a 5 minute walk back to our hotel which seems much longer due to even lower temperatures and a biting wind, any portion of bare skin is burning with the wind chill bringing the temperature close to minus 40!! A quick nightcap is called for at the Tundra Bar and a few frames of pool with the locals, who change the rules each frame but still they can't beat me, before returning to my warm hotel room.
The sky is clear this evening and therefore I may have the chance to see the 'Northern Lights' or 'Aurora Borealis' as they are officially known, in the non-polluted sky above Churchill, another amazing phenomenon of this remote location. I set my alarm for 2am in the hope that I will see this magnificent sight in the night sky, unfortunately I am not so lucky, thankfully I quickly return to sleep in preparation for another adventure later this morning.
Thursday 18th November
I think it wise to add another layer of clothing as today is dog sledding day.
The extra tee shirt, making five layers in all, has proved a wise option, we meet up with a fascinating character called Dave 'Big Dog' Daley who gives an entertaining insight into life as a dog sled 'musher' initially inside his warm cabin then outside in the minus 40 degree temperature, I get the feeling that my toes are about to drop off and my nose will freeze up at any moment!!
We are introduced to six puppies and three dozen experienced sled dogs all now chomping at the bit to be chained to the sled and do what they do best, pull a dog sled for several hours a day.
The dogs live outside all year and are very carefully trained and nurtured to become long distance sled dogs, completing distances of up to 1000 miles over 12 days.
The time has come to ride the sled, the run is primed for speed so I volunteer to go first for the fastest run, there are two positions for passengers on the sled one sat at the front and one in the middle standing or sitting with the musher behind.
The dogs are controlled purely by voice and not by a whip or reins. I sit at the front and stupidly remove my camera from my pocket and take my glove off to get some action shots. We are on the way and I get a few nice pictures of the rear of the dogs chained together, then start to film the journey instead, how dumb!!
My hand is now freezing and we head for a sharp bend at speed as I film the action, "lean into the bend" shouts the musher, we try but disaster strikes and the sled tips over spilling all three of us onto the snow.........still filming laying on the cold icy snow I record the musher bring dragged away by the 8 dogs!!!
Paul, my fellow passenger and I dust off the snow, not much damage done thankfully as we wait for the musher to re-gain control of the sled and come back around to pick us up.
We are in the middle of the forest, beginning to freeze and realise that we are still in Polar Bear territory and my gloveless hand is in agony as I cannot feel my thumb and forefinger, marvelous!!!.
Thankfully 'Big Dog' arrives on his snow mobile to pick us up which adds to the fun of the day and another first for me taking my mind off my frost bitten fingers!!!
We are soon back on the sled and return to the warmth of the cosy cabin to defrost and replay the event freshly videoed which causes much amusement amongst the waiting punters.
A couple of hot chocolates later and we are given the opportunity for another go on the sled, this time I opt for the standing up position on the sled, keep my gloves on and we're off for an exhilarating ride around the forest, this time we return safely, what a great experience, yet another!!
We return to the cabin to listen to a few stories from Dave Daley before heading back to town for lunch at 'The Northern Nights Hotel' and again another superb meal and a chance to repeat my 'falling off the sled' story.
Before we leave for the airport we visit the Parks Canada interpretive center for a talk about the history of the town of Churchill, the plethora of wildlife in the area and the Northern Lights all of which proves most interesting
We check out 'The Lazy Bear Lodge' which is arguably the best hotel in town and hand built by its owner made from local materials in the form of a log cabin, very tasteful and very in keeping with the town.
Unfortunately it is now time to fly back to Winnipeg as our Tundra Adventure is over, we make our way back to the airport for our private charter flight.
As it is the end of the season in Churchill our flight is almost full of returning buggy drivers, bar staff, tour guides etc. going back to their respective 'day jobs' elsewhere in Canada and beyond. The season for viewing the Polar Bears at this time of year is so short, just six weeks and the town's population grows quite significantly for this short period.
However, Churchill is not just a winter location, visit in July to see the unbelievable sight of 4-5000 Beluga Whales on the Churchill River, thousands of species of birds, Caribou and Moose and the best kept secret........Polar Bears!!! Yes you will see them floating on the breaking ice as they begin to return to land from their winter/spring banquet of seal blubber.
Visiting Churchill is a town that offers so much for the visitor who loves wildlife or keen photographers, if you have a passion for both you will be in heaven, send me an email or call me to discuss how best to match your own personal travel needs.