Story by Mark Sissons
CHURCHILL, MANITOBA — “I got very close to a polar bear today,” says Paul Jenkins, a doctor from Queensland, Australia. Recounting how the giant animal reared up on its hind legs against the side of his tundra buggy while he was photographing it from an open window, he adds, “I was so near its face I could feel its breath.”
Nothing can quite prepare you to go nose-to-nose with an enormous polar bear, the world’s largest land predator, and the mightiest of all bears. Yet in Churchill — the Manitoba town that is the so-called polar bear capital of the planet — you can safely get up close and personal with these titans of the tundra that for millennia have been the subject of Aboriginal legends and myths, and are today in the crosshairs of climate change and its effects. In fact, nowhere else on earth can you so easily see polar bears in the wild than near this centre on the shores of Hudson Bay. For wildlife lovers, a visit here is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
More than 60 per cent of the world’s roughly 25,000 remaining polar bears live in Canada’s pristine Arctic and each fall they gather on the coast of enormous Hudson Bay near this former fur trading post for their annual migration. During those weeks thousands of tourists flood into tiny Churchill — which is two hours by plane from Winnipeg — to view the bears in their natural habitat as they wait for the sea ice to freeze solid enough for them to venture out onto it to hunt for ring seals, their main source of food.
“To actually see that huge bear and learn how it sustains itself for a period of time,” marvels Bonnie Jean Fenton, a retired nurse from Highgate, Ontario. “You think you’re prepared and you know what’s coming but you don’t really.”
Fenton, Jenkins and 16 other travellers hailing from Australia, Europe and the United States joined me on a Frontiers North Tundra Buggy Lodge Adventure. The highlight was our three-day excursion aboard a specially designed all‐terrain vehicle that enables us to venture out into the 850,000-hectare Churchill Wildlife Management Area to safely view sub‐arctic wildlife in its natural environment. Resembling a school bus propped onto the chassis of a monster truck, the tundra buggy is our mobile home and roving photographic base station each day as we set out in search of these magnificent carnivores in their icy environment.
Watching Polar Bears in the Wild
It doesn’t take long to find them, wandering across the tundra or curled up in the snow, conserving their energy for the upcoming sea ice seal-hunting season. As curious about us as we are awed by them, bears occasionally approach the buggy, sniffing the air and rising up to lean against the buggy’s side. One morning we park to watch a pair of adolescent bears shadow boxing, too weakened by their summer-long fast to make the fur really fly. Later, we track a mother and her cub as they gingerly traverse a dangerously thin expanse of early-season ice.
Evenings are spent at the Tundra Buggy Lodge, a string of connected trailers on wheels where guests sleep dormitory style in comfortable bunks, dine together and have access to viewing platforms for outdoor photography. Resembling a sci‐fi movie moon base station, the Tundra Buggy Lodge offers a uniquely immersive experience that includes presentations from Polar Bears International experts, world‐renowned polar bear researchers and scientists. From my bunk at night I spot a bear just outside my window. The next morning more it’s still there, a snowy sentinel from a timeless world of snow and ice that may one day vanish from our modern world.
[toggle_box title=”MORE ABOUT VISITING CHURCHILL, MANITOBA” width=”550″]
Getting There: Frontiers North charters depart from Winnipeg International Airport for the roughly two-hour flight north to Churchill. For more info call 1-800-663-9832 (toll free) or visit the frontiers-north.
2016 Dates: Frontiers North is booking Tundra Buggy Adventure trips for October 2016 for rates beginning at $4,199.