Polar Bearing

Way up north, in Churchill, Canada, Polar Bear Country awaits your most adventurous clients

By: Carole Terwilliger Meyers

“The bears are waiting for the Hudson Bay to freeze so they can go catch seals,” explains Walter Berry, our Frontiers North guide.

The world’s largest land carnivore, polar bears have one of the longest fasts of any animal from July through November and by October they are mighty hungry.

Our tour group is way up north in remote Churchill, Canada reachable only by train and plane. It is the best place in the world to view polar bears. Fresh from our charter flight in, we are being given a town tour from an armed school bus. When driver/guide Sheldon Olivier gets off the bus to walk us around Cape Merry, he grabs the rifle that has been resting above the front window and carries it along just in case.

Our group of 18 animal fanciers consists of three Americans. Everyone else is from the U.K. The other two Americans in my group are a dad from Alaska who is joining his young-adult daughter from Philadelphia for their annual “do something together” trip. (Later we meet up with a group on another tour plan that arrived via a 36-hour train. They are all Americans.)

The next morning, we were “layered up” as a Scottish lady in our group put it and ready for our tundra buggy adventure. As I boarded the buggy, Japanese TV interviewers with their cameras aimed at me ask if “my heart is beating fast.” Well, no, I told them, but I am excited.

In consideration of the bears and the environment, there are never more than 18 tundra buggies out at a time. Because they are painted white, they blend in with the vast, flat tundra scenery. When we passed another buggy going the other way, our hunky young driver, Jonathan Neal, exclaimed, “Wow! Rush hour!”

Our first day out was just after a new snowfall. Though our guide had done his job by saying he “can’t make any promises, because nature does what it wants,” we are lucky. After spotting quite a few “rock” bears, we start seeing the real thing. The skies were moody, but the bears were abundant.

The excitement was palatable. If our clever driver hadn’t told us that “the quietest bus gets the bears,” we’d all probably have stampeded each other to get to the windows and toppled the buggy. Each time we stopped to observe bears Jonathan opened the windows for us and then closed them again when we finished snapping. He is very patient and told us that he wants to make sure everyone on his buggy sees what they came to see.

And see them we do. We spotted a sub-adult male polar bear who was 4 to 5 years old, then a mom and her 2-year-old cubs who were still-nursing. Some bears came right up to the buggies to nose around.

In addition to tons of bears, literally, we saw more wildlife, including a snowy owl in flight, a rare red fox curled up into a ball for a long nap and a flock of snow buntings. My favorite sighting was of a short-tailed weasel. Though he was mostly white, he had a black tip on his tail that allowed us to keep our eyes on him as he scurried about, zigging and zagging from bush to bush, making us chuckle. But, although we saw Arctic hare tracks everywhere, we never did glimpse a bunny.

The second day out, we encountered some blue skies and actually put on sunglasses. After seeing eight or nine lazy bears not doing much of anything but napping one sprawled fearlessly across the road our driver suggested we go find some tap dancers. At the end of this final day out in a buggy, as the sun began to set and the snow blew softly across the tundra, we were all a bit sad as the buggy headed back to the “launch.”

Two lunches and one dinner are included in this tour. The lunches were on the days we were out in the buggy. They consisted of freshly prepared soups and delicious sandwiches and pastries from Gypsy’s the town’s popular bakery/deli. Dinners were organized at a different restaurant each night, giving us a chance to experience the town’s different eateries.

On our last day, before flying back to Winnipeg in early evening, we visited the town’s Eskimo Museum, stopped in at the post office to get our passports stamped with the official polar bear imprint and experienced a short, but exhilarating, dog-sled ride. And though unfortunately the skies were never clear enough for us to see the Northern Lights, on the return flight some people seated on the left side of the tiny plane were able to witness a lunar eclipse.

If a polar bear excursion isn’t something your clients would be interested in, the Churchill area has even more to offer. The beluga whales arrive in July and August. Summer is described as spectacular.

Carole Terwilliger Meyers is the author of Weekend Adventures in Northern California and the editor of Dream Sleeps: Castle & Palace Hotels of Europe (both Carousel Press:  www.carousel-press.com.)

Photos by Carole Terwilliger Meyers


Frontiers North Adventures
800-663-9832; 204-949-2050

Five-night packages with two nights in Winnipeg and three nights in Churchill are $2,770 per person. Longer tours that include overnights on stationary tundra buggies are also available. Polar bear season runs from beginning of October through the end of November.
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