Travelling to the undisputed Polar Bear Capital of the World during the off-season has its pros and cons. We had been in Churchill, Man., for two days and had yet to see a polar bear.
“I’ve seen as many as 50 bears in a single day during peak season,” admitted our guide Hailey as we travelled by van to a place called Halfway Point for our tundra buggy excursion.
“Sometimes you will see many and sometimes you may not see any at all — especially during the summer.”
I have to admit, I felt a little anxious when she said we might not see any bears. Since we were travelling in summer, the odds of seeing a bear just weren’t as good. You may find polar bears in the vicinity of Churchill any time after the ice has melted on Hudson Bay, but each October and November they migrate en masse to this area as they eagerly await the formation of the first winter ice.
Late fall is polar bear prime time.
Unlike other bear species that hibernate during the winter months, polar bears become most active during the winter as they use the ice floes to hunt for seals — their natural food source. On land, they eat very little and become less physically active as they try to conserve energy. But if they happen to come across a whale carcass (or an unarmed tourist wandering alone on the beach), their keen hunting skills will kick in — even during the summer.
Despite the diminished odds of seeing a polar bear in summer, we were really hoping we might see one on our tundra buggy excursion.
As luck would have it, we didn’t end up having to wait to board the tundra buggy to see our first bears. As we drove out to the buggy site, we noticed a Manitoba Conservation truck pulled over on the side of the road. Our driver quickly pulled up behind it and for the next half hour, we sat in the van quietly and observed a female polar bear and her almost fully-grown cub wandering in the tundra grass not far from the road.
Perhaps it is the Coke advertisements, but polar bears seem to rank somewhere between penguins and dolphins on the cute scale for me and most other people — ingrained anthropomorphism seems to run deep when it comes to these big white bears. The very large cub looked almost innocent and playful as he wandered in the grass not far from the spot where we were stopped, but our guide explained that he was actually quite dangerous and would not hesitate to attack or to stalk and hunt a human being.
The bears were headed in a direction that would lead them into town, so the conservation officers fired some warning blasts to scare the bears into changing their course and heading another way. Keeping bears and people apart for the safety of both is the primary objective of the Polar Bear Alert Program, which we were seeing in action.
After the two bears had cleared out, we made our way to the tundra buggy for our excursion. A tundra buggy is a custom-designed 50-passenger vehicle with a diesel engine, a sturdy steel frame, steel sheeting, eight-wheel drive tandem tires, many windows and a viewing platform at the rear.
The first tundra buggy was really a modified school bus that was built by a man named Len Smith in 1979 to take family and friends safely out onto the tundra. According to our tour guide, Smith drove the vehicle across old military roads to get deep onto the tundra and observe the wildlife. One day a National Geographic reporter heard about the new invention and convinced Smith to take him to see the bears.
After the story was published, visitors began flocking to this remote and isolated community to view the bears and Smith found himself with a new business.
It was quite a bumpy ride as we made our way across the tundra. With the constant freezing and thawing, roads do not survive well and the military roads that are used by the tundra buggies are old and abandoned, so they don’t get much, if any, upkeep.
If it is safe to do so (read — no bears in sight), passengers can get out of the buggy and get a closer look at the plant life in this unique biome. Since we didn’t see any bears, we made a stop and got out for a closer look. It was amazing to see the tundra up close and to feel its spongy texture beneath our feet. Hailey identified the various plants and some of us took the opportunity to sample the edible ones. During the summer, you can find many edible plants on the tundra and a footprint can last for years.
After our afternoon on the tundra, we were pretty excited to keep looking for bears. While we didn’t happen to see any bears on our summer tundra buggy excursion, we did manage to see a total of four polar bears over the course of a weekend, just enough to make us want to come back for another visit — in the fall.
Frontiers North Adventures
• Frontiers North Adventures owns and operates the original tundra buggy excursions in Churchill and they are the only company to have a permit to go into the Wildlife Management Area, which lies further out on the tundra where more bears are likely to be found.
• Polar bear tours run from mid-October to mid-November and start at $2,449 per person. The tours begin in Winnipeg and include return flights from Winnipeg to Churchill, accommodations, and two days on a heated tundra buggy observing bears. Longer tours and specialized photography tours are also on offer.
• More information can be found at www.frontiersnorth.com or by calling 800-663-9832 or 204-949-2050.
Debbie Olsen is a Lacombe-based freelance writer. If you have a travel story you would like to share or know someone with an interesting travel story who we might interview, please email: DOGO@telusplanet.net or write to: Debbie Olsen, c/o Red Deer Advocate, 2950 Bremner Ave., Red Deer, Alta., T4R 1M9.