About a year ago I decided to make a return trip to Kenya this Fall. When those plans fell through I did the unthinkable and decided to go north, way north to see polar bears. I don't think my life is going to be the same after this trip, and it isn't just the decision to put away the video camera and take up stills full time. This was, if for no other reason than the cost, a trip of a lifetime.
Trying to find information about these trips isn't the easiest thing in the world, even with Google. Oh sure, there are websites around, but which outfitter to pick from? After reading some negative reviews on the “Tundra Train", I was getting desperate for help on planning this trip. Fortunately for me, Judy G had a friend who had just returned from Churchill and had booked with Churchill Wild (www.churchillwild.com) and had nothing but good things to say about the operation. So credit card in hand, I emailed the company. After a few dozen emails and phone calls, I told Rhiana at Churchill Wild to run my card...there goes the 200-400VR lens I had been lusting after. For logistical reasons, I ended up in the last booking for the Great Ice Bear itinerary that Churchill Wild did this year. This trip consisted of one day in a Tundra Buggy departing from Churchill and three nights at Dymond Lake Lodge 18 kilometers north of Churchill via DeHavilland Beaver.
Flying a Beaver with a bush pilot landing on a snow and ice covered strip is an experience not to be missed, and not for those who have a fear of flying. I added on an early arrival and dog sled trip, which introduced me to Isobel, the blind lead sled dog. What a way to start the trip. But I digress.
Getting to Churchill means you must first find your way to Winnipeg, Manitoba. Because of my “get there early” approach I ending up staying the first night at the Victorian Inn a mere half a mile from the airport with free shuttle service. Next morning found me back at the airport for a 7:45 am departure on Calm Air's flight to Churchill (2 ½ hours). Of course, you could take the train but it is more expensive than flying (RT on Calm Air is about $1,600) and takes at least 36 hours. But by flying you might miss the herd of a thousand caribou that one couple saw. Other than train or plane, there is no other way to get to Churchill, if you don't count a summer cruise.
Churchill, a town on western shore Hudson Bay at the mouth of the Churchill River, used to be a trapping/fur trading settlement, then, during the Cold War, there was a large military (US and Canadian) presence listening to Soviet radio transmissions and testing cold weather gear. There is also the Port of Churchill which is open three months in the summer to ship grain to Europe. Today, the economy is supported by shipping and tourism. Nine hundred hearty souls make up the permanent citizenry of Churchill, and the town is small.
If you have any doubt about this, pull up a satellite map using Google. There are nine motels and a couple of B&B's in town, a grocery store, liquor store, bowling alley, movie theater, gift shops, and six to seven places to eat.
I stayed at The Bear Country Inn, a modest nine room one story motel with a Continental breakfast. It was clean, comfortable and warm. Internet wi-fi was available and a pay phone in the lobby. Did I mention, no cell service in Churchill? The Lazy Bear Lodge and Cafe appears to be the best motel and is reported to have the best food, next to Gypsy's Cafe.
Now having traveled to this part of the globe, I was determined to partake of all that Churchill had to offer, including a dog sledding “experience” aka Wapusk's Introduction to Dog Sledding hosted by Musher Dave Daley, founder of the Hudson Bay Quest. The Quest is a 250 mile dog sled race run from Churchill to Arviat. Dave runs Wapusk Adventures in the Wapusk General Store located right next door to the Lazy Bear. Don't forget to say hi to the puppies.I am not one for the tourist thing, but this was well worth the time. Especially since I was able to meet Isobel.
Isobel is a extraordinary sled dog. A few years ago she went blind (detached retinas). Instead of putting her down, she was put inside to live a comfortable life. Only problem, Isobel didn't want any part of this. She stopped eating and drinking. Only when another dog was brought into the house did she perk up. Feeling that she might be lonely, she was returned to kennel area where she perked up immediately. Sled dogs are an excitable lot when the mushers bring out the harnesses to hook them up to the sled. Well excitable is too mild of a word, they go absolutely nuts, and I swear their yelping sounded exactly like “Pick Me, Pick Me!”. Blind or not, Isobel was no exception. One thing led to another, and she was put back in the harness. However, as a prior lead dog, she didn't like the view being one of the team. Now she is back where she belongs, as the lead dog. And if Dave is to be believed, still beating other teams.
After meeting dogs and mushers, a crash course in dogs and dog sledding we finished up with dog sled run behind a team of dogs. Too bad it was on a wheeled cart carrying 12 guests, but being in the first seat, it sure was fun. By the time I got back to town it was getting dark. 4:30 pm sure comes quick in this part of the world. A quick dinner at the Tundra Inn and back to the motel for the night.
Seeing bears in Churchill is easy since they will still wander into town, which explains why so many people have rifles and shotguns slung over their shoulders. In the 70's and 80's the big attraction was to go watch the polar bears at the Churchill dump, and thus was born the tourist boom. However, the residents of Churchill soon discovered that the bears became habituated to human food and started marauding their homes on a regular basis. For some unknown reason, the people of Churchill didn't like 1,500 lbs of polar bear breaking into their homes in search of food. Relocating the bears didn't work too well since the bears just wandered back into town. The dump was eventually closed, and a garbage incinerator was installed. That didn't work too well either, and it was closed. Now the garbage is backing up in an old military warehouse.
Anyway, bears are now discouraged from staying around town or nearby homes with shotgun blasts (blanks). If a bear persists, it is darted and put in bear jail(an old military quonset hut) until it can be helicoptered out of town. Bears used to be sent south into the denning area but would return. Now they get air lifted 25 kms north of town.
Polar Bears are in the Churchill area from July when the ice in Hudson Bay breaks up until November when the ice reforms, and the bears go back out on the ice to hunt for seals, their main source of food. You can see the bears in the summer when they are coming in from the ice which provides for great opportunities to take photos of swimming bears and bears in the green foliage. The summer trips are coupled with zodiac excursions to view the migrating Beluga whales, which number in the thousands. In the fall (October when the bears come out of their dens to early November when they go out on the ice), bear viewing is either by tundra buggy (two operators; The Tundra Buggy and Great White Bear Tours) or at a remote lodge.
If you have ever taken the shuttle between terminals at Dulles, then this gives you a good idea of what a tundra buggy looks like, except the buggy is equipped with “an open air” observation deck on the back.
If the deck is too cold, then open the windows (after unfreezing them) and shoot from there. Only sixteen permits are allowed for the buggies, so the area doesn't get too crowded. Both ops have tundra trains which are stationed in the park and allows one to forgo lodging in Churchill. Advantage is avoiding the 45 minute trip out and back. However, as best I could calculate, the trains are more expensive than doing day trips which average about $260 pp per day. On the buggies you get a meal, if you want to call it that, and they come with a couple of chemical toilets. Since twilight starts at roughly 7:30 am and 4:30 pm, you are picked up from your hotel in darkness and return in darkness. And, if you want dinner, better go as soon as the kitchen starts serving or else reservations are mandatory.
The second day in Churchill found me on the The Tundra Buggy, as opposed to the other op, looking for bears. We were lucky and ended up seeing 34 during our trip, and in spite of the number of people on the buggy (40+) I was still able to get some great shots. Bears like most animals tend to do a lot of laying around, so patience is a virtue. The Tundra Buggy is the oldest op in town, but Great White Bear Tours looks like it has better equipment, no doubt since it is newer. If you have the option between the two, I'd check out White Bear.
After a second night in Churchill it was once again an early departure back to the airport to take the Beaver out to Dymond Lodge. Getting into the front seat of the Beaver in Arctic clothing was an adventure, fortunately the engine hadn't been started. A 200 foot takeoff, if that, a 10 minute flight at 300', an almost straight in landing on the aforementioned strip, and I was home.
Dymond has three main buildings. Wilson, the newest and larger of the cabins with a second floor observation deck, Lakeside the smaller cabin, and a dining hall. Since there were only 11 in our group, everyone ended up with a private bath.
The cabins were warm, the beds comfortable and the water hot. Food was good to excellent and consisted of lots of gourmet game dishes, such as jalapeño glazed goose breasts. Beer and wine were part of the package, and unlike diving could be consumed without interfering with the day's activities, which were tundra buggy (a converted combine) rides and “nature hikes”, and at 0 degrees F and 60 km/hr winds can only be described as brisk.
By the time we landed at the lodge the ice on the bay was building, and no bears were sighted except for a mom and cub on the ice edge. We did see lots of snowy owls, three wolves, a cross fox, ermine, and ptarmingans (Arctic partridge).
Oh, did I mention it was quiet? I mean real quiet.
Lunch was in the tundra buggy, with Northern Lights after sundown, weather permitting, hors d'oeuvres and cocktails at 6, and dinner at 7. By 8:30 we were given our armed escort back to our cabins.
Even though we didn't have any close encounters with bears at the lodge, seeing the Northern Lights and spending 42 minutes with two wolves on ice edge made this a memorable trip.
I awoke the final morning to a balmy 20 degrees F, no wind, but blowing snow. For a moment there was some question on whether we were going to be able to leave, but flying in the bush is unlike commercial aviation, besides the camp had to close up for the winter (drain the pipes, add anti freeze, shutter the window etc.). No doubt the staff and owner were anxious to leave and return to loved ones.
Churchill is a awe inspiring place, but not for those on a tight budget, especially with the drop in the value of the US dollar. Would I return? You bet. Would I do the same trip? Maybe. If I went back in the Fall, I would go earlier, try to get a group to reserve the tundra buggy, add a couple of days on the buggy and upgrade to the Lazy Bear Lodge. I would also do the summer beluga and bears trip, but after I go to Alaska.