Had to meet with the organizers and rest of the people on the tour at 6.15am (horrors) for the start of our polar bear trip at the Sheraton hotel at the airport. They then took us by bus to the charter plane area, we were surprised to be boarded onto a Boeing 737 – 200, thought it would be a propeller plane or turbo-prop. There were 36 in our group who were spending the 2 nights out on the tundra in their ‘lodge’ at Polar Bear Point, but a few other groups who were staying in the town of Churchill and just going in on the Tundra in the day were on the same plane. Churchill is about 1100kms north of Winnipeg on the edge of Hudson Bay. A very ‘basic’ little outback town, somewhat bleak, icy streets and patches of old snow around. And freezing!! Thermals, and 3 layers plus jackets etc needed. Polar bears often roam into town so locals don’t lock their vehicles or houses, thus giving people a place to escape to if confronted by a bear. Bears that come into town are trapped and put in a huge holding facility called the Polar Bear jail (or more politically correctly called ‘the polar bear holding area) - it’s the only air conditioned building in Churchill. They are held until the ice has formed then released miles away. They have no human contact while there and just fed enough hay to keep them alive, we weren’t allowed to see them, just heard them thumping around in the huge shed (if they fed them fish they would keep coming back to the jail when hungry!) – Not very pleasant for the bears, but better than being shot as they were years ago. They even now have a fully enclosed rubbish dump inside a giant shed to stop the bears scavenging.
We all had lunch together then had free time in Churchill and at 4.30 were driven by bus for ½ hr to the boarding area for the ‘Tundra Buggies”. Then it was a 2 hr very rough slow trip in the buggy to the Tundra Buggy Lodge. I had expected there to be heaps of snow lying around, but they haven’t had much snow yet. Apparently the tundra never builds up much of a snow base as it is so flat and the winds so strong – there were patches of snow lying around, not much vegetation just scrubby bushes, and endless numbers of shallow lakes all over which were partly frozen. Very cold arctic wind blowing, we were grateful for the heater in the vehicle. Enjoyable though as we were on the look-out for animals. It was dark when we arrived, but the headlights picked up an arctic fox running down the road. That was a good start.
A bit of an explanation of what was involved. Firstly our vehicle around the tundra was a purpose built million dollar bus with (giant big foot) a ground clearance of 2.5 mtrs, max speed a screaming 30kph; built in large gas heater (much needed) and a pre-runner to a chemical toilet. (better described as an old thunder box) Very wide vehicle with 10 rows of double seats down each side and heaps of standing place in the middle (could have fitted in another 8 seats across). A caged viewing platform for bear viewing (or smokers) out the back. The whole area where we were had been a military firing range in the cold war days, so there were clearly defined tracks that we were not allowed to deviate off as there are still unexploded shells around, they also don’t want to mess up too much of the area with tyre tracks. We chose to spend the 2 nights out on the tundra for greater chance of seeing bears, and not having to waste time driving 2 ½ hours from Churchill and back each day, and were rewarded for this. Accommodation is best described as a dormitory style railway carriage. 2 wagons of curtained off bunk beds, 2 toilets 1 shower and 1 heater in each wagon. Then there was a lounge and another wagon for dining room, kitchen etc. That was followed by the staff quarters. So you had this train of several big foot carriages that are high enough off the ground so the bears cannot have access. It certainly wasn’t luxurious (but we were aware of this), better described as basic and adequate and it did the job. Bunks were however more comfortable than Amtrak sleepers (wider and more head room). People were all very considerate and there was no noise or partying at night, everyone was tucked up in bed by 10pm. Food wasn’t haute cuisine, but very nice, made by the 3 staff on the lodge (don’t know how they don’t get ‘cabin fever’ as they stay on the Lodge the whole time (around 2 months) and can’t even go for a walk as no one is allowed onto the ground while out there (except for urgent vehicle maintenance etc with a few armed guards for bears)
It was a very interesting group of people of various nationalities and all ages, from two sixteen year olds, one with parents and one with a grandmother (nice lady who has taken each of her grandchildren on some sort of trip!) to a very sprightly 74 year old. Unusual crowd too as all were dedicated travellers, 6 of the 36 had climbed Kilimanjaro and the 74yr old is planning to. Quite a few had also been to Rwanda to see the gorillas; so many good conversations were had sharing tables at meal times. Good group too, all worked well together and no whingers.
Headed off in the Tundra Buggy at 8 o’clock both days, had lunch on the Buggy and returned to base around 4.30. Drove all around a wide area looking for wildlife and bears, amazing vehicles could drive through water and mud and over boulders. Fun crunching through shallow (we hoped!) icy lakes when the tracks went through them. No one was allowed to stand up while the vehicle was moving, too much likelihood of falling over.
Sadly Hudson Bay hadn’t frozen over yet thanks to global warming, so there weren’t as many polar bears around as there should have been. The polar bears habitual migratory path thru Churchill and out onto the ice to catch and eat seals after 5 months of not eating is on hold as a result. We did see about nine bears right up close (not sure if we sometimes saw the same one twice!), but we also had two bonuses. Saw three very rare Arctic Foxes (our driver said he only saw 3 last year in total) one was walking on a frozen lake (beautiful reflections) he was watching something in the bushes so kept on stopping then approaching the bushes and retreating again, also ran down the road right towards the vehicle. But then we had the #1 highlight, which had our driver racing for his camera with comments like “you don’t realise how rare it is to witness this.” The even rarer cross back silver fox (looked black) chasing a snow hare – didn’t get him though (poor cute fat white bunny!). At one stage the fox jumped up onto a rock to see where his quarry had gone. Apparently that’s unheard of. Move over David Attenborough!!! Also saw other interesting birds (a snowy owl; an immature bald eagle who should have flown south weeks ago and plenty of Ptarmigan (arctic bird) snow goose, animals such as an ermine (short tailed weasel) and arctic hare who have large black dots on the back of their ears which gives the impression that they have eyes in the back of their head.
It was pretty hard to spot the bears as they were all in sleepy mode as they knew it wasn’t worth their going out to the shore to check the ice yet, they make nice little cosy ‘nests’ in the kelp on the shore line and lie there to keep warm, just see their heads popping up to see what is going on when the buggy approaches. As we approached the lodge on our return on the second afternoon there was a bear standing on its rear legs trying to get into the kitchen; he could smell the food cooking, but he realised that he wasn’t going to succeed and sulked away, (shame he had not eaten for 5 months.) They do have extremely strict rules on absolutely under no circumstance can you feed a bear as they don’t want them getting used to human food and becoming scavengers in town. Every bit of “trash” and human waste has to be trucked off the tundra back to H Q. It was colder the second night and a bit more ice had formed so bears were moving around a bit more in the early morning. When we went to board the buggy (the buggy docks right onto the ‘train’ so you don’t touch ground walking onto it) we were rewarded with a big daddy bear, only a few metres from our lodge, doing his best golden retriever impersonations of rolling on its back, legs kicking in the air, then sliding his chin and neck along the ground. Poor bear thought there must have been a seal under the frozen pond he was standing on, because he suddenly started jumping up and down on the ice, trying to smash it open as they do when they’re at a seals hole. We followed him for a while when he walked off and tried to get around in front of him but he got spooked and raced off into the distance (they’re very strict too about not upsetting the animals and getting them stressed so we couldn’t chase after him). The sun soon came out which was lovely as there was a beautiful sunrise and great reflections on the lakes. But it put the bears to sleep again and they draped themselves over the warmed up rocks to slumber and barely raised an eyebrow when we stopped. A couple did at least lumber up and move around a bit which was nice. No mothers and cubs though and no bears sparring with each other up on their hind legs.
Overall the polar bear trip was a bit disappointing in one way as they had portrayed it that there would be bears all around the Lodge and area, and maybe there are in good years, but once we got over that expectation not being fulfilled we enjoyed it as one would a safari in Africa where you have to go out and spot the animals, and saw many other animals we hadn’t expected to see. No Northern Lights sadly as it was overcast both evenings.
I would recommend it, but if you are expecting it to be like a private game park as you find in South Africa, where they put out salt licks and know where all the animals are at any one time, then forget it. However, if you are willing to go and try and find your own animals like you do in Kruger National Park, then it would be OK for you. The other thing about where we were looking for polar bears was we were confined to a relatively small area as to where we could look for them. The area backs onto a massive National Park which was a strictly no go area for us. I reckon the bears knew this and they were all hiding in there!!!!
This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC