The small city of Churchill, Manitoba, is called the “Polar Bear Capital of the World.”
Every year in October and November, the Western Hudson Bay inhabitants of polar bears follows its migration route in preparation for searching season on the frozen Hudson Bay to start. And it simply so occurs that the route takes the bears virtually straight by way of the city of Churchill.
Churchill’s historical past (and its historical past with its polar bear residents) is a narrative for an additional put up, however for now the essential factor to know is that, come “polar bear season,” there are sometimes extra polar bears within the space than individuals.
Add to this the truth that Churchill is pretty accessible and geared up for internet hosting vacationers, and it is one of many prime locations on the planet to see polar bears within the wild.
Going to see polar bears in Churchill has been on my bucket record for years, and I lastly made it occur in 2018. The expertise blew my expectations out of the water, and it is completely one thing you need to add to your bucket record.
What you will discover on this put up
Selecting a Churchill polar bear tour
The easiest way to see polar bears in Churchill is by reserving a tour. Sure, you *might* make your method to Churchill by yourself and doubtlessly rent somebody to drive you round to the place bears typically roam close to the city limits. However I do not know that that is one thing I might suggest from a security standpoint (and undoubtedly do NOT go searching for bears by yourself on foot).
Your finest guess when it comes to having each a protected and memorable expertise in Churchill is to guide a polar bear tour with one of many corporations on the town that takes visitor out to bear-watch within the Churchill Wildlife Administration Space (CWMA).
There are a number of completely different tour choices in Churchill. These embody:
- The one-day journey – Sure, there are fly-in day journeys to Churchill from cities like Winnipeg, Calgary, and Saskatoon.
- Professionals: It is in all probability essentially the most inexpensive choice since you are not paying for lodging or meals.
- Cons: At some point actually is not sufficient, particularly in case you run into flight hassle!
- The DIY tour – Get your self to Churchill by way of both aircraft (there are direct flights from Winnipeg) or prepare (the journey takes 2 days), keep on the town, after which guide day by day sightseeing journeys on a Tundra Buggy or Polar Rover (the official names for the automobiles utilized by the 2 important bear-watching corporations on the town).
- Professionals: It can save you a bit of cash by staying on the town and reserving your individual transport.
- Cons: Group sizes on the day journeys from Churchill might be giant; they pack the tundra automobiles to capability throughout polar bear season!
- The packaged tour – The choice I like to recommend is the packaged tour. You may nonetheless decide to avoid wasting cash and keep within the city of Churchill and exit on day journeys, or you’ll be able to splurge and keep out at one of many tundra lodges.
- Professionals: The entire particulars are dealt with for you, out of your flights to/from Churchill to your lodging to your excursions out onto the tundra.
- Cons: These are undoubtedly the costliest polar bear tour choices – particularly those the place you go for a smaller group and/or keep out in one of many tundra lodges.
All of those choices embody having an interpretive information with you, who can let you know all about Churchill, polar bears, and among the particular bear conduct you may see. The guides employed by Churchill’s tour corporations are top-notch, and plenty of are specialists on the subject of issues like pictures and/or polar bear conservation.
The information I had on my tour had spent 13 years working in and round Churchill for Parks Canada (just like the Nationwide Park Service right here within the US) earlier than switching over to tourism. He knew rather a lot about bears, and much more in regards to the historical past of Arctic explorers. He additionally appreciated my jokes about polar bears giving side-eye (as a result of they TOTALLY do).
The polar bear tour I selected
Since this was a bucket record journey that I had dreamed about for years, it was one I used to be prepared to save lots of up for. I due to this fact knew I needed to splurge and guide a multi-day packaged tour that included staying out on the tundra as an alternative of in Churchill.
There are three important corporations to select from for this type of tour: Frontiers North Adventures, Nice White Bear Excursions, and Churchill Wild. Frontiers North and GWBT each have cell lodges out within the Churchill Wildlife Administration Space, whereas Churchill Wild has three everlasting eco-lodges on the Hudson Bay coast.
The tour I finally selected was the Tundra Buggy Lodge Fanatic tour with Frontiers North Adventures.
This was a 6-day tour that included 2 overnights in Winnipeg, dogsledding and free time in Churchill, and three full days of polar bear viewing on the corporate’s Tundra Buggy automobiles.
I selected this tour for a pair causes. First, Frontiers North has been working polar bear excursions since 1979, they usually have 12 out of the 18 permits that enables them to function on the 33 kilometers of trails inside the Churchill Wildlife Administration Space. Second, I did a Northern Lights tour with them 5 years in the past and had a wonderful expertise – so it was sort of a no brainer to guide with them once more.
I selected the “fanatic” stage of tour as a result of it means a smaller group (you will solely share a Tundra Buggy with 19 different individuals versus 39), and the Tundra Buggy Lodge choice as a result of… effectively, clearly!
Staying on the Tundra Buggy Lodge
Sure, it can save you some cash by staying within the city of Churchill. However then you definately spend about 2+ hours every day being transferred out of your lodging out to the Churchill Wildlife Administration Space the place many of the bears sometimes look ahead to the Hudson Bay to freeze.
In the meantime, in case you keep on the Tundra Buggy Lodge, the polar bears mainly come to you.
Frontiers North’s Tundra Buggy Lodge sits on the aptly-named Polar Bear Level, inside the CWMA and close by of the Hudson Bay. It is under no circumstances unusual for curious, bored polar bears to come back sniffing across the Lodge.
I spent Three nights on the Tundra Buggy Lodge and three fulls days bear-watching on a Tundra Buggy in late October. We noticed our first bear inside an hour of being on the Lodge, and had been “late” leaving every morning due to curious bears blocking the best way. I even laid in my bunk and watched bears out the window a pair instances!
Contained in the Tundra Buggy Lodge
After I booked my journey, I attempted researching what staying on the Tundra Buggy Lodge was actually like. … And I did not actually discover very a lot! So here is the lowdown:
The Tundra Buggy Lodge can accommodate as much as 40 company at a time. Visitors are break up up into two teams, and every group is assigned one sleeping automotive. The sleeping automobiles (and all of the automobiles, actually) resemble actually large prepare automobiles.
The sleeping preparations are in bunk beds. Every pair of bunk beds has a privateness curtain and its personal thermostat/heating system, and every particular person mattress has an extra privateness curtain, a light-weight, a shelf, a window, and Four electrical retailers. These beds have actual mattresses and comfy Hudsons Bay Firm wool blankets. You are additionally supplied with towels.
Apart from the bunk beds, the sleeping automobiles have a storage space on your coats/boots, Three bathrooms and a couple of showers. Which may not look like rather a lot for 20 individuals to share, but it surely labored surprisingly effectively. The showers are on timers to preserve water (you get 2 minutes of sizzling water per push), so individuals do not usually take lengthy. I discovered if I hopped within the bathe throughout “completely satisfied hour” earlier than dinner, I by no means needed to wait.
Talking of dinner… the Tundra Buggy Lodge additionally has a eating automotive (known as Dan’s Diner) the place they serve up a buffet-style breakfast every morning, and a Three-course sit-down meal within the evenings. The meals is REALLY good – we had issues like Arctic Char and elk medallions, together with actually tasty desserts.
The employees additionally gives wine, espresso, and appetizers within the lounge earlier than dinner. The lounge automotive is a snug automotive with tables and seating for hanging out earlier than and after dinner. Within the evenings, the employees or researchers from Polar Bears Worldwide will typically give displays; we had displays on local weather change and the connection between individuals and bears in Churchill.
The lounge automotive is gorgeous, with numerous skylights and even an outside commentary deck on prime simply in case you get fortunate and the Northern Lights come out whilst you’re there.
Is the Tundra Buggy Lodge proper for me?
It’s possible you’ll hear issues like “bunk beds” and “shared loos” and suppose that perhaps the Tundra Buggy Lodge is not one thing you’d take pleasure in. However the Lodge is so effectively performed and so completely positioned that I am unsure there’s a greater place to remain in case your aim is seeing polar bears!
The one factor I might suggest is to deliver some noise-canceling headphones or earbuds that will help you go to sleep in case you’re a light-weight sleeper. The Lodge does present free ear plugs, however you probably have a few of your individual that you just like, I might deliver these!
*And word that the Tundra Buggy Lodge went by way of an entire renovation a pair years in the past, so ignore any older opinions you may discover on TripAdvisor!*
Seeing polar bears within the wild
Now let’s get to the essential half: seeing these polar bears!
As I’ve already talked about, staying on the Tundra Buggy Lodge signifies that you do not have to go very far to see polar bears. There have been bears across the Lodge always of day, and once we DID go away to search for extra bears, we by no means ended up going very far.
No matter what polar bear tour you go for in Churchill, you will be heading out into the Churchill Wildlife Administration Space on giant customized automobiles. Frontiers North makes use of the Tundra Buggy, a Four-wheeled automobile that my husband describes as a “faculty bus monster truck.” (Nice White Bear Excursions makes use of 6-wheeled Polar Rovers.)
Tundra Buggies stand practically 10 ft off the bottom, and rumble over the tundra on tires which might be 5.5-feet excessive. High velocity? 28 miles per hour.
You ONLY traverse on the path community that already exists within the CWMA; there is not any off-roading allowed with a purpose to attempt to defend the delicate tundra atmosphere. This does typically imply that you just will not get as near some polar bears as you may like, however your driver will all the time do his/her finest to get you in the perfect spot for photographs.
However hopefully you will get as fortunate as my group did. We had been on the tundra on the top of “polar bear season,” and we had upwards of 20 bear “sightings” per day. We noticed huge male bears, mama bears with cubs, sparring teenaged bears, and much and many sleeping bears.
Up shut with polar bears
Everyone seems to be all the time interested by how shut you actually get to the bears. In spite of everything, a great zoom lens could make issues have a look at lot nearer than they are surely.
However on the subject of polar bears in Churchill, you will get VERY shut.
Due to how accessible it’s, the Western Hudson Bay subpopulation of polar bears is among the most-studied teams of polar bears on the planet. Tour corporations have been taking individuals out to see the bears for many years, and the animals know that the Tundra Buggies and different automobiles aren’t a risk; they’re simply a part of the tundra panorama that the bears have change into used to.
It is not unusual for bears to come back proper as much as the tundra automobiles. Some will sniff round cautiously as they circle round a automobile and silently pad away. However braver ones (or perhaps simply hungrier ones?) will come nearer, typically even standing up on their hind legs for a greater sniff. The Frontiers North guides name this “Buggy Love,” and it is all the time a visitor favourite.
Don’t be concerned, although – the Tundra Buggies are far sufficient off the bottom that you just aren’t in peril from even the largest polar bear supplying you with Buggy Love, as long as you do not hang around the window or over the facet of the out of doors commentary deck.
And talking of home windows… the good thing about happening a tour with a smaller group measurement like I did is that nobody has to struggle for a window seat. With a bunch of 20, it is simple for everybody to get an excellent view of the bears.
A typical day on a polar bear tour
In case you select to remain on the Tundra Buggy Lodge like I did, here is what a typical day will appear like:
- 7 a.m. – Breakfast within the eating automotive
- eight/eight:15 a.m. – Board your Tundra Buggy for a full day trip on the tundra
- 10:30/11 – Cease for espresso/snacks; your driver will attempt to discover a bear so that you can watch
- 12:30/1 p.m. – Cease for lunch; you deliver your lunch out with you within the morning and eat proper on the Tundra Buggy. Lunches we had included issues like tacos, pasta, and build-your-own sandwiches.
- After lunch – You may must make a pit cease again on the Tundra Buggy Lodge with a purpose to drop off your dishes so the kitchen employees can get every part washed earlier than dinner
- Four p.m.(ish) – Return to the Tundra Buggy Lodge for the night
- Four:30-5:30 p.m. – Drinks and appetizers within the lounge
- 6 p.m. – Dinner at Dan’s Diner
- After dinner – Probably a presentation within the lounge
- 10/10:30 – Bedtime for most individuals, although after all you’ll be able to hand around in the lounge as late as you need!
Since you have traveled all this method to see polar bears, the majority of your day is spent out on the tundra. The Tundra Buggies are fortunately fairly comfy, however you do spend about eight hours per day on them.
On a pair days, we did have one or two individuals in our group return to the lodge after lunch once we stopped to drop off our dishes; if that is one thing that will assist make your journey extra comfy, remember to discuss to your information!
When to go to Churchill to see polar bears
Polar bear season usually begins in Churchill originally of October, and excursions run by way of mid-November. It is after all unimaginable to totally predict bear conduct, and the tour corporations haven’t any management over when the Hudson Bay will freeze.
After I was planning my journey, I did not need to go too early within the season (for concern that no bears can be round but) or too late within the season (for concern that the Bay would freeze early). I opted to go extra within the center; I used to be up in Churchill from October 24-27.
Like I discussed earlier, I lucked out and was on the tundra on the top of polar bear season. We had no drawback seeing LOTS of bears and all kinds of various behaviors.
The truth is, we noticed so many bears that on the final day of our tour, we took a less-used path and went to search for different animals like Arctic Fox and ptarmigan and snowy owls.
In 2018, the primary bears had been noticed in early October, however the ice froze early and the final teams in mid-November didn’t see many bears in any respect. I believe late October is a reasonably good guess for an excellent likelihood of seeing bears.
(And no, you will not get a refund in case you do not see bears; these bears will not be in a zoo, and not one of the tour corporations have any management over the place/after they present up. This is the reason I like to recommend spending extra than simply someday on the tundra, simply in case!)
How a lot do polar bear excursions value?
I will not lie, guys: it’s NOT low-cost to go see polar bears in Churchill. Even in case you select the most affordable choice (i.e. taking the prepare, staying in a price range spot in Churchill, and reserving simply someday on a tundra tour), you are still spending at the very least $1500 per particular person.
The tour I booked (the Tundra Buggy Lodge Fanatic tour) was roughly $6500 USD. However this was a bucket record journey for me (and for most people who go on it), so I used to be prepared to pay for it. I personally suppose it was price each penny, and you actually do get what you pay for when it comes to guides and total expertise.
Listed here are some pattern prices for a few of Frontiers North Adventures’ polar bear excursions:
- One-day tour: $489 CAD ($365 USD) per grownup
- 5-day tour with lodging in Churchill: $Four,149 CAD ($Three,104 USD)
- 5-day tour with 2 nights on the Tundra Buggy Lodge: $6,249 CAD ($Four,675 USD)
These excursions replenish FAST, too. Most of the hottest excursions will replenish months upfront. (I went in October 2018, however booked my spot in December 2017!)
What to pack for a polar bear tour
Temperatures can fluctuate relying on when within the season you go to Churchill. In late October, temperatures had been hovering slightly below freezing, although the wind typically made it really feel a lot colder. By late November, as soon as the bay was frozen, temperatures plummeted to means under zero (I had associates who went late within the season when it was -40!)
Some key stuff you’ll have to pack embody:
- Layers, layers, and extra layers – On most days I wore a base layer (I like these bottoms and this thermal turtleneck), a mid-layer (normally leggings on the underside and a down vest or fleece on prime), and an outer layer (together with my Columbia Omni-Warmth pants and both a light-weight down jacket or my lengthy Cocoon Coat from Rohan relying on whether or not I used to be going to be exterior a lot or not).
- Glove liners – Together with a hat, scarf, and gloves, you also needs to deliver some glove liners with you that may allow you to function your digicam or telephone. Although you spend many of the day inside your Tundra Buggy, it could actually nonetheless get chilly when all of the home windows are open for individuals to take photographs.
- Heat boots – I do not find out about you, but when my ft get chilly, the remainder of me will get chilly. So I made positive to pack my winter mountaineering boots for this journey together with heat socks with a purpose to hold my ft toasty. And in case you’re spending any time in Churchill, taking some Yaktrax with you’ll come in useful, too, since they do not actually clear snow and ice from the roads.
- Slippers for the Lodge – The one factor I used to be tremendous glad I packed had been a pair of cozy slippers with rubber bottoms to put on on the Tundra Buggy Lodge. Having these meant I did not must clomp across the lodge in my winter boots. (Although word that you just do must stroll exterior to get from one automotive to a different, so I do not suggest sock-style slippers!)
- Noise-canceling headphones – These could make for simpler bunk sleeping on the Lodge.
- An excellent digicam – Loads of individuals on my tour had been snapping photographs on their telephones or point-and-shoot cameras. However in case you actually need to come away with wonderful photographs of polar bears, you want a quick digicam and (in all probability) a great telephoto lens. I shot virtually all my bear photographs on an Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II with a 70-300mm lens. And whereas I am pleased with my pictures, I do know individuals with nicer cameras acquired even higher photos! This can be a journey the place it will be price renting a great digicam in case you do not personal one.
The excellent news is that if you do not have cold-weather gear, you’ll be able to lease it from Frontiers North. They lease out parkas, snow pants, and heat boots you can choose up when you get to Canada.
Critically, guys, this is among the coolest issues I’ve ever performed, and I would not hesitate to do it another time. The truth is, I is perhaps tempted to repeat this journey in one other few years as a result of local weather change is actual, and scientists predict that we would not even HAVE polar bears in one other 100 years.
A polar bear tour is not going to be the most affordable trip you will ever take, but it surely completely belongs in your journey bucket record.
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