I was once asked in an interview what animal I would be if I could choose, I said a Polar Bear. I knew at the time that I was supposed to name an animal who works hard for the good of the herd, not be afraid to take on larger prey yet humble in its approach, but the Polar bear is what I said. Why? Because they are exceptional animals. This is why I chose to fly up to the wintery wilderness of Churchill in Canada’s Manitoba to see these magnificent creatures in the wild, whilst they wait for the ice-sheet to form over the Hudson Bay.
Seeing animals on television documentaries has led me in pursuit around the globe to witness them in their natural habitat. In the wild and with roaming behaviours as close to their natural patterns as possible. Animals in the wild.
Lazy Bear Lodge
If you want to see Polar Bears then you’re likely to head for Churchill and if you’re going all that way, you should be staying at Lazy Bear Lodge in traditional log cabin accommodation.
The eco-friendly lodge is unique and was built over ten years using timber reclaimed from a fire in the boreal forest. It was a combination of sweat and simple hand tools that slotted each piece together, the windows were recycled from an 1800’s Hudson Bay Trading Post, and the quaint feel makes this one of the most characterful options you’ll find in Churchill without compromising on comfort. According to Wally, the owner and man who built the lodge, “It took a long time and was a tough go, but it’s all worth it when we see our guests’ happy faces as they return from a great day of exploring the wonders of the natural Arctic world around us.”
WHAT TO DO
If you’re coming to Churchill to see Polar Bears, then you’re going to need to pay for a tour. Yes, it is possible to rent a 4WD and navigate around the tundra yourself, but what happens is people put themselves in extreme danger from these supersized mammals who will fight to the death to protect their young. That or they simply underestimate the elements which are notoriously harsh and could quickly land you in trouble.
It’s safer to book a package tour with a company who knows what they’re doing and a guide who can bring the experience to life, give it meaning and perspective. Plus, there is a whole ecosystem on Churchill’s tundra which you could easily miss without the right guidance. The good news is Lazy Bear Expeditions can book you a full package from Winnipeg, your gateway to the Arctic including return flight to Churchill, accommodation at the lodge, meals, tours on the tundra in a custom designed vehicle (with heating) and an expert guide.
Navigating your way through the Arctic tundra
It is widely known that a good guide can make the trip and having been a tour guide myself, I completely agree. But an excellent guide will do more than make the trip, they bring the experience to life, they give it a pulse and that’s what our Lazy Bear Lodge guide Judd, did. I’m talking about an ‘arctic wonder woman’ who took a group of strangers from vastly different backgrounds and not only made us laugh, but also listen and learn. Right from the start this woman with an unusual fetish for ice, lifted the lid on the ecosystems of Churchill, and made it clear that our focus was not going to be purely Polar Bear-centric.
Churchill Tour Itinerary
So what can you expect if you book a tour through Lazy Bear Expeditions?
DAY 1 – ARRIVAL DAY IN WINNIPEG
Manitoba is bordered on the north by Nunavut Territory, by Saskatchewan in the west, on the east by Ontario, North Dakota and Minnesota in the south. It is the gateway to the Arctic tundra in the far north which is where the famous Polar Bears wait for the Hudson Bay to freeze before heading out onto the frozen ocean to feed and birth. I arrived in the late evening and stayed at Delta Hotel by Marriott Winnipeg. It is central and has all the usual comforts you would expect to find.
DAY 2 – WINNIPEG – FLIGHT TO CHURCHILL
The first half of the day is free but I was lucky enough to be shown around Winnipeg by the Manitoba tourism board who packed in as much as humanly possible. In truth, I didn’t expect much from Winnipeg and whilst a free day here may not sound like a very glamourous option, it’s a sprawling city with loads to offer; you just need to know where to look.
Assiniboine Park Conservancy
One of Winnipeg’s newest attractions, this wildlife zoo is home to Polar Bear, muskoxen, Arctic fox, wolves and other northern species. Now as I said previously, I am not one for zoos however, the animals found here are rescue animals which would otherwise have perished. I enjoyed seeing some of the larger cats and speaking with the park manager about how the animals ended up in the park itself. It is possible to hire a guide here and they have a full service restaurant in case you’re peckish. Be sure to check out the video room!
Canadian Museum for Human Rights
The Canadian Museum for Human Rights will take you on a journey of education throughout the years, with a focus on…yes you guessed it, human rights. Now I’m generally not one for museums however, the building itself is beautiful and the exhibits are fully interactional which helps drive interest. If you’re a history buff, this is a great place to spend a few hours.
If you arrive the night before, you may want to check out ‘The Roost’ for delicious cocktails and the chance to meet some of the friendly Winnipeg folk.
In the afternoon, we took the two-hour flight from Winnipeg to Churchill and arrived to what was apparently the official start of winter, celebrated with a gusty blizzard. The flight attendant came around prior to arrival and told us to wrap up because as soon as the doors were opened, we would feel the Arctic breeze whipping at our faces and boy did it ever! We were met at the airport by our guide Judd, who drove us the 30-minute journey to Lazy Bear Lodge where a warm fire and hot chocolate warmed our arrival.
It’s worth noting that you can either travel to Churchill by small plane (Calm Air) or take the 1000+ mile train spanning two days through the boreal forest.
DAY 3 & 4 – TWO FULL DAYS ON THE ARCTIC TUNDRA – DOG MUSHING
The Polar Bears had been waiting patiently for the ice-sheet to form over the Hudson Bay. They then make their way onto the frozen ocean in search of seals where they spend the next seven to eight months feeding, birthing and coaching their young on survival.
We enjoyed two full days on the tundra wilderness in a custom designed vehicle, fully equipped with bathroom, heating, pull down windows and viewing platform. Both full days were spent on the vehicle and we were not allowed to walk around. Polar Bears tend to have size on their side anyway but after months of not eating, these cute and I imagine cuddly mammals, can be aggressive when surprised or challenged.
Judd served up a banquet of information about the nation’s first people, flora and fauna, weather and survival plus answered our questions about life in Churchill. We were incredibly lucky with the number of bears we saw, which obviously cannot be guaranteed and changes every week.
That brings me to another point, when picking a date to come to Churchill, the number of bears you will see is fully dependent on when the Hudson Bay freezes and weather. For example, the first day on the tundra, it was fiercely windy (-30 with wind chill) and many of the bears were hunkered down under a layer or snow. It was only Judd with her eagle eye that was able to spot them. The following day the bay started freezing at a rapid rate so we were seeing more bears nearing the bay. Equally the bay might have begun freezing two weeks earlier which would leave fewer bears around when I visited. That’s the thing with wildlife, they don’t appear on demand but we hit the timing perfectly.
Out in the bay is the SS Ithaka shipwreck which sits in its final resting place after running aground during rough seas. As it is slowly worn away by the elements it serves as a beautiful backdrop on the horizon.
One thing I wanted to mention which I was astounded by was the speed at which the Hudson Bay froze. When we arrived there were waves on what appeared to be a normal ocean. However, with the temperature down to -30 with wind chill, the Hudson Bay was all but completely frozen in two days. It was like a real-time time-lapse right in front of our eyes. It also demonstrated the rawness of Mother Nature and gives you some idea of the temperature at the time we were there. It’s really important to be properly prepared with the right clothing.
On the evening of day four, we headed into the boreal forest for an evening of dog mushing. With two to a sled, the rescue dogs pulled us a short two miles through the cool evening air, and looking up revealed a dark sky with millions of tiny holes pierced into it. The mushing was hosted by a local family who served hot drinks and fresh cake.
DAY 5 – FREE MORNING – POLAR BEAR JAIL – FLIGHT TO WINNIPEG
Day five was free for us to explore the town of Churchill on foot. The slippery ice made it fairly challenging and although this town of only 800 is small, it’s an interesting place to wander around. We enjoyed a two-hour tour en route to the airport by stopping at Churchill Beach which was littered in chucks of ice in a variety of sizes, and to see the towns Inukshuk which was originally used as a marker but in modern times appears to be a recognisable symbol of the north. Next we visited Churchill River which is where the ice begins forming before pushing down into the Hudson Bay and the fort.
We stopped by the Polar Bear Holding Facility which is when Polar Bears get too close to town, the bears are either shooed off or if they persist, are trapped and kept in this facility before being airlifted out of town. None of the animals are killed and it is only for a short time when they congregate around Churchill whilst waiting for the bay to freeze over. Finally, we visited a plane wreck and its final resting place (named Miss Piggy) after crashing into the snow and rock in 1979. You’ll be pleased to know that all crago and crew survived to see another day.
After landing back in Winnipeg, we stayed at the Hilton Airport Hotel for practicality and ease the following day, especially given that we arrived back after dark.
DAY 6 – TOUR ENDS AFTER BREAKFAST
The tour finished after an included breakfast and a free shuttle took me back to the airport.
As with most natural phenomenon, the Northern Lights cannot be relied upon to appear on demand. This is perhaps what makes the Aurora Borealis such a magnificent spectacle to witness when they do appear. With Churchill being so far north, there is an excellent chance of witnessing natures very own light show and with the sun setting so early, chances are you won’t need to stay up all night to see them.
Unfortunately, they didn’t make an appearance for us but that didn’t stop the exciting anticipation of looking up and seeing not only an uninterrupted sky full of stars, but also the hope of seeing the aurora.
So if time is in short supply but you want a big experience, this could be the trip for you. The environment is harsh, the climate is fierce however, the Polar bear is absolutely magnificent animal and absolutely worth the frozen numbness in my feet for the privilege of seeing them in the wild.
Happy travelling folks.