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mtanenbaum

Polar Bear safari in Churchill Canada 2018

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mtanenbaum

Just returned from a polar bear safari with Frontiers North in Churchill, Canada. Frontiers North is one of only two operators in Churchill who operate tundra buggies, which take you directly on the tundra with the bears (the other operator works only with Natural Habitat Adventures). I opted for the 5-day, 4 night tour at the Tundra Buggy Enthusiast level. This included a night in Winnipeg on either end of the trip (necessary because of an early departure for Churchill in the morning and a late return to Winnipeg) and 2 nights in the Tundra buggy lodge, located right in the Churchill Management Wildlife Area, where the highest concentration of polar bears is found. We had two full days driving around the wildlife area, which I felt was more than enough. This tour guaranteed only 20 people on the tundra buggy itself, rather than the maximum of 40, which meant we each had our own bench seat and there was usually no problem getting a good angle for photos. I would not advise the 40-person set-up, which must feel very crowded.

 

After we arrived in Churchill, we had a bus tour around the area, where they showed us local landmarks such as the "polar bear jail", a polar bear holding facility where bears who wander into town too often are held until the ice freezes over, at which time they are released. We then had lunch in one of the only town restaurants, and then had a free afternoon in Churchill, when you could choose to visit some of the small local museums, go dog sledding, or go on a helicopter ride (not available the day we arrived due to very strong winds). I opted for the dog sledding, which frankly I did not enjoy. While I know the dogs they use are not "pets" in the sense that my dog at home is, I was surprised to find that they are all kept chained to their doghouses outside when they are not out running. The chain is fairly long but it still made me sad! I understand they do it so the dogs will not fight but I still didn't enjoy seeing the animals kept in that way.

 

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We then were bussed to the tundra buggy lodge, our home for the next two nights. The lodge is quite similar to the one used by Nat Hab Adventures, with bunk bed accommodations. (no private rooms are available). I had requested a lower bunk, which I received, and the bunk bed was reasonably  comfortable. Each bunk had a charging station, a small shelf for personal belongings, and an individual light. There was a curtain which you could pull across at night for privacy. There were two sleeping cars (each holds 20 people and has 3 toilets, two with showers), a lounge car, and a dining car. The first night only our group was present (20 people); the second night we were joined by another group and the restaurant and lounge were much noisier. Below is a photo of the tundra buggy lodge taken from the tundra buggy vehicle. I have also posted a photo of the bunk bed set-up and the lounge car.

 

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The food on the Buggy lodge was well done, with three-course dinners. Portions were not large, but were more than adequate. Breakfast was served in the dining car, and lunch was served out on the tundra buggy, which was equipped with a toilet also. We were served soup and do-it yourself sandwiches one day and macaroni and cheese the next. Snacks were also available on the tundra buggy, and fruit was available in the lounge as well as drinks at all times. 

 

I had hoped to have a chance to see the Northern Lights up there, but unfortunately both nights were cloudy, so no Northern lights and no stars either. Of course, this is the luck of the draw. The prime time to see Northern Lights in Churchill is apparently Feb. & March, when Frontiers North offers special Northern Lights tours (no polar bears at that time, though, since they are all out on the ice feeding on seals).

 

The next morning we left at about 8 am on our Tundra Buggy on a quest for polar bears, or any other Arctic animals we could find. This was my first trip to this area, and it's very different from a trip to Africa! There isn't the density of animals around--perhaps in the summer you see more, but that is not as good a time for the polar bears. We were all crazy with excitement when one of our fellow group members spotted an Arctic hare, which are incredibly well camouflaged.

 

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The bunny didn't move a muscle while we were all taking pictures of it. The buggy is well equipped for photography, since the windows can come down so you can shoot directly through the window, rather than through the glass. There is also an outside deck for shooting, which worked better for me since I am very short and had to climb on the seats to take photos out of the vehicle windows. The vehicle is heated so even though it's very cold outside you can come inside and warm up in between sightings. 

 

Soon we saw our first polar bear. I hadn't realized that the vehicles are restricted to traveling only the roads in the reserve, so sometimes you do see the polar bears from quite far away. Obviously a zoom lens, long sens or binoculars is necessary. They are unable to go off-road in order not to damage the ecosystem (also the vehicles could get stuck). We probably saw about 6 polar bears each days in about 8 hours out in the reserve. We also spotted some of the other animals that are usually around at that time of year--ravens, Arctic fox, red fox, owl, hawk, ptarmigan and Arctic hare. Most of the birds have already migrated by mid-October, as have the larger mammals such as moose and caribou. There are also wolves in the Churchill area but it is rare to spot them at this time of year. Because of the low density of animals there are long periods out on the buggy where you don't see anything except the very stark landscape. As you get closer to the time the ice usually freezes (mid-November) there is a higher density of bears, but those weeks are sold out well in advance so you have to plan those trips at least a year in advance. We also didn't get to see any mothers and cubs, which weren't in that area yet. Disappointing, but beyond anyone's control. 

 

I will post a few photos of the bears--I took many, but many are quite similar. The guides said it is very difficult to tell polar bears apart--they all look much the same, except different sizes, which doesn't really show in the photos since there aren't other animals or even trees for scaling. Sometimes the bears come right up to the buggy, which happened to us once in 2 days; we also had one come right by the lodge. The timing was really funny since a researcher from Polar Bears International was giving a lecture when suddenly someone called out "polar bear" and everyone ran out to the outside viewing area to see the actual bear. Lesson: difficult to compete against a polar bear. We didn't see a lot of different behaviors--mostly walking around (not sure where they are going since they don't eat or hunt at this type of year), sleeping, and a couple times we were lucky and saw the bear rolling in the snow. 

 

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I travelled alone on this adventure, joining the group in Winnipeg. It was a good solo trip, since it was a small group (20), there were several other travelers on their own, and also my travel agency was able to get the single supplement waived! The other people, much like in Africa, were widely travelled and great company; they had come from all over the world for this unique experience, including China, Switzerland, Germany, Australia, and there were even some Canadians! There were a lot of great photo opportunities for the bears and some of the other animals as well. We had a very good sighting of a small group of ptarmigan, an Arctic bird which turns completely white in the winter. Here you see one whose feathers have already changed and another who is still in the middle of the changing.DSC07140.JPG.8554c2649dcaf29471593e0ebbb0d56d.JPG

 

I'd be happy to message privately with anyone interested in more information about this trip. Frontiers North is a little less expensive than Nat Hab, but more of the activities are add-on, so both are worth looking at if you are planning a trip to polar bear country, depending on what you are interested in. During the summers Frontier North operates tours to see beluga whales, which concentrate in Hudson Bay during the summer. There are about 3000 of them during the summer month in the area, and you can go snorkeling with them and also kayaking or go out on a zodiac boat. You can also see polar bears then, but I believe it is not a sure thing like in polar bear season (Oct-Nov). 

 

 

 

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Edited by mtanenbaum

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janzin

Some great photos here, love the Snowshoe Hare and the frolicking bear. Thanks for posting and its good to find out about Frontiers North! I thought Natural Habitat were the only ones with a Tundra lodge; and although I am absolutely dying to do this trip, I just can't justify the price for such a short trip (a six day trip would cost more than most of our 10-12 day African safaris!)  If Frontiers North is a little less expensive it would be worth looking into. One difference I note is that the Nat Hab Tundra Lodge does have private compartments for sleeping.

 

 

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jeffb

@mtanenbaum thanks for posting this! I have been looking at northern lights and polar bear tours, so this is very helpful information. Love the bear rolling in the snow.

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amybatt

Thank you for posting this!  I too am interested in doing this, so I’ll remember to look at Frontier when I do!

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Zubbie15

Thanks for sharing @mtanenbaum, like everyone else this is something I’d really like to do someday, even with the expense.  Now to convince my wife to sleep in bunks with shared bathrooms... I showed her your picture of the bed and she asked me what I wanted to get her into. :)

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mtanenbaum

Many of us in the group were talking about how this trip was the most expensive we have every taken, especially on a per-diem basis. Especially crazy when you see the accommodations! I think the high cost is partly due to the short season (Oct-Nov) and also the high cost of getting everything to Churchill. Everything has to be taken to the tundra lodge, even the water. You used to be able to go by train from Winnipeg to Churchill, which apparently made the cost of the trip somewhat cheaper, but now everyone has to go on a charter airplane (included in the price of the tour), and the cost of all the supplies up there has gone up incredibly since it's all flown in now rather than coming by train. I'm not sure how much the cost will come down when they get the train up and running. It is a long train trip though. I think everyone on the tour I was on felt it was worth the price in the end! Definitely a lot of money, but a unique experience.

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wilddog

Cost is probably a bit to do with demand given it is a limited time frame. Bit like gorilla permits in Rwanda. Supply and demand etc.

 

Lovely pictures :)

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pomkiwi

@mtanenbaum Thank-you for this report and the excellent photos. This time next year I will be near Churchill staying at Nanuk Lodge with Churchill Wild for a similar trip but using small ATVs and walking to hopefully get close (not too close) to some bears. I agree that it is very expensive but I've justified it as my retirement present to myself :)

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Game Warden
57 minutes ago, pomkiwi said:

hopefully get close (not too close) to some bears

 

For a second there, I read that as getting close to some beers. I hope to be doing similar this afternoon... ;) (Beers, not bears).

 

Matt

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ice
3 hours ago, wilddog said:

Cost is probably a bit to do with demand given it is a limited time frame. Bit like gorilla permits in Rwanda. Supply and demand etc.

 

I don't know...Gorilla permits are still way cheaper than trips like these and at the same time very close and intimate encounters are pretty much guaranteed. You are in the open and part of a group that's much smaller. Don't get me wrong, I'd love see polar bears, too but I simply refuse to pay rates companies like Frontiers North are asking for. Not because I couldn't afford them but because I would not want to pay them. And personally, I don't think it's because their costs of doing business are so high. I find it much more likely that it's simply because they still find tons of people who are obviously willing to pay that kind of money.

 

Look at lodges like the Kwando or the Wilderness Camps in Botswana: During high season their rates are 5 times higher than in green season. However, the costs they have are the same all year round. In fact, during the rainy season more stuff will have to be flown in than during winter. Like you said at the end: That's your capitalism at work: supply and demand. Hell, if I was running businesses like these, I'd also ask for as much as people are willing to spend.

Edited by ice

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mtanenbaum

I had to add this funny photo that was taken by a fellow traveller of some of us shooting photos of the polar bears. I am the short one in the long black coat! One of our group set up a dropbox to share photos which was very nice of her!

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Atravelynn

Great report.  You chose a nice variety of polar bear shots from your portfolio of similar pics. Whatever lens you were using and wherever the tundra buggy was in relation to the bears, you got excellent photos.  You were fortunate with the hare and ptarmigan too.  I'm sure the bear researcher was understanding with your group's enthusiasm for the real thing.  Those first bear sightings of the trip generate a lot of excitement.

 

Thanks for the specifics you gave.  I have wondered about Frontiers North, as I have gone twice with Natural Habitat to Churchill.  I know there is a friendly (I think it's friendly) rivalry between the two companies.  I also recall that since Frontiers North was first on the scene way back, they chose the preferred spot for the tundra lodge.

 

I agree about the hefty price tag, but there's nothing like Churchill!  You added some dog sledding too!

 

Are you considering a summer visit to Churchill for belugas?  I have thought about that. 

 

Glad you got to enjoy this special place, just like the bears do.

 

 

 

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