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Welcome to the online blog for traveler/writer/photographer Steven Barber. Come in. Relax. Take off your shoes and socks -- or any other article of clothing, this is the internet. Have a look around. I hope to intrigue, amuse, entertain, and maybe provoke you just a little. I love to find adventure. All I need is a change of clothes, my Nikon, an open mind and a strong cup of coffee.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

ROAD TRIP: Churchill and the Polar Bears

At first glance, the frozen little Canadian town of Churchill doesn’t suggest much in the way of terrific vacation spot.

Located in northern Manitoba, Churchill is a small town at the southwestern crook of the Hudson Bay. No road goes there, only a single rail line and a handful of flights per day during the “tourist” season. It’s bitterly cold during the winter months, while summertime finds it uncomfortably infested with mosquitos. Words like “desolate”, “flat” and “remote” could equally be applied to its existence. Shopping -- more accurately called "outfitting" -- is limited but fun. It's a standard issue, run of the mill, northern Canadian village which annually hunkers down against the cold

Churchill, Manitoba
But what makes Churchill unique, what makes the town a destination special to travelers, is its place in the world of nature. During the winter months the town is ground zero for the polar bear communities’ annual migration onto the frozen Hudson Bay in search of their favorite food source: seal.

Summer finds the town similarly visited by another natural inhabitant of the region. The town’s location right along the mouth of the appropriately-named Churchill River as it dumps into the bay also attracts a different kind of visitor, the northern Beluga Whale. Hundreds of them gather each year to bask in the relatively warm waters of the river as it flows into the bay, creating a true natural spectacle and a helluva reason to visit this town even when the bears are away.

The Tundra Buggy Lodge
This gives Churchill a special position amongst the more adventurous travel fan. It doesn’t feature luxurious accommodations, world class restaurants, or a significant nightlife (though we are told that everyone in town gathers at a local bar every night for a jam session during the high seasons). But it does promise (and deliver) an adventure unlike anything found just about anywhere else on the globe.

We braved the elements -- and more than a few hours in transit -- to spend two nights out on the frozen tundra in Northern Adventures’ Tundra Buggy Lodge, a series of giant trailers dragged out onto the shoreline of the bay twenty or so miles from Churchill. Our trip was in late October, so the bay itself was not quite frozen over, and the lodge was positioned only halfway down the coast. Later in the year it is pulled an additional fifty miles out, and is surrounded by the ice, snow and hungry bears. It’s difficult to imagine a more remote spot, or a more gratifying adventure.

The Sleeping Car. Privacy Not Allowed.
Our trip began with an hour and a half long journey along roads that would challenge the best four-by imaginable. The formidable Tundra Buggies are essentially giant SUVs, capable of transporting forty or so people on a tour over some pretty rough terrain. By the third half hour you’re willing to trade your gloves for an Advil or two, but it’s absolutely worth the abuse -- and actually is made a bit more fun in the process.

The Lodge itself is reasonably comfortable. The buggy arrived and backed right up to the lodge’s “back door”. The rear two trailers are double decker sleeping compartments with a narrow aisle down the middle. Bathrooms in the center -- and these are essentially RV-type washrooms, with a slightly larger version which includes the shower. Each bed is a long double, and you’re protected from the aisle only by a thick curtain -- don’t assume you’re going to have any intimate moments with your travel partner. The lodge isn’t built for privacy (or even modesty. Thankfully a good number of your travel associates are European, and seem to take everything in stride... though streaking would be frowned upon, I’m sure).

Between the sleeping cars and the dining trailer is the open-room “Social” car. This is where slide shows are conducted, meetings to discuss the next day’s itinerary, and receptions. In the early mornings this is where you’ll find the all-essential coffee station.

The dining car is cramped, and echoes a low-rent diner in many ways, but the food is surprisingly good and the employees go out of their way to ensure you’re having fun and being well taken care of.

Our first morning began perfectly, as a sizable bear came up to investigate the smells of breakfast at roughly the same time we were loading onto the Tundra Buggy for the days’ excursion. Immensely curious about us, it wandered around the side of the buggy and lodge (both eight feet above ground level to ensure the bears cannot simply reach in for an appetizer or tourist when ever they feel like it).

A Tundra Buggy,  ready for action
The bears have no natural fear of man, and frankly consider us little more than two-legged seals -- which can be quite an issue of they happen to catch you outside the protection of the buggy and lodge -- something Frontiers North doesn’t allow. (Once you’re embarked on the buggy in Churchill, you’re in a protected environment until you return to the town.) You;’re constantly warned about hanging over the rails, letting jewelry or cameras drop down to within striking distance of the bear’s powerful paws. Even the gentlest looking of them is perfectly willing to take off your head and see what might be available for dinner.

An Arctic Fox cavorts around the Buggy
Our day out on the tundra was indeed exciting. The buggies follow an existing, and again very rough, series of dirt roads around what was once a military installation. The bears are relatively easy to spot amongst the low brush, their dirty white fur sticking out from the generally brown ground and plantlife. Some of the other denizens are more difficult to sight , though we were fortunate to have a spectacularly beautiful arctic fox cavort around the ties of the buggy for several minutes as it checked us out. Very skittish animals, the arctic foxes are amazingly quick and, well, foxlike.

Late Afternoon
Because of the northerly location, during the winter months the days are not only cold but probably shorter than you might be used to.  The sun comes up just after 7am, by which time you’re expected to be up, showered and fed. Sunrise occurs just before the buggy sets off for the day, and is a serene event. It’s one of those situations in which you speak in hushed tones for fear of disturbing the world around you.

Up close and personal
(Brief aside: Much is made about the loudness of tourists, particularly Americans. And, being frank, there’s a lot to it. It isn’t that we are being deliberately rude, it’s that in most cases we’re simply not paying attention. Two people, thoroughly wrapped up in their own conversation, might miss the silence around them and unwittingly make nuisances of themselves out of their not-so-hushed voices. Happens all the time, and I am sad to admit it’s usually Americans. I’ve personally encountered precisely such a thing in places as diverse as Alaska, The Grand Canyon and the Maine seacoast. Oddly enough, it’s usually people jogging or walking together, a situation in which you do tend to ignore your surroundings. In the case of the Tundra Buggy Lodge, a simple, gentle hushing seemed to do the trick. Well, until the bears appeared, and then all Hell broke loose -- but that’s a different situation entirely!)

Hunting Lemmings
Out on the ice we had an hour or more of complete isolation before town-based Tundra Buggies arrived from Churchill. Frontiers North offers two different Tundra Buggy experiences: one is based, as ours was, out on the lodge. Though a bit more expensive than the town-based tours, staying on the lodge gives you a better sense of isolation, of community with the other travelers, and as noted above a head start on the bearwatching. At the end of a long day on the ice I cannot imagine having to make the hour and a half bumpy ride back into Churchill. The lodge avoids that, since it’s based right next to one of the roads that the buggies traverse.

Sunrise over the ice
The tour we took featured two days on the lodge, and unless you’re traveling for scientific purposes or as part of a photographic expedition I would suggest that two nights is sufficient for the trip. (You also have two nights’ accommodation in Winnipeg, the staging city for flights into and out of Churchill.) We found our eagerness for seei ng the bears and other northern fauna completely satisfied over the two days. We learned quite a bit about the north of Canada, the impact of global warming, particularly on the bears, and even saw a faint display of northern lights.

For more information, contact Frontiers North at http://www.frontiersnorth.com/

A run with the dogs at Blue Sky
Also highly recommended is Blue Sky Expeditions' dogsledding. We had a wonderful half day with the owners and the dogs. It’s a great way to spend your first hours in Churchill -- it establishes the tone and mood for your trip just perfectly, and is a helluva lot of fun.


1 comment:

  1. If Steve's blog peaked your interest, take my advice and go on this Polar Bear adventure tour. It is the most amazing trip and something I will remember for the rest of my life. AWESOME!!!