Polar Bear of Churchill
A couple of years ago I saw a PBS special on the polar bears at Churchill. After seeing the Tundra Buggies I knew I had to go. At the end of the show there was an 800 number you could call for information on booking a trip. I call it and a few days later the brochure arrived. I was amazed at the cost. They wanted over $2000 for a 5 day trip with air fare from Winnipeg. I thought that was way too expensive. I decided there was no reason I couldn't arrange everything myself. It wasn't as if I didn't speak the language or it was half way around the world.
I called information and got the phone number for the Manitoba Bureau of Tourism (1-800-665-0040). I called and requested information about Churchill. A couple weeks later a packet arrived with lists of all the hotels and tour operators in Churchill. These lists included short descriptions of the services offered and prices.
I looked it all over, decided where I wanted to stay and called to make reservations. Unfortunately, I called too early. I usually book my trips about 6 months in advance. In Churchill this doesn't work. Everything is booked by the major tour operators until 90 days before the trip is to begin. They have to cancel whatever reservations they are not going to use 90 days ahead of time or pay penalties. So, I had to wait until 90 days before I wanted to go in order to make my reservations. I made reservations for both the hotel and Tundra Buggies at that time. By the way, the bears are only there in October and maybe early November. As soon as the bay freezes they are history.
Landing in Churchill is a very unique experience. You are sitting in this big plane (5 or 6 seats across) and then you notice you are landing on a gravel run way. There is a big plume of dust billowing out from the back of the plane. I never would have thought that a plane that size could land on gravel.
The packet I received also contained a map of Churchill. I assumed this map was of downtown Churchill and I stuck in a couples days just to look around the city. I was wrong. The map was of all of Churchill. There are only about 800 year round residents there. There are only 5 or 6 hotels (I don't think any of them had more than 30 rooms), 5 restaurants and 3 souvenir shops. I saw everything there was to see the afternoon the plane landed. That left me two days with basically nothing to do. I rented a truck one day and drove around the Churchill area. My guess is that there isn't more than 100 miles of road in the area. I don't remember what I did with the other day. If you are going to make this trip I would recommend not booking more than a day to see Churchill itself.
The length of your trip will depend mostly on how many times you want to go out in the Tundra Buggies. These are huge vehicles with even bigger tires that will take you out into the Tundra to watch the bears. The Tundra Buggy company also has a base camp where the bears gather that it is possible to spend the night at. (I don't remember how much it cost. I do remember it was too expensive for me.)
The Tundra Buggies were great. The bears would come within a few feet of the vehicles. Watching the bears varied from boredom when the bears were sleeping to exhilaration when they were play fighting with each other. The year I went it was unusually warm and only three bear had arrived to await the winter freeze. I am sure if there had been more bears there that there would have been fewer periods with all the bear sleeping. Still, I got several very cute shots of bear sleeping and lazing on the ground. I guess I am glad they weren't active all the time.
One other thing I would recommend is taking the helicopter ride over the tundra. I think it was about $200 for a one hour flight (not included in the price above). I fell in love with helicopters the day I took this flight. Being able to see all around you from so high up is really neat. The helicopter actually lands out on the tundra a couple of times so you can stretch your legs. Walking on tundra is very different. It kind of feels like you are walking on a rather stiff sponge that is a couple feet thick. We also landed at an abandoned polar bear den and got to crawl inside it.
It was a wonderful trip that I would like to do again. Hopefully next time there will be more polar bears.
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