Von's Polar Bear Adventure - Nov. 08

Churchill, Manitoba is known as the Polar Bear Capital of the World, being the most accessible way to see polar bears in the wild. After months of researching and planning, I ventured far into Canada to experience them in their natural habitat.


The BEST Tour Company in Churchill

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by MilwVon on November 7, 2008

Ecotourism is a booming business and in Churchill, Manitoba it is the polar bears that bring tourists in from around the world for approximately six weeks every fall. After learning about tour packages to Churchill, I started my research nearly a year out before my adventure. There are several tour companies who package four to six day adventures in Churchill so it is important that you figure out what you really want to do during your time there and find the operator who packages the best to see and do, at the most affordable price. Prices do range significantly, as do the quality of the tour leaders/guides and the activities added above the main attraction . . . viewing polar bears from a tundra buggy vehicle. From all I was able to read and learn, my choice was easy . . . Churchill Nature Tours!!

There are two buggy operators in Churchill . . . Great White Bear Tours and The Tundra Buggy. All of the tour operators utilize one of these two companies. Some also supplement the tundra buggy experience with converted bus expeditions on the second day. I was glad we had two full days in a tundra buggy type vehicle especially given the blizzard conditions we had on the second tour day.

Churchill Nature Tours utilizes Great White Bear Tours which is a smaller, yet very reputable company. There are a lot of reasons to be happy that they do too:

1. The buggies are newer and are very comfortable with motor coach style comfy seats.

2. Flushable toilet rather than the nasty "honey pots" used by the other company.

3. Smaller groups (ours was just 21 people) making it possible for everyone to have a great view and access to primo photography positions. A full buggy could have had 40+ on board.

In addition to the two days of polar bear viewing, Churchill Nature Tours does an outstanding job of putting together a lot of other great things for visitors to do. Top on that list would be the one hour helitour provided by Hudson Bay Helicopters. See separate journal/review on that experience. It was nice to have that scheduled for our first day in town, as it whetted my appetite and excitement for what would happen in the coming days.

Our tour guide was a ruggedly handsome man named Steve. A Canadian who has been doing nature tours in and around Manitoba for nearly 20 years, it was clear that he had a connection with our group and an attention to our every need to make our vacation a real "once in a lifetime" experience. By all accounts, he succeeded.

Part of Steve's role with us was not only providing us with the educational aspects for fully appreciate Churchill, her people and wildlife, but also to be our chauffer getting us around in a Thompson school bus. While it may be easy to take this service for granted, especially in a town that is less than ten blocks by five blocks big . . . trust me when I say there was not a single person in our group disappointed when we didn't have to walk the four blocks to Gypsy's for breakfast or dinner on the icy snow covered road . . . or in the 50+ mph wind driven snow blizzard. Additionally, unlike other tour operators, Churchill Nature Tours provided for every one of our meals from our arrival in Winnipeg on our first night . . . to our breakfast in Winnipeg before our flights home to points elsewhere in Canada, England and the USA.

Included in our tour package were the direct flights between Winnipeg to Churchill via Calm Air Airlines. The flights were a little more than two hours and included a light snack meal (breakfast up to Churchill and lunch on the return to Winnipeg). As airlines go, I really liked the comfort on their aircraft (Embraer 175 up and an ATR 42 back) and their staff (both flight attendants were very nice).

Also included in the six day/five night all inclusive vacation were accommodations in Winnipeg (first and last night) at the Hilton Suites and three nights in Churchill at the Aurora Inn. Both were comfortable and spacious. Pricing for their tour packages are based on double occupancy, with a $550 supplement for those traveling alone and not interested in being doubled up. For me, saving the $550 made doubling up worthwhile to me. My roommate was an engaging woman named Marian from British Columbia who was a spry and young 83 year old.

Other activities that we were able to take in during our time in Churchill included visits to the Eskimo Museum, the interpretive exhibits in the train station, a drive by tour along the Hudson Bay to include a stop at the most dangerous spot in town, and a stop at the post office to have our passports stamped with the "Churchill - Polar Bear Capital of the World" postmark.

A special bonus for us was two evening programs that took place after supper. On our first evening in town, we were treated to an overview of a year in Churchill as shared through a local photographer's slide show. He work featured nature and wildlife as well as the people of Churchill and Northern Manitoba. Seeing life in Churchill through Mike's camera lens was a highlight for this wannabee National Geographic photographer.

The second evening was an especially fun time with Inuit locals Mary and Peter. Yes, that is their real name, as this area had a presence and strong influence from the Catholic Church in the mid 1900's. Dressed in traditional Inuit attire, Mary and Peter invited us into their caribou skin tent. We learned about their people and culture, and were treated to a drum dance and song. Mary also shared with us several tools used even today by the Inuit including knives and harpoons for hunting and household items like sewing needles and candles. It was an enchanted evening that really added to my Churchill experience.

In addition to this journal, please take a look at the companion journal "Exploring Churchill with Churchill Nature Tours" for additional reviews on my experiences and activities during my four days in the Polar Bear Capital of the World!!

There are many options and choices when considering a Churchill Polar Bear Adventure vacation. Now that I have had the pleasure of touring with Churchill Nature Tours, I'm certain that I was with the best!

For more information on polar bear tour options and pricing check them out at: http://www.churchillnaturetours.com/ .

11/13/08 UPDATE: They have updated their web site to include the schedule and pricing for the 2009 polar bear tours. Dates are ALREADY filling up!! Do not delay if you are interested in having this once in a lifetime experience in 2009 with Churchill Nature Tours: http://www.churchillnaturetours.com/tours/bears.html .
Churchill Nature Tours

Erickson, Manitoba
(204) 636-2968

Day One in Churchill 11/2/08

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by MilwVon on November 6, 2008

After a hectic day of travel, our group of 21 arrived safely in Churchill by mid morning Sunday. Thank goodness for "falling back" the night before as we all needed the extra hour's sleep. We have a very eclectic group, with roughly a third from the UK, USA and Canada each. I was amazed at the number of folks that cross "the pond" to come to the Polar Bear Capital of the World . . . Churchill, Manitoba.

Upon our arrival, our tour guide Steve provided us with a thorough tour of the town, highlighting everything of importance . . . where NOT to go due to safety issues with bears in town . . . where to go shopping for gifts and souvenirs . . . and where we'll be dining for most of our meals while in Churchill. We also got to see where bears are taken if they wander into town - Polar Bear Compound aka Polar Bear Jail.

Before lunch we paid a short visit to the train station which also serves as the home to a series of interpretive exhibits telling the story of Churchill, the polar bear and Inuit people.

With a noontime lunch date at Gypsy's, world famous I might add, we were treated to a "whatever you want off the menu board" lunch that was part of our group's tour package. Lunch was very good, as was dinner later that evening (Arctic Char). Both meals were outstanding!

Our day was jam packed with activities, which included our one-hour helicopter tour of Churchill Bay and the Wapusk National Park where the polar bears have been preparing for a feast of the own. Once the ice forms, they will venture out for months to get their fill of ring seals. In the meantime, they will eat whatever they can kill, which for one big boy, was a caribou. The flight was incredible! With six passengers in the copter, we were limited to what camera gear we could bring aboard. While my photos aren't the best (I was using a digital point n shoot), I have included a couple here for folks to get the idea.

After some down time for shopping, a nap or both . . . we reconvened just before 6:00pm for dinner at Gypsy's. The arctic char is akin to salmon, but seemed like a lighter, flakier fish to me. It was very good and not very fishy tasting. After dinner we were treated to Churchill through her four seasons compliments of a local photographer Mike. His work is beautiful including wildlife (polar bears, beluga whales, foxes) and the aurora borealis. This was the perfect ending to a wonderful first day in Churchill.

Day Two Tundra Buggy 11/3/08

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by MilwVon on November 6, 2008

OMG was it incredible! We were out of the tundra buggy launch pad by 9:00a and within a mile or so, we experienced our first bear. He was very close to the path, on a slightly elevated lakeshore. When we first pulled up he was just laying there, but it was clear they are very curious animals. He lifted his head and looked over at us several times. Seemingly bored with us, he started to roll around in the snow bring about the first oooohhhhs and aaawwwwws of our two days on the tundra.

From there, the day only got better as we had a very active morning of bear viewing . . . including a momma and two cubs. At first they were completely out of sight, but someone on the buggy noticed the movement in the willows. Out appeared the mom. As though that wasn't good enough, up popped a cub head . . . and then the second. The momma enjoyed sliding down the hill as her babies watched. One came out almost immediately, while the other seemed a bit more timid. Eventually he too came out, although he seemed to lag behind and had to run often to catch up when mom was ready to move.

Having heard on the radio that there were a couple of bears along the freezing Hudson Bay, we made our way over to where another company's buggy was perched. There was one big boy right on the shore of the Hudson Bay, which you could see starting to freeze up behind him. From time to time he could be seen munching on some old dried up sea kelp that had washed up onto the shore. Like the bears before him, while he laid around for some amount of time, he did become restless . . . standing up . . . turning over . . . and yawning before laying back down.

This was where we stayed for our tundra picnic lunch. It was a beautiful spot to watch the bears while we enjoyed our lunch of hot soup, sandwich and apple pastry (catered by Gypsy's).

On our trek back in towards the buggy launch area, we stopped in at the Great White Bear Lodge, the tundra camp for those who want to live out with the bears during their stay in Churchill. There were a couple of bears in and around the camp, but one seemed to only have mischief on his mind. It was funny watching him pace under the food car, trying to figure out how to get up there even if just for a closer look at what smelled so good. I've posted a photo with this entry of him up on his hind legs trying to see in.

On Monday's bear adventure we saw 16 bears, probably "about average" for this time of the bear season. Everyone agreed, it was a wonderful day!!

Day Three Tundra Buggy 11/4/08

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by MilwVon on November 6, 2008

It was a remarkable day in spite of, or maybe because of the snow blizzard! A storm came in from Alberta, and the forecast was for upwards of a foot of snow and winds exceeding 50mph. Weather is a funny thing because the bears like it cold, the colder the better and the snow really doesn't affect them much. They don't care for the high winds however, so we had a few things working against us for the bear viewing day out on the tundra:

1. The air temp was around 30F which is warmer than bears like it, making them a bit lethargic in general. (Probably why we saw so many laying around yesterday and rather limited in their general activities . . . and NO sparring.)
2. With the whiteout conditions, it's difficult to even see polar bears if they are up and around . . . or more likely bunkered in the willows that block the wind.
3. Our tour group in general was a bit apathetic and less than optimistic about seeing bears. Believe me when I say the weather conditions (especially the high winds) were brutal!

Folks were napping, reading books, and doing a lot of things not conducive to finding the bears! Around 10:00am our buggy driver and our group tour guide decided to break away from the other two early morning buggies. They felt that in knowing bear behavior, there was a good chance to find a bear or two in a small land area covered with willow between a couple of frozen over ponds. Just getting into this area was quite treacherous as we were going to venture off the trail and onto the frozen ponds. In some areas, there was more slushy marsh than solid ice, making the ride a bit of an added adventure. We observed one of the other company's buggies coming in behind us. It was amazing to see it navigate through the two foot deep mud and snow.

Their hunch paid off and we were treated to one bear who immediately scampered off out of sight. Shortly after, however, something was seen that was not visible as we entered this area. It was a sub adult male nearly covered in snow. At first he was a bit boring to watch, raising his head every few minutes as to check to see if we were still watching. Later in the morning, he seemed a bit restless especially as a couple of other buggies "found us" and zeroed in on OUR bear!

The bear did get up, stretch, pose, slide in the snow and then walk around our buggy. He even reached up onto the front of the vehicle as though he was trying to look into the front windshield. He then proceeded around the other side of the buggy, walked across the frozen lake, looking for a new place to make his day bed. Not comfy with what he found over there, he waltzed back nearly retracing his foot steps to his earlier resting point.

By this time, there were several buggies creating a small amphitheater around him. We had the best vantage point less than 50 feet away. This was where we had our tundra picnic lunch and stayed for over two hours. The show we were treated to by this single bear was gladly worth the price of the day's tour!

We did see a couple of other bears on our return trip to the buggy launch, as well as two arctic hares. Unfortunately in the wind driven snow, it was nearly impossible to see them . . . and literally impossible to photograph them. Perhaps my favorite photo of the hundreds I shot was the one of the bear walking across the frozen pond in the blizzard's harsh wind driven snow.

While the day before was outstanding from a total bear count (16) point of view, Tuesday was even better proving sometimes it is about more than quantity. I think our final bear count for the day was "just" six.

Wonderful Accommodations!

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by MilwVon on November 9, 2008

For our three nights in Churchill, the Aurora Inn served as our home away from home. Admittedly, I was a bit curious about the condition of a motel property that is so far from the rest of civilization, and in a town without a lot of options. I was pleasantly surprised as the comfort and amenities provided the guests. Churchill Nature Tours did well by selecting the Aurora Inn as the packaged accommodations for their tour guests.

All of the units utilized by our tour group were two level condominium type units. When you entered your room the first thing noted would be the large living space to include a dinette area and full kitchen. The sofa and chair were in good repair and were a comfy spot to watch the large flat screen TV. While our tour was all inclusive for meals, this would have been perfect for those who didn't want to eat out for all of their meals.

Upstairs was the loft style bedroom with two full sized beds and the bathroom. Again, this area was spacious and well furnished to include a smaller sized TV for those who wanted to watch television before bedtime or perhaps in the morning while getting dressed. I found my bed to be very comfortable, although the pillows were a bit on the flat side. There was more than adequate bedding, blankets and such, to keep me warm during the howling blizzard that roared in on our third day in town.

The motel also included complimentary WiFi internet access for those traveling with their laptop . . . or two PC's in the public area for those who couldn't be bothered lugging a laptop north. There also was a laundry area that was free for those who wanted to wash clothes during a more extended stay.

If you are planning an ala carte vacation to Churchill during bear season (October - November) you will need to book your reservations here far in advance as they do cater to two tour companies - - Churchill Nature Tours and another. Additionally, be prepared to make your deposits many months in advance.

Rates during bear season are $195/night for a single and $235/night for a double. While there are some discounts available during the "off season" there are none during the prime time of bear season (October - November).

The owner is a man by the name of Gavin. He was a friendly sort, always with a smile on his face. He was very accommodating and helpful. He was gracious in assisting me in getting my large, beastly heavy suitcase up the flight of stairs to the loft area. I would stay here again if I ever have the opportunity to go to Churchill.
Aurora Inn
P.O. Box 1030
Churchill
(204) 675-2071

Dining at Gypsy's Bakery and Cafe

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by MilwVon on November 7, 2008

As the sign states on their rooftop Gypsy's is "THE PLACE TO BE IN CHURCHILL." Our tour group operator Churchill Nature Tours had all of our meals while in Churchill taken care of by Gypsy's. When we were "in town" our breakfasts and dinners were at Gypsy's. Our tundra buggy tour picnic lunches were prepared by them as well. Churchill Nature Tours must be highly regarded as everyone there knew our guide Steve and he seemed to enjoy his conversations with them.

Gypsy's is a mix between a cafeteria line type operation (breakfast and lunch) and sit-down diner (dinner). For our group, we had our choice of anything on the ala carte menu for breakfast, including selections from their fresh daily bakery case. Who would have thought you could get great pastries and bakery goods at a cafe located in frontier town like Churchill?

Tour groups who were brought in for meals had reserved tables awaiting their arrival. In the front of the restaurant was a table set for eight or ten, reserved and intended for the locals. After a couple of meals at Gypsy's the locals became recognizable. It was typically the same assortment of characters (and I say that in a respectful way) each morning and evening.

I enjoyed my scrambled eggs and sausage during our first breakfast there . . . and REALLY enjoyed the eggs benedict the next two. Others had everything from pancakes to hot oatmeal to steak n eggs. I do not believe I heard a single negative comment about the quality of the breakfasts our group had.

We only had one lunch actually at Gypsy's, our first day in town. I opted for a burger and fries really more of a safe choice as I figured nobody could mess up a burger. Obviously I had forgotten about the "meatloaf" burger I had two years ago in Scotland, but all was good with my Gypsy's burger!

For dinner, our first night our choice was made for us as they wanted to get folks into the Canadian frame of mind serving local favorite arctic char. Akin to salmon, it had a good light flavor. Served with a choice of soup or salad, rice and steamed veggies and anything from the pastry/dessert case, it was an outstanding meal.

The other two nights in town, we had our choice from a limited offering menu which did provide an assortment of fish, meat and pasta entrees. For the first I had pickerel, a local freshwater fish which is similar to walleye found in the Great Lakes region of the USA . . . and the next evening I opted for a nice NY strip steak. Both meals were also served with choice of soup, veggies or salad and a dessert from the case.

For our two tundra buggy days, our picnic lunch consisted of hot soup (mmmm for a cold day out on the tundra), a choice of sandwich (everything from egg or tuna salad to corned beef or turkey). I had the tuna salad on wheat one day and turkey on a kaiser the second. For dessert, we had danishes (apple on Monday and lemon on Tuesday). Hot and cold beverages were also available during our buggy meal.

Beverages such as coffee, tea, juice, soda and milk came with all of our meals. Wine could be purchased for an additional fee. My new "friends" enjoyed the house red wine.

They have a web site, although there is no menu posted there: http://www.gypsybakery.ca/theplace.html .

253 Kelsey Blvd.
Churchill, Manitoba, Canada
R0B 0E0
204-675-2322
tdasilva@mts.net

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