Exploring Churchill With Churchill Nature Tours

For a small frontier town, there is a lot of opportunity to learn about the history, people and wildlife of Churchill. This journal contains reviews of many of the activities I enjoyed during my four day adventure with Churchill Nature Tours.

Tundra Buggy Adventure with Great White Bear Tours

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by MilwVon on November 8, 2008

The best way to see the polar bears of Churchill is by tundra buggy. Churchill Nature Tours (CNT) uses the services of Great White Bear Tours for tundra buggy tours that seek polar bears in their natural habitat along the Hudson Bay and the surrounding conservation lands of Cape Churchill Wildlife Management Area. Our six day/five night polar bear adventure included four days in Churchill two of which were out seeking polar bears via a tundra buggy vehicle.

We left our hotel at approximately 8:00am for a 9:00am launch from the tundra buggy launch area some 25 miles outside of town. While the first day was relatively uneventful, driving the 25 miles in a wind driven snow blizzard was a bit unnerving on the second day. But no worries, our CNT guide Steve did an outstanding job of getting us there safely in our school bus in spite of zero visibility in the whiteout conditions.

A bit about the tundra buggies . . . they are custom built specifically for the climate and environment of Churchill and cost nearly half a million dollars each. They sit nearly 15 feet above ground level and weigh about 10 tons! We were told tires alone cost $6,000 each. Great White Bear Tours has six tundra buggies which can accommodate approximately 40 passengers. The vehicles built for Great White Bear Tours include a fully functioning flushing toilet. While this may not sound like much of a big deal, consider being out on the tundra for six to eight hours with 20 to 40 strangers, all using the same "honey pot" which really just a porta-potty in a closet.

At the rear of the vehicle is a large viewing deck, probably 10’ x 10’ with plenty of space for passengers and camera gear. When I was out on the deck photographing bears, I was able to comfortably set up my tripod without adversely affecting other passengers or their access to good photo op points. Admittedly our group did not consistent of a lot of photographers, and I was the only one shooting off a tripod, but still there was plenty of room for at least one or two others using tripods, plus many others shooting hand-held. Perhaps the biggest challenge of shooting photos from the deck was the open grate metal floor which made finding sturdy points for the tripod legs problematic. For the most part, I was successful in find cross points or supporting framework that would provide a flat surface for the legs to rest.

For our two days out on the tundra, our driver was a nice young man named Brenden a local born and raised in Churchill. He had a pleasant smile and friendly demeanor making everyone in our group feel very comfortable. In addition to safely navigating the frozen arctic tundra, he was continually scoping the willows and landscape for bears and other wildlife. Sometimes using his naked eyes, and at other times using binoculars, he had a good sense of where to look for the polar bears. He was also very good at noticing even the slightest movement of smaller animals like arctic hares which he found in a snow storm during our second day on the buggy. We had two very successful bear viewing days, with 16 on the first day and six the second. And while six may seem like a disappointing number, it’s not always about quantity as the quality of the experience was outstanding in spite of or perhaps because of the driving blizzard storm.

Included in the tundra buggy tour are hot beverages (coffee, tea, hot chocolate) and a picnic lunch catered by the good folks at Gypsy’s Bakery and Café. We stopped for the hot beverages mid morning . . . and sought a good viewing place to park for our lunch stop. During both days we had outstanding vantage viewing spots. The first day was right along the Hudson Bay where a large bear was laying on the shoreline. He was somewhat active during our hour stay there. On the second day, we were out in a driving snow blizzard and was fortunate that Steve navigated us to a wonderful spot between a couple of frozen ponds where a sleeping bear was found with willows protecting him from the high winds in excess of 50mph at time!

Lunch consisted of soup, sandwich and pastry, as well as our choice of hot and cold beverages. Guests had their choice of several sandwiches including egg or tuna salad, roast beef, turkey, ham & cheese and corned beef. The breads and rolls were fresh and very good. It was a hearty meal with nobody feeling empty or needing more.

One nice thing about Great White Bear Tours is the fact that they have their own tundra lodge out in the Cape Churchill Wildlife Management Area. Visitors who really want to submerge themselves into their polar bear arctic adventure, can stay in the modest camp lodge on wheels out along the Hudson Bay. On the first day, our tundra buggy tour included a stop at the lodge area were there were a couple of bears lounging around. There was also one who seemed destined for mischief, as he tried to figure out how to get up into the meal car. He did stand up a couple of times, but the people standing above him were safely out of his reach.

As with the helitours, those visitors planning a "do-it-yourself" vacation in Churchill, you can arrange for a tundra buggy tour with Great White Bear Tours but only if you plan well in advance. Some say at least a year in advance. Currently pricing is $300 per day as advertised on their web site and includes pick-up at your motel in town, lunch and return to your motel at the end of the day.

One of the benefits of touring with Churchill Nature Tours is that they do not fill up the buggy vehicles to capacity (approximately 40). Instead, our group was sold out at a max of 21, providing every guest with their own window seat and ease of movement from side to side or to the back viewing deck. Another huge benefit is that our tour guide from CNT was also our guide out on the tundra buggy, adding real value given his knowledge and experience with Churchill’s polar bears.

I mention these benefits as there is one other buggy company in town. They are more expensive ($350/day was the advertised price in our hotel and on fliers at Gypsy’s); they pack their vehicles to near capacity; some tours include guests who are flown in via helicopter leaving other passengers waiting for their tour to begin; often their drivers are your guides and some are seasonal help with little to no experience in Churchill; and of course the "honey pot" potty issue.

One other thing to be careful of when planning your polar bear viewing adventure; be sure you know what type of vehicle your tour host will be using. One "lodge" tour operator provides one day out on a tundra buggy and the second day out on their converted school bus. This is problematic for two reasons: first and foremost, only the two tundra buggy companies have permits to go out into the Cape Churchill Wildlife Management Area so I’m not sure where they go for the second day of bear viewing . . . and second, I saw the bus and frankly it was a bit scary looking to me. I doubt it was even able to get out the day that we had the blizzard as most of the roads in and around Churchill other than Kelsey Road (Churchill’s "Main Street") were impassable for two days.

More information about Churchill Nature Tours may be found on their web site: www.churchillnaturetours.com . Additional information on Great White Bear Tours may be found on their web site: www.greatwhitebeartours.com or by phone at 1-866-765-8344.

If you are interested in my actual experience during my two days out on the Great White Bear Tours’ tundra buggies, to include more polar bear photos, check out my IgoUgo journal: Von's Polar Bear Adventure - Nov. 08.
Great White Bear Tours

Churchill, Manitoba, R0B 0E0
(204) 675-2781

Flightseeing for Polar Bears

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by MilwVon on November 8, 2008

One of the activities included in our Churchill Nature Tours (CNT) polar bear adventure package was a one hour aerial tour of Churchill, the Hudson Bay and Cape Churchill Wildlife Management Area where polar bears roam waiting for the bay to freeze. Hudson Bay Helicopters is the only helitour operation in town, providing visitors an opportunity to see the bears from an entirely different vantage point. Our pilot and guide was a friendly young man named Daryl. If I had to guess, I’d say he was probably little more than 30 years old.

For our tour, there were six from our CNT group onboard with two up front with the pilot and four of us in the back. For me, the seat and safety belts (lap and shoulder harness) were comfortable in spite of being in the middle of the back. With large windows, all passengers had good visibility to the ground below. Each passenger had a headset with microphone allowing for conversation between the pilot and passengers.

After our safety instructions, we were ready for liftoff. This was the first time I had taken a helicopter tour so I wasn’t sure what to really expect. I guess the first thing I noticed was how quiet it seemed as the headset provided some hearing protection from the swirling propellers overhead. It was also surprising just how quickly we were up and moving.

As we headed out towards the wildlife conservation management area, Daryl provided a narration of some of the sites just outside of Churchill, including "Miss Piggy" an airplane that crashed shortly after take-off. Fortunately there was no loss of life, with the pilot and crew walking into town to enjoy a brewski until the rescue crew arrived to assess the damage. From there we hovered over the wreck site of the Ithaca, a ship that ran ashore some 25 or 30 years ago. From these two sites, it was clear to see that the landscape of Churchill is unforgiving to all who challenge her.

Our fight path took us approximately 30 or 40 miles from the town of Churchill. Once out over the taiga of the sub-arctic our focus was to find bears on the move. The first wildlife we found, however, were moose in a marshy forest area. There were a couple of females along with a very large bull moose. Even though we were approximately 300 feet above the land, I was able to snap a couple of photos with my Canon SD600 point n shoot digital camera. While not very sharp when cropped to feature the animals, the photos were good enough to keep and share with others.

The next animal we encountered was a large polar bear eating on a caribou carcass. The blood stained snow showed the trail from the kill site in a small patch of willows. They say that while polar bears do not typically hunt caribou during their fasting period leading up to the seal hunting season, scientists believe they are adopting to their changing food supplies and that more and more they are seeing polar bears eating other animals . . . after all, they are carnivores.

We also saw a momma bear along with two large cubs, probably second year cubs. This coming hunting season will be their last time with mom before she has them move on and she mates again in the spring.

During our one hour helitour, we saw seven or eight polar bears. Daryl said that was "about average" for this time of the bear season. It was an exhilarating experience that really created anticipation and excitement for the following two days out on the tundra in our buggies.

For visitors who are doing a "do-it-yourself" adventure ala carte or those who are coming with a tour company that does not include the Hudson Bay Helicopters’ Helitour, you can book a tour independently, of course subject to availability. Expect to pay $495 for a one hour tour.

More information about Churchill Nature Tours may be found on their web site: www.churchillnaturetours.com . Additional information on Hudson Bay Helicopters may be found on their web site: www.hudsonbayheli.com or by phone at 1-204-675-2576.
Hudson Bay Helicopters
Kelsey Road
Churchill, Manitoba
(204) 675-2576

AKA The Polar Bear Jail

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by MilwVon on November 8, 2008

Because of Churchill’s location on a narrow strip of land between the Churchill River and the Hudson Bay, bears can be expected to wander into town as winter approaches and hungry bears await the freezing over of Hudson Bay. Visitors to Churchill are given an orientation along with a stern talk about bear safety and where people should not venture and in some cases, regardless of the time of day. Our safety message was given by our Churchill Nature Tours guide Steve here at the Polar Bear Compound; actually this was what would turn out to be the first of several warnings regarding Churchill’s favorite attraction and the risk to people if they happen unexpectedly upon a polar bear.

The compound is an old army building left behind by the US military some 50 years ago. It is one of several buildings out near the airport that were part of our US defenses against worries of Russian aggression. The large metal structure lacks creature comforts found even in the most modest humane society kennel. Inside there are 24 metal cages with cement flooring. Captured polar bears are not provided food and are only provided very limited water as necessary. This is intended to not reward bad behavior or to encourage bears to return to town in hopes of going to Polar Bear Club Med.

Bears that are spotted near the outskirts of town are radioed or telephone into the local conservation office that sounds an alarm. Cracker shells are fired to scare off wandering bears. Often they get the intent but sometimes they don’t. For bears that fail to heed the warning shots, bear traps are baited with seal oil and set up to attract the stray into capture. The captured bear is then brought here to polar bear jail and will remain here until the Hudson Bay freezes over. At that time, the doors are opened, and the bears are allowed to leave . . . hopefully with a beeline direct to the bay. We were told that this exodus is quite the sight . . . I can only imagine!

While we were there, there were 12 bears in the compound, including one that could be heard thrashing around against the metal wall. Steve told us that if bears start to show distress they will be airlifted out via helicopter to the tundra. He said that they had just done a relocation the day before our arrival, a mom and two cubs. Often moms with cubs do exhibit and manifest stress and have to be taken out of the compound. Later that afternoon, my helicopter pilot told us of a time when he was the one who got to take a mom and twin cubs out.

When they airlift the bears out, they are tranquilized and placed in a net that is then suspended below the helicopter. Because the cubs were too small to be netted they were given a mild dose of tranquilizer and placed in the back seat of the copter. Daryl indicated some concern as he realized that the cubs were starting to stir. The conservation officer who accompanied the transport said there were no worries as these cubs were born earlier that year and did not know that they are supposed to hunt or kill, as that will be a skill they’ll be taught over the course of the next two years while out on the frozen Hudson Bay with their mom.

He also tried to reassure the young pilot, reminding him that he was carrying a loaded pistol and a tranquilizer gun if the situation warrants. As Daryl refocused on his flying duties, he heard a thump when one of the cubs fell off the seat into the floor board of the back seat. A couple of minutes later, he said the baby was sitting next to his hand on the control stick, licking like a dog would. While at first he said it was a bit unnerving, it was really one of the most memorable experiences he has had as a pilot with Hudson Bay Helicopters.

All bears that are taken into custody are marked on their backs with a green circle to indicate that they had been in town and taken to the polar bear compound. Records are kept on nuisance bears to make sure that no bear becomes so comfortable with people that they are constantly found wandering into town creating danger for the citizens and tourists of Churchill.

The only disappointment here was that we could not enter the polar bear compound. We joked that they should build windows with one way glass so that tourists could view the bears inside. Given the high cost to operate the polar bear jail, this could be a way for them to offset some of the expense. My guess, however, is that there would be some PETA type activist who would make a lot of noise if they saw the conditions that these rogue bears were kept. Again, the behavior of coming into town cannot be rewarded or bears will continue to stray into town wrecking havoc for everyone.

Churchill's Eskimo Museum Preserving Inuit History and Culture

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by MilwVon on November 8, 2008

The Eskimo Museum is located approximately two blocks from "downtown" Churchill on LaVerendrye Street and across the street from the post office. It is a small modest building but inside it is rich with carvings and other artifacts from Northern Manitoba’s native inhabitants, primarily the Inuit.

As you enter the single room museum you will see a couple of animals indigenous to the area including a wolf and polar bear cub. The outer perimeter of the room is lined with glass exhibit cases to protect the pieces, some of which are thousands of years old. Like the art of other societies, the carvings depict all aspects of Inuit culture and day to day living. Hunting and fishing are frequent subjects, as are Churchill’s star attraction, the polar bear.

There was one very interesting exhibit that featured a photograph, from the early 20th century, of a man and his dogs hunting a polar bear. Dogs were used to surround and confuse the bear, and often attacked at the bear’s most vulnerable anatomical area . . . the anus. Once the dogs attack that area, the hunter would strike from the front with a spear or knife. Beneath the photo and explanation of this hunting ritual was a bone carving illustrating the hunt. Often the Inuit used whale bone or the bone of other animals such as caribou for their art.

This area was also very rich in smooth black rock which was also used for carvings. Many present day artists create sculptures from the highly polished rock. In the gift shop there is one of the largest collection of pieces available for sale and for what is said to be very reasonable prices. There were two dancing bear carvings in the museum shop that were for sale for $430 each. They were beautiful in their attention to detail to bring out the personality of the polar bear which the Inuit believe to be the highest order of animal reincarnation as the polar bear is atop the animal kingdom.

Our Churchill Nature Tours guide Steve told us that because of the local tourism industry, there are some artists who have become more focused on producing low cost souvenirs which lack the attention to detail and craftsmanship found pieces made in generations before them. Here at the Eskimo Museum, they are very careful to select only the best examples of the highest quality carvings by the Inuits. I would say that visitors must exhibit caution when buying carvings at other gift shops in Churchill.

The Eskimo Museum was created in 1944 by Roman Catholic Missionaries who recognized the importance of preserving the history and art of the people of Northern Canada. Today they continue to serve their mission of "advancing the knowledge, understanding, and appreciation of on Northern culture and history with an emphasis on the Canadian Inuit." All purchases made from their gift shop help to further this cause. Visitors can buy apparel, post cards, carvings and other items depicting the culture and wildlife of the area.

Hours of operation are limited, especially outside of the summer and bear seasons. They are closed on Sundays and all national holidays. Tour groups of more than ten should call ahead before heading for the museum, even during their normal business hours. More information may be obtained, to include hours of operation, by calling 204-675-2030.
Churchill Eskimo Museum
Box 10
(204) 675-2030

Nature and Historical Exhibits Educate Visitors

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by MilwVon on November 9, 2008

Located in the Churchill Heritage Railroad Station, the visitors centre really isn't a museum, per se, but there wasn't a category that it neatly fits into.

As you walk through the two room exhibit area, there are opportunities to actually touch (pet?) a polar bear or perhaps look deep into his mouth; watch videos explaining about the Inuit people and early life in Churchill; or reading about the military importance of Ft. Churchill many years ago. The artifacts on display are in very good condition, including a cannon from the 18th century.

One of the more interesting exhibits for me was the life-size replication of a polar bear's maternal den. It was amazing how small the den really appears given the huge size of the polar bear.

On some evenings they offer movie or other interactive programming in their small auditorium. Check the schedule in the main lobby for upcoming activities and programming available to visitors.

There is no charge to enter or participate in programming at the Parks Canada Visitors Centre.


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