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.
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