Lords of The Arctic

Everyone has a bucket list, right? I was contemplating whether to have chops for tea when no.7 on my very own bucket list appeared in my inbox.

Attention Karen Niven – Product Manager, Bon Voyage Travel & Tours. You are cordially invited by Travel Manitoba to Churchill, The Polar Bear Capital of The World”.  Crikey!  A rather large smile spread over my face and I felt the need to jump up and punch the air..

I spent the next couple of days telling everyone I knew about my adventure (which if you knew me is well out of my comfort zone) and revelling in their responses.

Packing for my five-day Arctic adventure was interesting.  Lots of layers, we were advised.  I made a  trip to town to Oswald Bailey’s and took advice from a teenager with a pierced lip (and a sweat shirt that clearly hadn’t been washed since the Isle of Wight Festival) on what to pack.  I told her enthusiastically about my trip to see Polar Bears, The Lords of the Arctic.  Strangely it seemed to fall on deaf ears. How could she work in an outdoors shop and not be interested?  Crestfallen, I left the shop with my thermal purchases.

I’ve been travelling on Product trips for 20 years and have NEVER mastered the art of packing.   Anyway with luggage the size of a CSI body bag I made my way to Heathrow for my Air Canada flight to Winnipeg, Manitoba (right in the middle of Canada).

An intrepid group convened at a pre-tour meeting at the Sheraton Hotel at Winnipeg Airport, the starting point for our 5-day adventure. It was snowing as we landed. “Well – this is parky” I thought. Little did I know what was to come.

Frontiers North Adventures were our hosts for the “Polar Bear Adventure Tour” and our little group gathered around tour-leader, David, hanging on his every word. He was a terribly affable chap from the posh part of Glasgow who sported eyebrows like Spock. I found them hypnotic. I looked around the room, curious to see the sort of people that had enrolled for this. Excited middle-aged couples, sinewy single guys and unusually quiet Americans all made up our jolly band.

Our trip started in earnest next day with a 6am departure. I was up and ready at 4am. It was minus 10 outside. Surely, it couldn’t get any colder…

A chartered aircraft took the explorers (that’s how we saw ourselves) from Winnipeg to the tiny airport at Churchill. We were offered hot cider or hot chocolate after we’d made ourselves comfortable on board. I was finally on my way to see North America’s largest land predators in their own backyard.

Churchill is seriously  remote There are no roads to Churchill. From anywhere. It’s nestled on the western shore of mighty Hudson Bay; this bay could easily fit the whole of the UK in it. It’s 600 miles north of Winnipeg, 2 hours by chartered aircraft, 40 hours by rail (yes, really) and 20 days by dog sled (not recommended). Churchill is, however,  the most accessible place in the world to view Polar Bears.

Every autumn polar bears gather along the water’s edge on Hudson Bay at Cape Churchill, anxiously waiting for the sea ice to form. Once the water freezes over the hungry (and often extremely tired) bears move out onto the ice where they will spend the winter hunting for seals.

Since 1980 tours have been operating to observe these incredible “Lords of the Arctic” in their natural environment. The season is short; October-November and the bears are in waiting.  During the season the bear population outnumbers the 800 or so residents of Churchill.

The excitement on our aircraft was palpable. We were reading bookings about polar bears, talking about polar bears, swapping stories about polar bears and discussing how many layers we were currently wearing. Two hours later, we emerged from the grey snowy clouds. I truly felt I’d entered another world. Here I was in the land of icy tundra, beautiful in its starkness.There is a 10pm curfew in Churchill so that no one is on the streets when polar bears might be foraging for food.  Nobody carries out exterior work on their home, shop or vehicle without a buddy keeping a constant eye out for approaching bears. It was not totally safe and that made it all the more exciting for me.

A Freddy Kruger yellow school bus, with frozen windows on the INSIDE, shuttled us into town. The driver had a rifle strapped to his seat; I couldn’t take my eyes off it.

I’d love to tell you that Churchill is cosy, cute and picturesque.  It isn’t.  It’s functional. Because no roads lead to Churchill,  your once-a-year shipment  of goods is delivered by ship. If you haven’t ordered enough – or the order is wrong – there’s always next year!

Visitors come to Churchill for bears, Belugas (in the summer) and to explore fascinating features of the sub-arctic.  On the outskirts of the town we were visited the Polar Bear Jail, which was actually a large, secure warehouse where the  bears are transported  if they step out of line. Unruly ones are captured in huge bear traps, tranquilised, put in jail for a couple of days, popped into a heavy duty net and flown out of town swinging from underneath a helicopter. They are then released in remote arctic wilderness to carry on their merry way. Maybe, the UK should implement this instead of ASBOs. Think I’ll lobby for it.

That night, despite the curfew claxon, I slept soundly in my 1970’s room, complete with brown shag pile from that decade.  I despise shag pile.  God knows what germs lurk in there.

The following day was Tundra Buggy adventure day into Cape Churchill and Wapusk National Park, the best location in the world to view and photograph wild polar bears. This area is only 20 miles east of Churchill. It was now minus 25 so I dressed accordingly; long johns, thermal vests x 2, sallopets, hats x 2, North Face jacket and gloves. I didn’t recognise myself when I looked in the mirror – I made the Michelin Man look like Slimmer of the Year. It was difficult to walk, but I was cosy.  It wasn’t to last.

After a short drive in our ex-school bus we were at the meeting point on the arctic tundra for the adventure to begin. Here our jolly crew boarded the buggies that would be our viewing platform for the next few days. These sturdy vehicles are about 40 feet long, with eight 7 feet high tyres. They have roaring fireplaces on board, windows all around (which drop fully, so you can take pictures and video footage) and a tiny loo.  At the back of the buggy is an enclosed platform with a lattice steel grille floor, so you can view bears if they happen to crawl under the buggy. They did.  More later.  Only 18 of these lunar-module looking vehicles are allowed in the park at any one time. They are adamant that there is to be no over-crowding out here.

Our leader, David-the- Eyebrows, sat at the front and informed us that he was hoping for much ‘buggy love’ today. Our crew grew silent and stared at the floor. I certainly wasn’t getting involved in any buggy love.  I had far too many layers on!  “The Eyebrows” went onto explain, hastily, that buggy love was when the bears came close up to the vehicle and tried to look through the windows.

A mother and cub appeared from behind some trees.  We’d previously been told to make no noise whatsoever when the animals were about so we all started mouthing silently to each other and flapping our arms in the bear’s direction. One renegade let “Oh my God – I can’t believe it” escape from his blue lips. He simultaneously received 16 dirty looks. No Wurthers Originals for him later.

The mother bear proceeded to hunker down to keep warm, whilst her cub strolled over to our buggy. During this the only noise you could hear were cameras shutters clicking; everybody vying for the ultimate shot. The cub spent 45 minutes studying us.  I felt like I was at a zoo, but that we were the animals.  At one point the cub crawled under the buggy’s viewing platform and gazed right up at us. It then jumped up and pushed its nose against the steel grille and leaned his gigantic paws on the ledge. It saw no threat from us and was extremely inquisitive.  I kneeled down cautiously (which is no mean feat in loads of layers) and peered down at him. I could feel his breath on my cheeks, hear his teeth grinding gently, smell him. Good God – I was face to face with a polar bear.  It felt great.  We checked each other out for about a minute which seemed like a lifetime.

Cameras clicked around us. I knew I was coming to Churchill, The Polar Bear Capital of the World, to view bears, but this I did not expect. I was utterly speechless afterwards.

The day continued with further bear sightings, each as exciting and new as the last. I couldn’t get enough of them. The Hudson Bay was late freezing.  I was here on 13th November and it has normally started by then. The bears this year were particularly hungry and very weary through lack of food; they hadn’t eaten since spring

That day we passed a Tundra Buggy that was easily 200 feet long.  Our Arctic leader explained that you could stay on these for three or four nights. They were equipped to sleep 30-plus people in bunks, with two loos and one shower.  I don’t think so…

That night we made our way back to sleepy Churchill under a magical Manitoba tundra sunset.  I was hoping to experience another bucket list experience while I was here – The Aurora Borealis.  Churchill lies directly under the auroral oval, and as a result – if you’re lucky – you can view these incredible celestial lights from here too. It wasn’t to be.

Another day and dressed like Nanook of The North, I ventured outside the hotel to chat “layers” with my gang.  It was one of our favourite topics. Everyone had an opinion. I liked the guys who dressed head to toe in black layers, topped with balaclavas, just their eyes showing.  Arctic Ninjas, I chuckled to myself. Though Artic Ninjas would probably wear white. Probably.

That morning from behind our hotel we could hear fireworks. Someone had spotted a bear from their hotel bedroom window and had called the 0800 Polar Bear Alert line. This was the polar bear police scaring the beasties out of town with loud noisy fireworks. The Arctic Ninja crowd’s eyes were wide with fear.  As one we stepped back into the warm hotel lobby.

Another day of polar bear watching, and it didn’t disappoint. The blue skies and sunshine of the previous day had vanished. Today were blizzard conditions and bitter, bitter weather. It was minus 30.

That day a rather cheery, pretty lady from the San Diego Zoo joined us. She worked the season up in Churchill for PBI, Polar Bears International. This non-profit organisation’s core mission is “Conservation through Research and Education.”  She gave us an interesting lecture on the environment, Tundra wildlife and of course, the polar bears.  Jim, our bearded buggy driver, clearly had a crush on her. He never blinked once whilst she spoke.  He definitely had a different kind of buggy love on his mind.

During the day we witnessed an impatient polar bear venture gingerly out onto the very thin, but rapidly expanding ice on Hudson Bay, only to discover that it wouldn’t take his 1,000 pound plus weight.  He sank. Worse still he was so weak he didn’t have the energy to swim back through the slushy ice to land. We viewed him in an awkward silence for 90 minutes as he struggled to cope.  I was expecting David Attenborough to pop up somewhere with a running commentary. It got to the stage where half our group couldn’t watch, me included. Tears stung our eyes. However, suddenly and thankfully, he had a second wind and eventually made it to terra firma. He hauled himself out of the frozen water, rolled around and ended up on his back with all four gigantic paws in the air.  He then lumbered up, looked around to make sure none of his bear mates had witnessed his faux pas and casually sauntered off. Relieved that we weren’t all going to experience nature in the raw, we all toasted him with hot chocolate and Wurthers Originals

Another night’s deep sleep and I awoke at 6am instantly looking forward to the dog sledding day ahead.  I love dogs; they can do no wrong as far as I’m concerned. Our leader drove us to the Borreal Forest, 15 minutes from our hotel for this experience.  It was now minus 37 with the wind chill factor.  I started to really envy my Arctic Ninja companions.

The sun was shining as we arrived at the Dog Sled Camp and the huskies were bouncing up and down with excitement.  Dave, the owner, explained these weren’t dogs (although they looked like them to me) they were actually athletes, who pulled him on an annual 400km Hudson Bay Quest, a real grunting, he-man event. They weren’t the cuddly, fluffy huskies you see in the Disney movies. They were lean, mean pulling machines that consumed 1,200 calories a day and clearly worshiped their Top-Dog owner, Dave. My dog cuddling intentions weren’t going to cut the mustard here.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I was excited about the prospect of dog sledding but my feet were now so cold, I couldn’t concentrate on anything. (Blast that pierce-lipped girl in Oswald Bailey’s who’d sold me the wrong socks).  I sneakily retreated to the cosy cabin to take off my boots and peel off my socks.  I expected to see black toes, I didn’t. One of the poor musher guys was tasked with massaging my feet to get the circulation going again. Twenty minutes, two cups of hot chocolate and a big slice of Bannock cake (with jam) later and I was ready to face the freezing weather once more.

Me and my lovely warm toes jumped on the back of a sled, the panting 8-strong team of athletes were ready to go. The crew did a quick radio check for bears (it hadn’t occurred to me that they might actually come charging out of the forest after us, until now) but before I had a chance to fully contemplate my situation, we were off. It was totally and completely exhilarating. We sliced through the winter wonderland, the dogs loved it and I’d forgotten about my frozen digits. I’d never felt more alive.

When we returned to our rooms to freshen up for our final night, I turned on the TV and the news reader was announcing the engagement of Wills to Catherine. This seemed a million light years away to me, another world.It also struck home to me how enormously privileged I was to to experience these majestic Lords of the Arctic in their own backyard. I felt totally humbled for the first time in years.

That night we toasted our bear pals with chilled beers, each of us quietly reflecting on our experiences. But it didn’t take long for us to get back to our favourite subject. “So, how many layers did you have on today?”

Bon Voyage offer a Polar Bear Adventure holiday with Tauck Tours.

If you’d like me to forward you pictures from my trip, please do contact me on Karen.niven@bon-voyage.co.uk.

2 thoughts on “Lords of The Arctic”

    1. Excellent question, John! Sorry – it’s a bit of travel industry jargon; it basically means fact-finding trips that some people who work in travel undertake prior to featuring a new holiday or destination in a brochure so that they can talk to clients and relay their experiences. The team at Bon Voyage tends to undertake rather a lot of these each year in order to keep our expertise up to date. Thanks for your question and for your nice comment.

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