The Eismeisters of the Churchill Tundra

On November 13, well before sunrise, our Frontiers North Adventures (FNA) group was bussed to the far side of the Winnipeg Airport where our Nolinor charter flight to Churchill was awaiting us. While we waited on the bus, the luggage was loaded onto the plane. Then, the bus entered the secure zone and took us right up to the Boeing 737 for boarding. No security checks, no boarding cards — it was as easy as pie.

An hour and a half later, Churchill was welcoming us with overcast skies, blowing snow, strong winds, and very cold temperatures. On our way into town, we were given a short interpretive tour that included a visit to the 'polar bear jail' and some scenic stops. We weren't able to see much because of the bad weather, but the tour sure gave us an appreciation for the conditions the inhabitants of Churchill have to endure in the winter. We didn’t wimp out. At each stop, we got off the bus to brave the elements and see what we could despite the blowing snow. Though they were at a distance, we saw our first bears in the wild during one of these stops.

After a group lunch in town, we were free to wander around on our own. Mui and I were scheduled to do a helicopter tour, but it was cancelled due to weather conditions, so we spent the time until our departure for the tundra wandering in and out of the gift shops and checking out the stores that are frequented by the town's inhabitants. We left the museums for the last day of our trip when we knew we would have more time in town. Before returning to the FNA office, we stopped in at Gypsy's for hot chocolate and yummy pastries.

Churchill townscape - the brown building houses the post office and the liquor store.

We transferred out to the Tundra Buggy Lodge (TBL) in the early evening – first, a ½-hour school bus ride from town to the tundra buggy launch site; then, an approximately 1½-hour ride on a tundra buggy to reach the TBL. (I’ll write about the details of the lodge in a separate post.) As we pulled up to the lodge, a welcoming committee of two bears was greeted by cheers from within the buggy.

For the next four days we roamed the tundra in search of bears and other wildlife. It was cold on the tundra (very cold by our standards) – around minus 31F [minus 35C] at its coldest during the day (with windchill), and the wind was brutal. Our layers of clothing and heavy boots kept us warm, and any discomfort we might have felt was forgotten when we found ourselves in close proximity to the bears. The weather was overcast with some light snow and quite a bit of wind at times. Towards the end of our third day, the skies started to clear and we had beautiful, sun-filled, blue skies for our last day.

We didn't have to search too hard or too far for the bears. We saw sleeping bears, walking bears, sparring and dancing bears, and nursing bears. We saw adults, sub-adults, and cubs. We saw single bears, families, and groups. All in all, we saw over 50 bears in very close quarters (standing-up-against-the-buggy close in some cases); lost count of the ones that were distant and with which we did not interact much.

(Here are a couple of images to whet your appetite. See the Polar Bears Are Here post for a link to the galleries.)

In addition to bears, we saw Arctic fox, Arctic hare, and several flocks of willow ptarmigan. A couple of people saw a gyr falcon whiz by and land on the roof of one of the lodge buggies, but later efforts to find the falcon proved futile.

Our trip to see polar bears in the wild was a FANTASTIC success! Having a bear sleep under my window at the TBL every night was a very special experience. I'd wake up at night, look out, and there he'd be, curled up in the snow. He'd wake up when the smell of the breakfast bacon started emanating from the kitchen, come even closer to check things out, often rearing up on his hind legs for a closer sniff at those of us who happened to be on the open deck between buggies. By the third day, a mum and cub were also making frequent visits to the lodge. On our last morning, before we departed the lodge, two pairs of bears sparring not far from the lounge buggy made us wish we were not leaving. (I should note that although the bears might have found the smell of cooking food enticing enough to come to the TBL to check things out, there was NO feeding of the bears to keep them coming around.)

We were very lucky with our bear sightings – especially since early on it looked like the freeze up was happening a little earlier than anticipated (which would have been a boon for the bears, but could have been a disaster from our standpoint since the bear watching season was pushed out a bit later this year). A southerly wind apparently pushed the ice that had formed in the bay around November 10 back out into the open water, so when we arrived, the bears were still around Gordon Point. The first day, the bay was slushy grease ice, with some pancake ice. By the next morning, there was a narrow strip of solid ice along the shore. By the third day, it was ice all the way to the horizon with lots of bears testing it. By the fourth morning, there were even more bears on the ice and fewer bears on land in our vicinity. Nonetheless, we had several memorable sightings at close quarters on that last day, including a momma bear nursing her cubs in the most beautiful photographic light we could ask for. It was a terrific way to end our time on the tundra.

We left the TBL early in the morning on November 18 and headed back to town. This time, we had a beautiful day to explore Churchill – clear skies and sunshine, but boy was the wind brutal (the locals would beg to disagree with that assessment; as one person put it, “it’s not bad until you find that you can’t stand up when the wind is blowing”). We appreciated the opportunity to see Churchill in a different light. Our FNA group dispersed and everyone did their own thing, but we did get together mid-day for a group lunch. Mui and I checked out a few gift shops, but mostly we spent time at the two museums – the small one at the Parks Canada Interpretive Center located inside the VIA rail station (where there is a mock-up of a polar bear den) and the Eskimo Museum. And of course, we stopped at Gypsy's and the Seaport Inn for hot chocolate and yummy pastries.

This inukshuk is not an original; it was built for a festival honoring the Inuit culture.

We also visited the Community Center. We went up to the second floor for a beautiful view of Hudson Bay and later found our way outside to see the same view from the ground. Noting that there were polar bear alert signs in this area, we did not wander too far from the Community Center. However, seeing that there was a tour bus near the inukshuk at the edge of the Bay, we could not resist a quick stroll in that direction for a few photographs. By then, the light was fading fast – not to mention our camera batteries, as well. That, combined with the thought that there might be a bear or two lurking behind the boulders, had us hot-footing it back to the FNA office in the falling dusk.

Hudson Bay view from behind the Community Center.

We left for the airport around 5:00p. Can’t say that the logistics worked out smoothly for the return trip. First, no one told us that we had to check-in with Nolinor – remember, there was no such thing when we boarded the flight from Winnipeg on the 13th. Second, we weren’t told that we’d be sharing the aircraft with any groups other than the one with which we had shared the TBL. Not a problem in and of itself, but having to reform boarding lines caused some harsh words to be exchanged. Third, there are no jetways from the terminal to the aircraft, meaning that those of us at the end of the boarding queue ended up waiting in the freezing cold while passengers already aboard clogged the aisles as they tried to make up their minds as to which overhead bins to use. Finally, having a Boeing 737-full of people (literally; there wasn’t an empty seat on the plane) descend on the Sheraton Four Points caused long, long lines to form at the check-in desk. I’d say it took Mui and me about an hour to finally get into our room. Although FNA has everything well in hand for the actual Tundra Buggy Lodge stay, there is room for improvement with the return trip logistics.

Mui and I didn’t let the logistics problems sour us on the fantastic adventure that preceded our return to Winnipeg. Besides, a long, hot shower (we were asked to keep our showers at the lodge short to conserve water) soothed our frayed nerves in no time.

When we're traveling, we normally prefer early flights – tend to have fewer flight delays that way. But for our return to DC on November 19, we chose a noon flight out of Winnipeg with the express purpose of resting up after our time on the tundra. This turned out to be a really good decision. We took our time getting ready for our travel day, had a late breakfast, and walked over to the airport around 10:30a (the United counters open two hours before flight departure). I had used the hotel’s free internet access to check-in and print boarding passes already and found checking in our luggage to be quick and painless. We then went through US customs with our luggage in tow. Once we were cleared, we dropped off our bags with the airport reps at the luggage conveyor belt and went through security. In 10 minutes or less we were at the gate. As with our flights on the 10th, both legs of our return trip went smoothly and we were home by 8:30p – no airline delays, no lost luggage. A great way to end a truly great adventure.

Click here for a video of some of our polar bear encounters.

Next Up: What in the World is a Tundra Buggy Lodge

1 comment:

  1. Nice photos and excellent review. How did you compensate on your camera for exposure and white balance for the white conditions? Look forward to seeing your subsequent postings. pangloss