Natural Habitat Adventures guide Brad Josephs and his group of avid and hearty travelers in Churchill for northern lights had time to learn the art of igloo building in frigid minus 50 C Arctic temperatures. Despite the piercing cold, everyone enjoyed the experience and immersed themselves in an authentic Arctic situation and survivalist technique utilized by hunters and travelers out on the tundra and ice of the far north. This system has saved lives every year in the extreme weather of the Arctic. Hopefully, we will bring you some tantalizing northern lights from this adventure in the next couple of days. Churchill’s aurora borealis season is heating up even during this incredibly cold stretch!
This exceptional post my Natural Habitat Adventures guide Brad Josephs is a story of perseverance and making the best of a situation out of one’s control. An experience can take on a life of its own if the effort is put in!
The first amazing experience happened a few hours after our arrival to Churchill. Fellow guide Theresa Whipple spotted a polar bear alert truck towing a trailer with a sedated giant male bear on the back heading east from the polar bear jail. She called me on the radio and we headed out there. Brad Josephs photo.
This last polar bear season proved to be quite challenging after the first week of November due to record-setting early cold weather which caused the sea-ice to form earlier than it has in decades. This was such a different situation from last year when the ice formed unusually late. This, of course, is great news for the polar bears, which need ice as a platform to hunt seals, but when the bears move offshore we cannot find them on our bear viewing trips. I and two other guides were scheduled with the last trips of the season, extending until the 26th of November. These new “family trips” would have been spectacular last year, but this year most of the bears had moved to more than 60 miles offshore, which is too far for us to even find with helicopters! We maintained a positive attitude and tried our best to teach the young kids in our groups as much as possible about Arctic ecology, and have as much fun as possible. Luckily these trips turned out to be fantastic, and we were privy to some outstanding and rarely seen bear action.
Since the early 1980s, the province of Manitoba has employed a force of bear patrol officers who haze polar bears away from town and incarcerate problem bears in the Polar Bear Holding Facility, aka the Polar Bear Jail. When the ice has formed on Hudson Bay, the officers release the bears on the beach outside of town. When the bears see the ice, they lose any interest in prowling around town and head offshore to hunt seals. In my 13 seasons guiding in Churchill, I have never witnessed these releases, though it has always been a dream of mine to see it.
We found several Polar Bear Alert Conservation Officers unloading two huge bears on the beach at the edge of the frozen sea. Brad Josephs photo.
The 1,000+ pound polar bear, immobilized with Telazol, was carefully rolled onto the beach. In 45 minutes he woke up and headed onto the ice. The green dot on his back lasts for around a week and shows anyone from a distance that the bear has recently been released. It also shows possible substance hunters from villages to the north that the bear has toxic drugs in his system from being immobilized, and shouldn’t be consumed. Brad Josephs photo.
The highlight of the entire trip for most of the group happened like magic. One of the officers came to our group in his truck and asked how many little kids we had. He knew with the bears having disappeared from town that we were going to have a rough time meeting the expectations of the kids. I couldn’t believe it when he told us to load the little ones in his truck so he could drive them up to the waking giant bear for a close look! What an amazing experience that these young guys would never forget. Brett, if you are out there, you are a hero in my book forever!
The bear is awake and moving around groggily after 45 minutes. He’s a FREE BEAR and theres ice to hunt on! Brad Josephs photo.
The next morning we all boarded helicopters to hopefully see bears on the ice. Since the ice edge was an estimated 60 miles offshore, we knew that we may not find any, as we cannot travel that far by helicopter. We were so happy to see many bears! To fly over that vast expanse of rugged ice and finally reach the bears who were hunting seals was for me, a lifetime wildlife viewing highlight. We even saw one of the bears that had been released the previous evening, already more than 10 miles offshore! The climax was seeing a bear eating a seal. WOW doesn’t describe it!
The green dot shows us this bear was released the evening before! The next morning we see him waiting next to a patch of open water, watching for seals! Brad Josephs photo.
We found this young bear who had very recently caught a seal from a breathing hole, dragged it to more solid ice, and was happily devouring the blubber. Brad Josephs photo.
I was thrilled to see ravens with the bears. These tough birds, as well as arctic foxes, travel hundreds of miles onto the pack ice to scavenge seal kills. I wonder if the ravens help the bears find breathing holes—I bet they do. Brad Josephs photo.
Mom and cub searching for seals on the ice. Brad Josephs photo.
Mom and two 2-year-old cubs. Brad Josephs photo.
When our helicopter trip was finished the pilot said the conservation officers needed helicopter assistance with a problem bear in town. We loaded the bus and sat at a high point in town and waited for the action, and found it though it was a little too close for comfort, but very exciting for the kids.
Polar bear alert chases a cub out of town. The bear raced down the road towards us. We had to move the bus to get out of the way. Some of my folks said it was like being in the middle of a James Bond movie, as the helicopter hovered over us, and the bear was darted by an officer hanging from an open window. Brad Josephs photo.
Officers immobilized the orphaned 1-year-old cub from the helicopter with a dart. The cub’s chance of survival in the wild is south of zero at that age, so he will be transferred to the polar bear exhibit at the Winnipeg Zoo most likely. Brad Josephs photo.
Jack Batskill is a legendary Polar Bear Alert officer. Through his many years of dealing with polar bears, he is revered as a leading expert in his field, and respected by all in the bear world. Brad Josephs photo.
Dog sledding in the boreal forest. Brad Josephs photo.
I found a snowshoe hare in the boreal forest for the kids to see. Brad Josephs photo.
On the last day we explored the tundra in a Polar Rover. We didn’t see any bears, but after the action of the previous days it was OK. The kids understood, and we had a blast looking for foxes and other wildlife. This is a red fox. Brad Josephs photo.
12-year-old Eleanor Fraser won my “animal spotter award” for seeing this nearly invisible arctic hare in a willow patch. Way to go, Eleanor! Brad Josephs photo.
What an awesome trip! I am so glad it was so thrilling for the kids, as getting the young generation interested in our natural world is the only way to ensure conservation in the future.
Check out Natural Habitat’s new family trips if you want to take your kids on an educational adventure that is parent and kid friendly. Let us plant seeds of appreciation for the natural world in the young ones and encourage a new generation of conservationists!
The 2017 exciting polar bear season is moving along with some of the most incredible wildlife in recent years being seen daily. While the fox population, all varieties, is burgeoning, there have been some rare sightings of large caribou herds and even a wolverine…although we are still in search of a photo of this one. These images from Colby Brokvist are from his recent guided trip of Natural Habitat travelers on a photo tour. Some pretty cool and first – time happenings out in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area!
White Gyrfalcon perched on a rock in Churchill. Colby Brokvist photo.
Polar bear cub investigates the polar rover. Colby Brokvist photo.
The group also enjoyed sightings of Arctic, silver and red foxes, a snowy owl and a white phase Gyrfalcon.
A beautiful silver fox prances along the tundra in search of a meal. Colby Brokvist photo.
Aurora borealis was also visible at night for this lucky group of travelers. While the cold weather is allowing for ice forming on the Hudson Bay it is not unusual for panic to set in for thoses who want to see the polar bears.
Polar bear resting on a kelp day bed. Colby Brokvist photo.
Shaking off the winter cold. Colby Brokvist photo.
A happy group of Nat Hab travelers after a memorable trip to Churchill. Colby Brokvist photo.
Polar bear under the Tundra Lodge. Moira Le Patourel photo.
This is the time when the polar bear season is a double-edged sword in that the polar bear numbers are building and so is the ice that could allow them to disperse overnight. However, this time is also one to rejoice in with the uncanny wildlife around the tundra.
Nt Hab’s Brad Joseph’s group had some incredible wildlife sightings during their trip. A first-year male great gray owl at Gordon point was a memorable sighting. Out around the Tundra Lodge, there were eight polar bears paired off and sparring in optimal 0-degree weather. This is the first report this season of numerous bears around the lodge actively engaged in mock fights. Pretty exciting and a reunion of sorts for the travelers on rovers and at the lodge!
After enjoying a sunset across the Churchill River at the flats just northwest of town, the group also was blessed with aurora borealis on their second night in Churchill. Nearly as spectacular to this particular group of travelers was the fantastic newly painted murals around town by the Sea Walls project. The murals brighten up the town, which can start to become grey this time of year, as much in the daytime as northern lights do at night.
Two other pretty awesome sights for this group were seeing a good size caribou herd of around a 100 animals south of Churchill. Tracks covered the ground all over the area. Some of those tracks were discovered to be from a Wolverine making a cameo appearance. Some longtime locals reported having not seen one for 20 years or more.
Polar bear males sparring on the tundra. Moira Le Patourel photo.
Moira Le Patourel’s group enjoyed good weather for the duration of their trip with a snowy backdrop and a mix of a few overcast days and a few with incredible sun and one extreme cold weather day (-21 degrees Celsius) Numerous polar bear sightings surely made up for the cold, including a mother with two cubs of the year, a mother with one cub of the year, as well as many adult males.
These field notes are from Natural Habitat Adventures guide Eddy Savage from Churchill where he is enjoying guiding travelers around town and primarily out on the tundra of the Churchill Wildlife Management Area. The Tundra Lodge is an amazing place to observe polar bears and other Arctic wildlife while becoming immersed in the tranquil feeling of the open tundra of the north! This first-hand description of the Lodge’s welcoming warmth is spot on. The wildlife details as well are quite incredible with activity all over the land!
“This was my first visit of 2017 to the Tundra Lodge. It was great to connect with the fantastic chefs Shayne and Shelley. These two make a seriously incredible team. They have an air of calm and professionalism and quickly make our guests feel at home with their delicious food choices. Sinking your teeth into one of Shelley’s fresh baked cookies, or sipping on Shayne’s miraculous yam soup, you will forget you are miles from a town and sitting in the middle of a rugged and beautiful landscape. They make you feel at home in their dining room. It’s a great feeling.
A polar bear basks in the cold with visions of ice on the Hudson Bay. Bonnie Chartier photo.
Krys, the Tundra Lodge Manager is on top of every problem and really assures our groups that they are his most important priority. Every detail is looked after and he keeps a sharp eye for wildlife around the lodge as well. On more than one occasion this season he has been the first to alert our group of approaching polar bears. A serious asset!
Jason is our talented rover driver. Moving our groups on and off the tundra every morning and afternoon. He has over 16 years experience driving rovers and has memorized the shape and shades of the land. His eye is sharp and often spots hard to see animals like snowy owls, ptarmigan, or Arctic hare far before any of us can see it. You can tell he loves being out in the rover with the groups as he is often ecstatic when we have a good wildlife encounter!
The team at the lodge is remarkable and they really give more than expected on a daily basis. As an expedition leader, working alongside Shayne, Shelley, Krys, and Jason is as good as it gets.
We have had a wide variety of sightings this year. As posted by Colby Brokvist, we had an incredible encounter with what we suspect to be two young Arctic Fox. Chasing each other too and fro across piles of kelp tossed ashore by humongous Hudson Bay seas, our entire Tundra Lodge group was privy to what was certainly a world class moment. Bonnie Chartier, a founder of eco-tourism in Churchill and Natural Habitat Adventures Expedition Leader said that was something she had never seen before. That really says something about the experience.
There seems to be a real abundance of lemmings around this year and sightings of snowy owls, red fox, and Arctic fox are high. Many groups have seen fox hunting for lemmings. Zig-zagging across the tundra listening and watching for movement. When they hone in on a lemming they leap fully into the air and land square on top of them. They are catching more then they can eat and caching them for later access.
When we look at our polar bear sightings, well it is hard to offer an all-encompassing description. Sightings have been great. We seemed to have “dinner bears” regularly. We had two nights where as soon as all of the group was served their entrees, a polar bear would come by and visit the lodge. They would peer into the lodge, seemingly curious about all of the shuffling and lights. It is important to note that these bears are not coming to the lodge to eat food, but instead, intrigued by the interesting sounds, lights, and smells, have come by out of curiosity. We do not feed the bears and will not tolerate that behavior. Our guests were ecstatic. There are few better ways to be interrupted during a meal than to have a polar bear sitting 10 feet below you. Cool.
Polar bear by the tundra lodge. Eddy Savage photo.
On our second night at the lodge, the aurora borealis came out for us. It was partly cloudy but it still managed to be strong enough to see. Just another cool thing our guests got to see!
Our days on the rover were exciting too. We had ample polar bear sightings with many coming right past the rovers. On top of that, the other arctic wildlife in the area was out in force. During our day rovers on the tundra, our groups saw a silver fox, cross fox, and arctic fox hunting for lemmings. We had a few up close visits from the cross fox where one even cached a lemming about 40 feet from the rover. So amazing. All of our guests saw multiple snowy owls and had a great sighting where one sat close to the polar rover trail and allowed our group take some incredible images.
A cross fox seems content after catching a lemming. Konan Wendt photo.
After our few days out exploring the tundra and enjoying the comforts of the unique Tundra Lodge, we had to fly back to Winnipeg. On our last morning, we set off at 7 am and maybe 50 feet away in the headlights was a snowy owl perched on top of a tree. An awesome farewell to an incredible trip.
When in Churchill, we went dog sledding with the founder of the Hudson Bay Quest, Dave Daley. Everyone had a blast!”
A temporary track is laid to get the Via rail train up next to the cargo ship. Alan Spence photo.
Via rail train at the Churchill Port. Alan Spence photo.
Getting ready to load the train engine. Alan Spence photo.
Train engine being hoisted onto the cargo ship at the Churchill Port. Katie de Meulles photo.
A temporary rail track was laid leading up to the Port of Churchill in order to move the stranded VIA Rail train onto a cargo ship early today. The train will be returned south so that VIA can utilize it on its mainline routes. With talk of repairing the Hudson Bay Line seemingly stalled, for the time being, the train was costing the company money as it sat unused. We have hopes of seeing this one back in Churchill very soon!