Another report from the kloffts adventure to Churchill with Natural Habitat Adventures this past fall. Check out their travel website at Go See It Travel for more photos and blogs about their travels!
All of us were anxious to see polar bears, but we weren’t spotting any on our first evening out. We did see the most incredible sunset on the tundra, and even though we were all a little disappointed, we couldn’t help but feel privileged and awed by the environment! We put our cameras away and enjoyed dinner set out in the rover on the dark tundra. Then just as we were getting ready to leave, someone spotted a mother bear and two very young cubs outside of the rover, walking right in front and beside the vehicle. Too dark to photograph, we could see their white fur glowing from the dim interior lights of our polar rover and just enjoyed the magical moment of seeing polar bears in the wild for the first time!
Polar bear family wanders the tundra in Churchill Wildlife Management Area. Jeff Klofft photo.
Polar bears nursing in the CWMA. Jeff Klofft photo.
Sleeping polar bear near the Hudson Bay coast. Jeff Klofft photo.
Polar bear yawning from a little stress. Jeff Klofft photo.
Reluctantly, it was time for us to start our journey back to the launch. The guides and drivers keep the schedule, even though we could have could stayed out on the tundra forever after the exciting bear sightings we had on Halloween! The trip back was not disappointing, enjoying the beautiful scenery,We enjoyed the rover ride through lakes and over rocks, and we even spotted some more wildlife!
Silver fox roams the tundra in Churchill. Jeff Klofft photo.
This trip with its focus on polar bear conservation, demands that we observe but not disturb, so sometimes the bears are at a long distance, and we must watch them from where we are. Of course, the bears have no such rules, and frequently, these smart, curious animals would see the rovers and want to do a little exploring themselves. That’s what happened in this case. A mother bear and what we later discovered was two female cubs were sleeping, but once we stopped about 1/2 mile away, one of the young cubs was curious and started making her way towards our rover and the others parked near us. She looked back at her more timid sister and slumbering mother, and seemed to be urging them to come explore with her. She started out and before long, her sister followed along behind. After they got a certain distance away, mamma bear heaved herself up and plodded along behind her curious off spring.
Pol;ar bear cubs approach the polar rover within a few feet. Jeff Klofft photo.
The family of bears walked the whole line of rovers prompting us to ask our driver and guide just how much they had paid the bears for the encounter! After a few minutes of curious sniffing the bears moved on providing us with incredible photo opportunities!
Polar bear cubs sniffing out the danger. Jeff Klofft photo.
Polar bear family moving to safety away from a male bear. Jeff Klofft photo.
Jeff and Kathy Klofft from Boston continue their guest blog series documenting their trip to Churchill last fall with Natural Habitat Adventures. Enjoy!
Our Churchill Adventure Trip Report
Of course, our first flight was canceled…we didn’t even leave Boston before our plans were derailed! (see our blog post about our challenges getting to Canada from Boston) Go See it Travel
Luckily, we were supplied with contact numbers from both our travel agent Expeditions Trips and the Natural Habitat Adventures in Winnipeg. We called both to let them know our new arrival time- unfortunately 12:30 AM, meaning we’d miss our briefing dinner, but would be likely to make our Sunday AM charter with our group. The Expeditions Trips agent called as soon as the day started on the west coast where they were located, and we spoke to a super helpful representative at Nat Hab in Winnipeg, who assured us we would be picked up at the airport even with our late arrival and told us all of the details we need to know. The driver was there as promised, our guide, Katie, left us all the briefing information we needed for the next day, and vouchers for the dinner we missed (which we couldn’t use but appreciated!) An example of how seamless and proactive Natural Habitat was, was that our driver made a point of explaining that on our charter flight the next morning, we should take note of the changes in the ecosystems as we flew north; from the plains agricultural regions, to lakes region, to the boreal forest and icy tundra. While we had read about this in the pre – departure materials, had the shuttle driver not made a point to share that with us, we might have flown north and not thought to notice this phenomenon from the plane windows, and it turned out to be one of the many amazing experiences we had during our trip!
Checking into the Fort Garry hotel in Winnipeg. Jeff Klofft photo.
Upon our arrival in Churchill, our first excursion was to the Parks Canada Visitor Reception Centre, where we had the privilege of meeting park ranger, Rhonda Reid, who after taking a moment to remove her outer “non-issue” fleece, stepped into her official role as park ranger, where she regaled us with information about polar bears and stories about life living in in the north in polar bear country. The best stories were about the detention center for unruly juvenile polar bears, who like young drunk college students can sometimes act badly, and are kept a while till the ice freezes and then sent on their way out onto the frozen bay! We also saw many taxidermy specimens of other creatures we might see in the area. (All legally obtained by Parks Canada from wild life law enforcement seizures)
Parks Canada ranger Rhonda Reid interprets a polar bear den for travelers. Jeff Klofft photo.
After our stop at the Visitors Center, we made our way by bus with our driver for the trip, Stephanie, to the Rover Launch area for Great White Bear Tours, one of two outfitters permitted to run vehicles in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area.
Don Walkoski, founder of Great White Bear Tours and the Polar Rover vehicles and driver Stefanie, Jeff klofft photo.
We enjoyed some wildlife spotting from the bus on the way to the launch and on the tundra as the sun set.
A red fox prowls the tundra for lemmings under the snow. Jeff Klofft photo.
Stu, our steady Polar Rover driver. Jeff Klofft photo.
We were introduced to our Rover driver for the duration of our visit to Churchill, Stu, a retired RCMP and current polar river driver for Great White Bear. Stu, not only shared insight into life in Churchill, having grown up there, but was also very knowledgeable about the animals we saw and helping guests to spot them in the distance. When the rover was stopped for meals or snacks, he quickly transitioned to waiter extraordinaire, serving amazingly gourmet meals from coolers in the rear of the rover. We were also pleasantly surprised by the level Natural Habitat went to accommodate special diets. There were few vegetarians and others with religious diet restrictions, which were accommodated cheerfully and unobtrusively.
Replica polar bear den at Parcs Canada Visitor Center in Churchill. Jeff Klofft photo.
I had heard the rovers described as school buses on big wheels, but they are much more than that! The heated extra wide vehicle with a marine style toilet in the rear, comfortable coach bus style seating, a large mesh grate floor viewing platform in the back, made for a very comfortable day in the rover!
Polar rover with curious polar bear nearby. Brad Josephs photo.
Churchill sunset across the tundra of the Churchill Wildlife Management Area. Jeff Klofft photo.
A polar bear under the grated back observation deck on our Polar Rover. Jeff Klofft photo.
Continuing our guest blog series from Jeff and Kathy Klofft from Boston, Massachusetts. The couple chronicle their travels with photographs and a blog post detailing their trip and post their stories on Go See It Travel website. This Churchill post follows yesterday’s post on their polar bear adventure in Churchill during this past polar bear season.
My tips for planning a Polar Bear Safari in Churchill
Here’s what we’ve learned.
There is no “road to Churchill”, so visitors will have to take a flightfrom Winnipeg, Manitoba or take the train over a couple of days to get into Churchill. Once in Churchill, you’ll need to find a hotel or guest house. The polar bear season is the top tourism season in Churchill and there are only a few hotels or guest houses available in a very small outpost town and they will book up quickly, so advance reservations are critical.
Arriving at the Churchill airport. Jeff Klofft photo.
Polar bear viewing from Great White Bear’s polar rovers. Jeff Klofft photo.
So if going it alone sounds complicated, there are several full service tour companies that offer packages that include transportation, lodging and daily activities to see bears and learn more about the culture and people of Churchill. We chose to travel with Natural Habitat Adventures (click here) They use some of the same outfitters you would use if you book your own trip, (and you might find, they’ve already booked most of the lodging for their guests) We were very happy with our Nat Hab trip because of their excellent guiding, partnership with the World Wildlife Federation, and the addition of unique opportunities to learn more about the culture and people of the north. But we mostly chose Nat Hab because they handle all the details of the trip for their guests, in an environment where “smooth” isn’t even used to describe the ice on Hudson Bay! Between the weather, food arriving only occasionally by train and a busy, short tourist season in a village with only a few services like restaurants and hotels, it was nice to have someone else handling all the details. The weather alone can cause itinerary changes almost hourly, and our Natural Habitat Guide, Katie, handled them all with her cell phone and a smile, and communicated them well to our group, while we relaxed and enjoyed the scenery!
Natural Habitat small group experience. Jeff Klofft photo.
Although it was a “group tour”; and nature people generally avoid “groups”; our group of 16 had our own polar rover, which could have easily held twice our group, so everyone had their own window seat and a seat next to them for gear. Had we gone alone, we would have shared the rover with a much larger group vying for space on the outdoor platform and at the windows. The food served was excellent, and I didn’t realize how challenging that must have been until I toured the Northern department store in Churchill and saw that the whole produce section could have fit in my carry on bag! The prices were also shocking, making me appreciate how difficult it must be for local people to fill their fridges! It was a splurge to travel with Natural Habitat, as most safaris in remote areas are, but the testament to whether it’s “worth it” was hearing from one couple in our group who was on their 5th trip to Churchill, and even though they were very familiar with the area and had planned their first couple of trips independently, they choose to return with Natural Habitat for last few because they felt the experience offered was worth the expense.
(As far as budget planning- when planning all inclusive guided safaris in the wilderness just about anywhere in the world, I have found I need to budget $500- $1000 per person per day. I will often compromise on the length of a nature trip rather than miss a peak wildlife experience by going at a cheaper time and missing the natural phenomena I came to see!)
Before northern lights season starts we wanted to post this blog series from Kathy and Jeff Klofft from Boston. The couple joined Natural Habitat Adventures last fall on a polar bear trip to Churchill and documented the trip in a blog by Kathy and some awesome photos from Jeff. Their blog site is Go See It Travel documenting their adventures around the USA and world. These next few days we will publish their account of Churchill as well as lots of photos from the experience! Enjoy.
Polar Bears of Churchill, Manitoba, Canada
Polar bear on the Churchill tundra. Jeff Klofft photo.
There are only a few places in the world to see polar bears in the wild. This opportunity is further restricted by the fact that generally solitary polar bears have a huge territory range for most of the year and most live year round out on polar ice that is virtually inaccessible to human beings. The bears eat primarily seals, hauling them out of their breathing holes in the ice with their enormous paws. Some of the bears living furthest south, such as the population near Churchill have to move to land for a few months when the ice melts each summer. One place where polar bears can be seen is in Churchill Manitoba in the Wapusk National Park in Manitoba, Canada. The park area was created on the shores of Hudson Bay, where polar bears wait for the ice in Hudson Bay to freeze each fall. The bears don’t eat during the summer, spreading out in Northern Canada or denning up to give birth to cubs, and are just waiting for the ice to form again, so they can go back out hunting.
A mother and her cubs wait for the ice to freeze on Hudson Bay to begin hunting seals. Jeff Kloft photo.
With a helicopter (like the researchers use) or lots of time living in bear country, a human might have an encounter with a bear during the 8 months, or so of the year that the bears are on ice, but most chances for bear and human encounters in Churchill will be in the late fall, mid October to mid November, when the bears start to literally lie on the shores waiting for the ice to from. Watching the bears on the shore waiting reminded me of this adaptation of a phrase about boiling water…”a watched bay never freezes!” But their month long wait on the shores of the Hudson Bay also provides a chance for human/bear encounters.
Polar bear warning sign in Churchill. Jeff Klofft photo.
For most of human history, polar bear/human encounters consisted of bears being hunted by Inuit people who used every part of the bear for survival, or dangerous encounters where bears sought human food or sled dogs and had to be destroyed to protect people and property. We learned from our guides that governments who operate in polar bear range states joined together to make agreements which would allow traditional hunting for people who rely on polar bears for survival, but protect them commercial hunting, which was decimating the numbers of polar bears in the wild. Since then, efforts were made to ensure bear/human conflicts could be avoided. Polar bear tourism was developed to happen only in the safest ways for both humans and bears. During our trip we heard from Elizabeth Kruger, World Wildlife Federation Arctic and Bering Sea Program Officer, that local residents have been empowered and trained to use bear patrols to redirect bears from populated areas, and local activists have changed garbage handling methods to discourage them from seeking human food. Our polar rover driver described that growing up in Churchill, the family would go out to the dump to see bears. Today, creative handling and containment of garbage have eliminated the bears at the dump and they roam where they belong, in the tundra. In Canada concessions were given to allow operators to allow polar bear tourism in the safest possible way.
Welcome to Churchill sign on the outskirts of town. Jeff Klofft photo.
So…bears are being conserved, but there are only a few weeks a year in Churchill when it’s practical to see polar bears, and the location to find them is still very remote…so how do you “go see it”?!
Tomorrow we will post more of the blog and answer the question above.
Keeping with our weekly northern lights videos, this one is from Norway where spectacular aurora borealis can be seen! Less than two months remain before Natural Habitat Adventures begins another magical northern lights season in Churchill. It will be tough to match all the amazing experiences and light shows from last season though you know we are going to try our best. Keep posted for all the images, videos and news from the great white north! Enjoy.
Opportunities to live and work in Churchill for the science and nature minded are available right now at the Churchill Northern Studies Center! Short term volunteer positions are available for northern lights season during January and February. If you are interested contact them here: email@example.com
The CSNC is at the far reaches of the road heading out through the Churchill Wildlife Management Area and out to the old Churchill rocket range. What a place to spend a couple of months this winter or possibly a longer stint as Assistant Director!