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!
A snowy tundra was the perfect setting for an Arctic fox greeting Natural Habitat Adventures guide Moira Le Patourel and her group of travelers. As snow fluttered to the ground the inquisitive fox seemed indifferent to the rover’s presence. What beautiful colors melding together in an Arctic landscape!
Arctic fox surveying the land fast ice along the Hudson Bay. Moira Le Patourel photo.
Caught between the search for lemmings and waiting for the Hudson Bay freeze, this gorgeous fox will patiently wait for the latter in order to feed off the left -overs of polar bear seal kills. A fascinating existence for sure. Polar bear season in Churchill reveals the subtleties of survival in the far north.
Arctic fox waiting out the eventual freezing of the Hudson Bay. Moira Le Patourel photo.
Later, out on the tundra of the Churchill Wildlife Management Area, a sow with two cubs of the year (coy) revealed themselves on the horizon and explored the ground close to the polar rover. The three moved confidently across the thermokarst landscape while circling the group observing from the rover. Purely incredible to witness these polar bears in their natural environment.
Sow and two coy wandering the Hudson Bay coast near Churchill. Moira Le Patourel photo.
The persistent unseasonable moderate temperatures have polar bears resting and conserving energy for the most part though we are still seeing magical behavior across the tundra. Surely the snow and cold will escalate and we will see more sparring in the coming weeks. Until then we are not complaining about the number of family interactions so far this year as well as the variety of other wildlife sightings.
Resting polar bear by a stand of willows. Moira Le Patourel photo.
The group was charmed with a first – night orientation of some fantastic northern lights which they took in down by the large inukshuk behind the town complex. What a display squeezed in between the clouds and snow squalls.
One of the best spots in Churchill to capture the magical northern lights. Moira Le Patourel photo.
The following day Moira brought her travelers back for an iconic group photo from the head of the Hudson Bay. If the incredible aurora displays this polar bear season are any indication, we are in for quite a northern lights season in January through March.
Natural Habitat group photo at the Churchill inukshuk. Moira Le Patourel photo.
Churchill is in full swing with polar bears “high and low” as you can see from these recent field image submissions from the region. Moira Le Patourel leading a group of Natural Habitat Adventures travelers had a spectacular time in Churchill. The snow covered tundra provides an Arctic background for the incredible wildlife sightings in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area (CWMA). What a trip for this fortunate group.
Polar bears scattered on the tundra of the CWMA were the highlight for sure though a bear lift at the holding compound was an event that is hit or miss for travelers to Churchill. It truly is spectacular to watch polar bears be flown northwest along the coast to a safe haven and released to the wild again. Timing is everything in order to catch one of these awesome spectacles! An incredible, unique experience if you can see it.
Group photo with guide Moira in front of a polar rover! Moira Le Patourel photo.
A polar bear wandering between a couple of polar rovers. Moira Le Patourel photo.
Magnificent polar bear in the snow. Moira Le Patourel photo.
Polar bear family walking a trail in the CWMA. Moira Le Patourel photo.
Polar bear sniffing at the falling snow. Moira Le Patourel photo.
Polar bear family posing for a group shot. Moira Le Patourel photo.
Lift off at the Polar Bear Holding Facility. Moira Le Patourel photo.
Up, up and away in the cargo nets for polar bear family. Moira Le Patourel photo.
While the polar bears on the land and in th air were exciting for all travelers, there was other wildlife to see as well. A regal red fox appeared from the willows to catch the eyes and camera lenses of the group. Ptarmigan as well made an appearance seemingly from out of nowhere. Both species reveal the secrets of the sub – Arctic to all those lucky enough to spot them. Magic seems to happen in Churchill especially during polar bear season!
Red fox emerging from the willows. Moira Le Patourel photo.
Willow ptarmigan on the rover trail in the CWMA. moira Le Patourel photo.