The first groups of travelers have been experiencing dramatic cold and sensational northern lights in Churchill these last couple of weeks. Here are some pictorial field notes from the far north and northern lights season guru Brad Josephs. So much of what Nat Hab’s aurora borealis trips encompass is more than seeing the northern lights. The amazing train trip north and stops at Pisew Falls and Thompson leading to the journey through boreal forest and taiga coming to rest in Churchill. Dog-sledding, igloo building, curling and various other cultural experiences make this an unforgettable adventure. Northern lights above the vast frozen Hudson Bay is more often than not the proverbial “icing on the cake”! Enjoy
Natural Habitat Adventures group with guide Brad Josephs. Brad Josephs photo.
Dog – sledding in Churchill. Brad Josephs photo.
Moonscape above the boreal forest before the aurora appeared in Churchill. Brad Josephs photo.
Northern lights above Wapusk Adventures tee – pee and boreal forest. Brad Josephs photo.
Northern lights action at the Natural Habitat Aurora Pod. Brad Josephs photo.
Natural Habitat Adventures travelers beneath the northern lights in Churchill. Brad Josephs 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!)