“We watched the sleepy family for a little while and then noticed a large male making his way towards their direction.”
Male polar bear starts to move towards mother and cubs. Jeff Klofft photo.
Our guides explained that a male polar bear can try to separate the mother from her cubs in order to mate with her. The cubs will surely not survive on their own without their mother, and their survival depends on her staying away from the big male. Unfortunately, she and the cubs were sleeping soundly as the male approached closer and closer, and all of us held our breath in dread of what we might see if he surprised them before they could hustle away.
Mother and cubs become aware and begin to move. Jeff Klofft photo.
Finally, as we all silently willed the mother bear to wake up and move on, she was up on her feet and she and her cubs were on the move even faster than Jeff’s rapid camera could catch it!
“So once she started to move, she and her cubs MOVED! Some in our group actually were able to hear her hiss at the big male. They ran towards our Polar Rover at top speed until she was right behind our viewing platform.”
Polar bears on the run to safety. Jeff Klofft photo
“Directly behind us, the female stopped to see where the big male was, and found him to be plodding along in her direction, so although she slowed her speed, she and her cubs continued moving off away from the larger bear.”
Mother polar bear on the lookout for aggressive male. Jeff Klofft photo.
The big male moved more slowly but quite deliberately in her direction, stopping along the way to sniff where she and the cubs had been.
Sniffing the family’s scent the male polar bear slowly tracks them. Jeff Klofft photo.
Once the big male had given up the chase, the polar bear family moved off toward the shore in a group. Jeff Klofft photo.
Male polar bear finally gives up the chase and heads for a rest in the willows. 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!)
A Natural Habitat Adventures group of travelers lead by seasoned guide Brad Josephs had this phenomenal experience of a large male polar bear checking out the groups polar rover out in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area. Being inches from the Arctic’s king of the food chain is quite the thrilling and life changing moment. Polar bears are naturally inquisitive and are attracted to many different smells. This time of year as they wait for the Hudson Bay to freeze – up so they can replenish their body fat by hunting seals, nearly everything smells appetizing. Good thing those rovers are built high off the tundra! Polar bear season in Churchill is constantly surprising us all.
Another great first day for a Natural Habitat Adventures group of travelers lead by guide Drew Hamilton. While heading out to the Churchill Wildlife Management Area they stopped to admire a rough legged hawk when a guest called out from the back of the polar rover “what’s that running across the ice?” An Arctic fox was bounding along the tundra and the group was ecstatic to catch what seems to be a rare sighting this season so far.
This incident was a clear reminder that when searching out wildlife always remember to look behind you as never know what you might miss out on the land.
Polar bears sparring in the CWMA. Drew Hamilton photo.
When their polar rover neared the Tundra lodge, bear activity was already heating up. Large males polar bears were sparring in the willows just off the trail. When there was a break in the action and the males retreated into the willows to cool off, a female polar bear sneaked onto the scene to check out the rover. She seemed a bit nervous due to the presence of all the other bears around and soon departed when the sparring started back up. Quite the action packed scenes amid some drama out on the tundra!
Snowy owl on a rock in the Churchill wildlife Management Area. Drew Hamilton photo.
On the way back to town the travelers were treated to a snowy owl viewing just off the road. A little icing on a fantastic day of wildlife viewing.
Northern lights over the Hudson bay and Churchill inukshuk. Drew Hamilton photo.
In the evening the group had enjoyed a talk by Duane at Parks Canada learning about Pre-dorset art. Leaving the Parks Canada office Drew suggested swinging by the inukshuk at the rear of the town complex to check for northern lights and there they were in all their glory. Travelers spent an hour watching and photographing the aurora capping off an incredible Churchill day.
Natural Habitat Adventures group with the northern lights blazing in the sky. Drew Hamilton photo.
Here are five aerial views of Churchill and the surrounding landmarks. Helicopter excursions on Hudson Bay Helicopters are a unique way to view the geography and major landmarks of the Churchill region. Many of the areas can be reached by foot, boat or polar rover though the birds-eye view provides another perspective. Only through this viewpoint can one get an appreciation of the expanse of the land and water in the sub and northern Arctic.
Fort Prince of Wales covered with snow. Brad Josephs photo.
A birds eye view from the helicopter above Churchill. Karen walker photo.