3:45am wakeup on a Saturday morning hits a little different.
Even with the excitement of a day trip to Churchill, Manitoba to see the polar bears gathering before heading off to winter on the ice of Hudson Bay, the buzzing alarm hurts. But for the pleasure of a one day polar bear safari to Churchill, I fumble for the button, swing my legs out of bed, and let out a big yawn and stretch as I struggle to the bathroom. The early morning torture will be worth it, this is, after all, a bucket list day.
It was only a few weeks ago we got the call from Classic Canadian Tours that our spot on the waitlist had been moved up to a guaranteed spot on the day trip to Churchill. Reservations usually open in late spring for the late October/early November polar bear safaris, and my wife and I had dilly dallied a little too long in deciding. By the time we tried to book in late June, the chartered 737 to Churchill was full and we went on the wait list.
But our number came up and so early on this Saturday morning, we found ourselves pulling in to the smaller Canadian North parking lot at the southeast corner of the Calgary airport for our flight.
The perks flying from here are noticed immediately. Apart from having to show ID at check-in, everything else is very casual compared to the other corner of the airport. Parking for the day is free, a few dozen complimentary donuts and muffins are waiting for us at the gate counter, we don’t have to walk through security, and nobody pays a mind when I bring my tumbler of coffee spiked with maple cream liqueur onto the tarmac.
Our flight is scheduled for 6:15 and when boarding by row starts at 5:30, the small boarding gate is glimmering with grey hair and bubbling in excited conversation. While there are a handful of younger people and children booked for the trip, the average age of the nearly 150 passengers booked for the trip can be summed up as “very retired.”
Once in the air, we settle in for a 2 and a half hour flight to Churchill with a scrambled egg and sausage breakfast (remember when airlines used to feed you?!) listening to the assorted naturalists on board telling us about the itinerary for the day and our adventures ahead.
The day’s itinerary is simple. We will board charter tour buses to take us to the tundra buggy dock, and then we will get about 6 hours to look for bears. At the end of the day we’ll get some spare time to wander the few blocks of Churchill (it has a population under 800), before gathering in the civic centre for a buffet and a flight back home.
They pass around claws and pelts, and detail how the freshwater estuary around Churchill is a perfect place for the biggest bears on the planet to gather and wait for the water to freeze so they can spend the winter feeding on the ice in Hudson Bay.
After the plane unloads, we make our way to the first departing charter and, as luck would have it, our first polar bear sighting of the day. A few kilometres out from the airport we come to a quick stop. “Bear on the road!!,” comes the call from our driver up front – and that’s exactly what it was. A young male polar bear was bounding down the road coming straight for us. He ditched off into the snowdrifts and brush to the north of us just as he passed us, looking back over his shoulder as the early day sun flickered off the snow.
Wow. Turn the bus around right now and it’s already been worth it.
After about 20 minutes on the bus, we pull in to tundra buggy dock where we get to scramble and choose our big wheeled ride for the day.
Tundra buggies are massive vehicles made in Churchill from old fire engines. They’re big and wide with huge windows and a large viewing area on the back. The massive tires are inflated to just 10psi and they wobble and crawl through the ice, puddles, rocks, and brush of the tundra.
We don’t really know which buggy to board, but we do hope to get paired with naturalist Brian Keating, a weekly columnist on CBC whose passion and excitement for nature is positively contagious. There are 4 buggies backed to the dock and after walking on to the first one, my wife quickly backs out – this is the tundra buggy designated for the special menu options. “That’s where the little kids and picky people will be,” she smartly mentions. I look across the dock and think briefly about boarding buggy 13 until superstition sets in and we slip onto the boarding deck of buggy 17 – Brian Keating‘s bus.
Just as we were first out of the airport, our buggy is first to leave the dock and we head out on the tundra. If you get carsick, or you’re not a fan of boats or amusement parks, a day on the tundra might be a rough go. The buggies have a lot of yawn and roll as they climb the rocks, spin through ice, and dodge puddles – so pack some gravol if that’s the type of thing you usually need.
As we trundle along in our tundra buggy, Brian tells us about the kinds of things we should keep our eyes out for. Sure, there were polar bears on this safari, but we might also see owls, foxes, hares, lemmings, caribou, and ptarmigan.
Ah yes, the ptarmigan.
Keating is a regular on these Classic Canadian Tours, and the weekend before he and his wife had counted more than 300 ptarmigan snuggled in the snow and tethered to the heather. An avid birder he was absolutely beside himself over the excitement of seeing such a gathering of the tiny white one pound fowl on that trip.
As I was listening to his talk, staring out to the crashing waves of Hudson Bay a few hundred metres from my window, Brian was bouncing from side to side of the buggy sharing stories and suddenly yelled “STOP! STOP! PTARMIGAN!!!!”
Brian’s keen eyes had spied nearly a dozen of the birds huddled right beside the tundra buggy trail.
After a few minutes of excited birdwatching (wherein the birds didn’t move much at all despite our close proximity), our tundra buggy driver encouraged Brian to let us go find some bears – that’s why we were here, after all!
There are a few different tundra buggy companies bouncing along the same area, each company with its own radio frequency where drivers squelch their spottings to other drivers. As much as they all have secret spots to find the bears, it’s quite easy to stare out on the horizon and see where they are. The buggies are very large, and should a bear be spotted, an immediate gathering happens with a variety of buggies forming a caravan circle around the subject so everyone gets a good look.
That’s the tip our driver had just received. A mama and cub were coming in along the ice and already half a dozen buggies had set up shop. Of course they had – babies are where it’s at.
We park a few hundred metres away and watch the pair come closer to the brush together. Then, they found a soft spot in the snow and while mama yawns and settleds in for a nap, her young charge pounces on the snow to practice his hunting skills, and pokes his head around the bushes before finally settling in along his mother’s backside.
The day before our visit had featured sideways snow and one bear sighting where the bruin insisted on staying surrounded by the brush to buffet against the wind. It wasn’t a banner day.
Our weather was different. The scattered clouds were low – as they always are along Hudson Bay – and the sun was glinting in and out of the gaps offering perfect conditions. So, having already delivered a dozen ptarmigan and now a mother and cub, our driver puts the tundra buggy in park and serves up coffee and snacks to our crew. And then squash soup and a variety of sandwiches.
We stay for over an hour having our polar bear picnic.
A polar bear safari is not particularly strenuous. It’s like fishing. You find a spot that hits and so you stay, or you wander around trying to find that good spot. There’s no chasing here, we want to be background to the bears and not get in their way or disturb them. So sitting for an hour or two next to a napping bear and her cub not doing much of anything is, actually, quite perfect.
The tundra buggy setup is great with the back deck. If the bears aren’t on “your side” of the buggy, there’s not much of a view of the action, so walking out into the wind to get your great shot is easy.
After close to two hours of sitting by the family, we pick up and head out past the tundra buggy hotel to look for more bears – or foxes – or owls. So it is back to the yawning and rolling as we trudge along when I notice something moving far on the horizon.
Very far on the horizon.
A young male was making his way west along the coast. It was incredible to watch as he lifted his frying pan sized feet on the ice, pausing every few minutes to raise his nose to sniff the air and get his bearings.
Our driver positions himself to wait for the bear to walk by. And .. he does. This young male comes along our line of buggies and takes a right exactly at the rear of our tundra buggy patio.
He isn’t close enough that I could reach out and touch him, but if he gets on his hind legs he definitely could get close to us. As the dozen of us on the back stare down, in absolute pin drop silence (one of the tundra buggy rules is to be quiet and not disturb/scare the bears) he strolls around our backside before heading off towards the tundra buggy hotel.
There was a moment when we thought the young guy might walk in the direction of mother and cub (and we were warned that hungry bears impatient for the ice to come will feast on young cubs), but it didn’t happen. The juvenile wandered around on his own.
He splooted in the snow to soothe his groin, he nuzzled and dug for some snacks, and he just wandered around, his nose pointed and the slowly setting sun. With a low solar angle in late October/early November, the ‘golden hour’ that photographers love lingers for almost three.
After seeing ptarmigan, mother and cub, and getting a close encounter with a juvenile, our hearts (and SD cards) are full, so we plod back along the bumps to the tundra buggy dock before heading back into town.
Brian gave us a quick detour past the Polar Bear Jail. It’s a large kwanset hut near the airport where bears who wander into town are kept in custody until the ice comes in and they can be dropped far away. Bears can be a problem in Churchill. While there’s no ‘law’ that you have to leave your doors unlocked in town, it is a courtesy that people provide just in case you turn a corner and are face to face with a bear.
As the sun set, we had an hour to check out the town and for me that meant the grocery store to get an idea of what prices are like when there are no roads to get you supplies. $13 for a 6 pack of soda, $18 for 8 ice cream treats, $25 for a box of chicken fingers, and $60 for diapers quickly explained how truly expensive things can be. Even concerts are steep. Colin James had a show a few weeks after our visit and was asking $100 for the show.
We survey some souvenir shops in town picking up some jam and a Christmas ornament. The pickings aren’t really the best. When one of the shopkeepers was asked “are these made locally?” a short “we’re a town of 800, I’m lucky to get mukluks,” came back. Some cute woollen polar bear ornaments, for example, came from Peru. So while the offerings were disappointing, imagine your local high school student body running an entire town and your expectations are quickly tempered.
Our banquet dinner is in the community centre/hockey rink/school/city hall/ community pool complex. While I am disappointed not to find seal or char or caribou on the menu (remember it’s a town of 800 and pickles are $9/jar!), the prime rib, potatoes, and salads are great as we listen to the naturalists from each of the buggy recap the day.
Lining up to grab the buses back to the airport, a hint of absinthe wavedsin the sky. Yes, lady aurora has made a curtain call as we procede to head home.
The security experience coming home was even more surreal than heading north. They announce we could board without mentioning specific row assignments. When we ask clarification, the young attendant just shrugs “whatever.”
And with that we taxi off and make our way home.
It is a good 21 hours before my head hits the pillow from that first 3:45 wakeup call screeched.
And I wouldn’t change a thing. What a day.
Oh, and it came with one surprising check off the bucket list.
When we were taking some final sightseeing laps of the tundra before we headed back to the dock, our driver crossed the high tide line of the Hudson Bay coast. That effectively put us in Nunavut, adding the territory to my list of “places visited in Canada.”