Animals, Travel

Churchill Wild – A close encounter with polar bears in Canada

If you read my post about polar bears, you already know that we can find polar bears in 5 country: Norway (the Svalbard archipelago) – Canada – Russia – US (Alaska) and Denmark (Greenland). And that if you want to be almost sure to spot some of them (it can’t never be 100% guaranteed though), you have to go to Churchill in Canada. Indeed, Churchill is the polar bear capital of the world.

It has always been my dream, but even more my mother’s dream to see polar bears in the wild. We always thought that we would go to the Svalbard archipelago to see them because of my Norwegian origins but also its proximity compared to the other places.

But, one day, we discovered Churchill by chance, when watching the weekly French program called Sept à Huit on TF1 (video in French only). 

We then made some further research and below are some information that we learnt:

-Churchill is a remote little town on the west shore of Hudson Bay.

-There is no road leading to Churchill, so the 2 ways to travel here from Winnipeg are by air (2 hours) or by rail (2 days).
-The population is declining with actually about 800 inhabitants.
-People are used to live with polar bears around and are very careful to avoid to be injured. Most of them carry a gun and also leave their cars and homes unlocked in case someone needs to escape from a polar bear and find a shelter.
-The polar bear season is very short: generally from the end of October to the middle of November. During that time, polar bears congregate in large number, waiting for the sea to freeze in order to allow them to go north and start hunting ringed seals again.
-During the polar bear season, there are more polar bears than inhabitants in Churchill and its surroundings.
-There is a bear prison for too curious or too threatening polar bears. They stay here for a while before being transported by helicopter and freed further north. The prison is not open to the public.

The more we learnt, the more we were convinced that it was the place to go to make our dream comes true.

We began new research to find out more about the tourism possibilities. It quickly became apparent that the only way to go to Churchill was through a tour operator. 
I’m used to book very complicated itineraries by myself and it was the first time that I had to give up. It was extremely time consuming for no result: all flights and hotels were sold out. I believe that, each year, tour operators buy all hotel rooms and all flight seats available and then make their own package.
We finally started to look at the different packages offered.

Most of them propose tundra buggy adventures. 
A tundra buggy is a huge all-terrain vehicle locally invented in 1979 to see polar bears in a completely safe way.
In some tours, people come back every evening to sleep in a hotel in Churchill.
In other tours, people can even sleep in adapted tundra buggies, which means that their feet don’t touch the ground during the whole stay. 

Tundra buggy lodge

We’re neither claustrophobic nor energetic but we weren’t totally satisfied by these kinds of tours. We were looking for a more authentic, more environmental friendly and more cosy adventure. 

And one day, my mother read an article in Le Figaro Magazine (article in French only) about a totally different tour operator that offers walking tours: Churchill Wild.
Intrigued and excited about this discovery, we wanted to have more information and directly looked at their website.
We learnt that Churchill Wild is a family business that aims to be “the most unique Polar Bear and Arctic Wildlife adventure experience on the planet”. 
And they really have the means of their ambition:
-they are the only company offering walking tours
-they have comfortable lodges lost in the middle of the nature
-they limit the number of people to 16 per tour 
We knew that we had found the tour we always looked after without knowing it and were very thrilled.
We decided to book The Great Ice Bear Adventure for the end of October 2012. This package included 2 nights in Winnipeg, 3 nights at the Lodge, several walks in the nature, 1 night in Churchill, a chartered Tundra buggy tour (we wanted to try it for one day to have the opportunity to see even more polar bears), the roundtrip airfare between Winnipeg, Churchill and the Lodge and most of the meals.
From that day, I was in frequent contact with Doreen. She always answered promptly to my e-mails and was very helpful. Her professionalism confirmed us that we had chosen the best tour operator.

The only thing that we had to organise by ourselves was the travel to Winnipeg.
At that time, I lived in Geneva but we decided that we would all travel together from Marseille.
The flight from Winnipeg to Churchill was scheduled very early in the morning so we decided to arrive 2 days before because we didn’t want to be tight and stressed in case we were delayed or missed a flight.
As you can easily imagine, there was no direct flight from Marseille to Winnipeg so we had to fly through Amsterdam and Minneapolis. 
It was far from being a smooth travel mainly because the flight from Amsterdam to Minneapolis was overbooked and we didn’t know if we would be able to take it but also because we almost missed the flight from Minneapolis to Winnipeg because of a 1 hour computer failure at the US border control. 
We finally arrived in the evening a bit tired. Thankfully we had booked a hotel in the airport, the same that was booked for us for the day after as part of the tour.

The next day, we woke up with no sign of jet lag.
In the morning, we went to a mall to buy some warm clothes to my mother, my sister and my step-father (Canada Goose jackets and Sorel boots). I didn’t need any special equipment, as I’m used to cold temperatures when I visit Norway in Winter
Then, in the afternoon, we went to Winnipeg and wandered around. There wasn’t too much too see to be honest.
In the evening, a dinner was held at the hotel and we met the 8 other members of our group. They were from Switzerland, Uk, Germany and the US.
We also met Doreen, who gave us more explanation about what was going to happen in the next few days.
She also informed us that the weather was pretty unpredictable and that the members of The Polar Bear Photo Safari, who were supposed to leave in the morning, were still in Winnipeg because all the planes to Churchill had been cancelled for the day. 
I prayed for our flight to be maintained because I didn’t want to miss any minute of what I already know would be an unforgettable but too short adventure.

The next morning, our flight was scheduled at 6:30 so I put my alarm for 4:15 am. If you know me, you know that I’m not a morning person! But I woke at 2:30 am and was too excited to get back to sleep.
Apparently, the weather had improved during the night.
At the airport, I was relieved when we were handed our boarding passes. But, when we were waiting for the gate to open, we were informed that our flight was delayed without any further information.
Luckily, we were able to take off a bit more than one hour after the expected time.
We landed at Churchill around 9:45 am. Unfortunately, it was too windy for our little plane to transfer us until the lodge. Instead of waiting an indeterminate period at the tiny airport (until the wind weakened enough to allow us to fly), we were all driven to the “downtown” of Churchill. There, we were free to wander around until noon, when we had to gather in a restaurant and wait.
The temperature was about -18°C and it was bitter cold due to the strong wind.
Our first stop was in a bakery and the 4 of us ordered a hot drink to prepare us to go outside. 

All the streets were covered with ice and we had to walk very carefully.

We visited the few shops around. We also discovered some very cute husky puppies outside a house. 

Our driver finally informed us about 01:00 pm that the weather conditions were good enough to allow us to fly to the lodge.
We had to fly in 2 groups because the plane only had a seating capacity of 9 persons including the pilot. We were among the first group to leave.
The flight didn’t take more than 15 minutes. It was very noisy and a bit bumpy. 

Everybody had a window seat and was able to enjoy the landscape: the Hudson bay starting to freeze, the tundra covered with snow, and, finally, the lodge, our home for the next days: Dymond Lake EcoLodge.

We landed in the middle of nowhere, on a makeshift runway.

Nolan (Doreen’s husband who was in charge of the lodge) and our 2 guides, Terry and Steve, came to welcome us and to ensure our safety during the 5 minutes walk from the plane to the lodge. From the start, they made sure that we understood that we were in the polar bears territory and that we wouldn’t be allowed, for our own safety, to go somewhere without an armed guide.

The lodge was composed of 3 main buildings: the communal room and 2 separate guest cabins. 

The summer before we arrived, a fence had been erected all around the lodge to allow the guests to go from one building to another by themselves, instead of being escorted every time.
The communal room was composed of a living room, a dining area and a kitchen. This is where we enjoyed all our delicious meals.
Our 2 rooms were allocated in the old cabin. 
The old cabin was composed of a living room where we all gathered around a drink in the evening, several bedrooms and a viewing tower. 

We fell in love with this place as soon as we entered. It was how we imagined a traditional Canadian lodge: huge, cozy and warm. It was the perfect place to forget our fast-paced way of life and just chill out. 

Each room could accommodate 4 people thanks to 2 bunk beds and had a private bathroom. Thankfully, my sister and I didn’t have to share our room with my mother and my step-father because he snores like hell. 

We really felt at home.

Once that we had settled down, we went back to the communal room. I noticed a telescope in front of the window and came closer to have a look. Nolan told me where to look and I saw my first polar bear in the wild, resting on the other side of the little lake in front of the lodge. 

I couldn’t wait for the last members of the group to arrive and have our first walk.

Once that we were all warmly dressed, it was finally the time to go and say “Hi” to the polar bear.

Our group
The Canada Goose Team

He might have smelled us because we met halfway between the lodge and the place we saw him last resting.

It was an overwhelming moment to see this beautiful animal in his environment, without any kind of protection between us and him. He seemed to be as interested in us as we were in him. When he was close enough, we noticed that he had a scar on the face.
I was torn between taking pictures and fully living the moment. I tried to alternate both because I wanted to have some souvenirs of this beautiful moment but at the same time I didn’t want to live the encounter only through my camera. 
The bear came closer and closer. He was at least than 15 meters when…. my step-father started to feel unwell. He couldn’t have chosen a better moment! 

He complained that he was cold and then, all of a sudden, he started to feel very hot, to become very white, to want to vomit and to have a blurred vision. My mother made him seat and was prepared for what was going to happen: he passed out, victim of a vasovagal episode. She was prepared because she’s an emergency doctor but also because him and I are subject to this kind of unease. Me, when I’m in a huge pain. Him, when he’s hungry or cold. In that case, he was cold. He didn’t  want to listen to the wise advices of my mother and I about how to dress for cold weather and put too many layers of bad clothes.  
He quickly came back to his mind but was tired. Our guides had to fire into the air to make the polar bear leave because he was becoming too curious. Normally, speaking in a low monotone voice or throwing stones in the direction of the bear is enough to frighten him. They couldn’t believe that they had to fire on their first tour of the year when they only did it once during the whole season last year! We helped my step-father to walk back to the lodge because he was still weak. He recovered quickly once that he was in the warm cabin.
It was a lot of emotions for a first day!

During the night, Nolan woke us up to see a very weak northern light. So weak that it was almost invisible to the naked eye. Unfortunately, it never became more visible and we didn’t have any other opportunity to see another one during our stay. It’s a shame because it’s an amazing sight. I had the chance to see one in Kiruna (Sweden) many years ago and it really was a show that I would never forget.

For our 2nd and 3rd days, we were very lucky with the weather: blue sky, no wind and a temperature of around zero degree. 

Everyday, we took a walk in the morning and one in the afternoon. Sometimes we went near the sea and sometimes we went further in the land.

At each of our walks, we saw the same bear with the scar. Our guides had named him Scarbrow, which I transformed into Scarface and then into Oscar. Don’t ask me why but I love to give nicknames to people and apparently now animals too.
Despite the efforts of our guides, it happened that Oscar was the only bear we saw during our stay. 

But we didn’t care because he was a very loyal companion. 

He even came several times near the fence or the windows, giving us the opportunity to take many great pictures.

Selfie with a polar bear

The day to leave the lodge arrived too quickly. We all agreed that we could have stayed at least one for week.

On the last morning, we saw a cute weasel around the lodge. We tried to take a picture of it but it was so fast that it was almost impossible. Finally, I don’t know how and neither does she, but my mother managed to take a very beautiful picture.

Each member of the group also take a souvenir picture with Terry and Steve.

After a last glimpse at the lodge, it was time to go back to Churchill.
We had the afternoon at our leisure. We visited the Parks Canada Visitor Center and the Eskimo museum, we went to see the beach, we entered in the multiplex that houses among other a public library, the hospital, a swimming pool, an ice rink … and we went to the post to make our passport stamped with a very special stamp.

On our way back to the hotel, we went back to see the husky puppies and we found even younger and cuter puppies. We wanted to bring one back home.

In the evening, we all met again in a tupiq, a traditional Inuit tent, to listen to Mary speaking about the Inuit culture. She was a lovely lady with many interesting stories.

We spent the next full day in a tundra buggy. 

The vehicle was chartered for our group so we had a lot of space. 

I saw polar bears everywhere, they turned out to be rocks covered with snow…  

Fortunately, our diver (obviously) but also my mother were much better to make the difference. In total, we saw more than 10 polar bears but sadly no mother with cubs. 
The advantage with a tundra buggy is that you cover a big perimeter and therefore enhance the chances of seeing many bears. 

Every time we saw a bear, the driver went closer and we stopped for a while.

Some were very curious and came very near to the buggy, to our great pleasure.

To take pictures, we had the possibility to stay in the buggy and open the window or to go to the outside viewing platform at the rear of the buggy. 

I spent most of my time between the platform and the stove to warm me up when I was too cold. The stove was also my mother’s favourite place. 

During the day, the weather became worst and worst and we couldn’t distinguish a thing during the way back.

We really enjoyed the experience but we wouldn’t have exchange our 3 days of walking tours against 3 days in a tundra buggy. 

Our flight back to Winnipeg was scheduled in the evening. We reached the airport under a snow storm. Our flight was delayed several times before finally being cancelled.
The problem was that all the hotels in Churchill were fully booked and that we were supposed to fly to Montreal very early the next day. 
While the Churchill Wild team was sorting out a solution for us, I had to call the airline to change our tickets. After 2 good hours, several phone calls and almost a nervous breakdown, we were booked on another flight the next next day. 

And, as a good news never come alone, we were informed that some locals had accepted to offer us a roof for the night. The 4 of us were accommodated in the only concrete house in Churchill. 

The day after

When we woke up the day after, the weather was still bad. We had breakfast and then we tried to contact our insurance. This time, it was my mother’s turn to deal with it.

Then, we took a last walk in Churchill before going back to the airport. 
As you can see, the beach didn’t look the same at all!

Our flight was once again delayed because of the snow but we finally managed to take off. 

We wouldn’t have been bothered to get stuck longer…

We left the head full of good memories, swearing to come back one day.

This trip to Churchill really changed my way of traveling. I now like to visit places specially to see animals, they have became one of my main interest.
And after orangutans in Borneo last March, I’m now planning to travel to China to see pandas. 

Tips :
-Don’t be too tight with your travel dates, as we never know what can happen.
-Don’t forget to bring at least 2 batteries for your camera because battery tends to run flat quite quickly in the cold. And it will be a shame to miss the picture of your stay because of a dead battery.

And you, did you experience a life changing travel?

Churchill Wild
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