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Churchill: Tundra Buggy

This is an old journal, from our trip around the world in 2002, taken from the diary I wrote at the time. Apologies for the poor quality photographs, they are scans of prints taken with a compact camera.

snow -10 °C
View Around the World for our Silver Wedding 2002 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Another early start this morning. Although the hotel advertises a bar and restaurant in the guide book, neither is available. Jennifer recommends Churchill Motel, and we order their Hungry Man breakfast which consists of 3 eggs, 4 rashers of bacon, 3 slices of toast and a mountain of fried potatoes. That’ll set us up for the day. Today is the day we are going to see polar bears. I am as excited as a small child at Christmas. Polar bears are big business here, and it is all very well organised. School buses are used to ferry passengers to the Tundra Buggy Terminal. Yesterday a woman fell on the ice and fractured her ankle, so today she is unable to climb on board the school bus. She still wants to go out to see the polar bears, so several locals carry her from the hotel to a waiting 4WD truck and again from the truck to the buggy the other end. Such service!

The Tundra Buggy Terminal is 20+km outside town in the middle of nowhere. It’s very bleak and desolate. Getting there seems a lot further as the school bus really is just built for children whose legs are quite a few inches shorter than mine. The bus is full so we can’t even spread out. Feeling a little like a sardine and trying not to be grumpy, my spirits soar when we get on board the buggy.

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It is enormous and there are only 14 in our group. It is quite a decent group, considering. Apart from us they are all Canadian and American. We have enough room to use a bench seat each, and the middle section is wide, allowing for easy movement from side to side when spotting bears, which hopefully we will do.

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The banter between Jennifer, our hostess and the driver Steve makes for a relaxed and friendly atmosphere. They both live in Banff and are good friends. Steve is a French Canadian and has some lovely expressions he uses. They are both very knowledgeable and take the Mickey out of each other all the time – Jennifer even manages to make Steve blush, much to everyone’s amusement.

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There is a joke going around that the best place to take anyone for a first date in Churchill is the Rubbish Dump to see the polar bears that congregate there. If that goes well, the second date is at the observation tower.

After an hour of driving we still haven’t seen any bears, just some tracks across the ice. Disappointing. Steve turns off the main track to go towards the shore line where there are two other trucks. Way in the distance we can see a sleeping bear, just a yellow blob through the binoculars. We would all like to drive a little nearer, but Steve has other ideas. He seems to think he knows of a place where we can see bears a little closer. We have to trust him. The tracks are interesting, lots of frozen potholes, puddles and mounds of ice. It makes for an exciting drive. You couldn’t get across the tundra in any other sort of vehicle. In the distance we spot lots of other buggies and when we get nearer we realise that it is the Tundra Buggy Lodge. There are several bears hanging around, mostly sleeping.

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Occasionally one lifts his head to look around and goes back to sleep. In the distance we can see a bear walking across the tundra. Then another bear arrives from behind the lodge. He thinks he has found a food source in the grey-water outlet from the lodge and fiercely protects is from another bear approaching.

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Two more bears wake up and the young males start sparring. Cameras clicking, we are so excited about the spectacle that unfolds before us. Steve tells us that until yesterday the bears did nothing all day except sleep. We are so lucky to be seeing so much activity today.

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One of the young males walks up to the buggy next to us and stands on his hind legs peering into it. Wow. I feel incredibly privileged and honoured to be here, this really is incredible.

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Bears sniff around the lodge after food smells, trying to look into the kitchen, checking out their mates and taking part in a little play-fighting. Then cool off by spreading themselves out flat on their stomachs. Another little walk, then let’s check out the tourists again.

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This is so amazing. I can’t believe I’m sitting here in the comfort and warmth of the buggy, eating soup and sandwiches and drinking hot chocolate while it is snowing horizontally outside and within a few feet there are several large polar bears. It seems utterly unreal. We stay in the same spot for several hours and see probably about 15 bears in total.

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On top of the Tundra Buggy Lodge roof is a live cam, recording the polar bears constantly for the six weeks or so that they congregate here in the Churchill area. The bears will have spent the summer months inland, surviving mainly on berries and grasses and by now their energy levels are low. They are just waiting for the water in Hudson Bay to freeze over so that they can go out on the ice again and hunt seal. They are conserving their energy and generally move as little as possible; hence we are very lucky to see so much activity today.

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Helicopter flight
Only three of us take up the offer of a helicopter flight over the tundra.

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That is, three of us plus Miles. Miles is a little teddy bear who is travelling with us, having his photograph taken in different locations throughout the world. He belongs to friends of ours who have a travel clothes shop, and they lend him out to whoever is off on their journeys, then displaying his photographs in the shop on his return. He has already had his photo taken with his cousins, the polar bears, in the background, now he gets prime position on the dashboard of the helicopter.

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We fly no higher than 100ft above the ground and from the helicopter spot another dozen or so bears. It is almost as if we are watching a film: ‘there’s one, there’s another one, look over there – a polar bear’. Please don’t ever let me get blasé about seeing wildlife of any sort! Apart from a bear skeleton, all we see is snow, ice and polar bears, but I’m not complaining.

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The flight is great and gives a totally different perspective on the tundra – you realise just how big and desolate it is out here – but I don’t know if it is worth the money. Never mind, we’ve done it now!

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On the way back to town, one of our fellow passengers snoozes and falls off the seat onto the floor when Steve goes over a particularly big rut in the track. Steve is mortified and rather worried, while the passenger is embarrassed but unhurt. The rest of us are very amused. It is snowing quite heavily now. The temperature is around minus 10 °C but with the wind-chill factor, that drops to about minus 20 °C. Cold! Back in ‘town’ we walk to Traders and the Tundra Buggy shop to look for post cards and then to the other end of town to the helicopter office to get our certificates. We are famous at last, or at least Miles is: as we walk in to the office our pilot tells the manager ‘this is the lady who had Miles’. Ken, the manager has just taken our certificates to the Tundra Buggy Shop so he drives us down there in his truck to collect them. His truck is left outside with its engine running, which seems to be the norm here in Churchill. The certificates are not at the Shop, so Ken drives us to the Seaport restaurant where we are having dinner tonight, promising to deliver the certificates there later on in the evening. Again I am impressed with the service here.

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For starter we have a salad, main course is steak and mash and dessert apple pie. It is rather good, even better the fact that Jennifer is paying as we will be missing the included dinner tomorrow night. One of the waiters plays his guitar and we all join in with ‘Leaving on a Jet Plane’. Jennifer is particularly good at singing as it turns out. Our itinerary is very action packed, and we only just have time to walk back to the hotel to deposit the certificates in the room before we are picked up for our long journey to the Town Centre Complex. It would have been quicker to walk. We are treated to a slide show with some fantastic photos of Churchill and the surrounding area in the different seasons. The only problem is the temperature in the hall, it is so warm we are all starting to drop off (in fact, one or two people do). We decide to decline the lift back to the hotel and get there quicker than those who go by bus.

Posted by Grete Howard 05:12 Archived in Canada

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