Polar Bear Capital???
Trip Start Oct 07, 2013
38Trip End Ongoing
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Where I stayed
No roads lead to Churchill (literally) so one is obliged to either fly or take the train to visit this lonely outpost on the shores of Hudson Bay. And since Oct and Nov, allegedly the two primo months for polar bear viewing, offer up no discounts for travel, food, and accommodation particularly for individuals, we joined up with a group of fellow retirees and train enthusiasts who were riding the rails of Northern Manitoba
So why all of this effort for the chance to see gigantic, fluffy white, cute-like-a-puppy, carnivorous killing machines (42 very sharp teeth)? First of all, they are generally considered a vulnerable species which puts them squarely on our list of must-see-before-they-disappear critters
And speaking of grizzled veterans of the north, the head grizzle, Paul The Bus Driver, met our unsteady group of bear hunters (cameras only) at the train station and gave us a comprehensive tour of Churchill which literally consisted of driving around the block in his school bus with one extended stop at the nearby Prince of Wales Fort, another in a long line of forts that were built with great effort and surrendered without firing a shot
The next day saw us jumping on board a Tundra Buggy- these homemade contraptions would seem to be the very large lovechild result of a tank and an ATV. Apparently making these things in your backyard means that you only put in two gears- forward and reverse- both incredibly slow. Since you can normally see for miles in all directions on the tundra, once you figured out there were no bears to be seen, it took forever to get to the next area... where there were no bears to be seen. The day was a lot of slow driving with brief moments of excitement whenever a patch of white was spotted- these blobs of white invariably turned out to be Arctic Foxes, Arctic Hares, Ptarmigans galore (it didn't take long to tire of these birdies), and an inordinate number of white rocks (which had me supporting the idea of one of those government make-work projects which would see local kids hired to paint all white rocks a much darker colour). Suffice to say that after many hours of surveillance we plodded our way back to the bus that would return us empty-handed to Churchill
A strange thing happened on the long ride back to the hotel. Upon hearing of our disappointing day, Paul The Bus Driver got a little misty eyed and decided that, as a representative of Churchill, he needed to take us to his place. His small house well outside the town wasn't the objective of our visit (although how many homes in Toronto come with an escape ladder straight up and out of the middle of the house?). It was the polar bear that has settled into his 'backyard'. It wasn't exactly the up close and personal experience we were hoping for given that the bear was a good three hundred yards behind the house, but without the protection of the Tundra Buggy, it probably wouldn't have been wise to get much closer to a hungry 1,000 lb+ critter (although given the somewhat advanced age of some in our group, I really only had to run faster than one or two of them so I guess if I were a real wildlife photographer I would have made the attempt- Tina B and Patrycja L will not be happy with the cowardly telephoto shots).
My photo critics will also be unhappy with my photos of the Aurora Borealis. These bright dancing lights weren't supposed to be visible at this time of the year but as DH and I wandered the shoreline looking for bears at night, the lights suddenly appeared- not the dancing lights you normally see but a slow moving, almost mist-like green haze that floated through the sky
As we walked back we didn't see any bears but we did see a number of locals with 'cracker' guns slung over their shoulders- these guns are intended to scare not kill, but rifles are also seen. Polar Bears invading the town limits has proven to be a problem- just a couple of weeks before we got there, a resident was attacked, had his backside clawed, and was saved from worse by scaring the bear off with the light from his cell phone. The bear was caught and instead of being euthanized, was sent to the Winnipeg Zoo. There's actually a 'bear jail' in Churchill for all bears that wander into town- if they haven't hurt a human they are taken by helicopter to remote areas north and south of town. And no, you're not allowed to view the bears in the jail so we couldn't even get our bear fix there even though there were supposed to be 15 bears behind bars when we were in town (no wonder we can't find any- they're all doing time).
Since the train didn't leave until late the next day, DH and I very cleverly booked another Tundra Buggy tour. At least it seemed clever at the time. In hindsight it was pretty much a repeat of our first day although the lunch was much better. We have had very good luck on many of our wildlife adventures so we were due for a dud but it would have been nice if it didn't happen on a trip that took the effort and money that this one did. Maybe we'll see some polar bears in Costa Rica- they certainly won't have many fewer than what we saw in the self-proclaimed polar bear capital of the world. Maybe next time??