Polar Bear Capital???

Trip Start Oct 07, 2013
Trip End Jul 01, 2015

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Flag of Canada  , Manitoba,
Thursday, October 10, 2013

Part II of our current world wanderings is supposed to be a little bit of the 'vida loca' in Central and South America. And what better way to get to Costa Rica than via Churchill, Manitoba. Some of our more loyal viewers might be thinking that DH was somehow in charge of logistics on this leg of the trip, and while it's true that my Princess' navigational skills continue to start and finish with a coin toss, viewing polar bears in their natural environment has long been on our bucket list (and Churchill, Manitoba is the self-anointed polar bear capital of the world). Since Churchill is never really on the way to anywhere else, we decided to make it a stop on the way to Costa Rica.

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. Since this particular railway was primarily designed to allow for another export port for Saskatchewan wheat farmers, our journey out of Winnipeg would actually take us on a boomerang into Saskatchewan before looping back to the very Northeastern part of Manitoba. Combine that with dicy rails sitting on heaving permafrost and you have a trip that takes a long two and a half days. At times you could almost walk faster than the train was rolling but it was good fun and it took you back to another era of travel (helped in no small part by the fact that Via hasn't upgraded the cars since the 70's). I do think that Via has missed a real opportunity to make the actual train experience the highlight of any journey to the North (or any other part of Canada for that matter). Instead of high prices and indifferent, almost bizarre, service (despite having 3-4 serving staff offering a paper menu with 3 items only- 3 items which never changed- you had to sit at one of six specific tables in the dining car or risk going hungry), there's every opportunity to create simultaneous journeys through the Canada of today and the Canada of yesterday. DH really enjoyed the train and found the constant rocking resulted in some of her best nights of sleep ever- she's now campaigning to have me rock her to sleep each and every night but a line really has to be drawn somewhere.

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. Nefarious types like to use the polar bear as a fund raising vehicle (global warming= melting ice cap= declining polar bear populations) but it was large scale hunting that was the real culprit (sport hunting can bring CDN$20,000 to $35,000 per bear into northern communities)- populations have rebounded after controls and quotas began to take effect (although eight of nineteen sub-populations remain in decline). Although it is related to the brown bear, it has evolved many body characteristics needed for cold temperatures, for moving across snow, ice, and open water, and for hunting the seals which make up most of its diet. Small ears and tail to minimize freezing, large feet to distribute weight on the ice, bumps on pads to provide traction on ice, webbed feet to provide propulsion when swimming, and short, stocky claws needed to grip heavy prey and ice, these bears are custom designed for the north (not surprisingly, many of the folks we met in Churchill had some of the same characteristics). Although born on land, the bears spend most of their time at sea and hunt their preferred food of seals from the edge of sea ice, often living off fat reserves when no sea ice is present. And it's that sea ice that brings us to Churchill. The polar bears gather near and around Churchill in Oct & Nov as they wait impatiently for the Hudson Bay shoreline to freeze (come too soon and the bears are still hidden & conserving energy, come too late and the bears are out on the ice). The hardened denizens of Churchill don't guarantee a bear experience in Oct & Nov but they get pretty close to doing just that. 

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. This one took the Hudson Bay Company 40 years to build but it was surrendered to the French in 1782 without a shot being fired from any of its 40 cannons (one might suggest that English Canada has been surrendering to the French without firing shots ever since). And every Canadian, even Deb P, should know that the mighty Hudson Bay Company was created in this area in 1668 when the ship, the Nonsuch reached the bay and successfully traded for beaver pelts.

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. A true photographer would have had a tripod at the ready, but I was stuck trying to use rocks, and fences to create a steady base, and the results won't be making Tina B weak in the knees. Just as the lights were fading the curfew alarm (aka air raid siren) went off and created an absolute panic among a group of visiting Taiwanese. Presumably they thought it was a bear warning but we did note that they didn't offer us any shelter in their van they scrambled inside of. 

 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??
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Tracy B on

Hilarious, Vic! Sorry your polar bear experience was a disappointment, but we would have loved the train ride, the history, the aurora borealis, and the animal sightings! Tell "Princess" to go south now!! Enjoy and travel safe, you two! Hugs!

Carol C on

At least you didn't have to ride on the "Old" Buggy your luggage was on! Too bad there were no bears up close but you were closer to a real live "free" bear in your drivers backyard than any of us have ever been!

kathryn m on

that's too bad about the polar bears. I wonder how often that happens. Enjoy your new adventure.

Elaine & Doug on

We believe that you've experienced the love/hate relationship many travelers have with the Canadian North. The next time that you need that Northern 'fix', sit back in that deck chair in your tropical paradise, pick up your pina colada and log into a Web site like explore.org. You can spend many hours watching as the live tundra buggy cam pans over vast areas of polar bearless tundra and, yes, even the occasional p. bear.

Fernando on

Too bad your bear sightings were not more memorable.

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