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Meeting the ice bears of Churchill

Monday, 24th November 2014

Erin Glennie

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What is it really like getting up close to mighty polar bears on the tundra outside of Churchill, Canada? Travel Specialist, Erin, recounts her experience.

At the end of October I was so lucky to be able to go on the 6 day Classic Polar Bear Adventure in Churchill. I could talk about my trip endlessly but I will share with you some of the amazing highlights I experienced whilst out in the land of the polar bear.

After enjoying our first night in Winnipeg, meeting our guide and the rest of the group at our welcome briefing dinner, we were off to Churchill!

We were driven directly to the aircraft on the runway: no check in, no security, no customs – we just hopped straight on the plane. The aircraft was chartered by Natural Habitat, which operates these polar bear trips, so I was only travelling with people who were equally excited about seeing polar bears. The flight is about 2.5 hours from Winnipeg to Churchill, and it was nice to start getting to know everyone.

Polar Rovers

We spent a total of four days in Churchill, and the next two and a half days were dedicated to what it’s all about… seeing the polar bears!

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We spent two whole days and one evening on out in the subarctic tundra on these specially designed ‘Polar Rover’ vehicles.

With our tours, everyone gets a window seat. The Polar Rovers all have 30 to 50 seats, but as they never have more that 16 travellers on them, they’re incredibly spacious and you never have to fight for a photo opportunity!

All of the windows slide down so you can get better views and prevent getting any glare when taking photos. They have a great heating system on board so you never get cold, even with the windows open.

Onto the tundra…

This was the first polar bear we saw! Our guide Brad spotted it within 30 minutes of being out on the tundra, and even though it was in the distance, the atmosphere on the Polar Rover was electric at the excitement of seeing our first bear.

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Brad was fantastic – really knowledgeable about polar bear behaviour and what it was likely to do. We stayed in the same spot for about 45 minutes and it certainly paid off.

The same bear edged closer and closer to us…

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…just enjoying its environment…

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…until there she was, right outside our Polar Rover! It is so difficult to capture the size and at the same time the calmness of these majestic animals. It really took my breath away!

Throughout the journey through the tundra, Brad gave informative talks about the area while always being on the look out for more polar bears and other wildlife. There’s no way that we would have spotted this Arctic hare without his sharp eyes, for example!

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Tundra, take 2

Our second day out on the tundra in the Polar Rovers was another full day of polar bear viewing. The dusting of snow overnight changed the terrain dramatically; it looked like we were in a different place entirely.

It took a little longer to see out first polar bear, but our guide was on the constant look out for other wildlife while continuing with his informative talks.
We saw an array of bird life, including ptarmigans (which are like a smaller white grouse), ravens and we were super lucky to see a gyr falcon. And then the polar bears came!

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With the confidence that comes from being the largest land predators on earth, the bears were completely un-phased by the Polar Rovers, whilst being very inquisitive.

Here is one of the polar bears we saw who had his front paws on the bonnet of the Polar Rover, looking right in to see us!


Back in Churchill

Churchill itself is small town of around 800 residents. For them polar bears are a very common sight, and from time to time the bears wander into the town. When this happens the bears are humanely captured and taken to ‘polar bear jail’.

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The bears are always released back into the wild, and we were lucky to witness this happening. The bears are sedated, then flown north by helicopter back in to the tundra.

An evening expedition

We had one more tundra expedition to make – alas, not by helicopter (although you can do this on the Ultimate Polar Bear Adventure) – an evening out on the tundra, having dinner on the Polar Rovers. It was absolutely wonderful.

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To see the tundra in yet another way was amazing. In three days we saw the landscape go from soft browns and greys peppered by willow bushes and spliced with free flowing lakes and ponds, to pristine white and fresh with snowfall and water frozen solid. The skies changed from snow-heavy clouds to clear Arctic sunlight – and, of course, glorious sunsets.

But, back to dinner.

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The food we had on board the Polar Rover was always delicious, wholesome and filling. During our daytrips we enjoyed soups, salads and sandwiches – and you never went hungry with all the snacks in between too!

The evening dinner on board the Rover was a gala affair, starting with a yummy soup, followed by chicken, dessert and to finish we were truly spoiled with wine and cheese. (Natural Habitat are really good about catering to different dietary requirements and preferences, all you need to do is let them know.)

Top tips for taking this trip

  • With all of Discover the World’s polar bear itineraries you are sent a ‘Pre-Departure Briefing’ booklet which has everything you need to know from what to pack, spending money and tipping, meals and drinks, photography and gear lists to destination information and much more.
  • You will never go hungry or thirsty on your adventure. The food is delicious and wholesome and whilst on the Polar Rovers. Tea, coffee, soft drinks are always available as well as everything from mid-morning snacks to proper meals.
  • On the Polar Rovers, everyone gets a window seat! No need to fight to get that perfect view.
  • You are on the Polar Rovers for 8 hours whilst on the day outings, and 4 hours for the evening outing. All of the vehicles have excellent toilet facilities and the comfort of a luxury coach.
  • All of the guides are highly trained professionals whether they are naturalists, biologists or environmental educators they bring this experience to life. Their passion and excitement for the wildlife surrounding Churchill makes it an experience you will never forget.
  • You could get to see the northern lights! Although they say that January to March is the best time to see the northern lights in Churchill it is still possible to see them on the polar bear trips. I was incredibly lucky and saw them from the door step of our hotel.
  • While they are the main attraction, it’s not just about polar bears – while we were in Churchill, I also went husky sledding, explored the town and learned about the First Nations communities that live in the area. Fascinating and fun in equal measure.


Start planning your trip

Browse our collection of polar bear holidays in Manitoba, including the Classic Polar Bear Adventure.

For help and advice on planning your adventure, send an enquiry or speak to one of our Travel Specialists today, who will be happy to share their first-hand experience.

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