Grant (my 11-year-old son) and I just came back from our Polar Bear trip to Churchill, Manitoba, Canada!
As some of you may recall, I won this trip from the 2011 World Wildlife Fund Photo Contest. My shot, “Mesa Arch Sunrise” took the grand prize in the landscape category and launched us on this amazing adventure.
So, before we begin, I really want to thank everyone who voted for that image, the World Wildlife Fund, and Natural Habitat Adventures. It was an outstanding experience that Grant and I thoroughly enjoyed.
A special thank you to Aly and Valerie who coordinated the trip and our amazing guide Colby who was probably more knowledgeable about natural history than anyone I’ve ever met. That guy knows his bears!
Finally, if you’re ever thinking about a cool outdoor adventure style trip, I HIGHLY recommend going with Natural Habitat Adventures. Just absolutely outstanding in every respect.
So, here’s the story…
Day 1 & 2
OK, day 1 was pretty much just getting to Winnipeg, so I’ll spare you the monotonous air travel log. Let’s just say there was a lot of sitting, sleeping, and a little drooling, but we managed to arrive at the Fort Garry Hotel in Winnipeg just fine.
The evening of day 1 consisted of a fantastic dinner with the group, introductions, and an overview of what to expect on the trip. I think everyone in our group hit the sack that night with dreams of polar bears dancing in our heads.
Next morning it was back to the airport for the 2 1/2 hour flight to Churchill. The plane was a cool twin prop with close but comfortable accommodations. Our aerial view mostly consisted of cloud tops, but as we started to close in on Churchill they broke up a bit and we would be treated to the occasional glimpse of tundra from the frosty windows.
Upon landing in Churchill you could just feel the excitement in the air – several groups were on the plane and we were all gearing up for that once-in-a-lifetime polar bear photo experience.
Our group of 13 loaded onto the shuttle bus and sped off to lunch. From there, it was hotel check-ins, a fantastic presentation on polar bears, then off to the local Inuit Museum for a quick tour.
After dinner, we did a little night photography (I’d show you the shots, but the next day was the same subject only better – I’ll explain as we go along ) then it was off to bed – the next three days would be on the tundra, seeking that perfect polar bear image!
Here’s our video for the day:
Now it gets serious.
The day started with a quick breakfast and the bundled-up group of us heading out to the shuttle bus, gear in hand. Stepping out of the hotel into the arctic air certainly grabs your attention. When asking about the temps, numbers like -30C, -35C are tossed around (-21F to -30F). That’s when Grant has his first Polar Bear encounter. The timing was awkward too, as he was just moments ago making fun of this guy’s mother…
After a short drive, we arrive at the Polar Rovers. These monstrous vehicles will serve as our chariot across the open tundra and are amazingly impressive. Situated on a set of six, five and a half foot tires sits a large bus-like vehicle. It’s wider than your typical school bus and features a “porch” off the back for photography and observation. Each of the monstrous tires are drive wheels, making it a 6 wheel drive off road machine!
Here’s an interior shot (the video will show you the outside)
We take our seats, and the game begins!
As we make our way across the tundra, Colby (our guide), explains that the ice has started to form in earnest, and when that happens the bears (who haven’t eaten since late June) are more than a little eager to race back to the frozen ocean and find themselves a seal dinner.
Needless to say, the bay icing up is a source of worry.
Still, we continue, carefully scanning the tundra for any signs of bear. We decide to head towards the “Tundra Lodge”, a portable, temporary “hotel” created by hooking up several giant trailers together (that also sit on top of five and a half foot wheels).
As we approach, we see our first bear!
He’s a big guy, lumbering along towards the lodge (they get curious about it). All eyes are fixed on our new found friend and I’m amazed at just how large these bears really are. I quickly snap off a few shots as the bear makes his way towards the lodge. Make sure you check out the video below – Grant managed some cool clips.
We move the rover to the lodge and watch with excitement as the bear examines the area. You can almost hear him asking, “Hey, what is this thing?” as he pokes around the exterior.
The air is full of the sounds of frantic shutter clicks each time he’s in an open area, and I’m certainly popping off my fair share of frames.
It’s not long before another bear joins him, but this guy keeps to the thick willows and we never really do get a good shot at him.
We decide to linger for awhile and see what happens. Lunch is served and as we have our sandwiches and soup, we chat excitedly about the morning’s adventure. What a way to start your day! It’s safe to say both Grant and I had stupid grins plastered across our faces.
The bear decides he’s had it with all the attention and makes his departure. Since the other guy seems pretty settled in for the day, we fire up the Polar Rover and look to greener (err, whiter?) pastures.
Our efforts aren’t overly successful, however we do stumble across another bear bedded down in an area of willows. He’s kind of ~ sort of ~ interested, so his head lazily pops up from time to time – each head bob is greeted by a flurry of shutter clicks of course! (See video)
As the sun starts looking more seriously towards the horizon, we head in, thrilled to have seen our first Polar Bears!
(Although, the photos I captured that day aren’t really as good as the next few days, so they didn’t get posted – hey I’m picky – but there is a cool photo below)
As evening approached, the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) were coming out in full force! (We’d later learn from the locals that is was one of the best displays in recent memory.) So, instead of the planned talk after dinner it was off to the inukshuk for some photography! What’s an inukshuk? This:
Overall, a pretty fantastic day in the arctic! Check out the video – way better than the one on the last post 😀
(Keep in mind that it was shot almost exclusively from the Polar Rover and that thing bounces constantly – even when it’s stopped people moving around cause a lot of movement. Still fun to watch – and hey, not bad for an 11 year old!)
Breakfast this morning was all abuzz with the previous day’s adventure of Polar Bears and Auroras. Needless to say, we were all pretty pumped to see what today was going to bring.
We made our way to the Polar Rovers and it was off across the tundra again. Today would bring us to the coast – about a two-hour ride.
During the long rides, our guide Colby would use the time to give us engaging lessons about everything from bears, to frogs, to spruce trees. One common theme – life in the Arctic is crazy harsh and it’s really amazing how anything – plant or animal – can survive.
Upon arriving at the coast we spotted a bear waaaaayyyyy out on the ice – a total no-go for photos, but hey, still cool to see ’em. It wasn’t long before we spotted another – again far enough away to make it a struggle to spot him even with binoculars.
However, the next bear was a little more cooperative and hadn’t ventured out on the ice just yet. We moved position to intercept him as he traveled along the coast – and he decided to walk to the rover and take a nap! We ate lunch with a Polar Bear bout 20 yards from the window! Very cool! (see the vid)
Then things started to get interesting!
It started with a mother and cubs strolling along the coastline – they never got overly close (the mothers are understandably cautious), but I did manage a “wildlife in the landscape” style photo:
About the time these guys were getting out of sight, a large female came walking up the coast – right towards our rover! Our driver, Ward (great guy), backed us in for a better position and – and the bear promptly plopped down! For the next 30 – 45 minutes we were treated to this girl’s antics. I love the way she was laying down with her paws crossed!
Make sure you check out the video below for more action!
All too soon our time was up and the light was starting to fade. We made our way back to the “dock” for the Polar Rovers and then off to dinner.
Our evening presentation was from an Inuit couple, Mary and Peter. We sat in a large tepee-like hut, and although the outside temp was single digit frigid, it was comfortable inside – and warm enough we didn’t need gloves. And no, there wasn’t a fire! It was amazing to hear how the native people used to live, especially considering all they had were caribou hides for warmth. I knew how cold it was even with all my high tech gear, it must have been rough. They were an ingenious, tough group of people to be sure.
From there, off to bed. Make sure you check out Grant’s video for the day:
Wind & Snow.
That’s all we saw when we glanced out of our hotel room this morning. It’s blowing like crazy today, dropping the windchill to -40! Youch! It’s cold for sure, but hey those Polar Bears aren’t going to photograph themselves, so off we go!
I gotta say, the normally uneventful shuttle bus ride to the Polar Rover was much more interesting this morning. At times visibility was better measured in inches than feet. How the driver kept the shuttle bus on the road is a testament to the winter driving ability of the Churchill folks.
Upon our safe arrival, we make the quick transition from the shuttle to the Polar Rover – it was only 20 yards, but the wind and snow were so intense you had to go on feel as much as sight. My pants were coated in snow a matter of seconds – wow! – (Check out the video to really get a feel for how crazy the weather was)
The bad thing with the wind at this level of ferocity is that the bears don’t like it anymore than we do and tend to bed down and allow themselves to become “drifted over” for protection.
Yeah, makes it hard to get a shot!
As the wind howled outside the rover, we drove across the tundra in total awe – it was really something to see. Waves of snow would pass over the ice and blow off the tops of drifts. The forecast promised it would die down by late morning / early afternoon – and they nailed it.
However, we hadn’t seen a bear yet. Had they all gone to the ice? It was a distinct possibility. Once the ice supports their weight, they can literally be gone overnight – and in fact, the VAST majority had already left. The few we’d seen over the last few days were merely stragglers.
As we patrolled the coast, hopeful for just one more bear, we spotted some of the other Polar Rovers and Tundra Buggys off in the distance. As we pulled up, we couldn’t tell what they were looking at – until a big ‘ole bear popped his head up!
Our driver positioned us as best he could – nearly every rover and buggy on the tundra had congregated for this one lone bear. However, his positioning couldn’t have been better.
It wasn’t long before the bear stood up and walked off – and what had been a poor spot five minutes ago became the best place on the tundra! As he passed behind the vehicles, backlit by the sun, I snapped off some of (what I think are) the best photos of the trip.
As he wandered off then out towards the ice, we made our way back to Polar Rover HQ – ahh, but the fun wasn’t over just yet.
On a straight stretch of trail Ward (our driver) stopped the Polar Rover and word was passed back that he needed Grant up front. You can imagine my 11-year-old son’s surprise when Ward let him sit in the driver’s seat!
“You wanna drive?” Ward asked Grant.
So after a quick lesson Grant was driving the Polar Rover down the trail with everyone in the vehicle cheering him on! See the video for the full adventure.
Soon, Ward was back in control and we were back at our shuttle bus.
That evening was a fantastic dinner and prevention from our guide Colby. Our last day on the tundra was over, but we still had some time tomorrow morning. Stay tuned – still some cool stuff left!
You GOTTA see this video – it’s the best of the trip!
Day 6 & 7
Well, here we are, day 6 – we leave after lunch for Winnipeg.
But, you know, a half-day in Churchill can still be pretty cool!
We start our day with breakfast and head out to the shuttle. Sure, it’s no Polar Rover, but we’re going to drive around and try to catch a glimpse (or photo) of a fox – and who knows, maybe we’ll see a bear too!
A couple of cool signs you just don’t see anywhere else…
Love this sign:
And this one:
We drive to Cape Merry, rolling slowly along searching for any leftover Polar Bears or maybe a fox. No luck, but our shuttle driver is full of engaging historical information and makes the drive interesting.
We pull up to the little park at Cape Merry and are treated to a brief history lesson by one of the guides. From there, it’s back to searching for fox and bear – no luck so far.
We drop by the Churchill visitor center for a quick break and to stretch our legs. Lots of great history up there!
Next, we jump back into the shuttle and soon get word of a couple bears nearby via the radio. We zip over to the location and sure enough, we find one meandering along the coast.
There’s another van nearby and we’re all trying to snap photos as he wanders along. He stops to investigate some old buildings, then heads our way to investigate a backhoe that was left from the summer. He even stands on his hind legs at one point as he sniffs around – these bears are amazingly inquisitive.
Oh, and yes, there ARE people in the van during the part of the video when he’s only inches from the door!
I tried some shots but the temperature differential between the frigid outside air and the warm shuttle causes too many heat waves and I just can’t get a sharp image – oh well. Was still cool to have one last bear for the final day.
We stopped by the Polar Bear jail too – it’s where they put the problem bears before they transport them out of the area. They tranquilize them, put ’em in jail for a few days or weeks (depends on the circumstances), then fly ’em 20+ miles up the coast. An experience they DON’T want to repeat!
Polar Bear Jail:
A trap for problem bears and annoying kids:
From there, it was off to lunch then to the airport. Sadly, our adventure was quickly coming to an end – seems like we just got started.
We had one final get-together with the group for some dinner. We said our farewells and it was off to bed, still dreaming of Polar Bears.
Day 7 was simply flying back home.
This was a fantastic trip. It certainly wasn’t my “normal” photo trip experience – not used to doing all the “tourist” stuff, but it was a nice change from my typical shoot – scout – shoot routine.
Grant had a fantastic time as well – he says it’s his favorite trip ever and I think I have to agree. I have a feeling this isn’t our last trip to the arctic. So much more to see, so much more to photograph.
I hope you enjoyed our little journey 🙂
Also, we’d love your feedback, so feel free to comment below.
~Steve & Grant