Our Week in Polar Bear Country

Our Week in Polar Bear Country

Churchill… just one of those places etched into our memories as the place of dreams.

Making our way via Manitoba’s long dusty highways we made it to Thompson, the end of the roads and the beginning of the north.  It’s from here where the train leaves (for tickets as cheap as C$60) to Churchill, the polar bear capital of the world, the beluga whale capital of the world and a northern lights hub. It was a dot on the map which we had marked long ago when planning our ultimate Banadian road trip, back when we first found out that the mythical polar bear resides in the Canadian sub arctic.

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The 17 hour train journey up to Churchill is infamous for delays and with an email 24 hr prior to departure from VIA rail informing us of a new departure time 2 hours later, we knew we were in for the real deal. The 2 hour delay cascaded to a 5 hour delay and when our train actually arrived 6 hours later than our rescheduled time we were baffled to here the announcement that our train would not be departing until 4:30am the following morning – 9 hrs later. Staffing issues and a domino of delays caused train staff to exceed their maximum shift allowance and there ensued a mandatory 8 hour rest period for all staff. Fair dues, go unions!! Swarmed by mosquitoes (Aussies, we have it fine!), we were extremely grateful to be allowed on the train to sleep and stay warm.

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Eventually the 17 hour train did begin and we found excitement with the slow change of scenery out our window from lush boreal forest to desolate tundra. The steady screeching of breaks moments before midnight signalled our arrival and as we took our first step off our 24 hour motor home (they gave us free food because of the delay- that was enough to keep us happy), the blast of fresh icy air greeted us: welcome to 58degrees north and welcome to the sub-arctic.

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Ultimate canadian road trip, polar bears

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To be honest the week was a blur, so much so my eyes were constantly bloodshot from watching, scouring, absorbing and finding anything that moved. I didn’t want to miss a thing. There was so much to see and do and Becks and I squeezed as much as we could into every day… was it worth it – hell yeah!! This week in Churchill was one of the best weeks of my life.

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Prior to Churchill we were under the impression that tours were the only way to penetrate the tundra and with emails back and forth with Frontier North Adventures we uncovered a hidden fact, one we couldn’t find anywhere on the internet – you can experience Churchill on a budget and can travel Churchill independently.

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Here are a few incredible moments that stand out from our time here..

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…”Finally tucked up in bed at Tundra House (the only budget accom in Churchill) by 1am on our first night we were pretty apprehensive to hear the alarm sound at 6am. Becks and I had booked an early morning date with beluga whales but with a coffee in our system our tiredness and lethargy transformed to something close to psychotic excitement.… Geared up in 11mm’s of neoprene we took a freezing leap into the arctic ocean. An instant brain freeze and the initial trickle of icy water down the back of my neck clouded the first few moments but when the first whale came into view no more that 1.5m from my face, the bitterness faded and for the next 2 hours we watched almost 50 whales twist, twirl and interact around us. Their curiosity comes across as a playfulness and as we sing out to them in ridiculous screeches and chirps, they come in closer again and again to eye us off singing just as loud. They are known as the canaries of the sea, a name I feel is rightfully deserved.”

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Ultimate canadian road trip, polar bears Ultimate canadian road trip, polar bears

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…“and that’s a bear right up ahead” dave says casually as if any excitement in his voice would scare it away. The whole Tundra Buggy® lunges forward and within a second Dave has 23 people breathing on his neck”…. Our first glimpse of a polar bear is here in ‘Amazing Churchill: Polar Bears in Summer

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On a note: One Tundra Buggy® was never going to be enough, neither was 3 to be honest. Becks and I booked one after the other, wholly captivated by the arctic tundra, it’s animals and the desolate wildness that encompasses it all.

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…”ah excuse me,” Becks nudges Justin our dingy driver and tour guide. “What’s that white streak on that rock?” Justin, nor any of the other 4 passengers knew. Over on the rocky shore barely 1/2 a meter wide and a few inches thick was a white strip. “It looks like snow” Justin admits although it’s summer and snow is non-existent. He putts slowly closer, still unsure of the unusual oddity. The white strip suddenly grows and now we can see a giant white head and paw.  A huge polar bear is lying, sunning herself on the shores of the incandescent blue Hudson bay. Justin steers the boat closer and minutes pass as we watch her swat flies from her face and generally laze about until we see a another little head pop up, she’s with her cub! Within 20m of the shore now we have a clear view of the adorable interactions between them. Barely 7 months old we are told, we look at each other and smile, how do we get ourselves into these situations?”  Becks captured those moments and put together a little pictorial called ‘Interactions Between a Polar Bear Mother and Cub’.

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Ultimate canadian road trip, polar bears Ultimate canadian road trip, polar bears

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…”This is just part of the first aid kit” Paul’s telling us as he slings his rifle over his shoulder. “Alright lets go”. We’re heading out on the tundra by foot today with Paul from Nature 1st. His pony tail beard and cheeky smile already suggests we’re in for a treat. Churchill has been built in bear country and it’s few hundred inhabitants have learnt to live side by side with them. Something I didn’t know before I came was that polar bears are the only bear to actually prey on humans, a respect that all locals appreciate. “These are bear footprints..” “This is a rocket…” This is an old polar bear trap…” These are ancient fossils…” “You need an escape route on your house in case a bear comes knocking…” Paul really was character and his tracks and trails tour was an eye opener to life in bear country.

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Ultimate canadian road trip, polar bears Ultimate canadian road trip, polar bears

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…”It’s a clear sky out there, do you think there’s a chance of northern lights Becks” I say as we struggle to get comfortable of the train back to Thompson. I’m not actually sure if we are lacking comfort or that we are over-excited, over-tired and absolutely pooped from our whirlwind Churchill week but neither Becks and I could settle. Making our way to the front of the train we find a dark carriage, and peer out into the night sky. Faint, but surely green we see a swirl… A swirl which moves and contorts faster than a cloud, a swirl which hangs around until our eyes slowly close and our dreams return to a place full of polar bears and whales, a place that actually exists in the present and not just in fairy tales.”

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Return to our ‘100 Day Ultimate Canadian Road Trip‘ guide

 

 

 

 

 

Written by

Prue Sinclair is a twenty-six year old Aussie who for the past five years has been exploring the furthermost reaches of Asia. Living anywhere but her homeland, she now resides somewhere in the Americas where she writes about her adventures. Her travel ideals are simple: Plans are not made, visa are not obtained and routes are not sketched out, but wherever she ends up you can be sure she’ll be writing about it.

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Hi we're Prue and Becks, travel writers and photographers who have been travelling the world together since 2012. Without taking ourselves too seriously, we divulge the lesser known, out of the way places and give you the tools to replicate it. Want to know more? Click on our pic.
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