The Polar Bear Adventure: Part II

Dog Sledding in Churchill

Whoof. Woof. Wolf?  Our ears were bombarded by a chorus of dog sounds as we stepped out of our vehicle and onto pristine white snow at the Wapusk Dog sledding headquarters. The dogs knew we were there, they had heard us arrive and could no doubt smell our scent on the air.  It excited them, energized them, and they weren’t afraid to show it.  A run was coming – and like a typical house dog enmeshed in the intoxicating excitement over a walk or the chance to take a drive, these dogs were beside themselves with anticipation.

Dog Sledding in Churchill

As we made our way from our small bus into the small, warm two room structure that serves as office, gathering and de-thaw point I silently took stalk of our good luck.  Not only had the brutal wind from the day before subsided, but the low hanging clouds had dumped their snowy burden and given way to partially blue skies.  On the horizon, just over the trees we were able to spot an unusual northern phenomena – a sun dog – visible on clear and particularly cold days, these phenomena create what appear to be fake suns, with a halo effect as light is reflected off of the ice in the air.   After stopping to enjoy the view, I chuckled to myself.  What better omen to dog sled under than a  sun dog? Right?

Dog Sledding With Dave Daley

Smiling we piled into the small room and took our seats on the benches that lined two of the four sides.  The other two served as home to a wonderful wood stove, and a table full of hot tea, coco and biscuits. Our host, veteran dog sledder Dave Daley, dove straight into a fascinating introduction to dog sledding, how it works, some of the commands, and regional competitions. He elaborated on a musher’s relationship with his dogs, about some of the long trails which he had done, and which were available in the area. He also talked a bit about the Hudson Bay Quest, a race he had founded and which is a brutally difficult 200 mile long dog sled race through some of Manitoba’s most rural regions. It quickly became obvious that not only did Dave enjoy dog sledding, he lived it and breathed it.

Doggie Booties

When it comes to sports involving animals, I’m always a bit cautious.  Far too often the animals aren’t treated properly and are used, abused and disrespected.  I remember with particular distaste my first, and last trip to the horse tracks several years ago. The winning rider pushed his horse to hard, and failed to allow it to cool down. The end result?  The horse collapsed dead of a heart attack.  It was despicable.  After hearing Dave talk about his dogs, and watching him interact with them it quickly became clear that these animals are part of his family. He cares for them, watches out for them, respects them, and goes out of his way to treat them well.  While I’m sure there are dog sledders who mistreat their animals, Dave’s dogs were well fed, well cared for and well treated.  He and his team even went so far as to use dog slippers – small booties to protect the dog’s paws from sharp ice and the cold during a run.  Dave and his team were about as opposite as possible from the heartless and irresponsible horse jockey I saw years ago.  So, for those eager to try dog sledding, but who might have ethical concerns – Wapusk Adventures and Dave are a great option.

Dogsledding in Churchill

After our intro to dog sledding we were introduced to the dogs and the kennel.  The first thing that surprised me was just how different the dogs were. These were not your picture perfect made-for-Hollywood pure bred huskies.  These were real sled dogs – a wonderful mixture of different mixes, most of which were obviously part huskie, but how much huskie was in each dog varied significantly.  Some looked like they had the subtle influence of wolf lineage, while others looked like they might have hints of Lab or German shepherd. Perhaps I’m easily impressed, but once again I found myself nodding in appreciation.  The dog’s diversity seemed to further re-affirm Dave’s relationship with his animals.  This wasn’t an exercise in glamour  or showman ship.  It was about the animals, about his relationship with them, and about the sport.

Future Sled Dog

As Dave’s team prepared two sleds, he introduced us to a number of puppies he was training. Though still only a few months old, it was clear that they were already forming a tight relationship with Dave. As he crouched in their kennel and discussed how important the bond between musher and dog was, they overwhelmed him. Licking him, nuzzling him, and flopping on their bellies in the hope of a quick scratch. Even at their young age, it was impressive how open they were to his touch. He could check their paws, their teeth, and their ears without the slightest sign of annoyance or resistance from the dogs.

Dog Sledding in Churchill

Then, when it was feeding time they went into an excited frenzy. Dave explained the importance of teaching them to eat quickly, and cooperatively before lowering the sawed off bottom of a bucket into the center of the kennel. On his command the dogs pounced on the bucket full of broth, 5-6 noses per bucket eagerly slurping down the food. The dogs didn’t growl, snap, or jostle each other. Instead as they ate they all rotated simultaneously in a clockwise motion. The end result was 5 dog butts moving in formation – not unlike synchronized swimmers putting on a show. Then, less than a minute later it was over. The dogs licked their chops, and we moved closer to our sleds. It was almost time.

Dog Sledding in Churchill

To our delight we learned that we were one of the first visits of the year who would get the chancel to sled on fresh snow. The previous day’s bitter cold had been worth it – instead of a wheeled sled, we’d be on a traditional sled.  Dave and his fellow mushers introduced us once again to the commands, and then talked a bit about the dog’s hierarchy.  Though it makes sense in retrospect, I was surprised to learn that the dogs are placed based on their behavior, training, experience, and place in the pack.     An experienced musher knows his dogs, and knows where they best operate.  At the front you have your lead dogs, followed in some cases by swing dogs, then your team dogs make up the majority of the pack, with two wheel dogs at the back. The heavier the weight of the sled, the more team dogs you add.  All of which makes perfect sense in retrospect, but still managed to elicit a bit of surprise at the time.

Dog Sledding in Churchill

It’s hard to convey just how excited the dogs were at the prospect of going sledding.  Their excitement was such that it was almost all the mushers could do to keep them still long enough to get tied into their harnesses.  Tails were a blur of fluffy flurry as they swept side to side, damp noses darting sharply left and right as the dogs socialized, interacted, and then alternatively tried to pull the sled forward by themselves.

Dog Sledding in Churchill

The sleds could handle two of us at at time, plus a driver.  Unfortunately (and quite understandably), we’d be helping stop and control the sled, but wouldn’t be doing any driving.  We teamed up, and then watched in breathless anticipation as the first two sleds silently slipped forward. The only real sounds to be heard; the excited squeaks and giggles of our fellow group members and the light sound of bootied paws digging into the snow.   As we waited for them to make their mile-long loop we danced around trying to keep warm. As a fun added bit of entertainment we would pause periodically to scoop up a hand full of dog food while raising our palms into the sky.  Ever vigilant small birds were watching and would swoop down to perch on our extended hands while they timidly gobbled down the dry dog food.

Dog Sledding in Churchill

Then, my time arrived.  I’m not really sure what I expected; It to be uneven perhaps? To bounce along over the snow, to be loud and for the pull of each dog’s forward motion to bring with it a fresh jerk and lurch lugging the sled across the snow?  The experience was nothing of the sort.  At our musher’s command, I stepped up and off of the drag plate, used as a brake and to hold the sled still.  One foot on either ski, hands on the rail in front of me – the dogs sprung forward into action.  We didn’t lurch, so much as we slipped forward.  The sled creaking ever so slightly as we glided atop the snow-turned ice.   The dogs themselves loped along casually seemingly almost oblivious to the three bodies and large wooden cart they were lugging behind them.

Dog Sledding in Churchill

Within moments we were up to speed, the freezing cold wind crashing against our bodies desperately trying to freeze our noses and eyes on contact.  Slight tears slipped from the sides of my eyes in response – an involuntary bodily reaction to the wind and cold.  I was amazed at just how casual and in control the dogs were.  It reminded me of my ballroom dancing – at first it is overwhelming and there is no time between steps.  Each new move is all consuming but then, when you grow accustomed to the pace and the speed you discover that you have luls and gaps in the flow where you can relax or style.  It was the same for the dogs, who would periodically dart slightly to the side to scoop up a mouthful of snow, or in the case of one of our wheel dogs, play the role of Casanova pausing to flirt and sniff the dog beside him.

Dog Sledding in Churchill

It is easy to see how one could quickly become addicted to dog sledding.  The peace and tranquility of it was intoxicating and we were only on a brief loop on a rural road.  Threading through a forest, surrounded by the Canadian wilds, I can only image is a truly magical experience.   As our sled slid back into camp and we disembarked, I found myself itching for another loop or two.  I’ll definitely do it again in the future when the opportunity presents itself.   We rounded our the afternoon defrosting in front of the wood fire and listening to Dave’s stories.  A wonderful conclusion to a great experience.

Part Three of this series features my time out on the Tundra with wild Polar Bears.  Make sure to stay tuned and to read Part I which talks about Churchill, logistics, and pricing.

This dog sledding experience was booked through Frontiers North Adventures.  The photos in this post were taken on a  Canon T3i (600D) Camera.

Polar Bear Meetings – Weekly Travel Photo

Wild Polar Bears in Churchill

While most of a polar bear’s existence is spent in relative isolation, there are times – often during their great migrations – when they find themselves cued up and provided with the opportunity for casual social interaction. Bear tea time if you will. It is in these rare moments as the bears wait for Hudson Bay’s ice to freeze over that what start as tense encounters casually transition into relaxing play time and socialization.

This photograph shows two bears engaged in the early stages of one such meeting.  We were incredibly lucky in that at various points in the day as many as four bears could be found in the immediate area of the Tundra Buggy Lodge where we were staying.  Watching the bears go through their social rituals, establish a power hierarchy  and make friends was a fascinating insight into these otherwise solitary, but highly intelligent creatures.

Would you like to see previous Friday Photos? View past travel pictures here. This photo was taken on a  Canon T3i (600D) Camera.

The Polar Bear Adventure: Part 1

Frozen Churchill

You know things are either off to a brilliant, or ill fated start when you learn that your charter flight which flew at the crack of dawn was the only Churchill bound flight that left the airport. As a bit of an obnoxious optimist, and in light of the minimal turbulence we were experiencing, I tossed it into the brilliant category and stared out my window….daring/hoping the northern lights to come out. Sadly they didn’t, but the early morning quickly gave way to a pleasant twilight and then dawn as we made the 2 hour flight from Winnipeg to Churchill, Manitoba.  The dull roar of the historic but well maintained Nolinor Convair 580 we were on added to the mystique of the whole experience. The plane was comfy, well maintained and safe. It brought back distant memories of flying on another 580 as a young kid in the late 80s – what was likely the first flight I ever took. The roar of the engines were loud and pulsed the throb of adventure into us.  At the same time I also watched with a chuckle as condensation formed in the back of the plane and then froze onto the inside of the wall around the rear exit. The stewardesses frowned at it, scraping some of it off to fiddle with but otherwise were unconcerned.

Frozen Churchill


After touching down in Churchill it was a quick wait while our transportation arrived:  An old converted Ford school bus that had braved more than a few cold Churchill winters.  One side was completely slicked in a frozen layer of ice.  Apparently freezing rain had struck the night before effectively re-painting half the vehicle in an icy coat of white. One large piece that had started to slide down the front windshield before freezing in place remained transfixed to the glass.   To say it was cold would be an understatement.  To say it was freezing painfully obvious.

Frozen Churchill

The wind blasted and buffeted us as the windows quickly fogged up.  We’d made it.  We were in Churchill.  The weather was far from ideal, but our guide assured us that the forecast looked promising.  A day and a half of cutting wind and blowing snow and then poof – sunny skies, polar bears, and grand adventures!

Crashed Airplane, Churchill

Before long we’d passed the corpse of an old cargo plane that misjudged the runway and made a dramatic, if safe, crash landing a decade or two before.  Then it was down and along the coast of the Hudson Bay which was, at this point, a churning mass of frozen waves and icy tidal flats.  Another brief pause to learn about the geological nature of the area and then in to town to settle into our rooms.

World Famous Gypsy's Bakery

If you ask people about Churchill, they’ll inevitably mention Gypsy’s.  They may call themselves a bakery, but in truth they’re a great little restaurant that has the feel of a roadside cafe that just happens to be combined with overflowing trays of baked goods.  The menu meanders through a wide mixture of options ranging from steak to soup to pasta.  It’s one of the only places to eat out in Churchill. It’s also one of the central social hubs which means you’ll find yourself sitting next to locals and enjoying a hearty mixture of people.

Eating in Churchill

The setup was simple – go in, order whatever you want, it was all included in the tour price. Given how frustrating a component of many organized tours the eating part can be, from getting stranded in over priced tourist cafes to flashy food that looks good on a plate, tastes like cardboard and leaves you starving, it was nice to see how the company we were with, Frontiers North, handled our meals. While Gypsy’s food may not win them a Michelin star, it was a lot better than I expected.  Especially considering how difficult it was to get things into Churchill and how remote we were.

Churchill Train Station

We spent the majority of the afternoon and the following morning wandering the town. This included stops at the local Eskimo Museum and a walk through a cool exhibit about the history of Hudson Bay and the Churchill region at the local train station.

Eating in Churchill

The rest of our time was spent ice-sailing along the streets as we were blown from shop to shop, desperately trying to avoid falling into a heap and laughing hysterically at the awkward arm swinging, yelps of alarm, and near-disasters that went with it. Dinner was served at the Tundra Inn Restaurant which had a great menu that included things like Bison, Elk, and local fish, cheap wine and local beer.  I really enjoyed the food and once again found myself impressed by the way the whole thing was handled.

Curling Game

One of my favorite accidental discoveries while wandering Churchill occurred in the recreation complex. A sprawling government building built for a city that was expected to grow significantly, but didn’t.  The end result? A beautiful complex that serves as a mini-Churchill within the heart of the city.  Eager to hide from the brutal weather, we ducked into the building and quickly proceeded to stumble on a curling match.  The locals welcomed us warmly into the heated viewing box that overlooks the ice, and we paused enjoying a drink, and fighting the urge to dive into the steaming bowl of Chili they had set up next to the bar.  I’ve watched curling on TV from time to time, and was familiar with the basics, but had never seen it played live.   It’s a surprisingly fun sport to watch though, I’m still unsure on how enticed I am to actually give it a try. Too much work with a broom.

The weather made further exploration of Churchill difficult.  The town is an interesting place with a rich history that dates back to and played a major role in the formation and exploration of Canada.  With a year-round population of about 900 and a tourist season population that likely doubles that, it’s a city forced to wear a wide assortment of hats. There was more to it than I expected, but it’s still a small working town at heart.

Churchill Train Station

Logistics, Cost and Pricing

There are two ways to get into Churchill.  You can fly, which takes between two to two and a half hours or you can take the train which will take about 44 hours and has a reputation for experiencing delays.  The flights range in cost between $800-$1,600.  As I write this post, searching for a flight during polar bear season 2013 is $1,289 USD.  A similar glance at the Via Rail page (do your own search) returns a ticket price of $369 CAD for an economy class ticket.  It’s important to book your flight well in advance if planning the trip on your own as tour groups tend to reserve large blocks during peak season.  Or, of course, you can do what I did and join a tour. I was blown away by the quality, service, and general experience provided by Frontiers North/Tundra Buggy, so definitely keep them in mind as an option.

Accommodation within Churchill also fills up quickly and needs to be reserved well in advance.  The rates that I’ve heard quoted for independent travelers were about $250 a night for a standard room during high season.  That being said, TripAdvisor returned several results for $150 in January, so it may be possible to find cheaper rooms if you book far enough in advance.

Dog sled tours – The group that we did it with was Wapusk Adventures.  I was really impressed by the way they treated their dogs, and how knowledgeable their team was.   They offer dog sledding in October and November and the cost is $90 per person.  They also offer bird watching tours between May and September.

Polar Bear Safaris – There are two dominant companies servicing the Wapusk National Park which is along the Hudson Bay.  These are Tundra Buggy/Frontiers North who I did my trip with and Great White Bear.  The price is typically about $400 a day per person, which may sound like a lot but is comparable to similar Safari’s I’ve done in Africa which for context can range from $350-850 USD a day.  This is assuming that you’re trying to structure the tour on your own and not doing one of their packages.  It’s also important to keep in mind that if you do day trips, you have a 1.5 hour commute to get out to where the polar bears like to relax.  Thus about 3 hours of your day are spent in transit (which doesn’t mean you won’t see things, but it’s less likely).  These trips also can have up to 40 people on them (in one vehicle) while many of the packaged tours have caps at 20.

I was REALLY impressed by Tundra Buggy/Frontiers North.  Our guide was fantastic and really put in an incredible effort.  As a blogger and photographer the fact that both he and our driver were excellent photographers was also a huge asset.  They knew what made a good shot, how to read the bears and to work with the light/snow.  They offered advice on how to best photograph the bears and took several shots of their own during the trip.  I was also able to stay at the Tundra Buggy Lodge which made a major difference in the experiences we had, and what we saw.  The bears were most active early and late in the evening and a lot of our bear watching occurred within 1/4 mile of the mobile lodge.   The Tundra Buggy lodge is located deep inside Wapusk National Park and right in the heart of the area all of the day-tours use for their safari circuit.  Great White Bear maintains their own lodge, but it’s about 45 minutes to an hour’s Tundra Buggy Crawl closer to the edge of the park.  While I imagine both companies are excellent and will provide a great experience, the fact that National Geographic and Polar Bears International have repeatedly used Tundra Buggy/Frontiers North really says a lot about the quality of the service they offer.

Also, keep in mind that there are other more expensive custom lodges in the area that offer top-end polar bear viewing opportunities.  Similarly, Churchill has more to offer than just dog sledding and polar bear tours.  You can visit Churchill to view the northern lights, beluga whales, and to go birding.  Frontiers North has an assortment of different options worth exploring.

I’d like to remind you all that I visited Churchill as a guest of Frontiers North and the Canadian Tourism Commission through a trip I won. As such, I was not responsible for my own booking, and did not deal with the majority of the logistics or cost process.  The information I’ve included in this post is based on after-the-fact research, and conversations I had while on the trip.  It is provided as a general guideline, but you’ll need to do your own research to find out the latest in availability, pricing, and options.

THIS IS PART I – STAY TUNED FOR PART II (Dog Sledding) AND PART III (The Polar Bear Safari).

Polar Bears and Lunar Sunsets – Friday Travel Photo

Polar Bears in Churchill

There are moments while traveling that stay with you. When the magic of the experience infuses itself into the very essence of you who are. As I sat bundled beneath five layers of clothing, staring out the window of a Tundra Buggy on the rural Canadian tundra in northern Manitoba just outside Churchill I was able to experience one such moment.  The evening had been mostly cloud-free, the brilliant light of a full moon reflecting off of the frozen lakes and snow covered tundra that surrounded our mobile lodge.  As the sun began to work its way over the far horizon, the moon slowly began to slip away over the ocean.

It was a magical moment that lasted mere minutes.  Even if it had only been a matter of watching the two orbs reflecting each other’s light it would have been a special sight to see.  But, in a stroke of brilliant luck, we found a large, beautiful polar bear relaxing near the lodge.   With numb noses, and half-frozen fingers we found ourselves watching the moon set behind her bathed in the soft hues and gorgeous tones of a brilliant dawn.

I’ll never forget the sight of the polar bear as she relaxed, looking at us as she debated rising to start her day. The trip was organized by Frontiers North and through the Canadian Tourism Commission as part of the spectacular trip I won at the Travel Bloggers Unite Conference. If you have the opportunity to do a Polar Bear safari I highly suggest it.  They are amazing creatures and the opportunity to see them in their native/wild habitat is an incredibly special experience.

Would you like to see previous Friday Photos? View past travel pictures here. This photo was taken on a Canon T3i (600D) Camera using a Canon IS 55-250mm lens.