Polar Bear Kisses – Weekly Travel Photo

Wild Polar Bears in Churchill

Growing up there were three bears. Brown Bear, which was your typical mid-sized teddy bear. Cinnamon Bear, which was on the small side and then White Bear. Given how original I was in naming the bears, it is perhaps no surprise that White Bear was a massive polar bear teddy.  Though it started out about four times my size, in recent year’s I’ve finally overtaken it.  Which meant it was also time to see a real polar bear in the flesh.  Acting on childhood dreams I tracked down a giant male at the Copenhagen Zoo and visited. Seeing my childhood play companion come to life was wonderful and brought back memories of a massive stuffed teddy bear.  You don’t realize just how huge polar bears are until you see them in person and up close. But, seeing a polar bear in the zoo is like watching the trailer to a movie. It captures the imagination, leaves you with mixed feelings, and sets the hook ensuring you have to see the real deal in its entirety.

So, you can imagine my excitement when just over a year later the Canadian Tourism folks awarded me first place in a photo contest. The grand prize?  A trip to Churchill, Manitoba for a three day polar bear safari with Frontiers North.

Seeing the polar bears in the wild is an awe inspiring experience (see my full posts on the safari). It’s something that everyone should see. Their size, their level of fitness, their curiosity, and their intelligence will captivate your imagination and leave you awed. This photo captures one of many powerful moments as the bears ran into each other, carefully evaluated each other, and then decided to play in the snow, putting on a fantastic show for us. While the bears were just playing, the power and force exerted was enough to crush human bones and occasionally drew  a little blood as spittle flew and their bodies collided.

Make sure to head over to flickr to see the rest of the album.

Would you like to see previous Weekly 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

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 Touching Noses – Weekly Travel Photo

Wild Polar Bears in Churchill

Not only is this week Polar Bear Week, it’s also getting pretty darn cold here in Denmark. So, for today’s Friday Photo I’ve selected these two polar bears giving each other a playful nose nuzzle mid-fight. Luckily the “fight” was just for fun and to fill a quiet afternoon!  Watching the bears interact and play fight it’s easy to see why native populations believed the bears were people wearing bear suits.  The bear’s elegance and surprising ability to stand, walk and fight upright has a very human feel to it!

This photo was taken in Wapusk National Park just outside of the town of Churchill in Manitoba, Canada.  I snapped it as part of a three day Tundra Buggy Tour with Frontiers North Adventures during which we had the chance to enjoy the polar bears relaxing, playing, eating, and generally wandering around exercising their limitless curiosity.

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.

An Opportunity to Play With Polar Bears in Canada

Copenhagen Zoo

I’m a massive polar bear fan.  It’s hard to give just one reason why.  Perhaps it is their massive size or the exotic nature of their native regions.  It may be their pension for making ridiculous looking faces. Or perhaps it’s because they serve as a powerful reminder of the cost and danger of climate change. Likely it’s all of the above.  Regardless of the specific reason, seeing polar bears in their natural habitat has been on my list for a long, long time.  When I made the decision to accept the University of Copenhagen’s invitation for my masters, I harbored the not-so-secret hope that I’d be able to partner with one of the Svalbard/Greenland tour groups based out of Denmark and leaving from Scandinavia to see the bears.  Somehow that seemed like a more realistic way of seeing the bears than making the voyage from Arizona up to north/central Canada and into the heart of polar bear country. Which is odd, because the heart of Canada has been near the top of my travel list for a long time and makes far more sense for US-based travelers. Of course, with most cold and exotic climates the key challenge has been how to explore it on my limited budget and as a solo-traveler.

American Beauty The Bearmix

So imagine my excitement when I arrived at the Travel Bloggers Unite conference in Umbria, Italy and discovered that one of the sponsors – the Canadian Tourism Commission – was running a contest for two iPad 3s with the winner receiving an expense paid trip to Churchill, Manitoba along Hudson Bay to see the polar bears out on the ice and in their natural habitat. While rarely one to win a competition or prize I was, as you might imagine, pretty excited about the opportunity. It offered me the opportunity to knock out two birds with one incredible stone – a chance to see what I suspect to be some of the most beautiful natural beauty on earth while coming nose to nose with the great white bears of the north.

Bear Taking A Breather

The rules were simple.  We were all given a small bear and encouraged to tweet compelling photos of our bear with the hashtag #bearwatch.  At the end of the second day a representative from the Canada team would review the bear shots and choose two favorites.  The grand prize winner would then be invited to Canada to watch the bears.

Super Sexy Jacuzzi Bear

My approach was to take a variety of shots as I went about my regular conference business. The shots covered a wide range of activities and moods – from fun and slightly inappropriate to classy and elegant. Ultimately, I’m not sure which bear shot sealed the deal (though it sounded like it was the sum effect of the series of shots) but I’m thrilled to say I won the grand prize. Which is to say that later this year (October or November depending on scheduling) I’ll be partnering with the Canadian Tourism Commission for a trip deep into the heart of Canada to explore some of the world’s most amazing territory while watching one of nature’s greatest predators amble across the frozen waters of Hudson Bay.  An experience that I cannot wait to share with you all, and which I’ll be documenting (in part) via the brand new iPad 3 that came as a secondary prize.

Lazy Bear

There were a ton of great entries, and I encourage you all to head over to the Pinterest board that showcases them all.  Canada has a lot to offer and has really made a strong effort over the last year or two to get the word out. Fellow TBU attendee and travel blogger Cherina of Quiet Wanderings recently did the same trip and took amazing shots. You can head over and check out her post here. I can’t wait to see more of the country and am counting the days until this fall when I’ll have the chance to explore a region I’ve previously only read and dreamed about.

Anyone have any exciting or odd facts about polar bears to share?