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).

How to Select the Best Safari Experience

Polar Bears in Churchill

The chance to go on safari is a fun and exciting opportunity. It tugs at our heart strings, teases us with adventure, and can bring to mind visions of early explorers and naturalists cutting their way through lush jungle in the pursuit of new and exotic animals.  While the realities of modern day safari going have changed significantly, there should be no doubt in your mind that most of the adventure is still there.  After all, you’re essentially taking the concept of a zoo and inverting it.  In place of locking the animals in small enclosures and then parading a procession of wild and savage humans past, you’re tossing a small group of humans into a vehicle while encouraging some of the world’s most powerful and majestic animals to take a closer look.

Lion Cubs Playing at Sunset

With three safaris under my belt I dare not claim to be an expert.  Luckily those three safaris have been diverse, action-packed, and have provided the following insights which I’m eager to share with you. These experiences converted me from a safari skeptic to a safari addict and were quite honestly some of the most magical travel experiences I’ve ever had. The suggestions in this post are based on observations and conversations taken from my six day South Luangwa luxury safari, three day Chobe National Park camping safari, and three day wild polar bear safari in Churchill Manitoba.  For the sake of this post, I’m excluding various day trips that I’ve done which might be considered casual safaris (eg: A penguin excursion in Tierra del Fuego) as I don’t think they qualify as the type of safari relevant to this post.

Chobe Safari - Botswana

Pick Your Destination

While all three safaris were wonderful experiences the South Luangwa Safari and the Churchill Safari offered a much richer and more appealing experience.  Exploring all comes down to one fundamental factor: location.  This seems straight forward enough but it’s actually more complicated than you might initially assume.  It is essential that you pick a safari with the overall location in mind.  When we ultimately chose South Luangwa for our safari, there were a lot of factors that influenced us.  These included time of year, location in the park, the animals that are present in the park; and the size of the park.  What we also learned to look at were the types of regulations in place for the safari operators.  These include things like the hours that are available for safari (we were allowed early evening drives in South Luangwa but in Chobe had to be back in camp by 6:30 sharp), existing facilities, and the number of safari operators/vehicles licensed in the park.

Lilac-breasted Roller - Chobe Safari - Botswana

Go For Immersion

On a more localized level it is important to understand that not all safari operators have equal access.  The operator I used in South Luangwa was Shenton Safaris. The operator I was with in Churchill was Frontiers North/Tundra Buggy.  In both instances these operators had their camp/lodge situated deep within the park.  Shenton’s Kaingo camp is one of the most rural in South Luangwa, while Frontiers North has a special (exclusive) concession that allows them to operate their mobile Tundra Buggy Lodge in Wapusk National Park.

Hyenas Feeding - South Luangwa - Zambia

While not guaranteed this translates to less competition and better access.  It’s important to understand that the typical safari usually only covers a few square miles.  So, while I initially expected that a six day safari would lead to six days of new terrain and new roads, I learned that it meant six days covering the same few square miles.  This makes sense as the parks that safaris are in are only so big, there’s usually only so much “prime” real estate, and because the animals themselves tend to be quite mobile.   This also means that the more safari vehicles you have in a set area the more disruption, competition and…well…traffic you’re going to have.  Nothing kills the feel of a safari like a line of 8 or more land-cruisers jockeying for position around two annoyed lions.  Interestingly, this held true for both my African and my Canadian safaris.  In both cases the best moments occurred within a mile of our central base – something that attests to the value of being situated in the right location.

Polar Bears in Churchill

Location, Location, Location

In the case of my Canadian safari, being based out of the Tundra Buggy Lodge provided incredible opportunities that all of the others missed.  Despite spending the entire day on the tundra for three days in a row, the best viewing typically occurred in the first two hours and within a quarter mile of our starting location.  Which is significant because all of the safari goers using other companies or doing day trips had to spend nearly an hour and a half in commute time each way to get in/out of the park. In short, most of the best action was over by the time they started their day.  It also meant that we got to enjoy the sunrise out on the Tundra every morning which was ideal for photography and made for magical moments.  In the case of our South Laungwa Safari, the structure was slightly different but the same was true with easy access in the early morning hours and the opportunity to enjoy the sunset before engaging in a brief nighttime safari each evening.

Wild Leopard at Night - South Luangwa, Zambia

Less Is More

Remember: Fewer people per vehicle is always better. In a safari experience the animals will likely appear all around the vehicle. This means that you’ll want to be able to see them no matter where they are. If you’re sandwiched into a bus sitting between two people you’re not going to be able to see the animals properly or to get the photos you want. The more people on a vehicle, the more motion and the more noise. Unfortunately the concept of not scaring the animals seems to be overly complex for some people. Fewer people makes for much more valuable and enjoyable experiences when it comes to safaris so look at vehicle size and for safaris with caps on the number of people per group.

Mother and Child - Chobe Safari - Botswana

Do As The Wise Do

My final suggestion is to chase the experts.  A good guide is every bit as important as your location.  Good guides that are photographers and/or have worked with professionals from organizations like National Geographic are worth their weight in gold.  The trips, guides, and safari companies they use tend to cost a little more. Better guides and fewer people are worth it.  Even if you can’t book with one of the companies that National Geographic, professional photographers, and professional cinematographers use or have worked with in the past it’s a great way to figure out where to book your next safari.  In the lead up to my recent trips I never imagined I’d be seeing first-hand, up close and personal, the type of amazing moments that make National Geographic and specials like Planet Earth so staggeringly beautiful.

Safari Vehicle Shots

There Are Great Budget Safaris Out There

If you find yourself on a tight budget, don’t despair.  While I’ve focused on how to select the best safari experience, that doesn’t mean that more backpacker friendly options (like my Chobe safari) won’t be wonderful!  While the immersion and quality of experience of the Chobe safari was not the same as the other two, the price was much more practical. I was able to see a number of amazing animals and was extremely happy with each of my safari experiences.  I’ve been told I have great safari karma, but more importantly it all comes down to doing your research, having a laid-back/flexible approach, and enjoying each moment and each surprise as it comes.  Don’t be afraid of being bored while on your safari. If you’ve got a good guide and are are in a great location you can easily spend days chasing the animals without feeling bored or tired.

As a final thought, make sure you take a powerful camera lens with you on your safari.  While we were able to get extremely close to the animals, having my Canon 55-250mm lens made a significant difference in the quality of the photos I was able to take.  The photos in this post were taken during safari on my Canon T3i (600D).

Have a safari tip of your own?  I’d love to hear it!

**The Safari company I used in Chobe was Kalahari Tours which was booked through Jollyboy’s Hostel.  My trip with Shenton Safaris was a paid family trip.  My trip with Frontiers North was provided as a gift prize through a partnership with the Canadian Tourism Commission and Travel Bloggers Unite.

Trip Update: Off to Africa and Back Through Europe

David on an Elephant in Zambia

Ack! Where’s this week’s Ask Alex?  In light of my impending departure early next week I’ve opted to swap out this week’s Q&A with a quick update about what I’ll be doing for the next month and a half.  Needless to say, I’m super excited about the upcoming trip though you probably haven’t heard me talk about it much here on the site.

On July 3rd I’ll be throwing an odd assortment of stuff into my backpack before setting off for London where I’ll be re-connecting with my folks.  It has been just under a year since I left Arizona and moved to Denmark and this will be the first time we’ve been able to see each other since my move.  After connecting in London we’ll jump a long flight on Emirates down to Dubai where we’ve scheduled an extended layover. After all, it would be a shame to pass through the famous (infamous?) city without pausing to see what all the talk is about and to take a peak at the Burj.  After a bit over a day and a half in the city we’ll re-board our flight and continue the 2nd 7 hour leg (ouch) to Lusaka, Zambia. Wait, Zambia?  Yep! Zambia!

Why Zambia?  Well, as it turned out my brother and I decided to make it really easy on our folks.  Out of the blue we both decided to head abroad for two years.  For me it was a 2 year Masters Degree here in Denmark.  For my little brother, David (pictured on the Elephant), it was a 2 year commission in the US Peace Corps.  Happy but hard news for any parent, right?  To make matters worse we both left within 3 days of each other….and haven’t been home since.  As it turned out David got deployed to Zambia where he has been assigned as a health volunteer in the country’s far north, just outside of Mansa along the border with the Congo. For those of you who are about as familiar with Africa as I was before his deployment, it’s actually a pretty good gig.  Unlike many of the countries in the region (here’s looking at you Congo) Zambia has experienced relatively competent management and been largely peaceful since the Brits pulled out a few decades ago.

Now that he’s a year into his 2 year commitment he finally has some time to explore.  So, instead of letting him wander around aimlessly, we’ve decided to get the band back together and to make him play tour guide.  After all, who better to introduce us to things like dehydrated caterpillars, termites, and other local culinary delights?  We will be in Zambia between July 8th and August 3rd.  During that time we’ll be visiting Victoria Falls (which is the last of the big three for me, I’ve already done Niagra and Iguazu), jumping into Botswana for a mini safari, seeing his village, wandering about aimlessly and doing a world class photo safari with Shenton Safaris and when I say world class, I mean it!  It’s going to be our first time in Africa and I’m incredibly excited.  It will also be my first trip that far off the traditional grid.  About the most  rural trip I’ve done previously was to parts of Guatemala, but we still had two niceties which will be lacking during parts of the Zambia leg of our trip – running water and electricity. Oh, and flushing toilets.  I’m already practicing my squats.  No small feat for my 6’4″ (193), 200 pound build.  I’ve already decided I need to do FAR more yoga.

On August 2nd we’ll be forced to undergo a tear-filled goodbye as we leave David behind and let him get back to work.  The folks and I will just be getting warmed up, however, as we’ll head straight from Zambia to Prague, across to Berlin and then up to Edinburgh by the 11th of August.  Once there I’ve signed the folks up for a 6-day backpacker themed tour which will see the three of us in a small 16 person bus wandering our way through the Scottish Highlands, over to the Isle of Skye (with a stop at the Old Man of Storr), past a few ancient standing stones, and then up and across to the outer Hebrideas to explore the Isles of Harris and Lewis. Don’t worry, we’ll likely also pause at the Tullibardine Distillery for a wee bit of Scotch.

By August 20th I’ll be back in Copenhagen and furiously working on getting photos and posts written to share the adventure with you all.  In the meantime, however, I’ll be posting updates where possible to the VirtualWayfarer Facebook Page and my twitter account.  I’ve also scheduled a number of fantastic posts about Italy and Turkey to keep you busy in the meantime!   You can also learn more about what my brother is doing in Africa and his past adventures and observations on his blog DavidBerger.net.

It’s going to be quite the adventure and a startling contrast between incredible cultures and completely opposite climates.  I can’t wait and look forward to sharing it with you all!  Also, keep in mind that later this year (in October), I’ll be following this trip up with another to Churchill, Manitoba to partake in a 3 day polar bear watching tundra excursion thanks to the Canadian Tourism Board.

Lot of amazing adventures and stories to share with you over the following few months.  As always, I treasure your feedback and the time you take to following the blog.  If you have a special request, question or some advice to share please don’t hesitate to let me know!