Saturday, October 28, 2006

Tundra Buggy Trip to See Polar Bears, Churchill, Manitoba (October 2006)

In 2006 I spent some time in Manitoba with my ex-boyfriend who was working there doing bird surveys. One of the time periods we were going to be there was in late fall, which was perfect timing for the polar bear migration in Churchill.  In October and November, the polar bears leave their summer habitat and gather here waiting for the pack ice to form on the Hudson Bay so they can go out on the ice and hunt for Ringed Seals, their favorite meal.   We decided to book a one-day package tour with Heartland International Travel & Tours. The tour we booked was on October 28, 2006, and included the flight from Winnipeg to Churchill, the bus to the Tundra Buggy launch site, all day on the Tundra Buggy, and supper in a restaurant after the tour. 

Our day began around 7:00 am, when we boarded the small plane for Churchill. We took off while it was still dark, and got to see a beautiful sunrise while in the air.  This was the smallest plane I've ever been on.

As we flew north you could see the landscape changing into a vast wilderness area that had a lot of partially frozen lakes and light snow cover.  I was video-taping this scenery, and unfortunately didn't get any still photos other than this one but we were above some clouds at this point. 

After about a 2 1/2 hour flight, we landed in Churchill. On the descent, we saw 7 moose and 3 polar bears - so the trip was off to a good start! 

The weather was overcast with light flurries.  After getting off the plane, we noticed a camera crew and soon found out that Al Roker from NBC's Today Show was just getting off of another plane and that he would be on a Tundra Buggy today as well, but he was with a different tour company so he wouldn't be on our buggy. After the trip was over we heard about the show Al Roker did on the Churchill Polar Bears.  Here is the YouTube link for the show:

We next boarded a bus which took us out to the Tundra Buggy Launch site.  This was our buggy:

We boarded the buggy and sat in the very back. We wanted to have close access to the back door where you could go out on a viewing platform to photograph the bears.  There was also a little fireplace in the back.

The Tundra Buggy headed out on the trail and the first interesting sighting we came across was a flock of Willow Ptarmigan, which was a lifer bird for me.  Al Roker called them "Artic Chickens". lol

The next cool critter we saw was an Artic Fox. We actually ended up seeing two Arctic Foxes on this trip, which was a real bonus. 

Our driver, Mark, would turn the buggy's engine off each time we stopped which the photographers really appreciated. The next sighting was a Snowy Owl, and we also saw many flocks of Snow Buntings all throughout the day. This is one of them:

The buggy felt like it had giant marshmallows for tires.  It bobbed and bounced along on its big tires.  The large wide tires prevent damage to the delicate tundra.  

Then we finally started seeing polar bears. The first couple of bears we saw were a fair distance away so we didn't spend much time observing those ones.  The driver knew there were much better viewing opportunities up ahead. When we got near one of the Tundra Buggy lodges we started to see a lot of bears, and at fairly close range. I was very excited when we saw our first bear, even though it was at quite a distance. 

And another one:

Looking down at the ground I saw a huge paw print:

Finally when I got to see the bears up close, I was just beside myself with excitement and couldn't believe I was actually here with these beautiful, magnificent creatures. I didn't know whether to video or shoot stills. My camera ended up winning, as I gave still photos higher priority than video. Only after I was satisfied with the shots would I switch to the camcorder. I think a large zoom lens was the best tool for this trip (I had a Sigma 170-500mm on my Nikon D70) because it allowed me to adjust my focal length as the bears moved towards or away from me. Many of the photographs I took were frame-filling images, many at focal lengths less than 500mm.  

A lot of the bears were just lying around, waiting for the ice to freeze.

It was quite exciting whenever one stood up or walked around.  They looked so slow, lazy and gentle...but I know they would eat you in a heartbeat if given the chance.  They are hungry - and they've been known to cannibalize their own cubs.

At one point while we were viewing a bear the driver pulled over to the side of the trail to park and turned off the engine. The buggy was on a slight tilt to the left. Once it stopped, everyone rushed over to the left side windows to look at the bear, and the buggy's suspension compressed and tipped it sharply to the left and it felt as though it was going to flip right over! People immediately ran back to the right when they felt it tip so it balanced itself out again. Gave me a bit of a scare there for a minute though.  Tipping over in Polar Bear country would not be a good thing!

So after that heart-racing moment, onward we go.

In the top right of the picture above you can see the Tundra Lodge.  This is another kind of tour you can experience (if you have lots of money).  It is a mobile lodge.  You are are driven out to the lodge on a Tundra Buggy and you can spend days at the lodge, sleeping out on the Tundra with the bears.  Below are more pics of the lodge:

Later in the afternoon the sun peeked out from the clouds and created the most amazing light; and the bears I was photographing were on the right side of the light - what luck. 

There is a sad reality about these polar bears. Global warming is causing the sea ice to break up earlier every year, which gives the polar bears less time on the ice to feed (their main source of food being ringed seals), and more time on land in "walking hibernation". The Hudson Bay polar bears are unique in that they become landlocked for a few months of the year. During that time their weight drops significantly. If global warming continues and the ice breaks up earlier and earlier every year, one day the polar bears may starve to death. Today the effects of the early ice break-up due to global warming are causing declining weight in both male and female bears, and female bears are having fewer cubs, and the bears are actually cannibalizing their own cubs. Since the sea ice season is the shortest in Hudson Bay of all the regions of the Arctic Ocean, these bears' survival is threatened as they are likely to be among the first to be affected by sea ice decline. 

Unfortunately all good things must come to an end, and it was time to head back. However on the way back we were all treated to great looks at an Arctic Hare, who sat there cleaning his foot while we watched and took pictures. 

When we got back to town, we were taken to a restaurant for supper.  I had Arctic Char and it was delicious. After supper we were given a half hour to shop for souvenirs in a gift shop close by, and the store was crammed like sardines with all the people from the tour.  A half hour isn't much time, and there was so much to look at.  I really wish we had more time. 

It was dark when we boarded the plane for our return flight to Winnipeg. To top off a incredible day, we had a fantastic display of northern lights from the plane. What a great way to end the day! 

I met some really wonderful people on this tour, and hope to do this trip again someday. Many thanks to Don Finkbeiner of Heartland Travel, the trip organizer, for offering a one-day tour which made this long time dream of mine an affordable reality. The book provided to all participants at the end of the tour was a real nice bonus that we weren't expecting.

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