The Polar Bear is perhaps one of the most fascinating of the bear species, only to be found in the far Northern hemisphere. Grand American Adventures’ Product Manager Iain Shiels lived out a boyhood dream of sighting these amazing creatures in their natural habit – a breathtaking experience.
Here, he shares some of his favourite moments from the trip – alongside some stunning images and video content.
What inspired you to head out on the Churchill Polar Bear trip?
I’ve always been intrigued by Polar Bears. They live in such a harsh environment which is entirely governed by temperature and their ability to hunt. They’re solitary creatures which appear cute and cuddly, but will fight to the death to protect their young. I recall seeing my first Polar Bear in Auckland Zoo when I was eight years old and being absolutely mesmerised.
A few years later, the same bear was killed because the enclosure was too small and it went mad; since then I’ve been a huge advocate of seeing animals in the wild, with habitats as close to their natural roaming patterns as possible. The set up in Churchill allows Polar Bears to gather whilst they wait for the Hudson Bay to freeze before heading out onto the frozen ocean, with very little human interference and that’s the main reason I chose to visit Churchill in Canada.
What were your first impressions?
The trip was incredibly well organised, and what is essentially a seven day trip by the time I arrived back onto British soil managed to pack in so much and ticked off a boyhood dream. The lodge was comfortable, the guide was knowledgeable, everything was well timed and organised. The weather was perhaps colder than I had expected, but I was prepared.
Talk us through your first experience seeing the polar bears...
My first and favourite sighting was by the guide Judd, during what can only be described as a blizzard. Judd pointed to a mound of snow on what was already and endless sea of snow. She pointed, she directed, she used markers to help spot the bear, she described in detail what we should be looking for and we still couldn’t see it. Not until the bear lifted its head up from the snow were we able to see two black eyes staring back at us. This Polar Bear was hunkered down and almost covered under a layer of snow. How Judd was able to spot it, I have no idea, but what a wonderful and memorable experience it was, the bear being completely unfazed by the vehicle.
Can you talk to us a bit about the landscapes you experienced?
Being in the Canadian Arctic, the environment tends to be whipped by strong winds, harsh winters and permafrost which means it’s not terribly green or forested. Head further inland from Churchill and you’ll reach the boreal forest, but around Churchill it’s a fairly barren landscape.
The first thing Judd said on day two was that there is a whole ecosystem out on the tundra, and that we need to look closer to see it. She explained why the trees were so short and typically bare on one side, how a host of different wild flowers sprang up through the season, how the lichen had taken hundreds of years to grow and was used to tell the ages of structures from the first nations people. She made us look a little closer at what could have easily been written off as an empty desolate landscape. Now that’s the sign of an excellent guide.
What was the accommodation like?
The Lazy Bear is a traditional log cabin style lodge which was hand built by owner Wally over the course of ten years. This eco-friendly establishment is unique and built using timber reclaimed from a fire in the boreal forest. It was a combination of sweat and simple hand tools that raised it from the ground, and even the windows were recycled from an 1800s Hudson Bay Trading Post.
You won’t find another hotel in the area which offers as much character or comfort. Each room is spacious and has a temperature regulator in case you feel Jack Frost nipping at your toes. There is a full service restaurant which doubles as a social space where people come to chat and use the high-speed Wi-Fi. Most of the staff are from abroad and therefore have as much enthusiasm as the visitors which is refreshing.
How was the dog mushing tour?
The dog mushing was an excellent experience and one I’d had my eyes on for years. I was relieved to hear that the dogs used were all rescue dogs and the owners put them on a rotation basis so they aren’t overworked. I would like to add that from witnessing interactions between the dogs and their owners, they’re well treated and there is genuine love and care for the animals; that and they were all gagging to be selected for the glory of pulling the sled.
We joined the night tour with the hopes of seeing the northern lights at the same time that we are being led around the woodland course. Unfortunately, nature’s very own light show didn’t make an appearance, but it didn’t spoil the magnificence of looking up and seeing a sky full of stars as a bunch of overly excited dogs pulled us through the Canadian winter wonderland.
Did you spend some time in Winnipeg? What did you get up to there?
In all honesty I wasn’t excited about Winnipeg, mainly because that wasn’t my focus for the trip. However, I was lucky enough to have a half day tour of Winnipeg with the Manitoba tourism board, who showed me where to look. First they took me to the Assiniboine Park & Zoo which as I mentioned earlier isn’t really my thing, but they are rescue animals which would have otherwise perished.
I saw Polar Bear, Muskoxen, Arctic Fox, wolves and big cats and an excellent video about the nation’s first people. From here we went to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights which is enclosed inside a beautiful building, and the focus being on, yep you guessed it, human rights. It spans all generations throughout history and I liked that the museum was hands on and interactive.
There are lots of great places to eat, and if you fancy heading out to sample the nightlife and Canadian hospitality, you can pop down to The Roost for designer cocktails. I was told there are festivals and events happening all throughout the year so it’s worth checking if anything is happening while you’re in town.
How about Churchill itself?
The town of Churchill has a population of 800 – actually, 801 as my guide has recently bought a house in town! The population makes much of its money from grain, the port and tourism through Beluga Whales in the summer, and Polar Bear watching trips and Northern Lights viewing in the early winter months. With a town of 800, you can imagine that the town is small and easy to navigate on foot – apart from the ice.
At first glimpse there is not a lot happening within the town of Churchill, but most including myself only see the town from a very superficial level and it was our guide who filled in the blanks. There is a strong community feel and there are events throughout the year including the ‘polar plunge’ in July, where boats bump pieces of ice out the way before people dive in. When I was there, the temperature was -30 degrees Celsius, so people tend to gather in the watering holes to socialise over a drink instead.
What was your biggest highlight from the trip?
Seeing Polar Bears in the wild primarily, but also spotting a mother and cub waiting patiently for the Hudson Bay to freeze before heading out on the frozen ocean to hunt seals. They displayed the same natural behaviours as humans with the cub playing up and wanting to extend its safe boundaries, whilst the mother constantly kept an eye around and subsequently her cub in check.
What surprised me the most on this trip actually had nothing to do with bears. When we arrived, the Hudson Bay was completely liquid and huge waves whipped up by the strong winds. Over the course of two days, 48 hours, almost the entire bay had frozen over to the point where the bears were getting ready to head out. It felt like a real-time time-lapse and I feel truly blessed to have witnessed nature in its most raw form.
What advice would you give to anyone thinking of taking this Polar Bear trip?
Wrap up warm and take layers. It gets much colder then most of us are used to. I was prepared, but the one thing I forgot was a cover for my face which I absolutely recommend. Also, camera batteries tend to run down more rapidly in the cold so it’s worth having a spare, and obviously a zoom (400mm if possible) camera lens. Take binoculars as sometimes it’s nice to put the camera down and stop trying to get that money shot, and just watch these animals you’ve flown so far to see.