It's a question every adventurer or photographer could ask themselves. How will you react when the animal you are searching for stares back at you with a curious gaze? This was one question I was eager to find the answer to when I embarked on a recent trip to Churchill, Canada.
With a subject’s ears erect, a twitching nose inquisitively probing the air – it turns out our animal friends in the wild are often just as curious about us.
Nestled along the rocky, windswept shores of northern Canada’s Hudson Bay, the tiny town of Churchill sits isolated and quiet, devoid of the flashy luxuries and man-made attractions found in Canada’s capital cities.
Still, the attractions here are plentiful, though of a different sort altogether.
While the mercury on a winter’s day can drop to unheard of temperatures for a Queensland boy like me, I found the cool but mild summer days quite pleasant. And with 17 hours of sunlight during the summer months, the Churchill tundra comes alive with flora and fauna.
Tall green grasses sway in the breeze while yellow and purple wild flowers provide a striking contrast to the cold and austere boulder filled landscape. Above, eagles and Canadian Geese fill the sky.
Churchill is known for one other thing too – polar bears. Referred to as polar bear alley, the remote town is one of the best places in Canada to spot polar bears in the wild, usually as part of their annual migration to the ice filled northern reaches of the arctic while in search of food.
Our tour began in Manitoba’s capital city, Winnipeg where our Frontiers North tour guide, Doug Ross, met us for a welcome dinner.
Our group of 14 adventure seekers quickly got acquainted as we eagerly chatted, swapping travel stories and sharing what we hoped to find on our northern expedition.
For some it was a bucket list trip to experience the wildlife across the rugged tundra. For me, it was the bucket list trip I never realised I had, and I knew that for me, it was going to be all about the great polar bear.
Landing into Churchill airport the flat, rocky landscape stretched far and wide. Located in the sub-arctic region of Manitoba province in central Canada, this is remote, rugged country where the only access is by air or rail – no country roads leading to town here.
We checked into the Tundra Inn – one of ten or so accommodation options throughout the small town of approximately 800 locals. Basic, but comfortable rooms met us and while there was certainly nothing upscale about it, the inn was a warm and welcoming place to rest after long days of exploring the tundra and Hudson Bay waters.
As part of a fully organised and escorted tour, meals and accommodation were included. Breakfast at the Tundra Inn was a very basic continental selection of mini muffins, toast and cereal, and if you were quick enough to grab one, a small tub of yogurt.
The self-serve option was tucked in a tiny kitchenette just off the reception sitting area. Due to the number of guests, the kitchenette was overcrowded and hard to manoeuvre and eating was usually standing room only due to the limited table space. Several in our tour group chose to pay for a more hearty breakfast at one of the local restaurants close by.
Still, we were not here for a 5-star experience – the main attraction is the polar bears, beluga whales and summer flora. While never guaranteed to see wild animals in nature, you are guaranteed to enjoy a unique wilderness experience.
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Playful Beluga Whales
At the mouth of Hudson Bay and Churchill River we met Remy, our guide and skipper for the evening. Remy may be young but his enthusiasm and knowledge of the area and its wildlife are beyond his years.
Born in Churchill, his excitement was contagious and he had us all listening intently to his beluga whale stories.
We soon boarded the specially designed boat for shallow waters and headed out in search of this unique mammal. We didn’t have to travel too far before the ghostly white presence of the whales began to appear below the surface.
Seemingly just as curious of us, the playful mammals began their dance.
Travelling in small family pods, the belugas travel to these waters to give birth and to nurse their young. There is something magical when a beluga whale, barely 2 metres away from you, breaches the water’s surface and looks right at you. It’s an exhilarating experience and there were audible gasps from my fellow travellers.
No one seemed to mind the cool summer air as the whales showed themselves to us.
Baby belugas are born grey in colour and not until they mature several years later will they become albino white. And while their size is modest, larger dolphin size really, these mammals of the deep are beautiful and graceful to watch.
We were to experience an even closer and more personal experience with the whales when we boarded our small rubber zodiacs the next evening. Slicing through the current our little craft was shadowed by the whales through the river and into the bay, all the while diving and swimming freely around us.
Other options to experience the beluga whales include snorkelling and kayaking tours.
Some of our group chose kayaking and the whales playfully nudged the kayaks and in one case, pushed the kayak along the water to the delight of the kayaker. They were so close you could simply reach out and touch one.
Giant Inhabitants Of Polar Bear Alley
For many, myself included, the main attraction in Churchill would be the polar bears. This is a migration point and during the summer months the males practise a walking hibernation and rarely feed while the females give birth in dens or wander the land with their young.
These giant animals can reach sizes in excess of 1,200 kilograms which they’ll need to sustain them during the summer months where they lose up to one kilo of body fat per day. They survive on small berries, goose eggs and the occasional goose or other bird until the seals start to appear again.
Our Tundra Buggy Adventure started at the fringe of the national park area. Our driver Jimbo was on his tenth season and an expert in driving the tundra. The land is rocky and rugged and his experience was on display – expertly manoeuvring the oversized purpose built all-terrain vehicle.
Our vehicle was reasonably comfortable with padded bench seats, a bathroom and outdoor viewing deck with oversized windows that opened up to the outdoors.
As we were exploring the tundra we passed Brett, a Manitoba Conservation and Natural Resource Officer who jumped onboard our Tundra Buggy to give us an impromptu lesson on the bears and the surrounding lands.
Full of experience and knowledge we also heard of his recent sighting of a mother bear and two cubs. The mood of the buggy elevated and our eyes were firmly scanning the horizon.
It's a unique experience to be the one in a cage looking through enclosed glass windows in search of wildlife and serves as a reminder that we’re truly on their turf, and Frontiers North Touring did a great job of ensuring the natural surrounds are not disturbed. The brochures show polar bears stretching up against the Tundra Buggy vehicles, pressing their giant paws against the windows staring at the buggy inhabitants inside. While we were not lucky enough for this to happen on our day trip, we did locate the mother and two cubs which Brett had spotted earlier. Close by, a large male explored the low tide offerings. We watched in hushed silence as they walked past our vehicle barely five metres in front of us. From the confines of our Tundra Buggy, these wild creatures seemed cute and cuddly and we had to remind ourselves just how unpredictable and violent they can be. For this reason, walking around Churchill, especially at night is always done with great care and never alone. We paused for lunch on-board to compare photos and excitedly chatted about our wildlife sightings. We had finally experienced what many had made the long trip to Churchill for, the polar bear. The following day, while still reminiscing excitedly about the prior day’s find, we embarked on a small bus tour where we explored the beach areas up close.
Barely one kilometre outside of town and resting on a rocky outcrop was a mid-sized, male polar bear - our fifth sighting of the tour. It was an unexpected and welcome find on our last day, and us wildlife paparazzi clicked away in earnest.
You need to search hard on a map for the small town of Churchill, and what the town lacks in size is made up for with its unique wildlife experience. It’s a rustic but authentic tour, one that explores nature and all its beauty.
The writer was a guest of the Canadian Tourism Commission and Frontiers North.