next went to Great White Bear Tour Co. (http://www.greatwhitebeartours.com/)
where we boarded our Polar Rover and our feet would not touch the
ground again until Saturday (Nov. 1st).
Polar Rovers (from the Great White Bear Tours
the Churchill Wildlife Management Area in our luxurious Polar Rover.
These vehicles are heated, wheelchair assessable, have comfortable
washrooms with flush toilets, reclining seats, and easily opened
windows. All our vehicles have outdoor grated see-through decks and the
vehicle height is designed to ensure passenger safety and comfort.
of the unique requirements to keep people safe from the polar bears yet
enable them to safely view the polar bears, these vehicles have to be
custom built for both rough terrain travel and passenger comfort. They
are constructed in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada by Don Walkoski
A modern Great White Bear Polar Rover typically begins life not as a bus
but as an airport fire control crash truck. These vehicles are heavily
built eight wheel drive fire trucks, capable of delivering 6 thousand
gallons of water and flame retardants to a disaster site. Due to
Department of Transportation regulations, these vehicles are generally
retired from their emergency duties well before the rolling chassis is
anywhere near the end of its lifespan. A single crash truck provides 4
differentials with planetary drive ends, frame rails, transfer cases and
lots of other spare parts that can either be used in the project, sold
or used in other projects (as it is in most remotes locations, necessity
is the mother of invention in the north).
the frame has been relieved of the crash truck’s water tanks, cab, twin
Detroit diesel V8 engines, and most everything else, the rails are
sandblasted and painted and new spring mounts are fabricated to handle
the suspension system. The frame is then prepared to mount the
International DT466 diesel engine that will power the machine. If this
will be a four wheel drive machine, the rear suspension is entirely
modified from the “stock” walking beam suspension used by the crash
truck manufacturer. Additional cross members are fabricated to
accommodate the Allison automatic transmission and Fabco custom transfer
case and mounts for the fuel and propane tanks are added.
Coaches are made almost entirely from aluminum. A box aluminum skeleton
is attached to an aluminum sub frame. Custom formed sections make the
transition from sides to roof. A plywood floor is added, and then the
aluminum skin panels go on. Polyurethane adhesive is used to mount the
skins, insulation is added as well as interior finish panels.
Electrical and plumbing systems, windows and rear deck grating are then
added. The rover is then painted and ready to use.
Although massive, our polar rovers put down a low 4lbs per square
inch in ground pressure minimizing damage to the fragile arctic
landscape, due to the large tires that we use. The machines burn an
average of 12-15 gallons of fuel per day because of the low gear ratios
and small 210 hp diesel engines that power the vehicle
After boarding our
Polar Rover we were off across the tundra to the lodge. Our feet
would not touch the ground again until Saturday (Nov. 1st).
Our driver for each day was Brent Browatzke in his 11th year
as driver / guide / wildlife spotter and he surely had the eagle eyes
for finding animals. When not in Churchill for bear season Brent lives
in Swift Current, Saskatchewan.
the drive across the tundra (on “roads” laid out by the military) we saw
our first Polar Bear (see list of wildlife viewed at the end of this
travelogue). We stopped and had a picnic lunch along the way to the
lodge …. usually a 45 minute drive.
While in the Tundra Lodge there was no television, no newspapers
(for this news and political “junkie”), no telephone, and no cell-phones
and no boots on the ground Tue. afternoon until Sat. mid-morning
Sleeping with the polar bears? Not quite, but the new Great White Bear
Tundra Lodge lets you get about as close to sleeping with the bears as
anyone would care to be! Situated close by the shore of Hudson Bay in
the Churchill Wildlife Management Area, the Tundra Lodge is a great
place to bear watch, catch the aurora on a clear night, or just plain
relax between rides out on the All Terrain Buses.
The lodge is built on mobile platforms as individual units. There are
two sleepers, a lounge car, a dining car, and a utility/crew car. A
generator provides electricity for lights and battery charging. Heat is
provided by propane furnaces.
dining car has a six burner commercial stove and griddle; several BBQs
are on the deck. The lounge car has a TV, VCR, and a slide projector.
Cabins (and the bunks in them) are single occupancy; half are upper
bunks (climb a ladder), half are lower (floor level) bunks.
The Tundra Lodge, located on the sub-Arctic tundra outside of the small
Canadian outpost of Churchill, Manitoba, is a remarkable rolling hotel
that is placed in an area of high polar bear density in the beginning of
the polar bear season which runs each October and November. It has 32
rooms, each room a single compartment similar to a room on a train.
With three general toilets and two showers as well as a lounge area for
viewing bears and a dining area with sliding windows for viewing and
photography, the Tundra Lodge offers an authentic and personal Arctic
experience without sacrificing comfort.
The Tundra Lodge manager is Ed Bouvier
– Ed has been with Great White Bear Tours since 2000. He has lived in
Churchill intermittently since the 1970’s. Ed now calls The Pas,
Manitoba home but returns to Churchill every fall for the Polar Bear
Between the “cars” of the lodge there is double metal grating to
walk on and side walls (of this observation deck). We were able to view
bears outside on both sides of the lodge and some underneath the lodge
looking up through the grate probably wanting to eat us. We did not
need our down filled parka’s. The bears appeared to be attracted to the
lodge. Looking north we were a short distance from the south shore of
the huge Hudson Bay (larger than Texas), and looking south we were
almost on the shore of a good sized lake.
Upon arrival at the Tundra Lodge we took our luggage to our
“rooms”. I (Susan) had room number 6 (a lower bunk) and Howard has room
number 5 (an upper bunk) both with a window and a door that closed and
locked … although I never locked mine.
That first afternoon and night was thrilling, as we saw a sow
(mother) bear and her two cubs, several single bears, a Red Fox, an
Arctic Fox, and two male bears “sparring” like fighting / play acting.
Later that night many of the guest, including Howard, viewed a
magnificent Aurora Borealis (the Northern Lights), I (Susan) didn’t hear
the knocks on my door and slept through the night so missed seeing this
Each evening in the lounge car there was “happy hour” (wine, beer,
V-8 and soft drinks). One of the leaders (Leah or Conrad) would give an
educational talk and then there was free time. Dinner was served at 7
p.m., after which there would be another educational program by either
Leah or Control
Simon was an excellent chef and his wife Theresa his very able
assistant. The meals were a nice surprise. The food was plentiful,
four star meals and the presentations were first class. They served a
variety of salads, the variety and quality of food was excellent.
Breakfast Wed. through Fri. was at 7 a.m., on Sat. it was at 6:30 a.m.
Lunch was served at noon and dinner at 7 p.m. Everyone ate at the same
October 29, 2008
Our group of 30 people signed up to be in one of two groups for the
Polar Rover. Our group had 14, the other group had 16 people, and each
group had one of the leaders. If a group went out in the morning (8
a.m. until about 11:45 a.m.) one day they went in the afternoon (12:50
to 4 or 4:30 p.m.) the next day and so on. Everyone had an individual
comfortable seat (reclining if wanted, but none of us did) with a window
and rows with no one in them so everyone could move around; and when
stopped for animal viewing we could go to the back deck outside. Or
when stopped we could lower an upper window for an unobstructed camera
view. I (Susan) always had one of the front seats so could also take
photos out the large front windows.
Tundra Buggy Co. (http://www.tundrabuggy.com/)
operates twelve (12) vehicles and an older lodge on the tundra (I asked
around and their bunks have curtains and no doors). To me their buggies
did not appear to be nearly as nice as the six (6) operated by Great
White Bear Tours (http://www.greatwhitebeartours.com/).
This day our group went out in the morning and saw a lot of
wildlife: Polar Bears (singles and sows with cubs), Snowy Owl, Arctic
Hare, many kinds of birds and a flock of Willow Ptarmigan with their
white feathers for winter, in the summer their feathers are brown (state
bird of Alaska). I found it interesting that no limbs grow on the north
side of the Spruce trees, due to the wind.
Howard says when the Polar Bears see the Polar Rover and Tundra
Buggies they may think here comes the “impossible dream lunch wagon”.
Ptarmigan is an arctic bird that spends most of its life on the ground.
The Ptarmigan has feathered feet, helping it to walk on the snow.
Ptarmigans change their color 3 times in a single year! In the winter
they are completely white to hide them from enemies and to blend in with
the snow. But in the early spring Ptarmigans will moult--shed their old
feathers--and turn brown with areas of gold and black feathers. In the
fall they are usually a grayish color before turning white for the
After lunch Leah talked about Polar Bear Reproduction. After
dinner there were bears, bears, bears and two males sparring for over an
hour. We had light snow during the day that turned quite heavy during
October 30, 2008
During the night we received about a foot of snow and it continued
snowing heavily during the day … beautiful. Breakfast again at 7 a.m.
The other group went out in the Polar Rover during the morning. Staying
at Tundra Lodge we saw two male bears sparring, a third larger bear than
the first two out of area. We also saw a sow (mother) and cubs and
additional bears, plus various kinds of birds.
Our group went out in the Polar Rover for the afternoon; there were
snow drifts and everything looked different, and quite pretty, with the
snow. We returned for “happy hour” and a talk on Global Warming by
After dinner Conrad
gave a talk about Sir John Franklin, very interesting. I’ve read a
fictional account of him … no one knows for sure what happened to him
and his last expedition to find the “northwest passage”.
The Terror: A Novel
Sir John Franklin's last
expedition remains one of the great mysteries of Arctic exploration.
What we know, more or less, is this: In the balmy days of May 1845, 129
officers and men aboard two ships -- Erebus and Terror -- departed from
England for the Canadian Arctic in search of a Northwest Passage to the
Pacific. They were never heard from again. Between 1847 and 1859,
Franklin's wife pushed for and funded various relief missions, even as
the expectation of finding survivors was replaced by the slim hope for
There was a brief showing of
the Northern Lights when clouds parted this night.
October 31, 2008 (Friday):
The wind and snow
ceased during the night. After breakfast our group went out in the
Polar Rover from 8 a.m. until 11:45 a.m. The sunrise was 9:20 a.m. and
the day was then sunny and beautiful with deep snow drifts. This was a
wet snow, Churchill area usually gets seventeen (17) inches of dry snow
annually. We saw a sow (mother) and her playful cub … we watched him
play in the snow, dig, topple down drifts, nurse and have a good time in
the beautiful light.
During the sunrise the
light quality was what most of us call the National Geographic light.
We saw many bears and felt fortunate to have been out and about on a
clear day, on a snowy day, and today, a bright sunny day with sparkling
After lunch, while the
other group was out in the Polar Rover, our group read, slept,
photographed bears (me), some did exercises, and some started packing …
although it seemed like we had just arrived.
At “happy hour” we had
a large variety of hors d’ oeuvres, followed by a lovely dinner. After
dinner Leah talked on the history of Churchill. (http://www.churchill.ca)
Again when the clouds
parted there was a brief showing of the Northern Lights.
Town of Churchill
The first Europeans to visit
Churchill arrived in 1619 from Denmark. Jens Munk and his crew spent a
long cold winter on the coast of Hudson’s Bay arriving back in Denmark
with only 3 of the original 64 members of his expedition.
1619, the area around Churchill was inhabited by many indigenous
peoples. The Thule people arrived around 1000 A.D. and later evolved
into the present-day Inuit Culture. Additionally, the region has been
continuously inhabited by the Chipewyan and Cree peoples.
Hudson Bay Company established the first fur trading post in Churchill
at the mouth of the Churchill River in 1717. The town was named for
John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough who was the governor of the
Hudson’s Bay Company in the late 1600s.
World War 1, Churchill was selected as the site for the creation of a
major new northern shipping harbour on Hudson Bay, linked by rail from
Winnipeg. The rail line finally arrived in Churchill in 1929 making it
possible for commercial shipping to take place. Today the shipping port
is mainly used to transport grain and other bulk cargoes.
Churchill was also the site of the Churchill Rocket Research Range.
This range was part of the Canadian-American atmospheric research, the
first rocket was fired in 1956 and the range was eventually closed in
1984. The site is now used by the Churchill Northern Studies Centre
where Arctic research is carried out.
Ecotourism has become the major industry in Churchill, with more than
10,000 tourists each year who come to view the Polar Bears, Beluga
Whales and other wildlife in their natural habitat.
Churchill is known as the “The Polar Bear Capital of the World”,
because Churchill is the only easily accessible place in the world where
humans can view Polar Bears in their natural habitat. Located in
Northern Manitoba approximately 995 km north of Winnipeg, Manitoba,
Churchill is only accessible by rail or air. The community of 900
residents is nestled on the shore of the Hudson Bay at the mouth of the
mighty Churchill River. This unique community stands at an ecotone, the
juncture of two ecoregions; the boreal forest to the south, and the
Arctic Tundra to the North. The meeting of these two regions provides a
unique environment for the variety of wildlife found in Churchill.
Churchill is the main Arctic Ocean seaport in North America with a rail
connection to the south and an airport for transportation of goods and
Churchill isn’t just about Polar Bears… they have an abundance of
interesting things to see and do: spring and fall flowers; 150 species
of birds, trees and plants; thousands of Beluga Whales during July and
August, and in the harbor the 5 million bushel grain complex that can
load grain at the rate of 60,000 bushels per hour.
After dinner Conrad gave a 25 minute slide presentation of places he has
traveled (and led groups) all around the world …. he’s a marvelous
photographer. Rather sad to think this was our last night in the Tundra
Halloween in Churchill is a bit different as it is at the height of the
Polar Bear season. The town employees, volunteer fire department, Polar
Bear Alert officers, Canadian Rangers and the Royal Canadian Mounted
Police patrol the community to keep bears out of the town limits, and
the “polar bear alert” signs are posted all around the town limits. The
town is divided up into sectors. The Halloween Patrol has been going on
for over twenty (20) years. During the last week in October each year
Churchill hosts from 15 to 20 documentary and news film crews from
around the world.
November 1, 2008 (Saturday):
Breakfast was served at 6:30 a.m. We left the Tundra Lodge with our
parkas and wearing our arctic boots (the first time they were needed).
We left at 7:15 a.m. while dark for the 45 minute drive to the Great
White Bear Tours facility where we transferred to a bus for the drive
across the tundra back in to Churchill. We had a “tour” of Churchill
which has a population about one thousand (1,000) people.
visited the Eskimo Museum which contains Inuit, Cree, Dene and Metis
relics dating back to the 1700s, plus a collection of 3,000 artifacts
and 800 pieces of art revealing the aboriginal heritage of those who
first settled the Arctic. It has a display of two animal-hide canoes and
several stuffed animals as well as the art and carvings and also caribou
antler pictographs and soapstone statues of great value to the Eskimo
Eskimo Museum had a nice small gift shop and an excellent selection of
books. I purchased Polar Bears of Churchill: A Guide to ‘Bear
Season’ and Beyond in the Polar Bear Capital of the World by Kelsey
Eliasson and White Bear of the North Wapusk signed by the author
Rebecca L. Grambo and photography by Dennis Fast.
When our bus picked us up at the Eskimo Museum we went to the Seaport
Hotel where everyone could leave their luggage and carry-on or day
packs. People had time to shop and we were all to meet at noon for
lunch at the Trader’s Table in the Arctic Trading Post. Several people
went dog sledding.
Nine of us were taken to Hudson Bay Helicopter where we had our safety
briefing before loading into two helicopters for our 90 minute trip.
We flew over the huge Wapusk National Park (no roads and no humans live
there), to Cape Churchill and landed on top of a “hill”. Both pilots
carried guns just in case. Our pilot Daryl Ressler said he
has lived in Yellowknife, NW Territory for five years and ferries
geologists and supplies to the diamond mine in the area …. think the TV
show “Ice Road Truckers”, and he has flown the Polar Bear season in
Churchill for three years. We saw a mother moose and her calf,
several male moose with huge antlers and eleven (11) Polar Bears from
I (Susan) am glad I went on this helitour. We each were given a color
certificate with photo of two bears mine stating “This certifies that
Susan Anderson, Completed a Wilderness Helitour, Land of the Polar Bear
with Hudson Bay Helicopters, Nov. 1, 2008, Pilot: Daryl Ressler”.
When we returned from the helicopter tour we were taken to the Trader’s
Table where the rest of our group were already seated at the table. We
had given our orders the day before. This was the last time we were all
While I was doing the helicopter tour Howard did some shopping for me
(coasters, shirts, magnets). He also visited the bakery and says their
chocolate éclairs and ice cold milk were both very good. I had gotten
to purchase a few items at the Eskimo Museum gift shop including a
carved Inukshuk done by a Canadian Inuk artist.
The ancient Inukshuk (in-ook-shook) rock sculptures of the Inuit peoples
have many functions. Piles of rock slabs resembling a person were built
to guide or channel caribou into areas where Inuit hunters could easily
harvest them. As trail markers, a longer arm might point in the
direction of travel or peering through the middle may give a view of the
next Inukshuk. Some may indicate where fish may be caught or a food
cache may be buried. Built on hilltops, they may mark the territory of
a family group. In time, they have evolved beyond markers, acquiring
spiritual significance symbolizing strength through unity – each rock in
balance, supported by the rocks below, supporting the rocks above.
was a sunny and cold day in Churchill with snow and ice everywhere.
After lunch our bus took us to a Polar Bear air-lift, moving a bear and
her two cubs out of the Polar Bear Jail and back to the wilds many miles
Churchill has a curfew for evenings and signs around the town that say:
“POLAR BEAR ALERT STOP DON”T WALK IN THIS AREA”, and POLAR BEAR ALERT
Report all bears to PH 675-2327 (BEAR).
then were taken to the Churchill Airport. After getting our boarding
passes, I (Susan) shopped a bit at the Here Be Bears stand
http://www.herebebears.com/ where I purchased a Polar Bear and cub
silver necklace, earrings and a ring. The jewelry was designed and made
by Mark Reynolds. Mark@herebebears.com
Our charter flight again was on a Convair 580 turboprop again operated
by Nolinor Aviation. Again it was a two and one half hour (2 ˝) flight
with light snow, but was nice when we landed in Winnipeg. A bus met our
plane on the tarmac and we were returned to The Fort Garry Hotel (www.fortgarryhotel.com).
We took our parkas and arctic boots back to the Natural Habitat rooms (http://www.nathab.com)
9th floor and retrieved our coats and shoes, then went to our
room. Everyone was on their own for dinner. At the coffee shop we had
sandwiches and I purchased a Toronto newspaper and we watched some news
November 2, 2008 (Sunday):
Our wake up call came promptly at 4:45 a.m. and we had our luggage
outside the door at 5:15 a.m. Our shuttle (there were four of us from
our tour and several others from additional tours that did not stay out
on the tundra) left the hotel at 5:30 a.m. and took us to the Winnipeg
International Airport where we went through U.S. Customs. We don’t know
what it is about Howard, a “retired” U.S. Air Force officer, but he was
stopped, his carry on bag searched and wanded twice. I purchased a
couple of items plus postcards and the Sunday Winnipeg newspaper while
we waited for our plane. Our Sky West flight left at 7:40 a.m. arriving
in Denver about 9 a.m. We had a good breakfast in the Denver airport,
and our next Sky West flight left at 11:10 a.m., arriving in Phoenix at
1 p.m. We soon got our luggage (each of us had a duffle bags) and took
the shuttle to our off airport parking and arrived home about 1:20 p.m.
Wildlife we observed (see below), photographing much of it and Howard
also did some video. The new Nikon Coolpix P80 (zoom x18) camera that
Howard got for me a few days before we left was wonderful and I enjoyed
using it very much. I (Susan) kept 912 photographs after deleting a few
that were not in focus.
Snow Geese … thousands
Cackling Geese (Canadian Geese) … thousands
Arctic Fox … four
Red Fox … two
Seal … one
Snowy Owl … one
Arctic Hare … one
Polar Bears, feet on side of lodge … three
Polar Bears, two males sparring … five times
Polar Bear sow & cub(s) … eleven times
Polar Bears, singles … lost count after 39 (thirty-nine)
Polar Bear airlift in net … three bears (sow & cubs)
Willow Ptarmigan … large flock
Moose, mother & calf … one
Moose, male … either three or five
Northern Lights/Aurora Borealis … three nights
Trees … Tamarack, Willow, Spruce
bears on Hudson Bay
(from Page 1D, USA TODAY, 6 Jan. 2006)
Hudson Bay is where the southernmost and best-studied populations live.
60% of the estimated 22,000 polar bears live in the Canadian Arctic. The
planet's largest land-dwelling carnivores are a sight to behold. Sea ice
is essential to their survival because it is the platform from which
they hunt ringed seals and other prey. Global warming is causing the ice
to retract, threatening the bears' ability to hunt and breed. At this
rate, the sea ice could disappear by 2050. “They will lose their
habitat, and if you don't have your habitat, you don't have anything,”
says Lara Hansen, chief scientist for climate change at World Wildlife
bears need to maintain a minimum weight to reproduce; those in the
Hudson Bay population are approaching a weight at which breeding will no
longer be possible. The bears can migrate north, but unless action is
taken to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, which cause global
temperature increases, “we'll slowly be moving the line of polar bears
until there is nowhere else for them to be” Hansen says.