Hi folks! We are a happy couple from Belgium, who decided to leave our cozy home in Antwerp in favor of discovering the magic of faraway lands. Our thirst for adventure calls to us and we are always looking for new interesting places to visit.
Churchill, the ice bear capital of the world, offers an easy way to observe these magnificent creatures — even from your bed
I shouldn’t be here. It is dark and the temperature is plummeting. Ice-spattered gusts whip and crack along the beach, seemingly conducting the shifting sky. The sky is the reason that I am out here with snowsuit hastily pulled over sleep-rumpled pyjamas. It is eerie green with blooming aurora; ripples of light play like piano keys above me.
My guide’s torch beam scans the boulders lining the beach below, a rudimentary searchlight over the rounded white mounds that may or may not be the world’s largest land carnivore. At Churchill, in the Canadian Arctic, coastal rocks often come in creamy polar bear hues, making detection an adrenaline sport.
Yes, instinct says we should not be here. Instinct and the air-raid siren that signals the nightly curfew for the younger residents of Churchill; time for children to be tucked up with teddies, while a larger variety of bear sniffs around outside.
Here we are nonetheless, and precisely because of those bears. They are plentiful at this time of year, between late September and November, padding about the beaches and shores of Hudson Bay waiting for the winter sea ice to form, seasonal stepping stones to the ringed seals, which will once again start producing plump pups for the bears to pick off.
Known as the “polar bear capital of the world”, Churchill is the most accessible place for close-proximity viewing of these beasts. The Torngat Mountains on Canada’s remote Labrador Peninsula or the perilous waters of the Northwest Passage might give serious adventure tourists the chance of sightings, yet take the quick flight from the UK via Winnipeg to Churchill and bears are pretty much guaranteed.
“People often ask why they’re here in the first place,” says Doug Ross, my guide from Frontiers North, the adventure travel company that pioneered polar-bear tours here about 30 years ago. Infamous stories from the 1980s of bears raiding Churchill’s rubbish dump (now closed) gave rise to the idea that the town lures these wild creatures. “But they’ve always been here,” Doug says. “Hudson Bay currents carry them to this stretch of coast. They come inland when the sea ice melts in summer, then after months without food they migrate back along this shoreline.”
Ravenous carnivores that can weigh more than 600kg are not easy companions. Yet this tundra town has long coexisted with these huge creatures and bear etiquette is ingrained. Before leaving the beach I perform a “Churchill pirouette”, which is a quick 360-degree scan to ensure a safe route home.
“In the unlikely event you need to run for it,” Doug says, nonchalantly, “just dash for the nearest car. Everyone is supposed to leave them unlocked.” In a town where roads quickly terminate in either water or impenetrable tundra, car theft is pointless. In such a close-knit community petty crime is rare.
Churchill’s busiest jail is the one populated by bears. In the 1940s and 1950s, when the town boomed as an American-Canadian military base, the perceived wisdom when it came to particularly troublesome bears was shoot to kill. Nowadays there is a significantly more hands-off attitude.
“We ‘haze’ them — scare them off with noise — and if that doesn’t work they’re darted with tranquilliser and detained before being helicoptered or driven back into the tundra,” explains Doug the next morning outside the Polar Bear Holding Facility, an innocuous-looking warehouse on the outskirts of town. A classic calling point on any tour of Churchill, the polar-bear jail holds supreme fascination for tourists, even though you can’t go in. “The less the bears interact with people in town, the better,” Doug says.
Of course, that is what I am here for. A palpable sense of itchy excitement is mounting at the prospect of a bear encounter. While sightings in town do happen, they are clearly not encouraged.
The place to be is on the tundra. So Doug and I make for the Launch, originally a military rocket station. The only thing taking off from the Launch these days are group tours on Tundra buggies, the all- terrain, low-impact vehicles that transport tourists into the bear-studded boreal wilderness encompassed by the Churchill Wildlife Management Area (CWMA), covering 850,000 hectares of protected tundra terrain.
He rears up, paws the size of garden rakes resting on the truck inches below me
Our truck is anything but a rocket. “Don’t worry,” says Neil, its chirpy driver, as we grimace at the maddeningly slow pace, bumping and lurching through shallow lakes and over ancient glacial stones. “I’ve had just five bear-free days in my nine years’ driving. We’ll find them.”
Drivers and guides are a universally ebullient bunch, offering up well-oiled anecdotes and cups of hot soup, their dinner-and-a-show act essential to fill what can be long intervals between wildlife appearances.
In true safari style, another buggy radios over a bear sighting, and we are off giving chase . . . at 3mph. It is like rumbling through the Scottish Highlands in an oversized milk float. Then, on the horizon: is it a bear or one of those bothersome boulders? “Bears are actually easier to spot once snow falls,” Neil says. “Their yellowy coats show up better against the white.”
Snow looks imminent and those on board who can’t brave the sideways sleet blowing across the truck’s open viewing platform out back crowd instead to open the windows, training binoculars to reveal, unmistakably, a bear. Its huge head rests on front paws, coal-black eyes half-shut against the wind, hunkered down in the scant shelter of a scrappy willow. The group gives a collective whoop of glee.
Our next sighting is just moments later. Another juvenile snuffling around a bed of kelp about 20m away, pawing and licking at the briny fronds, nose comically twitching as if tracking the scent of honey on the howling wind.
We are mesmerised for a good hour by this endearingly dog-like behaviour, until, suddenly, our bear makes for the buggy. In seconds he is too close for my long lens to focus. He rears up, paws the size of garden rakes resting on the truck inches below me. I squeak something unrepeatable, lower my camera and am eye to eye with an ice bear.
The wind is arctic, but it is not this that is making me tearful. I glance at Doug next to me and he has the same dewy lashes. “It doesn’t matter how many times it happens,” he whispers. “When they lock their eyes with yours, something in you shifts, for ever.”
Subsequent tundra trips are equally slow at starting, but bring more sightings, and even more “buggy love”, as Neil calls these close encounters.
The best buggy love, I conclude, would be to budget for an overnight stay or two at Frontiers North’s Tundra Buggy Lodge. This is a series of trucks coupled together deep in the CWMA wilderness. They are fitted with plush dining and bunk cars and have picture windows. While regular tourists are making the slow morning schlep across the tundra, you can bear-spot from your bed.
The ultimate experience (at C$12,000/£7,320 a head) has to be the lodge’s expedition, each November, into the neighbouring Wapusk National Park, the world capital for denning female bears and their newborns. “It’s the mother bears that are being hit the hardest [by global warming],” says Melanie Hout, from Polar Bears International (PBI), Frontiers North’s partner conservation group.
During summer there is stupendously varied wildlife viewing, including the arrival of thousands of feeding beluga whales
PBI uses one of the Tundra buggies as a mobile broadcasting unit, sending live footage and data to scientists and students worldwide, and regularly gets staff such as Melanie to hop on tourist buggies to share bear facts and stats. “With ice forming later, mothers have less time to hunt seals and regain fat needed to successfully reproduce,” she explains. “I think we will see big changes in their habitat in the next decade. If we can move away from fossil fuels we might halt warming sea temperatures. But it needs to happen now, and worldwide.”
It is not just bears that are affected. In Churchill’s subarctic transition zone habitat, myriad creatures coexist: caribou, black, grizzly and polar bear, arctic hare, arctic and red fox, along with a staggering 225 species of bird.
During summer this can make for stupendously varied wildlife viewing, including the arrival of thousands of feeding beluga whales. I had spotted the season’s remaining pods the previous evening in Churchill estuary, rising like shiny white crescent moons in the choppy waves. Yet as sea ice decreases each year, southern beasties encroach north. “Bears consider other bear species food if there’s little else to eat,” says Melanie.
This is hard to imagine when you are watching the bears cavort. At one point there are six in our orbit, scratching and sniffing like pups at our buggy. One stands in the distance, all four paws drawn together under its bulk, like a fat lady squeezed into too-small shoes. How it doesn’t topple over in the wind is a mystery known only to Mother Nature. Another holds its back paws and performs perfect teddy-bear rolls in a patch of heather. It is almost too much to take in.
Later, in town, I walk to the beach, performing Churchill pirouettes as I go. I need some time for my brain to process all that ursine activity. On the boardwalk, a young lad is walking his dog. “You shouldn’t be there,” he yells over. “There could be bears.” You’d better believe it.
Need to know
Sarah Barrell was a guest of Frontiers North (frontiersnorth.com) and of Destination Canada (uk-keepexploring.canada. travel). The five-night Churchill Town and Tundra Enthusiast tour costs C$5,799pp (£3,540), including pre and post-trip overnight accommodation in Winnipeg, return flights to Churchill, basic inn accommodation, transfers, transport, all activities and meals. International flights to Winnipeg cost extra.
Winter wildlife at the poles, by Ben Clatworthy
Polar adventure in Svalbard
See polar bears, arctic fox and reindeer in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard. From Oslo, fly to Longyearbyen for a stay at Basecamp Trapper’s Hotel. From there, head out by snowmobile to Basecamp Isfjord Radio hotel for a chance to see both the northern lights and polar bears. You’ll also spend a night in a heated tent at the North Pole Camp.
Details Six days starts from £2,595pp, including flights, accommodation and activities (020 7664 2241, best-served.co.uk)
Reindeer and husky safaris in Finland
If you’d rather avoid polar bears, try this pre-Christmas break in a snug winter cottage in northwest Finland. As well as a husky and reindeer safari, there’s a visit to a reindeer farm and the chance to ride snowmobiles and go snowshoeing.
Details The four-night trip leaves on December 14 and costs from £1,295pp, including flights, transfers, most meals and activities (01670 785085, artisantravel. co.uk)
Explore the magic of a continent few travellers visit. Start by exploring Ushuaia — the world’s most southerly city — before boarding the ship. Heading south, you negotiate the Drake Passage and South Shetland Islands to the Antarctic Peninsula. Spot leopard seals on ice floes, and vast rookeries of penguins and the odd albatross. There are kayak expeditions and excursions in the ship’s small launch.
Details 12 nights are from £4,739pp, including most meals, but excluding kayaking (0344 2722060, gadventures.com). The trip departs in November 2017. Flights cost extra.
Whale watching and the northern lights
Head north, 220 miles into the Arctic, on this wildlife cruise to Kvaloya (meaning “whale island”), off the coast of Norway. Here winter heralds the arrival of huge schools of herring that come to shelter in the fjords. Following close behind are humpback whales and orcas, which prey on the herring. Travelling on Noorderlicht — a two-masted schooner that sleeps just 20 passengers — there are whales to spy along with rare white-tailed eagles, and (all being well) the northern lights. Included are daily shore landings, with time to explore the remote wilderness on foot.
Details Seven nights’ full board are from £1,585pp (0800 1953385, wildfoottravel.com). Flights to Tromso cost extra
Wildlife photography in Norway
On the Vesteralen archipelago in northern Norway, you should see white-tailed eagles, seals and moose, as well as the northern lights. Stay in a traditional guesthouse on the edge of the fjord and receive daily tuition from a nature photographer.
Details Five days between November and March costs from £1,299pp (020 7666 1290, regent-holidays.co.uk), including flights, tuition and full-board accommodation