Polar Bears: Churchill, Manitoba

Pre-Planning:
It all started with a chance encounter with a Black Bear during one of our treks in the high Himalayas. It remained etched in our memories and many years later we again saw several Black Bears at Dachigam National Park.
During all these encounters, we always dreamt of spotting Polar Bears in the wild, but the abundant wildlife in India kept us away from traveling far across to the other continents.
While planning our travel itinerary for 2015, Polar Bears were high on the priority list and we decided that it was high time that we try our luck to spot them.
The first question was what location could offer us the best opportunity to spot Polar Bears.
After much research we zeroed on to Churchill in Canada.
Online research indicated that Polar Bears congregate onto Churchill before the onset of winters and wait for the ice to form over Hudson Bay. Once the ice is formed they move to their traditional hunting grounds deep in the arctic. During this small time window, there was a high probability to see the bears up close.
However, it was anyone’s guess when the bears would arrive at Churchill and when the bay would freeze. If we were to miss the time window, there was a very slim possibility to see the bears.
Hence, it was imperative that we time our visit perfectly.
So we ended up doing a lot of online research, comparing previous year data and finally concluding that the best chance we had was towards the end of October till mid of November.
Once the travel timeframe was frozen, we had two options, either we took a package tour or did everything ourselves.
We contacted a few tour companies and soon realized that the cost was outrageously high. The minimum quote for a two night stay at Churchill was CAD 10,000 for two. On top of this, we had to add the flight cost from India to Canada and other expenses.
We quickly realized that we had to plan the trip ourselves.
Based on several online forums, we prioritized our planning as follows:
1. Reserve seats on the Tundra Buggy: A Tundra Buggy is a modified bus that takes you into the Wildlife Management Area. As of 2015, there are only two authorized companies that can take visitors in this area. Due to high demand, the seats fill up quickly and we decided to book them well in advance. Between the two of them, only the Great White Bear Tour was offering seats to individual travelers. So we booked two tours with them in Feb 2015 itself. The first tour was booked for 30th Oct 2015 and the second tour for 3rd Nov 2015. The tour were booked online at https://www.greatwhitebeartours.com/ and paid by Credit card.

2. Book Churchill Flight tickets: The second priority for us was to book air tickets to reach Churchill before the rates shot up. There were two ways to reach Churchill. By air or by train.  We opted to fly as the train was very slow and took almost two days to reach.
We booked the following flight:
Winnipeg – Churchill: 29 Oct 2015, Calm Air
Churchill – Winnipeg: 03 Nov 2015, Calm Air
Booked via online travel portal www.cleartrip.com in Feb 2015

3. Accommodation: Churchill is a small town with a population of approx 700. Still, it has several Hotels/B&B options, however, rooms are often pre booked by tour companies way in advance and it gets very difficult for individual travelers to secure accommodation. We called/emailed several hotels and got a standard response “Sorry, we are fully booked”. We were amazed that everything was booked out in Feb itself. We then contacted Bluesky Bed & Sled and were excited to know that they had a room available during our travel dates. Bluesky was rated excellent on Tripadvisor; and we did not waste any time to book it. They can be contacted via http://www.blueskymush.com/
In hindsight, this was the best decision, Bluesky Bed and Sled exceeded all our expectations and we fully recommend this place to all.
By the end of February, we were done booking our Churchill flights, Accommodation and Tundra Buggy Rides.

4. Intercontinental Flights: In May, we booked the intercontinental flights to Canada. The original plan was just to see the Polar Bears, but then, we thought that since we were traveling all the way to Churchill, we might as well spend some time checking out the other tourist attractions that Canada has to offer.
So, from a Polar Bear trip, our plan turned into a big Canadian Vacation and we booked the following route:
Delhi-Toronto: 24 Oct 2015, Air Canada
Toronto-Winnipeg: 28 Oct 2015, Air Canada
Winnipeg-Vancouver: 05 Nov 2015, Air Canada
Vancouver-Delhi: 08 Nov 2015, Air Canada

5. Visa: Applied online at http://www.cic.gc.ca/

Tips:
1. We checked in May and the Tundra Buggy rides were still available at https://www.greatwhitebeartours.com/
2. Calm Air flights: We did a good thing by booking early. By May, the rates had sky rocketed
3. We got a few emails in May from Churchill hotels that they had rooms available for some of the nights we had initially requested. It seems that the Tour companies release rooms by May/June. However, there was no hotel that had rooms available for our entire length of stay. During the trip, we met a few travelers at Churchill who booked late and had to change 3 hotels in a span of 4 days of stay. As such, it is highly recommended to book accommodation early.
4. We booked all flights (international and domestic) on Air Canada. Hence, we were able to carry our baggage on all flights at no additional cost. If we booked different airlines, we may have ended paying a lot of excess baggage charge on domestic Canada flights.

Travel Dates:
24 Oct 2015 – 27 Oct 2015 – Toronto
28 Oct 2015 – Winnipeg
29 Oct 2015 – 03 Nov 2015 – Churchill
04 Nov 2015 – Winnipeg
05 Nov 2015 – 08 Nov 2015 – Vancouver

24 -27 Oct 2015 : Day 1-4
We spend the first four days in Toronto visiting the many tourist attractions in and around Toronto. We also went to Niagara Falls and had a great time there.
Accommodation: Hotel Victoria, 56 Yonge Street
Sightseeing: St Lawrence Market, St. James Cathedral, Massey Hall, Eaton Center, Dundas Square,
Shangri-La Hotel (Rising Sculpture), CP24 Truck (CTV building, corner of Queen and John), Graffiti Alley (Rush Lane between Brant St and Portland St), Chinatown, Kensington Market, Art Gallery of Ontario, Harbourfront and Lake, Toronto Islands, Hockey Hall of Fame, CN Tower, Roger’s Centre, Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada

28 Oct 2015 : Day 5
Today we flew to Winnipeg reaching by noon and directly checked in to the hotel (http://www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/ywgap-courtyard-winnipeg-airport/)
In the evening, we went to the nearby shopping center (Polo Park) and had dinner. We could have easily purchased winter wear from here if we wanted. There is also an option to buy less expensive stuff from the nearby Wal-Mart.

29 Oct 2015 : Day 6
We took the early morning flight from Winnipeg and reached Churchill at 0840 Hrs. A quick taxi ride got us to the Bluesky Bed and Sled where we were greeted by Jen. She quickly explained us the “House Rules” and showed us our room. Our room was the right size, cozy and nicely decorated.


We quickly freshened up and came downstairs to have some coffee. While relishing on the freshly baked cookies that Jen had prepared, Gerald arrived with a few Australian guests that he had picked up from the train station.
By the time the Australians settled down, we had asked so many questions to Gerald that he suggested that we all go for a town tour. We all jumped into Gerald’s van and he took us around the town and gave an excellent overview, its history, bear facts, things to do, where to eat etc. He also took us around the Hudson Bay and we spent a few minutes at the Inukshuk and other attractions.
After the tour, we had a quick bite at the Gypsy’s Bakery and went straight to the Great White Bear Tour’s office and confirmed our Buggy ride for the next day.
From there, we walked down to the Canada Post office and got our Passport stamped with a cute circular souvenir stamp of a polar bear.
We also went to the Eskimo Museum before going to the Tundra Inn for dinner.

30 Oct 2015 : Day 7
Our whole Canadian trip was for today and we were really excited to get an opportunity to see Polar Bears in the wild.
Based on Jen’s advice, we were ready by 7 in the morning, waiting to be picked up by the Great White Bear Tours.
Jen stuffed us well with a heavy breakfast of some great tasting pancakes and yummy wild berry yogurt.
We were picked up by the Great White Bear Tour bus at around 8 in the morning and driven to the Wildlife Management Area where we were transferred to a Tundra Buggy.
For the next two hours, there was no sign of a bear or for that matter any life form. At around 11 in the morning, we spotted a lone Polar Bear, but far away.
Having spent many years in the Indian jungles, we knew that anything can happen any moment, so we waited patiently. And then it happened. A Polar Bear was spotted close to the Buggy track and the driver stopped for everyone to take pictures. After a few minutes, another bear walked up to the buggy, then another emerged and eventually, four bears were lazing around the buggy. It was an exciting moment for everyone onboard the bus.
But it was not over and two bears decided to make our trip even more special. They came face to face and started sparring. The sparring went on for over an hour and we did not miss even a single moment of it.

 


Out of instinct, Anjana asked me to keep an eye on the bear activity while she checks the other side of the buggy for any activity. Luckily, Anjana observed some movement in the bushes and focused her camera on it. Within a few seconds, an arctic fox emerged on to the clearing before vanishing into the bushes. By the time Anjana attracted the attention of others in the bus, the fox had disappeared.

 


After a bear packed day, we returned to Bluesky and spend the evening chatting with fellow travelers and enjoying the freshly baked cake that Jen made for all of us.

31 Oct 2015 : Day 8
Today, we had pre-booked a day tour with Paul of Nature 1st Tours (http://www.nature1sttours.ca/); he came and picked us up at around 9 in the morning.
During the course of the day we went to all the major tourist attractions like the Cape Merry, the shipwreck, the rocket range, Northern Studies Centre etc. Apart from the tourist attractions, we spent a lot of time around the Boreal forest trying to spot wildlife.
However, the highlight of the day was when Paul spotted a bear swimming in the Hudson Bay from almost a km away. He then drove toward it and we all got down from the van hoping that the bear emerges out of the water.
Sure enough, the bear came out of the water and it was real exciting to share the ground with the bear.


After drying itself, the bear vanished into the boreal forest and we happily moved on to our next destination.
Paul left us at Bluesky in the evening and we realized that it was Halloween day. Soon, children started to pour in asking “Trick or Treat”. It was an amazing experience and we thoroughly enjoyed every moment of it. We could not stop comparing it with Lohri and our traditional song “Sundar Mundariye”.

01 Nov 2015 : Day 9
Today was more of a rest day for us and we just went around the town, did a bit of souvenir shopping, taking pictures of the Halloween decorations etc.
Gerald knew that we desperately wanted to spot a Silver Fox and he offered to take us around. We gladly accepted his offer and he drove us to the outskirts of the town and after much effort, finally encountered a Red Fox, but a Silver Fox eluded us.

02 Nov 2015 : Day 10
By now, Jen had spoilt us with her breakfast preparations and every day we looked forward to what Jen would serve us.
Today, we had a scrumptious breakfast of porridge topped with wild berries & bananas and a freshly baked pizza. We can easily go back to Churchill, not for the bears, but for Jen’s breakfast :) 
Anyways, after finishing breakfast, Jen drove us to the dog sledding camp where Gerald greeted us with his dogs. We spend a lot of time in the Musher’s den learning the ways of the forest and listening to Gerald’s experiences.
Soon, we strapped up and went for dog sledding. It seemed as though the dogs were more excited than us to go for a run. After a thrilling sledding experience, we returned to the musher’s den and savored on a freshly baked cake that Jen had prepared.


We spent the whole evening there and also witnessed a beautiful sunset. After sunset, we drove back to Bluesky, had dinner at the Tundra Inn and went to sleep.
At around 10 in the night, Gerald woke us up and informed that the Northern Lights are out and we need to get ready quickly. For the best viewing experience, Gerald drove us to his dog yard in the Boreal forest; far away from the annoying town lights.
For the next two hours, we witnessed some amazing display of northern light and were completely awed by it.

03 Nov 2015 : Day 11
Today we went on our second Tundra Buggy tour with the Great White Bear Tours. For some unknown reason, the bears were not very active today and we could only spot a few bears lazing around the entire day, no sparring, no curious bears, nothing. The only highlight of the day was a mother and cub that was spotted towards the end of the tour, but that too from very far away.

 


We returned to Bluesky by 4 in the evening, relaxed for a while and left for the airport to catch the evening flight to Winnipeg.
We thought that our adventure was over, but it was not. As we were strolling outside the airport, the entire sky lit up with the Northern lights again, we could not believe our luck. We quickly grabbed our camera gear and clicked pictures for the next one hour. In the meantime, the Calm Air staff informed us that the flight is delayed. We did not mind as we were busy taking pictures of the Northern lights.
However, at around 11 PM, the ground staff informed us that the flight is cancelled due to bad weather.
It was freezing cold and no one had a clue where to spend the night. Calm Air offered us meal and stay vouchers, but all hotels were fully booked.
While all travelers decided to sleep at the airport itself in the freezing cold, we decided to head back to Bluesky knowing that Jen and Gerald would be there to help us out.

04 Nov 2015 : Day 12
Since, we had nothing to do in the morning, Gerald again drove us to the forest to try and spot the Silver Fox. But it was not going to happen, however we did encounter a Red Fox and got some very close up shots.


In the afternoon, we got a call from Calm Air informing us that they had arranged an extra flight and if we would be interested to fly out today. We gladly agreed and reached just in time to catch the afternoon flight.
We reached Winnipeg by evening and checked in at the Humphry Inn. We were glad that our flight out of Winnipeg was on the 5th of Nov 2015. We did miss exploring the Winnipeg city, but still the flight delay at Churchill did not disrupt our other plans.

05 – 08 Nov 2015 : Day 13-16
Today afternoon, we took a flight to Vancouver and reached by evening. Next two days we spent visiting the many tourist attractions that Vancouver has to offer.

Overall, we had an excellent trip and were fortunate enough to see Bears and Northern lights at one go.
Please feel free to contact us for any question that you may have related to this trip.

Travel safe…

1 Comment

  1. kapil sharma says: Reply

    That’s an amazing canvas created by the polar bears, painted by the northern lights and dazzled by countless stars in the sky.Astonishing and catastrophic well done guys

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