Arctic’s magnificent mammals

Quesnel couple fulfill one item on their bucket list by visiting Churchill, Manitoba to view the polar bears

One curious polar bear.

The polar bears of Western Hudson Bay, specifically in the community of Churchill, Man. have been drawing researchers and eco-tourists for decades, including one couple from Quesnel. Victor and Barb Chatt spent a memorable six days in Churchill recently, watching and photographing the famous white bears.

“It was on our bucket list and we decided it was now or never,” Victor said.

They had learned about the Churchill polar bears and an enquiry with Cariboo Travel set them up with Frontiers North Tours, a company out of Winnipeg which arranged the exotic vacation.

Although still very much in Canada, their arctic destination was already well into winter by the time they arrived.

Travelling around the area was safely done with Tundra Buggies, which are oversized bus-like vehicles with a viewing platform at the back.

“The buggy was about nine feet to the bottom of the windows,” Victor said.

On their first day on the tundra, he said they saw about 14 polar bears and almost double that on their second day.

“You were in the middle of nowhere, but knowing it was a safe environment, it was amazing to be so close to nature and these roly-poly bears,” Barb said.

Polar bears have been congregating in the area for many centuries. It’s believed they evolved from brown bears that live exclusively in southeast Alaska.

Their research suggested polar bears may have split from these brown bears 250 – 300,000 years ago. However, fossils of these Arctic giants are scarce, given they live most of their active life on the winter ice flows and dead bear remains sink to the bottom.

Polar bears are found throughout the Arctic circle and they travel extensively across the frozen landscape in search of their primary food source – seals.

But as the ice begins to melt in the spring, polar bears seek land areas for their semi-hibernation during the relatively warmer summer months.

The iconic white bears’ summer travel is extensive but as fall approaches the polar bears of western Hudson Bay make their way to the Churchill area to take advantage of the relatively early freeze up caused by the freshwater Churchill River dumping in the salt water Hudson Bay. The earlier they can move back to their seal hunting grounds the sooner they can start to recoup the critical fat layers needed to sustain them through the long cold winter.

This is the time tourists and researchers can view polar bears while remaining close to the amenities humans require.

And both Victor and Barb said the hospitality, the food and the community were excellent.

Their tour group consisted of 14 people from all over the world. Flown in from Winnipeg, the group’s accommodations were in downtown Churchill, which provided easy access to restaurants and shops.

With activities planned for each of their six-day stay, the Chatts were most excited about the Tundra Buggy tours where the spacious, reinforced structures allowed them spectacular views of the mighty polar bears.

The rear viewing platform was high enough to allow curious bears a chance to see the humans from below a metal screened portion of the floor and also allowed the humans to safely experience close proximity to the bears.

“They would put their huge claws through the metal screen,” Victor said.

“It was great for taking pictures.”

He said it was forbidden to feed the bears or to entice the bears and of course no one was allowed out of the buggies except on the viewing platform.

They also visited Wapusk National Park, a vast, remote sub-arctic wilderness that protects the world’s largest known denning area for polar bears and the nesting grounds of thousands of pairs of snow geese, arctic foxes, arctic hares, wolves, caribou and wolverines.

When not on a local tour, the Chatts walked around Churchill to restaurants and businesses but Victor said they should have brought boot cleats as the wind was strong and cold and the sidewalks somewhat icy.

The trip to Churchill was everything they hoped it would be – the landscape magnificent and forbidding, the bears majestic and the hospitality outstanding.

“It’s hard to image this inhospitable, flat environment, with virtually no trees, can be so inviting,” Victor said.

He added the week before they left for the trip, a black bear had visited their south Quesnel yard.

“We thought of him as a nuisance and the following week we paid all kinds of money to go and look at white bears,” Victor said with a smile.

Once they left Churchill, the couple travelled to Sault St. Marie to visit friends, however Barb became ill leaving the visiting to Victor. They’re home now, Barb is recovered, their luggage finally followed them home and the couple are contemplating their next trip.

“We don’t know what’s next on the bucket list,” Victor said.

“But this trip was well worth it.”

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