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Trip Report Tundra Buggy Lodge at Polar Bear Point – Nov 2008 – Trip Report

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We just returned from our trip to see polar bears in the wild. Just a quickie overview for now. When time permits, I plan to post additional comments about the Tundra Buggy Lodge as well since there seems to be so little out there in the way of trip reports for Churchill. Hopefully, this information will prove usefuls to others who might be planning to visit Churchill, the Polar Bear Capital of the World.

November 10 – We flew from Washington, DC to Winnipeg – via Chicago – for a three night stay before joining our Frontiers North Adventures (FNA) group. Both United flights were on time and the air travel was hassle free. We stayed at the Sheraton Four Points at the airport. The hotel is connected to the terminal via a skywalk – very handy in the winter. We asked for a room overlooking the Winnipeg skyline in the distance (odd numbered room). The advantage to being on this side is that there is no noise from the airport. (We were on the opposite side for the one night following our trip to Churchill, and we did hear some aircraft noise then.)

November 11 – Winnipeg – Remembrance Day – The stores, museums, etc. were closed; some opened around 1:00p. It wasn’t a problem for us as we prefer outdoor touring/sightseeing anyway. While it was quite cold, and there was snow and ice on the sidewalks, the sky was blue and the sun was out. A really beautiful day, in fact.

We spent quite a bit of time at the St Boniface Cathedral that morning – a little eerie since only parts of the exterior walls remain. (We were told that the cathedral burned down five times.) There was a poignant Remembrance Day ceremony near the gates. Not wanting to intrude on the solemn occasion, we watched from a distance. Next, we headed to The Forks for a quick bite of lunch before going for a walk along the riverfront promenade, which was covered in snow and ice. Negotiating parts of it was tricky, but we enjoyed ourselves tremendously and the walk was exhilarating. Dinner that night was at Gasthaus Gutenberger. Excellent food – delicious soup to warm us up and great schnitzels (big portions). We split one order between the two of us and were comfortably sated, with room left over for a very yummy dessert – the Black Forest cup (think chocolate sundae with whipped cream, chocolate sauce, and lots and lots of cherries).

November 12 – Winnipeg – We spent the day at Assiniboine Park – more specifically, first at the Leo Mol Sculpture Garden and later at the zoo. It was overcast all day, but we didn’t let that stop us from enjoying ourselves. There was a lot of snow, especially at the sculpture garden, but that did not deter us from exploring the grounds. We enjoyed all of the sculptures, but the whimsical bears were our favorite. We then spent the rest of the day at the zoo, where we visited the animals that were in their outdoor habitats. While at the zoo, we did catch a glimpse of Debby, the world’s oldest polar bear, nestled amongst the boulders in her exhibit. (Little did we know then that we would return to Winnipeg a week later to hear that she had been euthanized in our absence [old age; multiple strokes; failing organs]). That evening, we joined our FNA group for dinner at the hotel.

November 13-18 – Tundra Buggy Adventure – We flew out to Churchill via a Nolinor charter flight (Boeing 737) that departed from the far side of the Winnipeg Airport. While we waited on the bus that transported us to that part of the airport, the luggage was loaded onto the plane. We were then bussed out to the aircraft where we walked off the vehicle and boarded the aircraft – no security checks, etc.

Churchill welcomed us with blowing snow, overcast skies, strong winds, and very cold temperatures (by our standards). We did a short interpretive tour on our way from the airport to town. We didn’t see much because of the bad weather, but it sure gave us an appreciation of the conditions people living in Churchill have to endure in the winter. We didn’t wimp out. At each stop, we got out of the bus to brave the elements and see what we could see in the blowing snow. Though they were at a distance, we saw our first bears in the wild during one of these stops. After a group lunch in town, we were free to wander around on our own. We were scheduled to do a helicopter tour, but it was cancelled due to weather conditions, so we spent the time until our departure for the tundra wandering in and out of the stores, leaving the museums for the last day of our trip when we knew we would have more time to spend in town.

We transferred out to the Tundra Buggy Lodge in the early evening – first, a ½-hour or so school bus ride from town to the tundra buggy launch site; then, a 1½ hour or so ride on the buggy to reach the lodge. (I’ll write about the details of the lodge separately.) As we pulled up to the lodge, a welcoming committee of two bears was greeted by cheers from within the buggy.

For the next four days we saw sleeping bears, walking bears, sparring and dancing bears, and nursing bears (the latter, we were told, is a rare sight, so we felt especially privileged). We saw adults, sub-adults, and cubs. We saw single bears, families, and groups. All in all, we saw over 50 bears in very close quarters (standing-up-against-the-buggy close in some cases); lost count of the ones that were distant and with which we did not interact much.

In addition to the bears, we saw a couple of Arctic fox, a couple of Arctic hare, and several flocks of willow ptarmigan. A few people saw a gyr falcon whiz by and land on the roof of one of the lodge buggies, but later efforts to find the falcon proved futile.

Our trip to see polar bears in the wild was a FANTASTIC success! Having a bear sleeping under my window at the lodge every night was a very special experience. I'd wake up at night, look out, and there he'd be, curled up in the snow. He'd wake up when the smell of the breakfast bacon started emanating from the kitchen, come even closer to check things out, often rearing up on his hind legs for a closer sniff at those of us who happened to be on the open deck between buggies. By the third day, a mum and cub were also making frequent visits to the lodge. On our last morning, before we departed the lodge, two pairs of sparring bears made us wish we were not leaving. (I should note that although the bears might have found the smell of cooking food enticing enough to come around and check things out, there was no feeding of bears to keep them coming around.)

We were very lucky with our bear sightings – especially since it looked like the freeze up was happening a little earlier than anticipated (which would have been a boon for the bears, but could have been a disaster from our standpoint since the bear watching season was pushed out a bit later this year). A southerly wind apparently pushed the ice that had formed in the bay around November 10 back out into the open water, so when we arrived, the bears were still around Gordon Point. The first day, the bay was slushy grease ice, with some pancake ice. By the next morning, there was a narrow strip of solid ice along the shore. By the third day, it was ice all the way to the horizon with lots of bears testing it. By the fourth morning, there were even more bears on the ice and fewer bears on land in our vicinity. Nonetheless, we had several memorable sightings at close quarters on that last day, including the wonderful nursing cubs in the most beautiful sunlight. A wonderful way to end the trip.

It was cold on the tundra (very cold by our standards) – around minus 31F (minus 35C) at its coldest during the day (with wind chill), and the wind was brutal. Our layers kept us warm, and any discomfort was forgotten when we found ourselves in close proximity to the bears. The weather was overcast with some light snow and quite a bit of wind at times. Towards the end of our third day, the skies started to clear and we had beautiful, sun-filled, blue skies for our last day.

We left the lodge early in the morning on the 18th and headed back to Churchill. It was another beautiful day of clear skies and sunshine, but boy was the wind brutal (the locals would beg to disagree with that assessment; as one person put it, “it’s not bad until you find that can’t stand up when the wind is blowing”). We appreciated the opportunity to see Churchill in a different light. The group dispersed and everyone did their own thing, but we did have a group lunch. We checked out a few stores, but mostly we spent time at two of the museums – the small one at the train station (where there is a mock-up of a polar bear den) and the Eskimo Museum. We also visited the Community Center (go up to the second floor for a beautiful view of the bay or go out and around to the back to see the same view from the ground; but beware, there are polar bear alert signs in this area, so it’s not smart to wander around too long or too far).

Our 6:00p charter flight returned us to Winnipeg. Having a Boeing 737-full of people (literally; there wasn’t an empty seat on the plane) descending on the Sheraton Four Points all at once created a bit of a logistics problem (FNA could do much better here), but we didn’t let the experience sour us on the fantastic adventure that preceded our return to Winnipeg. Besides, a long, hot shower (we were asked to keep our showers at the lodge short to conserve water) soothed our frayed nerves in no time.

November 19 – When we were making our return flight arrangements, we chose a noon flight out of Winnipeg with the express purpose of resting up after a week on the tundra. This turned out to be a really good decision. We took our time getting ready for our travel day, had a late breakfast, and walked over to the airport around 10:30a (the United counters – don’t know about the other airlines – open two hours before flight departure). Checking in our luggage was painless (had used the hotel’s free internet access to check-in and print boarding passes). We then went through US customs with our luggage in tow. Once we were cleared, we dropped off our bags with the airport reps at the luggage conveyor belt and went through security; it took all of 10 minutes if that long. As with our outbound flights, both legs of our return trip went smoothly and we were home by 8:30p – no airline delays, no lost luggage.

Feel free to post any questions and I will do my best to answer them. It may be a day or two before I post the next segment that discusses the lodge and our routine there, but I will check back for questions in the interim.

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