Polar Bears and Belugas Whales
Part 1#- Churchill, Manitoba-Getting there
Since I have retired from teaching, I have been trying to check off trips on my bucket list. We traveled to Belize to snorkel on the barrier reef as I wanted to experience the barrier reef before the warming oceans caused them to die out.
Another such trip on the list was a visit to see the Polar Bears before the sea ice melts, sending them further down the endangered species list. To accomplish this goal, we chose to travel to Churchill, Manitoba, which bills itself as the “Polar Bear Capital of the World”. Not only did we want to see Polar Bears, but also the Beluga whales that migrate through the Hudson Bay around Churchill. Another reason to visit Churchill was that my spouse had been in Churchill 50 years before with her mother. The purpose of that trip had been to visit her uncle, who was superintendent of the missile base, located there. We were both curious what changes she might see.
When researching the trips, I used the website by the tour operator Frontiers North (http://www.frontiersnorth.com) to decide which trip would work best for our budget. This was going to be the most expensive trip we had ever taken, especially since it was only for 5 days in Churchill. After reading several different blog accounts of various trips taken in Churchill, I decided the most versatile and cost effective trip for us was going to be the “Belugas, Bears and Blooms” tour in August. This was going to cost us upwards of $5000 a piece (2014). If we had chosen the Tundra Lodge tours that happen during November and December, the cost would have been double.
To get to Churchill, you take a flight out of Winnipeg on Calm Air, seemingly one of the only airline serving the far North. This cost is covered by your tour company, if you chose that option. You can also take a train out of Winnipeg that takes 2 nights of travel. When trying to figure out if we could do this trip without going with a tour company, we looked into the train option. The train travel was only about $200 dollars versus the air flight from Winnipeg to Churchill, which can run anywhere from $900 to $1200 dollars. As our time was limited, we opted out of train travel, which proved to be a fortuitous choice. As luck would have it, the train had not been running for 5 weeks prior to our arrival. The permafrost around Giliam and Thompson, two town about 250 miles south of Churchill, had caused the tracks to buckle. The tracks came back online briefly just before we left for our flight, however, there was more trouble while we up in Churchill. Some folks had had a nine hour delay in Thompson trying to get to Churchill. Others were having a hard time getting out of Churchill and the rail company paid for those stranded in Churchill to be flown down to Thompson, where they could, then, continue their rail journey to Winnipeg. So, if thinking of traveling by train to Churchill, be forewarned. I am not sure if the train is more reliable once the permafrost starts to freeze up, but it would be worth checking around with the rail line and the blogs before heading out.
When planning this trip, I did look into trying to make all the arrangements, as I always have done in the past, without going through a tour operator. Before the trip in August, I started doing research in early winter. I called around Churchill to several hotels, Tundra Buggy operators, and Zodiac operators, who take you out to the Belugas on Hudson Bay and the Polar Bears in the tundra. Every one said that I would have to call back closer to the trip time as they were giving priority to the tour operators. I felt stuck. I didn’t want to make our flights to Winnipeg at the last minute, as that could have proved to be very expensive. So, a tour company seemed to be the best option.
I am usually not a fan of prescribed tours. I like to have the flexibility to linger where I want and bypass places that aren’t as interesting to me. However, I do say that going with a tour company took a lot of the stress out of planning and coordinating all the various components of the trip. Having completed the trip, I have to say my feelings are still mixed about having a prescribed trip. Below I will outline the pros and cons.
- All aspects of the trip are planned: The transportation and flight to Churchill from Winnipeg, the hotels in Winnipeg and Churchill, the restaurants in Winnipeg and Churchill, the museums and fees, the Tundra Buggy, the Zodiacs trips
- You have a vehicle available to take you around Churchill and the surrounding area.
- You will have all the food you can eat at really good restaurants
- If a non-photographer, there will be plenty of snapshot opportunities
- You will move as a group
- You might be visiting sites that seem unimportant to you or staying longer than you might like.
- If not with a specific photography or wildlife tour, you will not be able to stop as often or as long as you would like.
- You will be paying for food and meals that you might not be eating if you were on your own.
- You will move as a group
My experience with our tour guide involved all of the above. Our tour guide worked very hard to make all participants happy. As a birder and photographer, I found that the stops were not long enough for me to really explore all my photographic opportunities. The one exception being our experience out on the Tundra Buggy. After spotting a Polar Bear and her cub, we then spent several hours watching the pair. For non-photographers, this may have felt too long, but for me it was perfect. Also, being of the frugal sort, I felt that I should eat the meals provided as they were an expensive part of our tour cost. After several days of no exercise and 3 full meals a day, I felt like the guy in the movie “Super-Size Me.” If I were on my own, I would not devote as much of my financial resources to food as the tour company had. Though, of course, I understood their rationale and the food was really exceptional, despite being in the sub-arctic.
In part two of this article, I will go into more details about the day to day aspects of the trip and the town of Churchill and give you some ideas of how you could avoid a tour company if you so desire.