Churchill Wild, Manitoba
Updated: Feb 7
How can you describe being in the presence of these magnificent animals. The words exhilarating, mesmerizing, surreal do not do justice but the feelings I experienced will never be forgotten. We have a lifetime of memories to cherish.
I honestly cannot put into words how amazing a week in Polar Bear "heaven" Churchill, Manitoba was. I was beyond excitement and slightly anxious to be going to polar bear country. The anxiety wasn't related to any concern about being in close proximity to the bears, more so a little apprehensive about the immense cold we might encounter. One day it reached -70°C with wind chill, with most days hovering around -30°C. We were given strict instructions about not leaving any bit of skin left uncovered and also about protecting our camera gear. You could either leave your camera gear outside or bring it in and place it in a plastic bag and leave it sit for several hours to reach room temperature. Otherwise you risk your lenses and sensors cracking. We never spent more than 3 hours outside, ate more than I have eaten in my life and always had hot drinks at hand. It took about an hour to dress for every outing, with all of our layers and I still felt cold. Hand and feet warmers were a must, even though we had the very best Canada Goose outer layers and numerous wool inner layers - not complaining, just preparing anyone who may be heading to Polar Bear Country.
But regardless, being in the presence of these amazing creatures made everything worthwhile. I don't think I thought about or felt the cold at any time I was standing watching these massive and beautiful animals. I was so excited sometimes when returning, that I would almost forget to secure my camera gear. To experience being in such close proximity to these creatures is unbelievable.
Our day would consist mainly of having breakfast, dressing for an hour and then rushing outside to take the snow buggy (picture way below) in search of bears. Everyday we did see bears around our compound and when inside the compound there was only a fence and about a metre between us and the polar bear. When we left the compound, we would sit in the uncovered buggies with blankets (I know I am a wuss) searching for wildlife and traversing the amazing landscapes. We would return for lunch and do it all over again, returning for dinner and retiring to bed rather early.
I have included many pictures below, but this is so few compared to how many I actually shot. I have tried to group the pictures to the many bears we spent time with, including the beautify baby bear, who I believe had a 50/50 change of survival that winter.
For those who like to look at pictures, I have included a selection of photos below, but have also added another blog with a video collection of various photos.
We saw all of these polar bears on a daily basis and I came to know them very well. Their little ears would twitch and they would entice you to pat them (haha just don't pat the bear). They all looked so cuddly and adorable, but prior to our first trip outside the compound, we did go through polar bear training of what to do and not do. This is imperative to adhere to - you are in their territory and you do not want a polar bear to get harmed because you refused to follow some simple protocol to protect both yourself and the bears.
Their eyes can be mesmerizing. Wonder what he is thinking about?
This bear decided to relax just outside the compound - time for an afternoon nap.
I just loved watching this bear and have more photos of her below. The entire landscape was just like a Christmas scene.
I may look like I'm asleep, but I know you are there. I can smell you before you can see me.
This baby bear was gorgeous and I spent about an hour sitting outside watching her, whilst she showed a lot of curiosity toward me.
We encountered this type of landscape daily as we searched for wildlife.
One afternoon the setting sun put on a magical display of colours.
I caught a glimpse of this dove, actually a very lucky spotting.
Partaking in a friendly game.
A very inquisitive baby bear wondering what I was doing.
At times I wondered about travelling on the frozen ice and whether we might end up in the icy waters beneath.
Our transportation to the tundra.
I know I have included a lot of photos of this bear, but we spent so much time standing and watching her. The setting we found her in was a winter wonderland and she was just adorable.
Such stunning landscapes.
This baby bear was also adorable and extremely inquisitive and very photogenic.
This is the bear I was talking about above, who just kept enticing you to cuddle and pat him; and those twitching ears just added to his charm.
This was the fence surrounding our compound and I wanted to include a photo to try and show the enormous size of these Polar Bears. This was one of the smaller bears.
Just another tremendous day on the tundra.
Another portrait shot.
Ahh and a good morning to you also.
But now time for a rest.
Obviously forgot to clean my teeth this morning.
Differences Between Male & Female Polar Bears.
Male polar bears are typically significantly larger than females, growing to a length between 8 and 10 feet (2.4m to 3.1m) while females are only 6 to 8 feet long (1.8m to 2.4m). Their size difference is even more noticeable in their weight -- while a male may weigh between 550 and 1700 pounds (227kg to 771kg), a female only grows to between 330 and 650 pounds (150kg to 295kg). Take note of how the Polar Bear urinates. If the urine originates from the back of the bear, it's a female. If it comes from the bear's belly area, it's a male.
I am watching you, just as you are watching me.
Oh I can smell food.....how do I get in there with those humans.
Beautiful sunset on the way back to camp.
This big boy was seen most days.
We found this bear snuggled among the trees.
Beautiful late afternoon shots with the sun overhead.
Just some of the amazing scenery we passed on the 2 hour flight from Churchill to Nanuk. The plane was extremely small, freezing cold - as such the instruction to dress warmly and the added piece of advice "that is the best chance of survival if we crash".
My favourite little Polar Bear.
Time to relax.
Finding the best path to manoeuvre through these obstacles.
We found this beautiful snow owl.
A little yoga before bed.
Searching for dinner.
Snug and warm in my winter woollies.
Our last evening on the tundra, with hot cocoa and snacks.
INTERESTING TIT-BITS FOR THOSE WHO WISH TO READ THEM :)
One thing you can count on if you travel with us, is excitement, wildlife, amazing views, lots of adventures and, drama. Our trip to Churchill did not disappoint in any of those areas.
It all started on our way to Phoenix airport, Arizona. I always pack a lot into our trips and leave no room for error or delays. I hear you say "that's just stupid!!!", but it has always resulted in memorable stories that we can share and laugh about.
We had plenty of time in the morning to make our way from Sedona to Phoenix airport, driving along oblivious to what was going to confront us in about an hour - stand still traffic as we approached Phoenix. That's okay I thought, as I had left us plenty of time for the flight. Well the stress level started to rise slowly as the traffic didn't disperse and we inched slowly along the freeway watching the hours pass by. Finally I see a sign for the airport, but I'm in the right hand lane and it's a left lane turn - my navigator (yes, my husband) hadn't picked up on the exit, and I had very little time to merge. Some last minute bold and aggressive manoeuvres occurred trying to get across the six lanes with bumper to bumper traffic. Then comes the actual airport exit. Who has ever dropped rental cars at the airport? I believe every airport does this on purpose - doesn't sign post the car rental exits, puts the signs at least 100m along the road you were supposed to take and if someone was watching, laughs as you circle the airport four times trying to find the exit (yes, that was us). Anyway, we finally entered the car rental return area to find not a sole around. Every time we have returned a rental car, the attendance runs quickly to the car, knowing everyone is always late for their flight, fills out some paperwork and hurries you along, but not this day. Not one single person in sight. We quickly unpack the car, take the keys with us and think "what are we supposed to do". Obviously no bickering was happening at this time. I chose one option and Peter chose a different option. Wonder who was right - well after a lengthy invigoratingly fast walk, I found a booth in the airport and returned the keys.
Yes, we did make our flight and settled in for the trip from Phoenix 11.05 arriving Denver 12.48. After landing we needed to quickly move through the airport to transfer to another plane from Denver 13.35 arriving Winnipeg 16.47. We were meeting with our guides in Winnipeg at 7pm and our flight to Churchill was scheduled for the next morning at 6am. Should all be fine. I'm sitting quite comfortably in my seat waiting to take off, noticing that the time was starting to tick away and realising the flight attendants hadn't undertaken the religious flight ritual, which we all know off by heart. Thirty minutes later and still no flight attendant telling me to fasten my seal belt; and then the sound you don't want to hear from the pilot, "we are delayed due to mechanical issues, thank you for your patience". This is serious, not because of the plane issue, but because there are no other flights from Denver to Winnipeg that day, we only had 45 minutes to transfer from this flight in Denver to our next flight, and if we miss our flight to Churchill the next day, we do not have any other options to get to our destination to spend the next seven days with the Polar Bears. That brings me back to your comment above "Stupid", always leave a day in between for mishaps.
By this time I am entering into the negative, depressive stage - that I've just ruined our polar bear experience, something I've been planning and looking forward to for many years; and obviously we are not going to make the flight from Denver to Winnipeg due to the lateness of this flight. Whereas Peter is sitting there nonplussed and trying to reassure me, which just makes the situation worse, as our flight is already an hour late taking off. Finally the pilot gives the all clear "Flight Attendants, please secure the forward doors" whilst we taxi toward the runway.
On our decent into Denver, the pilot gives us the good news that he has managed to make up ten minutes - great news, except it is obvious the departure time for our next flight has already been and gone. We depart the plane, always hopeful, and quickly check the board. I actually think I did a high five and yelled "yes" as we saw our Winnipeg flight had also been delayed but was boarding. We had ten minutes to make it to the other end of the airport. Of those people who saw me high five and yell, they then saw two frantic people running flat out dragging heavy camera bags behind them and somehow carrying our big heavy Canada Goose jackets. Believe me from one end of the airport to the other end of that airport is a long way. Puffing and panting we finally make the gate, but it's closed. I look for someone, anyone who can let us through those gates, to notice a whole heap of people coming back inside and taking seats. Oh yes you may as well laugh, there were problems and the flight is delayed indefinitely. Honestly I could have jumped for joy and also screamed with disappointment, not knowing when it might leave. The good news is, we managed to get some lunch, sit, walk, get more to eat and finally we did get to board, about two hours later, but yes we were finally on our way to Winnipeg.
Our guides advise us its imperative that we wear all of our gear on the plane from Churchill to Nanuk the next morning, "as it's the only chance of survival if the plane goes down". Comforting news, but that did take some pressure off our 12kg, no exceptions luggage restrictions. Each one of our camera bags weighs over 12kgs, mine in particular weighs much more. Oh well, all we could do was pack the essentials, socks and undies; wear all of our gear that we would be wearing for the next 7 days (and don't even in your wildest dreams think there is somewhere out there that we can do any washing). We also ended up having to wear a camera and some lenses.
To help you understand the amazing adventure, clamber onto the smallest plane you can think of, wearing an enormous amount of clothing and camera gear, try to sit somehow in the smallest, oldest seat you can think of, after tip toeing over the luggage crammed in behind your seat. I think the lack of seat belts was a great idea, as they wouldn't have fitted around my sumo like appearance and then realise that it's going to be the coldest flight you have taken in your life, as you constantly scrape off the ice, that continually forms on the inside of your window with your soaking wet glove.
This was a two hour flight with the most amazing views of the tundra, Hudson Bay, the vastly different landscapes and we even managed to spot some Moose. Then imagine coming into land, not on a runway, but on some beautiful white snow nestled between trees on either side of you. Disembark, thinking you were cold in the plane, to feel the icy cold wind and temperature of the Arctic. All of the time being ushered very quickly away from the open space, as this was a favourite place for big Polars to roam.
After exiting the plane, picture yourself standing for nearly two hours outside in the freezing temperatures, (please also remember we are from the Gold Coast, Australia where our winter temperatures are lucky to drop below 14°C) as our guides instruct you on Polar Bear safety and advise you on how to survive in the cold. I'm sure this was a test of our stamina and resilience, or maybe they were trying to acclimatise us. We were told many times not to be late to leave the compound. The main emphasis of not being late was reinforced over and over - it involved how long it would take us to dress every time we went outside; which we didn't believe until the next morning when it took every part of one hour to dress, and we found ourselves running to the tundra vehicle still grabbing our camera gear.
Think of the despair when you realise you have left your feet and hand warmers back in Winnipeg and find your feet and fingers are constantly numb and frozen. Then you also realise you also forgot to pack the plastic bags for your cameras and lenses. Due to the extreme temperature, you can't take your gear inside unless you wrap them in plastic ziplock bags while you are still outside. This allows the camera to come up to temperature more slowly, and much of the condensation that does form, will appear on the bag and not the camera which can cause significant damage to your camera and lenses.
We never spent more than three hours outside at a time and made sure every part of our body was covered, otherwise you were certain to get some form of frost bite. We would drive or walk in search of wildlife over the vastly changing landscapes, always sipping hot chocolate to keep us warm and fuelled.
Imagine sitting for hours within a metre of this amazing, huge polar bear, looking eye to eye at each other. The polar bear looking so adorable and placid, all the time enticing you to put your hand out to give them a pat. Then watch their little ears start to twitch as they think they have mesmerised you into a false sense of security and made you believe they are happy for you to cuddle them.
Treat yourself to a daily display of affection, amusement and cuteness from the baby bear that loved walking around our enclosure, obviously looking for food and very inquisitive as to what we were doing - which basically was watching her.
Spend hours in the wildness searching for bears, whilst your vehicle crunches over the frozen ice of Hudson Bay and you hope that ice is thick enough for you to pass. Watch as your guides have to dig around the tyres of the tundra truck, and we are not talking little tyres (see the photo above) as you have become bogged in the snow drifts.
Stand watching these magnificent creatures in temperatures of -70°C with wind chill.
After each outing watching your husband thaw his hands and feet in hot water. Later sitting beside the fire drinking hot chocolate and eating amazing food.
Remember polar bear safety training. The protocol: talk gentle and softly to the bear that is approaching you; if they don't stop approaching you, quickly raise your voice; if no response clap your hands together and if this doesn't work, clap two rocks together (you have these in your pocket) to make a loud noise. Your next defence is to throw a rock at the bear, hoping this will deter them, and in our case this was the step that worked. If any of that failed your next step is to shoot the gun in the air to frighten them off. Obviously you do everything in your power not to disturb or encroach on their environment. These are measures when you unexpectedly encounter a bear.
For seven days we had been oblivious to anything that was happening in the outside world, immersed in what I call "Polar Bear Heaven". We had no internet or cell towers, which was amazing - we were located 250 km southeast of Churchill, Manitoba on the Hudson Bay coast. Two days before our scheduled departure, a storm had arisen, causing some concern to our guides. The reason: we only had a four day window to depart from our incredible icy, freezing cold surroundings before there would be no chance of leaving the area. Our light aircraft wasn't sure they would be able to make it in with the forecasted winds. The guides had talked about leaving by vehicle but didn't believe it was possible due to the time frame. There was concern right up to the time our guides received advice from the pilot he was on his way. We had two hours to pack and be ready for the plane's landing and our departure.
The adventure hadn't come to an end just yet - after arriving back in Churchill, we spent the afternoon hugging and snuggling with the husky pups. We even managed to go dog mushing.
We had experienced something amazing and incredible, something I would do again in a heart beat.