Thinking about a polar bear trip to Churchill in 2016

Has anyone been up to Churchill, Manitoba in fall/winter to see the polar bears congregations? I’ve been mulling this trip for years and now the state of the planet makes me wonder if postponing it would be a mistake.

I can muster up the airfare using airline points and cash-back rewards from various credit cards but it seems like the biggest expense is once you arrive. Rumors are that the a seat on a tundra buggy costs $500 per day.

Have any of you people of moderate means doing this trip before? How can it be made affordable while still seeing wildlife to make it worthwhile.

Thanks.

– Leslie

26 Comments
  1. Profile photo of heavenlyjane Author
    heavenlyjane 2 years ago

    Additional question: are there other places to view polar bears in the wild without breaking the bank?

  2. mojomort 2 years ago

    Hi Leslie. Never been to Churchill that time of year, but know people who have. I do believe it is rather costly. I run trips to Svalbard, where in my opinion the encounters with polar bears from the ships are more authentic than the “canned” tundra buggy version – but obviously the distance to the animals are greater that way. Happy to engage in more talk about options. Best regards, Morten (mortenmojo@hotmail.com)

  3. Profile photo of jasonwoolgar
    jasonwoolgar 2 years ago

    Hi Leslie…just visit Churchill a week before the season starts, as you will almost certainly still see polar bears, plus a lot of other great wildlife, but for a fraction of the cost. It is a great place to self drive, with some good roads and you will probably be watching polar bears more or less on your own. Have a look at my trip report from 2013, as this is by far the cheapest option that I know to see these magnificent animals.

    Cheers

    Jason

    • Profile photo of vdinets
      vdinets 2 years ago

      I concur. Even during the season, if you rent a car (actually, a truck – they don’t have cars) and drive around for a couple days, you’ll certainly see bears plus lots of other stuff. The rocky peninsula inside the town is the best place for Arctic hare, Arctic fox and red fox, while the road system allows access to other habitats. It’s an excellent place for voles and Richardson’s collared lemming if the year is right; I was there in October 2000 and got 15 species in 3 days. I would recommend driving yourself first, and then if somehow you don’t see bears you can sign up for a buggy tour on the last day.

      The only cheaper option to see polar bears is Barrow, but it’s never 100% reliable.

  4. Profile photo of jasonwoolgar
    jasonwoolgar 2 years ago

    The one local hire company does have a small selection of cars now and the main advantage of going out of season is that there are almost no other visitors, generally just a few researchers at the excellent study centre. You almost have the place to yourself and of course the accommodation is a great deal less expensive as well.

    • John Van Niel 2 years ago

      When you say “out of season”, exactly when do you mean? 🙂

  5. Profile photo of heavenlyjane Author
    heavenlyjane 2 years ago

    I think it means Oct 1-12, because I have seen organized tours as early as October 12, with most starting Oct 15.

  6. Profile photo of jasonwoolgar
    jasonwoolgar 2 years ago

    Hi John….is generally around the last week of September. I saw all of my bears in 2013 between the 25th and the 29th of September. Churchill starts filling up in early October and by around the 10th is already busy. I have visited in peak season previously and I by far prefer the pre season period, as you can spend hours watching bears on your own and the tundra looks wonderful at that time of year. Beluga whales are still around as well and the other great aspect of visiting Churchill early, is that you can also take in the salmon run in BC…so all three bear species on the one trip.

    • Profile photo of mattinidaho
      mattinidaho 2 years ago

      Hi Jason and others, this is a really useful discussion. For a week-long pre-season trip, what would you estimate costs to be, if you don’t mind me asking?

      • Profile photo of heavenlyjane Author
        heavenlyjane 2 years ago

        All flights start in Winnipeg. Calm Air flies for $800-$900 RT. A couple of cash-back credit card applications (for US residents) can nearly cover that cost.

      • Profile photo of cmh78
        cmh78 2 years ago

        The train from Winnipeg is only around $400 Canadian round trip, if you have more time than money.

  7. Profile photo of kittykat23uk
    kittykat23uk 2 years ago

    I too would like to do this trip at some point. How difficult is it to self drive at this time of year? Is snow/ice a big concern? Is it possible to hire a local guide with vehicle? Is it worth spending a bit more for local knowledge of where the animals are? Any advice on itineraries and where to stay from those who have been before?

    Thanks!

    Jo

    • Profile photo of vdinets
      vdinets 2 years ago

      Self driving is easy: the roads are gravel, so even if there is a little bit of snow or ice, it doesn’t matter. The road system is very small, so you can cover it all in a few hours. A guide isn’t necessary since it’s impossible to get lost. The road along the coast to the science center is better for bears and lemmings; the road south from the town and the one south from the science center go into the forest and are good for snowshoe hare, voles and reportedly caribou. Short walks from the coastal road to rocky shores might get you water shrew, ptarmigans and gyrfalcon.

  8. Profile photo of heavenlyjane Author
    heavenlyjane 2 years ago

    I heard moving around on foot in Churchill that time of year is not a good idea (http://globalnews.ca/news/939840/polar-bear-attack-injures-two-in-churchill-man). This story is from Nov 2013.

    Is it really safe? I’d love the idea of not being cooped up in a vehicle the whole time but I better like the idea of coming home in one piece.

    • Profile photo of vdinets
      vdinets 2 years ago

      That depends on your definition of safety. Locals move around on foot all the time, of course. For many years there have been talks of fencing the town; I don’t know if they ever did it, but in any case, your chances of being mauled on a street are negligible. Out of town, particularly near the science center, you have to look out when walking. If you aren’t used to being a potential prey and would like some extra safety, you can borrow a bear spray can from one of the locals. You can also buy one in advance, but they are not allowed in carry-on luggage.

      • mojomort 2 years ago

        Playing with polar bears is not a good idea. Not so much because you might become a victim (that is your choice), but because the bear will subsequently be victim too. If you don’t know what you are doing, I would not endanger bears by walking around where they occur.

        • Profile photo of vdinets
          vdinets 2 years ago

          Bears occur throughout much of Northern Hemisphere, and in a few places in the South. Where they don’t occur, there are other potentially dangerous animals, such as big cats, elephants, etc., etc. Just spending your life inside cars is not the best way to minimize the risk 🙂

          • mojomort 2 years ago

            Deifintely agree. Better to get educated about where you are going, what other creatures live there, how best to visit them without harming, and then head out and enjoy.

  9. Cheryl Antonucci 2 years ago

    I took my bear loving father to Churchill for his 70th birthday four years ago. I only point this out as he does not move as fast as some (most) people. We stayed in town and did do daily tundra buggy excursions. We walked all over the town by ourselves and only once did we have a bear on the road with us (close to the fort), but behind the bear were wildlife officials that were firing shots off behind him to run him into the bay (it was the first polar bear I ever saw in the water). They had a curfew when I was there and no one was walking around at night. However, every night I was there, there were bears walking in town (I could hear the shots going off and the guides told us). I think so many of the wildlife officials that time of year are on bear patrols so you most likely would be fine walking around. My only advice would be not to walk along the shores of the bay in town as a bear could easily be hiding behind a rock.

  10. Profile photo of kittykat23uk
    kittykat23uk 2 years ago

    Would anyone be interested in teaming up for such a trip? Be nice to have some company. 🙂

    • Profile photo of heavenlyjane Author
      heavenlyjane 2 years ago

      We’re aiming for 2017. Out travel plans are locked for the next two Septembers.

      • Profile photo of kittykat23uk
        kittykat23uk 2 years ago

        I could probably hold off until then if you are interested in teaming up. 🙂

        • Morten Joergensen 2 years ago

          Hi there. I might be interested too. It is 2,5 years out, but please keep me posted on your plans. It would be great to visit there out of main polar bear season, and great with some company.

      • Profile photo of heavenlyjane Author
        heavenlyjane 2 years ago

        Sure. We can starting making plans in about 16 months.

  11. cristina 2 years ago

    I understood from your discussion that the right season is september/october. Unfortunately I’ll be on holidays next july, shall I give up to plan my long travel to Churchill??
    Cris from Italy

  12. Author
    HeavenlyJane 9 months ago

    Finally making it happen. I just booked my plans to visit Churchill for early November 2017.

    Happily I’m doing it affordably. I booked RT tickets on Calm Air, the only airline that services Churchill. I was able to use Aeroplan reward miles (Air Canada), since Calm Air is a partner. Supposedly it’s hard to find a reward seat on prime season flights but I guess I was successful because I am booking so far in advance. My $1100 RT flight is costly my 15,000 Aeroplan miles + $50 in fees. Woot! I should be able to get to Winnipeg from my home airport on points as well so only cost will be the land expenses (see below).
    I enrolled in a week long “Learning Vacation” course at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, which focuses on polar bear ecology. Course is offered in 3 sessions and has spots for 36 persons per week. Registrations opened last week and my session is already half filled. Course fee includes lodging, meals, sightseeing trips in Churchill, lectures with resident biologists, daily polar bear safari outings, and even a low-flying helicopter ride over pack ice. Cost is $3,385 CAD ($2553 USD or a reasonable $365/day).

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