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.
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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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Additional question: are there other places to view polar bears in the wild without breaking the bank?