30 Oct Searching for Polar Bears on a Tundra Buggy Adventure in Churchill
Micah and I kept our eyes peeled as our Tundra Buggy bounced along bumpy trails created by the military in the 1950’s. The buggy was over 10 feet off the ground with 5.5-foot-high tires; it looked like a giant monster truck version of a school bus. Our summer visit to Churchill with Travel Manitoba sent us on lots of fun adventures and searching for polar bears in a Tundra Buggy was one of them!
Our 6-hour adventure with Frontiers North started out at Fifty Eight North, a gift shop located right in Churchill. We split into two groups and boarded a couple of busses for a 20-minute ride out to the Churchill Wildlife Management Area (CWMA). The CWMA is a controlled area that creates a buffer for Wapusk National Park. Wapusk National Park consists of fragile landscape and is a polar bear denning area. Access to the park is very limited, so many of the polar bear tours in Churchill spend time exploring the CWMA.
When we arrived at the Tundra Buggies, we were shocked at their size! The 40-passenger vehicles are so huge that you have to use a special platform just to board. Once we were on the buggy, we found a large aisle with double seats on each side, plus a bathroom in the back. The windows in the front are giant and provide great viewing opportunities of the vast tundra. The windows next to the seats open up for a breath of fresh air and give a perfect camera angle for wildlife sightings. Last but not least, the back of the Tundra Buggy has a large outdoor viewing platform that can be used when the buggy is parked.
Summer tours are available in July and August. While the focus of the summer tours isn’t polar bears, you might just see some of the first bears to return from the sea ice after their annual hunt. Since wildlife is unpredictable, there’s no guarantee what you will see out on the tundra, but the CWMA is one of the best places to see area wildlife in their natural habitat. This sub-arctic landscape is home to arctic fox, arctic hare, caribou, polar bears, and a large variety of birds. In the summer, there are over 200 different bird species that migrate through this region.
As we rode along the trails in the CWMA, Jim, our fantastic driver and tour guide for the day, told us one entertaining story after the next. We listened to several stories about Churchill and polar bears, while keeping our eyes peeled for wildlife. We were crossing our fingers that we would spot a polar bear up close as this was our last full day in Churchill. Micah and I lucked out with our first polar bear sighting earlier that morning on our helicopter tour, but it was so amazing that we wanted more!
Lucky for us, we didn’t have to wait long for our next polar bear encounter. Not even 30 minutes into our drive, Jim spotted a nice, plump bear getting ready to go for a swim in a lake. Everyone on the bus buzzed with excitement as all of our heads and cameras poked out the windows for a better look. We watched the bear swim around the lake for quite some time. At one point, it looked as though she was heading for a group of birds relaxing on the water, but at the last minute, she switched gears and kept swimming all the way to the other side of the lake.
We lost sight of her once she got out of the water. But a couple of minutes later, she emerged from behind a bush and started walking right towards our Tundra Buggy! She ended up coming within 30-40 feet from us, which is extremely close for a summer bear sighting. The bear was so close that we had to sit and wait for her to pass by before driving any further so as not to disturb her. We waited and watched as she moseyed around before eventually sauntering off out of sight. All in all, we spent around an hour watching her, but it felt like minutes. We were completely mesmerized.
Eventually, it was time to move along and explore more of the tundra. By this time, it was after 2 p.m. and we were starting to get a bit hungry. Thankfully, Jim made his way towards the beach so we could relax on the buggy while having lunch with a view. We lucked out again and spotted another polar bear near the beach; however, this one was quite far away. It almost looked like a large rock in the distance, but that was quite alright with us. We were so happy with our first sighting that anything else was an amazing bonus!
Once the Tundra Buggy was parked, we were presented with lunch. We weren’t expecting much, but boy were we wrong. We had our pick of sandwiches, unlimited soup, cookies, and soda; it was all surprisingly delicious. We were also encouraged to bring reusable water bottles on the bus with us, as Frontiers North has been water bottle free since 2016 (yay!). After we were done eating, Jim got out the hot water for tea, coffee, hot chocolate, and the one and only Tundrachino…aka a mix of coffee and hot chocolate served out on the tundra.
When our bellies were full, Micah and I decided to relax outside in the sunshine. No one is allowed to get off the buggy, so we made our way to the observation platform. We spotted a large amount of polar bear paw prints on the ground, and it was amazing to think about how close they can get to the Tundra Buggies.
In the summer, most of the bears are fat and lazy after returning from a winter of hunting on the ice. This means that sightings are usually at a distance and typically not very close. But, visitors in the fall have a completely different experience. In the fall, the polar bears are starting to make their way back to the ice on the Hudson Bay. Along the way, they often come right up to the side of the Tundra Buggies. The average male polar bear can reach 8-10 feet in height when standing on their back legs, and the Tundra Buggy sits just over 10 feet above the ground. This means when the bears come up to the buggy in the fall, you might just be nose to nose with a polar bear…but thankfully, still safely out of harm’s way. After learning this, we definitely have a dream to return to Churchill for a fall visit someday.
We spent the rest of the afternoon searching for more wildlife on our way back to basecamp. Even though we didn’t see any more bears, we were extremely satisfied with how our 6-hour tour went down. Our Tundra Buggy tour with Frontiers North was an absolute blast, and we were so excited to see a polar bear up close. After our helicopter ride that morning, we managed to see 11 bears in one day. What a way to end our last full day in Churchill!
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