Happiness is a Polar Bear Adventure –Part 1 (The Tundra)
As a well-spent day brings happy sleep, so life well used brings happy death. ~ Leonardo da Vinci
As many of you know, a little over a year ago I sold my house, quit my job and hit the road. I spent the Summer hiking 1000 miles on the Appalachian Trail, my thru-hike ambitions were cut short by a knee injury. But after rehabbing my knee I went north to check off an item on my bucket list that has been near the top for the last couple of years.
While surfing the web about three years ago I stumbled upon an ad for Polar Bear tours in Churchill, CA. The idea intrigued me so I did a more detailed search on the idea and as I scrolled through tour pages I started to get excited. Finally I landed on what I thought was the perfect tour, spend a week in Churchill, the polar bear capital of the world, but not just in Churchill. Spend two nights in a tundra lodge out where the polar bears congregate. A little hotel on giant wheels with observation decks and lots of windows. Spend four full days rolling around the tundra on giant rovers looking for bears, arctic hare and foxes, snowy owls, etc…
Of course the price tag knocked me for a loop, it was quite a bit of money for a one week adventure and so I put it on reserve. Move ahead to this year and I had decided during my year off I wanted to one really amazing (read high ticket price) event and was caught between doing the polar bear excursion or a cruise to Antarctica. Finally what it came down to for me was both time and timing. The polar bear trip was shorter and allowed me to do the trip and still make a friends 50th birthday celebration in Key West. Also, with climate change causing the habitat in the Arctic to change rapidly, there’s a lot of uncertainty around how this will impact polar bear population levels, movement patterns etc… So now seemed like the right time to go north.
Sure, the Antarctic is changing as well but the Arctic Tundra is a really fragile system and polar bears depend on ice flows in the Arctic Sea and this pattern of freezing is really changing. So there are two big potential changes coming soon for polar bear populations, first, a loss in vitality and reproductive rates related to temperature, and secondly changes in population locations due to changes in the ice flows and freeze over dates in Hudson Bay.
So go north it was and in late October I took off to Winnipeg, Canada the starting point for the adventure. I spent two days in Winnipeg before the tour started and it was an interesting town and a good place to rest up a couple of days as I was sure I would be burning the candle at both ends in Churchill.
We had a trip orientation dinner the night before we left and the tour group seemed like they would be fun people and that turned out to be true. A pretty diverse group from New Zealand to Pennsylvania and included doctors, nurses, attorneys, scientists, Peace Corps workers, the wife of one of my favorite NFL coaches, and a former AT thru-hiker. The ages ranged from early twenties to retirees in their 70’s so it was an interesting mix of folks. We had two great guides who were very knowledgeable and easy to get along with which is always a huge bonus.
We flew to Churchill on a charter flight and landed in the Great White North which had almost no snow on the ground and was actually quite a bit warmer than expected. We actually had temperatures above freezing when we landed and no snow. This was actually a bummer as higher temperatures meant less active bears and more clouds which would likely preclude any good aurora (Norther Light) shows. I was particularly pessimistic about the aurora as on my 40th birthday I flew to Fairbanks, Alaska in March at what should have been the peak of aurora season. I spent three nights there freezing my tail off and saw nothing, although as the picture above shows, that definitely changed for me on this trip.
After we landed we took a bus out-of-town and to the base station where we boarded the tundra rovers we would be using for the week. These things are gigantic:
And this picture I shot later in the week shows why they need to be so big, these two rovers are identical in size. Compare them and you’ll quickly realize that on it’s hind legs that polar bear is about 11 feet tall:
Given polar bears actively hunt human beings extra measures of safety like really high observation decks are necessary. Additionally there are guns everywhere, the rover drivers are carrying and anyone who has responsibility for any kind of public safety is carrying as well.
Once on the rovers we spent the afternoon riding around looking for wildlife, especially bears and then heading out to the Tundra Lodge where we would be staying. The tundra was beautiful the first day, sunny and wonderful and I took a lot of landscape shots the first day as the wildlife was few and far between.
However we did find a snowy owl
Lots of snow buntings, which are very hard to photograph
And finally our first bear, who played peekaboo through the brush
We would end the day with a wonderful dinner at the lodge and during the social hour before dinner someone pointed outside the lodge and we had our second bear of the trip and our first at the lodge. A bear and dinner was a wonderful way to end our first day. It had been a long first day, and apparently for the bear as well, if you look closely at the bear below, he’s yawning. Have a happy day my friends ~ Rev Kane