When people talk about seeing animals in their natural habitat, most people think of things like an African safari. Had it ever crossed your mind to go see a polar bear in their natural habitat? If not, it definitely should be something you’re thinking about now! This was another one of those life-changing trips for me, and I’m so grateful to have been able to go to the polar bear capital of the world.
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In order to get a great experience, we booked a tour with Natural Habitat Adventures. One of the reasons we went with them was because there are very few permits to go into a protected area where more bears are, and this group worked with Great White Bear Tours and had some of them! There were a couple of different tours you could pick from, but we ended up doing the Ultimate Churchill Experience. The trip started off in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Unfortunately, we didn’t really do much exploring around the town. The hotel we stayed at, The Fort Garry Hotel, was beautiful! It’s one of those old hotels that the railway built a long time ago.
The next day we headed to Churchill! It’s a small town way up on the Hudson Bay (you can read more about the town here). The airport only has 2 airlines that fly in. Our plane was all Natural Habitat guests, I think there were maybe 4 different tours onboard. When you get into the small terminal, there’s this big sign with things you need to know while in Churchill like, remember bears can be in town any time of day! Yikes!
That first afternoon/evening, as we were driving to the area where the large rovers would take us out to see the bears, we came across two bears. There was a little pond between us and them. One was laying down looking all comfortable, and the other one was clearly having fun playing in the snow! Because this was outside of the protected land, anyone driving by could stop and look at the bears, and there were quite a few cars parked along the road watching them!
Time to Rover
After that, we made it to our rover, which was huge! The wheels alone on these things are at least 5 feet tall! Obviously, it needs to be tall so the bears can’t get you, but, we quickly learned, we also needed that height simply to get around on that terrain. We drove through a lot of water! Unfortunately, we didn’t spot any bears while we were out on the tundra that evening, but we had a great dinner and saw some very large paw prints!
The next day we were supposed to be going up on a helicopter ride. Unfortunately, there was not good visibility so they were grounded ☹ Instead we went out to this area known as Cape Merry. We weren’t allowed to get out of the vehicles though until the guard was out on the rocks looking out because bears liked to hang out among the rocks there at the edge of the water. After that, we got to go on a dog sled ride! That was something I was really looking forward to! The first two sleds that took off in our group had quite the experience with a bear encounter, and we all got a great story to tell afterward! You know when you sing about a winter wonderland, that’s what this was! It was so incredibly beautiful with the snow all around!
Bears, bears, bears
Each of the next two days we spent 8 hours out in the rover seeing first hand why it’s called the polar bear capital of the world! I couldn’t tell you how many we saw, and we lost track of the number of sightings! Really early on that first morning, we had a bear walk right up to the vehicles. He would just look up at us and keep walking! We were standing on the back deck of the rover watching him, and he was literally right there next to the vehicle!
Later that day we came across one bear all snuggled up sleeping, and another bear who was walking in that direction. Everyone thought that when they got face to face they might spar. Sparring is like play fighting. Figuring out who the better bear is without killing each other. The one kept walking, and when the sleeping bear noticed, he started to wake up. They started walking towards each other, things were looking promising. They were feet away from each other and getting closer. Then it was a quick sniff of each other’s face and the one that intruded on the nap decided he didn’t want trouble so he turned around and kept on walking.
There were sleeping bears. There were walking bears. We got near the tundra lodge for the other tour company and there was a bear there who was checking out the quality of the tires! That was another thing I was hoping for, but we didn’t see. I really wanted a bear to get up on their back legs and lean against our rover with us looking down at him. Smell polar bear breath. However, this is in their natural habitats, and it’s done as naturally as possible, so if a bear doesn’t feel like doing something, you can’t make them!
Celebrity (kind of) sighting
An interesting thing we saw were two buggies from the other tour group (same as the rovers) parked a ways away when suddenly some helicopters came over to them and landed. The people from the buggies started heading towards the helicopters, and soon they were all gone. Our driver in town had told us he had seen Kate Upton in town the night before, so we can only assume that this was her group leaving the tundra after seeing some bears. The craziest part about this is there was one bear nearby trying to sleep, another walking around behind us, and another one off in the distance…all while these helicopters are coming in. The sleeping one kept raising his head, looking annoyed at all the ruckus!
The next day it was more bears! We did come across a bear laying in the willows. We stopped to look for a little and realized there was another bear right behind them. Initially, we thought it was a mom and a cub. However, after awhile the one in the back started to move around, and that definitely was not a cub! He was a big boy! Apparently, when the bears are sparring, they get tired, so they’ll just stop, lay down and take a break. After they’ve both rested, they’ll get up and do some more.
High in the sky
The next day was our last in Churchill and we were so excited to hear that the helicopters were flying! Riding in a helicopter is something that’s been on my bucket list, so I can’t tell you how excited I was for this part!
We knew that we would probably see bears during the ride, but we also saw moose! I was personally hoping to see a caribou and some wolves, but they weren’t around (that we could see). We flew over some beautiful scenery, and then our helicopters landed on this land overlooking a river. We walked down the side of the hill/cliff just a little bit to see an abandoned bear den! Then we each crawled into it! That’s right, I was in a bear den! It’s hard to imagine such a large animal in there. Once the snow falls though, they’ll essentially build another room for their den in the snow.
Then we took back off and headed towards the tundra. In our helicopter, I spotted the first bear (totally proud of that). We ended up seeing so many of them! There was one area right on the edge of the water/ice where we could see some blood markings. It was obvious that a bear had caught a seal and dragged it up to eat it. There was no bear or seal around anymore, just the markings.
We saw two bears laying somewhat close to each other, but if you really looked, you could see their footprints all over. They clearly had been sparring, and now it was nap time! Then, a little further away we saw two more bears that were actually sparring! We finally saw sparring bears! Again, we saw lots of walking bears and sleeping bears! So many bears!
Polar bear jail
Later on, we headed to the airport to go back to Winnipeg. However, before we got there we stopped at the Polar Bear Holding Facility (commonly known as Polar Bear Jail). This building is a large facility that will hold those bears that seem to be troublesome or dangerous. Say they wander into town, and the typical scare tactics don’t work on them. After trying to get them to leave on their own, they may be tranquilized and taken to jail.
The whole idea behind the jail is that the bears would equate the stay to going to town, and hopefully not go back to town again. After their stay, they are tranquilized and taken away from town via helicopter and let loose, hopefully not to return to city limits. When we got to Churchill, there were no bears in there. When we left, there were 6! Yes, there had been bears in town while we were there too! I mean, that’s how it gets its nickname, Polar Bear Capital of the World.
After getting our passports stamped with a Polar Bear Capital of the World stamp at the airport, we were headed back to Winnipeg, and the following day we flew home. The experience was life-changing! To see these animals out in their hoods, doing their things, was just awesome. Granted, they don’t do that much, but just a glance from a bear who is curled up in the snow will change you! Visiting these magnificent animals in their natural habitats is definitely something you should be considering now!