GETTING TO KNOW THE EISMEISTER
We just returned from our trip to see polar bears in the wild. Hopefully, this information will prove usefuls to others who might be planning to visit Churchill, the Polar Bear Capital of the World. (Some of you may have already read the quick review on the roll call for those going in Nov '08; this is the more detailed trip report.)
November 10 – We flew from Washington, DC to Winnipeg (via Chicago) for a three night stay before joining our Frontiers North Adventures (FNA) group. Both United flights were on time and the air travel was hassle free. We stayed at the Sheraton Four Points at the airport. The hotel is connected to the terminal via a skywalk – very handy in the winter. We asked for a room overlooking the Winnipeg skyline in the distance (odd numbered room). The advantage to being on this side is that there is no noise from the airport. (We were on the opposite side for the one night following our trip to Churchill, and we did hear some aircraft noise then.) The room was very comfortable and provided all the amenities needed, including free internet. Would definitely recommend it.
November 11 – Winnipeg – Remembrance Day – The stores, museums, etc. were closed; some opened around 1:00p. It wasn’t a problem for us as we prefer outdoor touring/sightseeing anyway. While it was quite cold, and there was snow and ice on the sidewalks, the sky was blue and the sun was out. A really beautiful day, in fact. (We had a rental car for two days.)
We spent quite a bit of time at the St Boniface Cathedral that morning – a little eerie since only parts of the exterior walls remain. (We were told that the cathedral burned down five times.) There was a poignant Remembrance Day ceremony near the gates. Not wanting to intrude on the solemn occasion, we watched from a distance. Next, we headed to The Forks for a quick bite of lunch before going for a walk along the riverfront promenade, which was covered in snow and ice. Negotiating parts of it was tricky, but we enjoyed ourselves tremendously and the walk was exhilarating. Dinner that night was at Gasthaus Gutenberger. Excellent food – delicious soup to warm us up and great schnitzels (big portions). We split one order between the two of us and were comfortably sated, with room left over for a very yummy dessert – the Black Forest Cup (think chocolate sundae with whipped cream, chocolate sauce, and lots and lots of cherries).
November 12 – Winnipeg – We spent the day at Assiniboine Park – more specifically, first at the Leo Mol Sculpture Garden and later at the zoo. It was overcast all day, but we didn’t let that stop us from enjoying ourselves. There was a lot of snow, especially at the sculpture garden, but that did not deter us from exploring the grounds. We enjoyed all of the sculptures, but the whimsical bears were our favorite. We then spent the rest of the day at the zoo, where we visited the animals that were in their outdoor habitats. While at the zoo, we did catch a glimpse of Debby, the world’s oldest polar bear, nestled amongst the boulders in her exhibit. (Little did we know then that we would return to Winnipeg a week later to hear that she had been euthanized in our absence [old age; multiple strokes; failing organs]). That evening, we joined our FNA group for dinner at the hotel.
November 13-18 – Tundra Buggy Adventure – We flew out to Churchill via a Nolinor charter flight (Boeing 737) that departed from the far side of the Winnipeg Airport. While we waited on the bus that transported us to that part of the airport, the luggage was loaded onto the plane. We were then bussed out to the aircraft where we walked off the vehicle and boarded the plane – no security checks, etc.
Churchill welcomed us with blowing snow, overcast skies, strong winds, and very cold temperatures (by our standards). We did a short interpretive tour on our way from the airport to town. We didn’t see much because of the bad weather, but it sure gave us an appreciation of the conditions people living in Churchill have to endure in the winter. We didn’t wimp out. At each stop, we got out of the bus to brave the elements and see what we could see in the blowing snow. Though they were at a distance, we saw our first bears in the wild during one of these stops. After a group lunch in town, we were free to wander around on our own. We were scheduled to do a helicopter tour, but it was cancelled due to weather conditions, so we spent the time until our departure for the tundra wandering in and out of the stores, leaving the museums for the last day of our trip when we knew we would have more time to spend in town. (We also stopped in at Gypsy's for hot chocolate and yummy pastries.)
We transferred out to the Tundra Buggy Lodge in the early evening – first, a ½-hour or so school bus ride from town to the tundra buggy launch site; then, a 1½ hour or so ride on the buggy to reach the lodge. (I’ll write about the details of the lodge separately - see below.) As we pulled up to the lodge, a welcoming committee of two bears was greeted by cheers from within the buggy.
For the next four days we saw sleeping bears, walking bears, sparring and dancing bears, and nursing bears. We saw adults, sub-adults, and cubs. We saw single bears, families, and groups. All in all, we saw over 50 bears in very close quarters (standing-up-against-the-buggy close in some cases); lost count of the ones that were distant and with which we did not interact much.
In addition to the bears, we saw a couple of Arctic fox, a couple of Arctic hare, and several flocks of willow ptarmigan. A couple of people saw a gyr falcon whiz by and land on the roof of one of the lodge buggies, but later efforts to find the falcon proved futile.
Our trip to see polar bears in the wild was a FANTASTIC success! Having a bear sleeping under my window at the lodge every night was a very special experience. I'd wake up at night, look out, and there he'd be, curled up in the snow. He'd wake up when the smell of the breakfast bacon started emanating from the kitchen, come even closer to check things out, often rearing up on his hind legs for a closer sniff at those of us who happened to be on the open deck between buggies. By the third day, a mum and cub were also making frequent visits to the lodge. On our last morning, before we departed the lodge, two pairs of sparring bears made us wish we were not leaving. (I should note that although the bears might have found the smell of cooking food enticing enough to come around and check things out, there was NO feeding of bears to keep them coming around.)
We were very lucky with our bear sightings – especially since it looked like the freeze up was happening a little earlier than anticipated (which would have been a boon for the bears, but could have been a disaster from our standpoint since the bear watching season was pushed out a bit later this year). A southerly wind apparently pushed the ice that had formed in the bay around November 10 back out into the open water, so when we arrived, the bears were still around Gordon Point. The first day, the bay was slushy grease ice, with some pancake ice. By the next morning, there was a narrow strip of solid ice along the shore. By the third day, it was ice all the way to the horizon with lots of bears testing it. By the fourth morning, there were even more bears on the ice and fewer bears on land in our vicinity. Nonetheless, we had several memorable sightings at close quarters on that last day, including the wonderful nursing cubs in the most beautiful sunlight. A terrific way to end the trip.
It was cold on the tundra (very cold by our standards) – around minus 31F (minus 35C) at its coldest during the day (with wind chill), and the wind was brutal. Our layers kept us warm, and any discomfort was forgotten when we found ourselves in close proximity to the bears. The weather was overcast with some light snow and quite a bit of wind at times. Towards the end of our third day, the skies started to clear and we had beautiful, sun-filled, blue skies for our last day.
We left the lodge early in the morning on the 18th and headed back to Churchill. It was another beautiful day of clear skies and sunshine, but boy was the wind brutal (the locals would beg to disagree with that assessment; as one person put it, “it’s not bad until you find that you can’t stand up when the wind is blowing”). We appreciated the opportunity to see Churchill in a different light. The group dispersed and everyone did their own thing, but we did have a group lunch. We checked out a few stores, but mostly we spent time at two of the museums – the small one at the train station (where there is a mock-up of a polar bear den) and the Eskimo Museum. We also visited the Community Center (go up to the second floor for a beautiful view of the bay or go out and around to the back to see the same view from the ground; but beware, there are polar bear alert signs in this area, so it’s not smart to wander around too long or too far).
Our 6:00p charter flight returned us to Winnipeg. Having a Boeing 737-full of people (literally; there wasn’t an empty seat on the plane) descending on the Sheraton Four Points all at once created a bit of a logistics problem (FNA could do much better here), but we didn’t let the experience sour us on the fantastic adventure that preceded our return to Winnipeg. Besides, a long, hot shower (we were asked to keep our showers at the lodge short to conserve water) soothed our frayed nerves in no time.
November 19 – When we were making our return flight arrangements, we chose a noon flight out of Winnipeg with the express purpose of resting up after a week on the tundra. This turned out to be a really good decision. We took our time getting ready for our travel day, had a late breakfast, and walked over to the airport around 10:30a (the United counters open two hours before flight departure; don’t know about the other airlines). Checking in our luggage was painless (had used the hotel’s free internet access to check-in and print boarding passes). We then went through US customs with our luggage in tow. Once we were cleared, we dropped off our bags with the airport reps at the luggage conveyor belt and went through security; it took all of 10 minutes if that long. As with our outbound flights, both legs of our return trip went smoothly and we were home by 8:30p – no airline delays, no lost luggage.
TUNDRA BUGGY LODGE
Instead of staying in Churchill and making daily buggy trips to see polar bears, we decided to stay at the Tundra Buggy Lodge operated by Frontiers North Adventures (FNA). There is also a similar operation by another company, but we went with FNA primarily because initially we wanted to go to Cape Churchill. As it turned out, the waitlist for Cape Churchill was too long, so we switched to the Tundra Buggy at Polar Bear Point instead. (Same mobile lodge; transported to Cape Churchill for the end of the bear-watching season.)
As mentioned before, we were transported from Churchill to the buggy launch site via a school bus. We then boarded our buggy for the 1½-hour or so ride out to the lodge site near Gordon Point. This transport buggy was assigned to us for the duration of our lodge stay. The lodge experience is more expensive than staying in Churchill, but for us, it was worth it – not just for the experience of being with the bears all the time, but because it cut down on the amount of driving back and forth that we would have otherwise had to do.
Upon arrival at the lodge, one of the staff boarded the transport buggy to give us some quick tips on bunkhouse living. She then called out names and we boarded in the order of our assigned cubbies in the bunkhouse (sort of like boarding an aircraft starting from the rear) – this was great in terms of alleviating chaos in the narrow aisle running down the center of the bunkhouse.
The lodge consists of two bunkhouses, a lounge buggy, a dining/kitchen buggy, and several utility buggies. The buggies are strung together, with open decks allowing passage between them. The open decks have solid lower walls and bars on the top half to allow for safe bear-viewing. At no time are guests allowed on the ground. The transport buggy docked with the open deck of the bunkhouse to enable boarding of the vehicle. In our case, two groups shared the lodge, but each group had its own buggy for sightseeing – about 20 people (including driver and group leader) per 40-pax buggy.
The bunkhouses consist of small cubbies – upper and lower – on either side of a narrow aisle. I didn’t specifically measure my cubby, but the length looked to be over 6 ft long and the width about 3 ft. (I’m 5’2” and had plenty of room at the foot of the bed to place my parka and day bag there without being bothered by it when I lay down.) Each cubby has a thick, velcroed privacy curtain. I found the mattress to be comfortable enough during our 5-night stay (didn’t hear anyone complaining).
Inside each cubby is an electrical outlet, a reading light, a narrow shelf that runs the length of the buggy wall, a mesh hammock-shelf hanging from the ceiling, a small mirror, and a window. The shelf and mesh-shelf were more than sufficient to store belongings. There is ample storage under the lower cubby as well; this storage is shared with whoever is in the top cubby.
In the center area of the bunkhouse, there are two washrooms (flush toilet/sink) and one shower (also had a sink). By the way, we each had our own bath and face towel provided by the lodge. There was liquid soap in the washrooms; liquid soap and shampoo in the shower. We were asked to keep our showers short to conserve water, but to use plenty of water to flush. (Our bunkhouse ran out of water twice – but it turned out not to be too big of a problem since it was in the late evening/night hours. The staff drained water from the kitchen module to provide us with enough water to brush teeth, flush toilets, etc. until the water delivery was received the next day.) The other bunkhouse never ran out of water – one theory as to why we had a problem might be that those in the bunkhouse at the far end had to walk through our bunkhouse to get to the lounge/dining cars, and we often saw that they were using our facilities rather than walking all the way back to their own.
The shared washroom/shower situation was not a problem (this from someone who has never stayed in a shared-facilities environment before). The only time there seemed to be a queue for the washrooms was in the morning and when we returned from our day on the tundra, but even that wasn’t a huge problem. Some of us showered in the morning, others at night. Hubby and I took advantage of the lull when we returned from the tundra to take our showers – most everyone would immediately go to the lounge, leaving the bunkhouse to those of us who were downloading photos and such. It was the perfect time to shower without having to worry about anyone waiting to be next. We’re also early risers – the only ones up around 5:00a – giving us first dibs on the washrooms.
One thing I was surprised by – and should not have been; each module of the mobile lodge is on wheels after all – was the slight swaying motion when the wind was particularly strong or when a bear reared up and banged against the side of a module. No big deal – felt like I was on a ship at times.
We were lucky with our bunk placement – on the starboard side when facing towards the lounge/dining cars. This side did not get the wind and the bears tended to be on this side as well. Our bunks were up against the linen closet where the extra blankets were stored, so we did not have noise from the washroom to contend with, and our position in the center of the bunkhouse also meant no drafts from the doors opening and closing at either end.
The lounge car served as a place to socialize. It was also where the evening lectures were given and where the morning coffee was set up for early risers. Wine and appetizers were provided during “happy hour” (if you want beer or hard liquor, you need to bring your own – the liquor store in Churchill is in the same building as the post office).
The food was good, home-style cooking. Portions were just right for us, but for some they might have seemed a bit on the small side.
Breakfast consisted of scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, English muffins, brown toast, grilled tomatoes, croissants, pancakes, etc. (Not everything everyday.) The homemade granola cereal was as good as I had read. There was also cut up fruit and yogurt available. (We queued up and Julie, one of the lodge staff, served up the hot items.)
Dinner was sit-down, served by the staff. We had pasta with meat sauce and garlic bread; salmon with mashed sweet potatoes; elk kabobs; chicken Kiev with rice and corn; prime rib with mashed potatoes and vegies; etc. It was all quite good and topped off with delicious desserts that ranged from chocolate cake, to sautéed bananas with caramel sauce, to a lumberjack cake.
A note re: food allergies. The staff did a yeoman’s job of accommodating people with dietary restrictions – just make sure you alert them in advance so that they can be prepared accordingly; no grocery stores nearby.
There was a post-dinner lecture every night except the night we arrived at the lodge – digital photography 101; life in the high arctic (the leader of the other group lived on Baffin Island); how to give back and be Arctic ambassadors (by a Polar Bears International [PBI] Advisory Council Member from the San Diego Zoo; in addition to talking about polar bears in the wild and global warming, she talked about some of the research that was done using the zoo’s resident polar bears); introduction to the work PBI does; inspirational photo presentation by Daniel Cox, the photographer who led our group. Each of these presentations was interesting in its own way. They were kept short since everyone was tired after a day out on the tundra. Sometimes, the presenter was interrupted by a wildlife sighting – Arctic fox running around the lodge, bears trying to peek inside the windows, and such – adding a bit of additional interest to our evening.
Daily Routine – On average, our day at the lodge went something like this – wake up around 6:00a (coffee, tea, hot chocolate available in the lounge; breakfast at 7:00a; board the transport buggy for a day on the tundra at 8:00a; search for bears and other Arctic wildlife in the area around the lodge (no need to go too far since the bears were congregating in the area to wait for the freeze up) – beverages and lunch on the buggy; back to the lodge around 4:00-4:30p (light is almost gone by then); social hour; dinner around 6:00p; lecture around 7:30p; main lights out in the bunkhouse around 10:00p.
Tundra Buggy – We had Chris as our driver/guide. He was terrific – good sense of humor and excellent knowledge of bears/bear behavior. He really helped to make our experience as great as it turned out to be. He was able to sight bears from quite a distance and position our buggy such that we had good, up close sightings. Since we were a photography group, he was conscious of light conditions and kept that it mind when positioning the buggy (especially on the last day when the sun finally came out). He was also very conscious of the well-being of the bears – if a bear seemed stressed by our presence, he did not pursue it, and he kept his distance when bears wandered onto the old army trails that the buggies drive on.
Ours was a photography group as I noted earlier; we were led by Daniel Cox (www.naturalexposures.com/portfolio-reviews/). There were 18 people in the group and it was invaluable having a buggy to ourselves. Dan gave us tips on photography in a white-on-white environment – very useful; we all came away with photos that are better because of his guidance. (Note that there was no group meetings to critique photos.)
I don’t have the specific measurements, but we found the buggies roomier than anticipated – especially since we were at half-capacity passenger-wise. Seats on either side can accommodate two people, but we each had a seat to ourselves. There is a wide aisle that runs through the center. There is an open deck in the back (just a solid lower wall; no bars around the top half), which I used occasionally, but for the most part, I stayed inside and used the windows for photography – it was relatively warmer in there, even with the windows down. I found the high-sides of the open deck a hindrance when the bears were too close (I am 5’2”) and it was easier for me to stand between the seats inside or perch on the back of a seat when necessary. People in the group were really good about sharing window space (you did not have to stick with the window by your own seat).
A quick note here – leave the tripod behind (even a monopod restricts mobility); a good beanbag is the way to go (mine screws onto the bottom of my camera – important since anything that falls off the buggy becomes the property of the bears).
There was a propane heater in the back of the buggy that kept the interior downright cozy. It was a place to thaw out frozen fingers and toes as well, and served as a place to warm up sandwiches if you so desired. Also in the rear of the buggy was a potty (not a flush toilet) that was available for use whenever the buggy was stationary. There was no running water, but there was plenty of wet wipes and gel hand sanitizer available.
When on the tundra, we took a break mid-morning for hot beverages and cookies. Lunch was around the noon hour – but depended on sightings. Chris always found us a good spot with ongoing bear activity and we took our time with lunch, which consisted of delicious homemade soup (tomato with roasted garlic; cauliflower; asparagus) and make-your-own sandwiches and wraps. Lunch was concluded with hot beverages and cookies – the oatmeal raisin ones were my favorite, but most people seemed to especially enjoy the white chocolate macadamia cookies that were served one day. I was happy to see re-usable plates, cutlery, and cups rather than paper, plastic, or foam. We even re-cycled our beverage cups (just for the day) – used tape to put our name on the cup. (The dishes were washed at the lodge.)
Clothing & Gear – It was cold, no doubt about it. Layers, layers, layers … did I say layers … are essential. We took the clothing we bought for our 2007 expedition voyage to Antarctica. For the most part, these items were sufficient. I tend to get chilled easily, so I wore smartwool long johns, another smartwool top, and a fleece zip up on top. I wore windproof pants over my fleece pants. I used my Antarctic parka mostly in Churchill and a few times (for short periods of time) on the buggy. For the most part, the primaloft jacket I recently bought from REI did the trick for me.
I have to say that except on a few occasions, my feet (especially toes) were always cold (not freezing, just cold). My boots were rated to minus 40C, and I wore thin liner socks with a pair of wool socks over them. Even with toe warmers (which did wonders in Antarctica), my feet were never quite toasty. I’d highly recommend boots rated to even colder temperatures, or a pair that has exceptionally thick soles (your feet will be higher off the ground, with more insulation between them and the snow/ice or metal floor of the buggy).
For gloves, I used thin liners with fleece glove-mitts over them. This allowed me to pull the mitten portion off to better handle the camera. Between the two layers of gloves, I placed hand warmers. With the mitt portion off, my fingers got cold very fast if the wind was blowing, but I could quickly make a fist around the hand warmer in my palm to warm my fingers up. By the way, those hand warmers were great for reviving camera batteries as well.
Luggage & Carry On Bags – Once we handed our luggage over to FNA at the hotel in Winnipeg, we did not see it again – our bags were delivered directly to the lodge and placed in the space under our assigned bunks. On the return trip, we boarded the buggy first and the lodge staff then placed the luggage in the rear; we did not have access to our bags until they were offloaded in front of the hotel in Winnipeg. The only bags we were responsible for were our carry-ons. (We left our carry on stuff at the FNA office while we wandered around Churchill.)
Speaking of carry-ons. We flew a 737 charter to/from Churchill, much larger than the planes that used to fly into Churchill. Nonetheless, overhead storage is small on this aircraft and you really need to make sure camera bags and such can fit under the seat or they will be stored in the rear of the aircraft, and possibly be put in the belly of the aircraft - not a good thing if you're carrying camera equipment.
I should note here, since I forgot to do so earlier, that you need to wear your layers when you depart Winnipeg for Churchill. As mentioned above, you have no access to your luggage until you reach the lodge that evening. We were concerned about wearing our layers and boots for travel, thinking it might be too warm on the plane – it wasn’t. And boy were we glad to have those layers when we landed in Churchill.
I think that’s it … feel free to post questions; I will do my best to answer them.
Photos will be a while, but when my online gallery is up, I will post a link here.