Great Canadian Tours flew us into Churchill from Calgary on a one day tour. We left Calgary at 6 am and arriving at Churchill, old school buses met and transported us to the tundra buggy loading site. Climbing the school bus stairs and the 6-8 steps up to the tundra buggy loading site are the only stairs you climb during the day.
Things that I did not know before the trip.
1. There are no guarantees that you will see bears. I am told that they have a superior record for finding them, so this should not be a concern. We saw 4-6 bears. Why the range? Some bears do not remain in one place, so- Is this the same bear we saw at site A or not? Be aware that you may not see bears for a long time, hours even. Then the last hour makes up for it. Or vice versa.
2. Polar bears can be hard to spot. I have added 4 photos to prove to you that they can be tricky. You can play "Spot the Polar Bear". It will let you know what to scan for when you are on the buggy. Yes, each photo has a bear in it.
3. You go out for the whole day of approximately 8 hours (maybe this is negotiable, it was not for us.). Our buggy held 40 passengers, but did not feel at all crowded. Two abreast bench seating with an eight foot center aisle. See photo.
3a. There is a toilet on board.
3b They serve hot soup and sandwiches for lunch. There were also soda, water, coffee, tea, bakery treats, cookies, crackers and candy (our trip was the day after Halloween). You won't starve. One note of caution. I am medically required gluten free, As you can tell, there was not a lot there for me. So if you have dietary restrictions bring your own food to be on the safe side. This is definitely not a deal breaker.
4. The buggy is very warm with a stove on board. There were times, people lowered the windows to get cool. Of course you can go out to the observation platform and get cool there too..
5. There were professional wildlife photographers with camera equipment costing thousands on the tour. Bring your point and shot and forget to be competitive. Having said that, my spousal unit recommends zoom lens as the buggy cannot approach the bears as close as you might like..
6. Once you see a bear, everyone on the bear side of the bus opens the windows to get clear shots. Folks share 'their' windows. There is always the observation deck. Which brings us to the next point.
7. The bears have not eaten in a long time and are waiting for the ice to form so they can go out and catch food. So THEY TEND TO LAY AROUND conserving energy. A lot of my shots are of bears laying alternatively on warm rocks or in the snow. And yes, a couple of the bears walked from rock to snow so I did get some of the classic 'rear end' shots.
8. While weather is at the whim of the gods, I was surprised that there was not a lot of snow on the ground. Where is my 'white bear on the absolute white snow background' shot? And the weather changes constantly. We landed in blowing snow and on the tundra it varied from sunny blue sky to overcast.
9. Terrain. Ever watch Ice Road Truckers? Ever see outback 4 wheeling? Combine the two and you have the experience. Even though the driver WARNED that the road was rough and how to prepare for it, there was one event so unexpected that 5 (yep 5) people hit the floor from their seats. No one was hurt. One clever woman wore a motion sickness patch just to be on the safe side. No complaint on our tour about motion sickness. The buggy moves a little faster than walking speed. But the unexpected deep holes hidden by ice can make it a wild ride.
10. Safety. No one is allowed to stand while the vehicle is in motion. No one can be on the deck while the buggy moves. When our driver started up the engine, it was the clue to return to their seats, so we could move on. The driver will stop if you ask, so you can take photos at any time.
11. More safety. No feeding or baiting of the bears. If you do drop food off the buggy even accidentally, the tour ends immediately. Everyone pays the price for even accidental behavior.
Of course, no food or drinks are allowed on the observation deck. The most recent early return was caused by someone knocking a grape soda can off the deck. Adios amigos. No more bear watching for the day and no refunds.
12. You should be quiet when you see bears. Some bears hate noise and will exit stage left and there you are bear less.
13. Nothing should dangle from the buggy. Bears at times make a grab for these items and they are gone. If you are fortunate, it is not your long scarf with you attached to it that are taken. Things that are dropped like cameras are not usually recovered.
13. We were under the impression that the bear viewing tundra was immediately adjacent to the town. In reality it was approximately 5 miles from town. However, bears do visit the town. There had been a rare bear attack in town the night before. However, you will be safe staying with the tour and certainly on the buggy itself.
14. We were fortunate to have a naturalist on board. Learned a lot about the bears and learned a lot about the town of Churchill too.
Should you think this review is a warning of sorts to stay home, nope. If I had know these things I would have changed my expectations. Not lowered them, changed them.
We returned to Calgary late that night. It was well worth it. We are looking forward to coming back in the summer to see the Beluga whales that come here in the hundreds.
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