My journey begins in Winnipeg (my very first time crossing the Canadian border).
Just 2 days earlier there had been a pretty bad snow storm and potential weather delays at the airport were a big concern.Fortunately things worked out and I got there on time without any problems. Within minutes of stepping off the plane I received a Welcome greeting Text on my phone from my friend Kerri. I promptly located the hotel shuttle van and in less than 20 minutes of stepping on Canadian soil for the first time ( or in this case Canadian snow), I was checked in at my hotel. 30 minutes later Ms Lovely (Kerri) knocks on my door bearing a Tupperware container chock full of delicious multicolored mini cupcakes she had made and decorated to the hilt. I could tell that this was not only going to be fun trip, but also a sweet one.
Later that afternoon we caught a city bus to the local Subway sandwich shop and brought back some food to the hotel. Mind you,Im from the SF bay area where it never snows, so just going cross town to grab something to eat was quite an adventure. There was a good foot of snow on the ground and trekking through it was a workout. Of course it didn’t phase Kerri in the least bit.
The following morning I caught a bus in front of the hotel and took it downtown to meet Kerri. I struck up a conversation with the driver who was originally from England and whose wife was actually born in Churchill. Knowing I was a tourist, he eagerly kept me entertained with facts and figures about Winnipeg and the history of various buildings along the bus route.
Kerri met me at the bus stop downtown where we were shortly met by her Mom who was nice enough to take a break from work just to give us a ride to the train station. Once there I picked up my tickets, dropped off my luggage and with 2 hours to spare, we set off on foot where Kerri gave me a tour of the Forks area of town. Lots of quaint shops , museums and landscapes. First time Ive ever seen a frozen river. At the mall I ended by buying some snacks for the long train ride, including some of the most flavorful local organic apples Ive ever tasted. At one of the stores we ran into Kerri’s Grandparents. Her grandmother made me a batch of chocolate chip cookies for the trip. How sweet is that! I think the MacKay clan is trying to make me fat.
The train ride from Winnipeg to Churchill is a slow 2 day ride. I don’t do well sleeping in a train seat , so I booked a sleeping berth for the trip. It turned out to be pretty cozy. There were only 2 other parties who had sleeping accommodations, Persa a Nurse practitioner from Alberta Canada and her niece Breanne a high school student. There was another interesting person named Doug on the train who was a probation officer supervisor for all of Manitoba, but he got off shortly after I got on.
I couldn’t have ask for better roomies on a train. Persa worked who as a Nurse practitioner way up near the north pole, was super friendly and had a real enthusiasm for traveling to far out places. Just by coincidence the 3 of us were booked on the same bear tour in Churchill. Oh, did I mention, they had a shower on the train? We’re talking a full on, hot shower room . They even provided fresh towels and soap daily.
The trip from Winnipeg to Churchill took about 2 days, so I was prepared for periods of extreme boredom, but what I didnt know before booking the ticket , was that there would be no dining car and that there would be a 5 hour layover in Thompson. Correction, there was a dining dining car, but there was no cook. The only food they offered was microwaved TV dinners and few other snack items. Apparently there were not enough passengers on this run to justify it. There were only 22 people on the entire train and that included 8 staff members, so really only 14 passengers!! That had to have been a big time money looser for the rail line. As far as the unexpected layover in Thompson, most everyone on board the train took cabs from the Thompson rail station to the downtown area to do a little sightseeing. I went into town as well, but I walked. Here’s a snippet of that walk.
While the train ride was boring at times, the winter scenery was pretty spectacular. Imagine being all tucked in to a warm and cozy swaying bed with this view.
39 hours later and 1 hour ahead of schedule, the train finally arrived in Churchill. Did I mention there was a blizzard going on?
The outside temp was -12 C,. but with sustained winds of 40mph it felt like -30.
I asked the station clerk for directions to my hotel and he said it was only a block away and no need to take a cab. Bundling up as best I could and hauling my suitcase behind me, I headed outside. OMG , Ive never been so cold in my life. It was so windy that the snow ( or ice crystals) were coming at me sideways and I could barely move. As I made it across the street someone with the Churchill logo on their truck stopped and offered me a ride. 2 minutes later I was at my hotel, the Tundra Inn, a very modern but cozy and warm hotel.
In the lobby you could see that there were film crews and photographers preparing to head out for the days shoot. Apparently if you need a polar bear in your movie or are doing a documentary about them, Churchill is the place you come. But it ‘s not always a sure thing. Some of these crews had been there several days and had not seen a single bear. To make things worse there was a blizzard blowing through which polar bears dont like. In all I counted film crews from at least 3 different production companies, including one from Italy and one from Australia. One of the movies called “Midnight Sun” is supposed to be in theaters next year. Anyway, while waiting for my room to be cleaned, my train friends Persa and Breanne popped by the hotel and picked me up in an SUV they had rented and we set out to see the local sites. Here’s a clip of what we saw that morning..
The following morning was Tundra buggy day. Hopefully we’ll see bears. I got up extra early as to make sure I was prepared and ready for my 7 am pick-up by the tour company. It’s now 7:30 and no pick up. Hmmm, I guess they’re running late. 8 o’clock comes and goes and still no pick up. OK Now I’m getting worried, today is the last day for the tundra tours. At 8 :17 I got on the phone to the company. Sure enough, they forgot to pick me up. They immediately dispatched a local cab to pick me up and drive me out to the tour staging area 10 miles way. Phewww, that was a close call. We made it to the buggy 20 minutes later, but I could tell that the other 10 people on the buggy were getting inpatient waiting for me. I assured them that it was the tour operators fault, not mine. But we were on our way now and everything was good. I found out later that my friend Persa, who knew I was supposed to be on that tour, would have not let them start the tour without me. That was nice to hear.
OK, if you’ve never been on a Tundra buggy, it’s quite an experience. These things are like tanks and probably as comfortable too. They don’t have tracks like a tank, but they do have 6 wheel drive and can move over almost any surface. It can get quite bumpy, and spending 8 hours on these things can make you feel a little sea sick.
OK, by now Im sure you’re tired of reading about all the little stuff. How about some
We slowly followed the frozen shoreline of Hudson bay and were given tips on how to spot polar bears from a distant, which is harder than it seems again est a vast white background. About an hour out on the ice and no bear to be seen. It was late in the season and most of the bears had already migrated north, so there was no guarantee wed see anything. Then with tour guide, driver and the tourists all using binoculars, someone spotted our first bear. He was about 300 hundred yards away sleeping near the water. This is what we saw ( it’s kinda bumpy)
After this first sighting people started getting more excited and enthusiastic about the prospect of seeing more bears. And see more bears we did. Myself and a young couple I met from England ( Alex and Sarah) decided to go outside on the back of the buggy to see if we could get a better look at what appeared to be a bear way out on the ice. I have to apologize in advance for the crappy camera work. Let me apologize in advance for the crappy camera work. Im not a professional photographers the others on the buggy. We’re talking a hundred camera with a dinky lens. The footage is very shaky at times, as I was trying to use both my still camera and the video camera at the same time. That, plus my hands were totally numb and there was a lot of commotion and excitement going on when the bears came close. Still, I think I captured the moments that counted the most.
After that close encounter, the sightings became more frequent. Just a few minutes later we spotted this magnificent creature. Easily a thousand pound male, just strolling the ice. ( accidentally duplicated the footage during the last 30 seconds of clip)
Then there was this curious little guy…
We had now been on the buggy for 7 hours and it was time to head back. Here are some misc still photos taken during that day.
Today is Saturday, my last day in Churchill. My flight wasn’t scheduled to leave until 6pm, so I did a little souvenir
shopping and took one more walk around town and recorded this..
At 5 pm Belina,the Inn the keeper where I was staying, gave me a lift to the Churchill Airport and an hour later I was on a plane headed back to Winnipeg. One thing about the Churchill airport that kind of surprised me, is that there is no security check. In fact, they don’t even require ID to get on the plane. You just show up with a paid reservation and get on the plane.
This is also the first time I ever flown on a propeller plane or a plane that had to be De-iced before taking off. And believe it or not, this tiny airline actually serviced a full lunch. ( well, for $900 for a 2 hour flight, I guess they better).
Ok, so Im sitting on the plane when a tall lanky guy I had seen earlier in the airport carrying a guitar case asks if he can take the seat next to me. Turns out he’s a singer songwriter who had just performed in Churchill. While there he also got to see a couple polar bears and a fox which is pretty rare. This guys name btw is Don Amero. Don’s a really sweet down to earth family guy, a talented artist and according to my friend Kerri , very popular in Canada. After listening to his music I can see why. Don also does a lot of mentoring to high school students, which I thought was really cool. Anyway, we talked non stop for almost 3 hours about everything under the sun. He just came out with a new CD and was very excited about an upcoming showcase he was going to be doing in New York next year. (Here’s Don’s complete CD release concert). Upon arrival at the airport he was greeted by his wife whom I also got to meet briefly. He was gonna autograph one of his CDs for me, but there was a mix up with his luggage and couldn’t get me one. I later went online and downloaded a copy of it. It’s good, it’s really good. I like Don because he’s real and he’s honest. I think that will take his career along way. I wish him the very best and will be the first one in line when he plays here in the bay area.
I spent that Saturday night at a hotel located at the Winnipeg airport. Sunday morning Kerri came by again with yet another box of grandma’s home made cookies. We then headed to the terminal where I checked my bags for the flight back to the US and then we hung out at the Tim Hortons( my first time) plotting out our next adventure. The time flew by way too fast and before I knew it, it was time to say good bye.
I was a little worried that I wouldn’t haven’t enough time to make my 45 minute connection at Ohare, but my flight arrived there early and I got to the other gate ( a half mile away) with time to spare ( Im still a fast walker). Despite the weather, all of my flights and train connections on this trip were on time or even early. I think that’s a first for me.
Well Churchill sure didn’t disappoint. In all, I got to see 14 bears, 3 of them up close..real close. From those majestic four legged creatures to all the wonderful 2 legged ones I met along the way, this adventure definitely ranks up there as most memorable, satisfying and educational ones Ive ever embarked upon. Canada, from what little I saw, is a beautiful country and so are the people who live in it. Everyone I had contact with was friendly and polite, even the customs officer was nice..lol
And for those of you suffering with severe breathing problems, I hope this trip inspires you to create or own travel adventure or whatever passion you might have. Don’t let your health stop you from living. If I can do it, anyone can 🙂
I love this–my face hurts from smiling, actually. The videos and pictures of Churchill and the bears are absolutely breathtaking, I love one of the first clips where the snow is swirling around–always one of my favourite sights even after twenty-one years of it–and amplified by the awesomeness of the backdrop makes it even cooler. Incredible.
So does “that’s actually the beach on the other side of that snowbank there.” fall into the category of sentences you never thought you’d say? I totally cracked up at your commentary–so, so awesome. I need to travel with somebody like you who talks to his camera like I do.
I’m glad you had such a cool trip [literally], and that you made it up here! It was so good to see you again and get to show you around a little bit–and of course get caught up in your excitement and hear your stories! I’m definitely going to have to go up north one of these days.
[Also, looking at the tags, I love how I am alongside Don Amero in tag form–I’m sure that will never happen again! 😉 Your Don Amero story still blows my mind considering I know of him. So rad.]
That was awesome! Thanks for sharing it with me.
Thanks Steve for sharing your epic trip to the see the polar bears! What an adventure! I enjoyed your trip description, videos, and photos. If you ever want a bit more easygoing adventure, you are welcome here to Portland, Oregon where we have lots to do and lots of rain to do it in!
P.S. and lots of geese and my adorable cat Sunshine.
Hi Gayle, I love Portland, been there many times. Ive also done the marathon there. I was telling Kerri that downtown Winnipeg in the winter looks a lot like Portland. Im gonna have to get back up there someday.
Glad you enjoyed your time in Manitoba. We get the quiet in the snow even in Toronto. Absorbing the sound is part of it, but also its the lack of background noise that we typically take for granted such as rustling leaves and birds chirping. I’d like to do the Churchill thing too at some point. It looks really fun.
Being a wildlife photographer Fran, you’d love it.
Great photoes, great journey! Polar bears I saw to this time only in TV and in ZOO in my city. I see You really enjoyed this travel! Greetings to You from autumn and gray Poland 🙂
Hi Zim, I saw a TV program about Polar Bears too, that’s why I went 🙂
What an amazing adventure! And the bears were awesome. Certainly makes one want to go see for yourself…. before global warming pushes them all the way back to the north pole!
Thank you Dr Wenzel. It absolutely was a fantastic experience, I’m glad I did it. Such magnificent creatures.