Churchill, Manitoba, has been called “a town built in the wrong place,” not because it is located 700 miles from its gateway city, Winnipeg, or because no roads lead there. (Visitors must arrive by plane or train.) Rather, it is a town that gets in the way of the polar bears that roam the area every autumn, waiting for Hudson Bay to freeze over so they can hunt seals. Meanwhile, they bust up cottages and fill up Churchill’s polar bear jail—a Quonset hut where the captured marauders are kept until helicopters can airlift them well beyond the town’s perimeter.
If life deals you polar bears, you might as well make a safari, as Frontiers North has done with its Tundra Buggy trips. The buggies—lumbering vehicles constructed on fire engine chassis, with monster-truck tires and an observation platform—provide safe viewing of the planet’s largest land-based carnivores. Though many observers choose to stay in Churchill and take buggy day trips, the best way to see the animals is to bunk at the Tundra Buggy Lodge, which resembles a stationary triple-tandem trailer, positioned at the hub of the ursine activity about 25 miles east of Churchill. The lodge’s connected units include a kitchen/dining room, a lounge for morning coffee or afternoon cocktails or after-dinner nature presentations, and sleeping cars that hold double-decker berths. Rustic it may be, but it is one of the more comfortable ways to vacation on the tundra. A Tundra Buggy transports guests from Churchill to the lodge initially, then it serves as a safari vehicle during the days that follow.
Arriving after dark (daytime lasts only eight hours in the fall), this week’s voyagers immediately meet their new neighbors when four bears lumber past the lounge car, less than 20 feet from the window. The morning’s sunrise reveals bears resting in the nearby kelp beds or sparring with each other.
During a stay at the lodge, you spend most of the daylight hours in a buggy, camera in hand, cruising the tundra with a guide and knowledgeable driver. You learn a great deal about polar bear behavior (unpredictable) and physiology (males and females are distinguishable by the location of urine stains on their back legs). When you are immersed in the tundra’s ecosystem, observing the silent world within the bleak terrain, it becomes easier to spot camouflaged creatures such as the arctic hare, arctic fox, and snowy owl. But it is the bears that are most compelling, with their antics, their power, and perhaps their plight.
Last summer the Arctic ice cap shrank to the smallest size ever measured. The five nations whose coastlines border the Arctic Ocean—Canada, the United States, Russia, Norway, and Denmark (Greenland)—are betting that the melting ice will open up the Arctic to oil drilling and create new sea lanes, which, by some accounts, could turn Churchill into a lucrative seaport. The climate shift also could turn the polar bears away if their food supply dwindles. The issue of global warming is the monster under the bed that no one yet understands, a fact that the guides and scientists at the lodge freely admit. Like the bears biding time until the ice forms, they wait too, albeit for a less certain outcome.
Frontiers North, 800.663.9832, www.tundrabuggy.com