By Marilyn Jones
The Tundra Buggy is slowly moving along a rutted road originally created in the 1940s by the Canadian and US military. We’re on the lookout for polar bears. It’s not cold. There’s no snow on the ground. In this remote area near Churchill, Manitoba, the bears spend the summer. Although they are not as easy to find as they are in October and November when they make their way back on the ice of Hudson Bay, they are here.
I am on a Big Five Safari with Frontiers North Adventures. In addition to the polar bears, we seek beluga whales, black bears, moose and bison.
Our trip begins in Riding Mountain National Park located northwest of Winnipeg. Consisting of 2,969 square kilometres of protected area, it was designated a national park in 1933 because of its three different ecosystems – grasslands, upland boreal and eastern deciduous forests.
The park is often referred to as “an island of green rising out of a sea of farmland.” It is home to 233 species of birds, 60 kinds of mammals, and 10 species of reptiles and amphibians. Much of the park’s infrastructure was created by labourers in two of Canada’s Great Depression relief programs – 1930 Unemployment Relief Act and the 1934 Public Works Construction Act.
In Wasagaming, the park’s unincorporated town-site, there are log buildings constructed during the 1930s by the men in the depression-era programs including the park’s headquarters.
Situated on the edge of Clear Lake, Wasagaming is a family-friendly town with locally-owned hotels, restaurants and shops lining its main streets with hundreds of cabins only a few blocks away.
Our wildlife drives take place early morning and late afternoon. On the first day, we are fortunate to see a lone moose. The young male seems to be as curious of us as we are of him. We watch for a long time as he meanders along a pond and finally disappears.
On a subsequent game drive, we come upon a black bear eating Saskatoon berries along a roadway. Even though the highway is busy, the bear seems comfortable to stay entangled in the berry bushes eating its fill. We see a total of three bears at the edge of the road this day.
On the final day in the park, we have only one more animal to tick off our list before heading north to Churchill – bison. We head for Lake Audy Bison Enclosure. “Enclosure” is a misleading description. The herd of 40 has 500 hectares to roam in. From a look-out point, I wonder if we will actually find one as I gaze out over the expanse.
The sun is low in the sky as we board our van after our overview look of the enclosure. We drive along several roads within the enclosure and, as we make our way around a bend in the road, we find several grazing at the edge of the road. Their large presence is awe inspiring. We stay until the sun begins to set, watching the young males posturing and calves nursing.
Back in Winnipeg, we catch a plane to Churchill located on the edge of Hudson Bay. The town of 900 full-time residents is accessible only by plane or train. Located here is a deep-water port where grain, cargo and tanker vessels are shipped. The commodities arrive by rail before being loaded onto massive ships. The ships then sail through the Hudson Straits to the North Atlantic and around the world.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that tourists started travelling to Churchill to see polar bears and beluga whales. Churchill is known as the “Polar Bear Capital of the World” and the “Beluga Capital of the World.”
We take a boat to Fort Prince of Wales, an 18th century fort built during the time of conflict between England and France. After exploring the historic site, we sail back into the river where, from a distance, the whales look like white caps.
Soon the curious whales are all around the boat bobbing up and diving back into the water. We enjoy watching the aquatic dance from the deck. The next day, we board a rubber-raft-style Zodiac. The whales follow the Zodiac so close that I can make out all their features just under the surface of the water.
On our final day in Churchill we are on our polar bear excursion. Did we see the fifth animal on our list? Yes!
As we travel in the Tundra Buggy, we pass black spruce trees called “flag trees” because they often only have branches on one side: the result of winds from the north. Tundra swans glide across sapphire blue ponds and an eagle is perched in a tree at the edge of the road.
Our guide finally sees a polar bear in the distance looking more like a large white boulder than a bear. As we ease forward in the buggy, the bear, a young male we are told, gets up and slowly walks along the shore in front of bright purple blazing star wildflowers.
Soon after, we come across an older male lounging in the sunshine. We get very close. He doesn’t seem bothered. He looks up and then puts his head back down on his paws.
All too soon our adventure is over. We return to Winnipeg where the tour officially ends.