The great polar bear adventure

"I hosted a group trip during COVID-19!"

A travel advisor tells all about encountering wild polar bears in Churchill, Man.

By: Leah Holt, Go Travel with Leah
Cover photo: Bea Kachmarchyk

A trip of a lifetime... in Canada

Witnessing polar bears in the wild is one of the awesome bucket list experiences Canada has to offer. Travel advisor Leah Holt of Go Travel with Leah gives a firsthand account of booking a group trip to Churchill, Man. and the memorable adventure that unfolded. 

An idea is born

I planned this group trip in a lot less time than I usually take to put together a vacation like this. One of my clients asked me if I would host a group to Churchill, Manitoba this fall as it has always been on her bucket list to see the Polar Bears.

Within two weeks I had pricing and a three-night itinerary in place to start spreading the word. Amazingly, it did not take long to have my group sold out. Just two more weeks and we were ready to go from Oct. 22-25.

My group consisted of 16 persons, including myself, with a mix of singles and couples from Alberta and Saskatchewan. I met all of them on a Thursday evening (Oct. 22) for dinner at the Grand Winnipeg Lakeview where we would also spend the night. Friday morning was an early one as we jumped in several taxis with our masks on and restricted weight luggage to the charter flight hanger just five minutes away. We were warned that if our combined luggage was too heavy we would need a fuel stop in Thompson so we were diligent in only packing 30 lbs each. 

Next stop: Churchill

After a pleasant and smooth 2 1/2 hour flight in the 16 passenger charter plane, we arrived in Churchill around 10:30am. It was fascinating seeing the Hudson’s Bay from above and then landing on a gravel runway, which we had no clue about until Remi, from North Star Tours, filled us in.

Our next stop was the Polar Inn and Suites to drop off our luggage, a cozy hotel with a gift shop framed in the middle and friendly staff that made our stay enjoyable. Some of the rooms come equipped with kitchenettes so you can do your cooking and the hotel usually provides breakfast but things are different now with COVID-19. Because we were a group, they provided us with a prepared continental breakfast, which we found in our fridge later that evening. To use the word continental would be an understatement. It was a COVID-style continental buffet!

Photo/Bea Kachmarchyk

"As one saying goes, 'When you look a polar bear in the eye, it changes your life!' and because of that, I can't wait to take my next group and share in this unique experience again."

Close encounters

North Star Tours provided their service for the remainder of our first day, giving us a grand tour of Churchill and it’s vicinity. We explored the Seaport and witnessed the last grain vessel, out of Churchill for the season, being filled. We felt the harsh winds rushing at us giving us instant brain freeze while we explored the Cape Merry Battery of the Prince of Wales Fort. Keep in mind it was only minus 5 degrees Celsius without the windchill, but it felt like -30 out there in the wide open. We were enraptured by building after building covered in beautiful graffiti and spotted our first majestic bear just minutes out of Churchill. It was captivating!

Some of our group chose to do a dog sledding tour with Wapusk Adventures where they were educated, by Dave, on the raising and training of these smart canines and then had a blast ripping across the tundra behind a team of gorgeous huskies.

Our plan was to go out after dark and check out the Northern Lights, but unfortunately the clouds never rescinded and we missed out. This just meant we were able to have an earlier night and rest up for our Tundra Buggy adventure the next day.

We chose the Official Tundra Buggy company to book our Polar Expedition with and they were fabulous. First, let’s just begin with the gift shop. The ladies in our group asked specifically if they could have extra time to shop when we returned from our tour there was just so much to take in. The friendly lady behind the counter, named Erin, checked us in and made sure we all completed the COVID-19 checklist (something we also had to do at the hotel) before boarding the bus which would transfer us to the tundra buggy launch. We later learned that Erin was a survivor of a polar bear attack back in 2013.

We drove a full circle around the area to make sure there were no lurking polar bears at the launch and then we met Kevin Burke. He welcomed us onto his Tundra Buggy and proudly shared that he is the only local driver and has been a guide and driver for over 34 years. His knowledge about polar bears, their habits and behaviour was so entertaining and we never tired of his stories. Our tour started at 8:30 a.m. and included morning coffee, tea and hot chocolate as well as a delicious lunch of Quinoa salad, variety of wraps and sandwiches, cold sodas and water and sweet coconut macaroons to top it off. Kevin always sought out a polar bear and parked right up close so we could observe them while we enjoyed our morning coffee or lunch.  It was surreal as we watched the bears grow curious about us and saunter over to check us out. We spent hours quietly moving about inside the buggy and out onto the rear balcony getting the perfect photo. All in all we saw nine polar bears and at one time three simultaneously. 

Food for thought

As for dining options in Churchill, we ate at as many of the restaurants as we had time for.  We started our tour with lunch at the Seaport Restaurant and then enjoyed a cozy dinner around the fireplace and by candlelight at the Lazy Bear Cafe. Our tasty lunch on the Tundra Buggy was catered by the Tundra Pub and we also enjoyed our last meal in Churchill here. They knew we had a plane to catch, were very prompt with getting our food out to us and it was great, especially the Fish and Chips, which was locally caught pickerel a.k.a. walleye.

We caught our chartered flight back to Winnipeg on Saturday evening and went home with another destination and an amazing experience checked off our bucket list!

As one saying goes, “When you look a polar bear in the eye, it changes your life!” and because of that, I can’t wait to take my next group and share in this unique experience again.

What about COVID precautions?

All tour companies had us fill out a COVID Self Assessment Checklist, which is what I had asked my group to do as well before we met in Winnipeg.

The Charter company that we flew to Churchill with also did the COVID checklist, took our temperatures and required masks while we were on board. Whenever we weren’t able to social distance, we also wore our masks.

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