Here in Churchill, on the icy banks of Hudson Bay in Manitoba, Canada, it feels like I’ve travelled to the very edge of the Earth. It’s late autumn and the snow’s tumbling, 30km/h winds are whistling and the temperature’s swinging between -2C and -18C (quite tropical compared to winter, when temps can dip as low as -30 plus wind-chill). I’ve stacked merino layers under a goose-down parka so I’m all geared up for it, but nothing could’ve prepared me for this arresting monochrome view. Flat, featureless, white and grey in every direction, there’s nothing much to catch your eye here – until a bear’s camo slips and its fluffy tufts appear, loping strides of white against white.
Countless bears appear like this during my three-night stay on the tundra. Churchill’s known as The Polar Bear Capital of the World because, every autumn, around 850 of them wait here for the sea to freeze (they spend winter on the ice hunting seals and mating). Frontiers North’s famous Tundra Buggy Lodge is smack-bang in the middle of the action, hosting up to 40 guests each night in toasty bunks.
White plains drifting
We spend our days on the tundra in buggies that’d look at home in Jupiter – they’re massive, with 1.7m-high wheels, built-in fireplaces and open rear decks where guests can step outside for clear views of the bears (it’s where I spend most of my time). The buggies get us up close to the giant carnivores without ever having to set foot on the ground – handy since they can weigh up to 600kg and clock speeds of up to 40km/h per hour over short distances (FYI Usain Bolt hits speeds of around 44km/h – those bears are fast). Plus, they’ve already gone months without food so they’re ravenous.
Two nights in a row, a bear tries to get into the lodge’s kitchen, almost ripping the door off its hinges in the process. Big guy, too – his paw prints are a whopping 36cm.
And, two mornings in a row, I wake up to see bear prints leading right up to my bunk’s little window (not creepy at all).
The lodge is too well built for the bears to get in, but the break-in attempts highlight the affect of global warming on the polar bears’ behaviour.
The big melt
Thanks to climate change, the Hudson Bay ice is melting sooner and forming later in the year, so the bears are spending more time on land, growing hungrier by the day; females are birthing fewer cubs and the bears overall are physically shrinking. Although Polar Bears International estimates there to be 20,000-25,000 bears left in the world today, their studies have also shown that those in the area now spend an average of nearly 30 days longer on land than they did 30 years ago (meaning they’ve lost a whole month each year of eating and mating), so this population has declined by 22 per cent since 1987 and is still dropping. Very worrying.
All that Fauna
While Churchill is all about the bears from the outset, there’s so much more to this tour. Even though it crams in a stack of action, the trip is very relaxing: the silence of the tundra is so complete it’s kind of hypnotic and it’s impossible to feel stressed in this environment, where, apart from the bears, intriguing locals like willow ptarmigans, arctic foxes, gyrfalcons and snowshoe hares also make welcome cameos.
Around the town
Off the tundra, the tour includes a visit to the town of Churchill, where the Eskimo Museum showcases local Inuit artifacts and the Tundra Inn’s vego curry is tasty-as (but if you’re in the market for a mega carb fix, check out the poutine at Gypsy’s Bakery & Restaurant). Burn it off with a dog-sledding jaunt at Wapusk Adventures, just outside of town. The sledding track is only slightly shy of 2km but, while it’s no Iditarod, the quick sprint is through stunning boreal forest and the dogs almost jump out of their fur with excitement. Exhilarating.
A little perspective
Although I take 3500 photos during my short stay, the highlight of the trip couldn’t be caught on camera (thank you, freezy-shaky fingers). One night at the lodge, at about 9pm, faint Northern Lights are giving the sky a green tinge when two polar bears come right up to the bunkhouse, stand on their hind legs and start sparring like teenage boys. As bears rarely make any vocal noise, the whole scene unfolds with only the playful crunch of snow under paw to break the silence. And I feel like the itsiest scrap of lint on the planet…