If you're interested in seeing the famous polar bears of Churchill yourself, there are a number of ways to get there. You can do what we did, and arrive by train, which takes about two days from Winnipeg, or fly into the tiny Churchill airport. The flight takes about 2 1/2 hours from Winnipeg, but you don't get the excitement of being pitched onto the floor from your train berth in the middle of the night, or late night poker games in the dining car with native Canadians. Polar Bears International has a list of eco-tour companies that operate tours and give a portion of their proceeds to polar bear conservation efforts. One of our favorite eco-tour companies, Lindblad Expeditions, does not go to Churchill, but has cruises to Svalbard, Norway, another known stomping ground of polar bears.
Most hotel rooms are booked up by tour groups from October through the end of November, which is the season for the bears to start heading out to sea to hunt for ringed seals. The timing of the bay freeze varies from year to year, so it's hard to predict exactly how many you might encounter. When we were there, the bay froze early, so most of the bears had already headed out to sea during the second week of November.
Be sure to book your tour in advance; they often sell out and there are limited hotel rooms in Churchill. Be sure that your tour can accommodate kids, and find out what is available for different aged children. A nine-hour tour on a Tundra Buggy might be fine for teens, but your 2 year old might not find it quite so charming. Inquire about babysitting services if you might need them, or plan the trip when the kids are older.
We never felt that we were in any danger, but polar bears are wild animals and can be somewhat unpredictable. Be sure that your kids understand that they are visiting the bears in their home turf, and need to be respectful of them and their environment.
This is the final installation of our Great Northern Adventure to see polar bears in Churchill, Manitoba in 2002, in which we board a train and barrel through the night into the Canadian darkness, only to discover that there really is "no place like home."
November 12-14, 2002
After the spectacle of the Northern Lights subsided, the train rolled into Churchill and we boarded. Like all good things, our Great Northern Adventure had to come to an end. We saw polar bears, rode a dog sled, saw the Northern Lights, battled a snowsuit, and froze our noses off. In the end, a good time was had by all.
On the Via Rail Canada Train going back to Winnipeg, we had a room similar to the one we rode up in, next door to Ruth and Ralph. Fortunately, the lower berth was flat this time, so Alexander and Frank don't get pitched onto the floor as frequently as they had been before.
The next morning, we discovered that we can open the wall between our room and Ruth and Ralph's. Together, the two rooms seemed quite spacious.
Alexander spent much of his time on the training playing on the floor with the few toys we had brought along, and watching his "Thomas the Tank Engine" videos over and over. He continued to call Ruth and Chris "Toby" and "Percy" for the entire trip, and we amused ourselves by singing along to "Accidents Happen" and "Rockin' on the Railway" when we got bored.
The trip back was uneventful. We stopped in Thomson and bought a few Via Rail souvenirs, and rehashed the trip with our fellow passengers. We peered at tiny video camera screens to see footage that various people caught of the polar bears. No one was able beat Ralph's video of the two sparring bears, though.
On November 14, we finally rolled into Winnipeg, the final stop on our Polar Bear odyssey. We had a final breakfast with Ruth, Ralph, and Chris before going to the airport to catch our respective flights back to California, Michigan, and Indiana. Throughout the trip, they were patient and kind to Alexander even in his less-than-stellar moments. We couldn't have asked for better traveling companions.
This is part of a series on our trip to Churchill, Manitoba in Canada to see the polar bear migration in 2002.
Tuesday, November 12, 2002
On our last day in Churchill, we had to get up really early for the culmination of the trip: the famous tundra buggy tour out onto the frozen tundra to look for polar bears. We had been intrigued by the giant school buses from the beginning, and hoped to get a closer look at the bears.
We had discussed with our tour leader, John, whether or not Alexander would be able to enjoy the Tundra Buggy Tour, and decided that it was probably a bad idea. We would be out all day, with no chance to return early if he couldn't take it. He spoke to the owner of the motel for us, who mentioned that his daughter was available to babysit. She was a stay-at-home mom with a baby who didn't mind babysitting one more to make a little extra cash. Again, we decided to leave our kid with a total stranger.
A Tundra Buggy is an odd sort of vehicle, a mash-up of a school bus, a double-wide trailer and a monster truck. The giant wheels can maneuver on the roughest, snowiest terrain, and make it tall enough that the bears can't jump on for a ride. On the back of the buggy is a small deck where people can go outside to take pictures. In pictures we had seen of the tundra buggies, bears went right up to the windows to try to beg for snacks from tourists. We hoped we'd get such an up-close and personal look at one of the polar bears.
This is part of a retrospective on our trip to see polar bears in Canada in 2002. In this episode, we ride a dogsled and never want to leave.
Monday, November 11, 2002
On our third day in Churchill, we woke up and decided to try something new for breakfast, so we walked a whole two blocks to Seaport Inn down the street. The food was better than at the Churchill Motel next door to us, but the service was lousy and it took forever to get served. Most of the restaurants are somehow attached to a motel, and there aren't many, so we had to take what we could get.
After breakfast, we boarded a yellow school bus for a trip to an old rocket launching site, now a repurposed into a scientific study center. At this point, I had finally gotten over my fear that polar bears were lurking around every corner. I was fairly confident that most of them had already hightailed it out of town and were more interested in tasty seals than humans for lunch anyway. The few we saw the day before seemed to be the lollygaggers, mostly young males unaware of global warming, who probably figured that they had all the time in the world.
This post is part of a series of posts on our trip to Churchill, Manitoba to see the annual polar bear migration. In this post, we finally get to see some actual bears, and Alexander declares war on his snowsuit.
November 10, 2002
I grew up in Ohio, where winters were cold and snowy. I lived in Chicago for three years, where I thought I'd freeze to death in the two block walk from my dorm room to my law school classes, when the howling winds off Lake Michigan whipped up in a frenzy of ice, wind, and snow. I thought I knew cold.
Despite that, I was not prepared for how cold it would be in Churchill. I can honestly say that this was the coldest cold I'd ever experienced in my life. Both Frank and I are Midwestern refugees who gladly traded in the snow and ice for the temperate climate of California, and hotter than West Hell summers in Austin. Maybe that made us wimps, or maybe it's just too damn cold in Churchill. Probably both.
On our first morning in Churchill, we suited up with layer upon layer of long
underwear, t-shirts, flannel shirts, sweaters, fleece, then polar
jackets, scarves, gloves, and boots. It took 20 minutes to get dressed just to
go thirty yards to breakfast next door at Churchill Motel.
Alexander was content to put on the layers, but drew a firm line in the sand when it came to the one-piece snowsuit. He went on an all-out toddler rampage when the evil contraption brought forth, as though he were being dragged to the dungeon to be put into a modern equivalent of an Iron Maiden. He put up quite a fight, and it took four adults, two cookies, and a promise of something shiny to get him suited up for the day.
After breakfast, we joined our tour group for a helicopter tour that took us over the town and out over the Hudson Bay to look for polar bears. The Bay was sufficiently frozen so most of the bears had moved out onto the ice to hunt for seals. If all else failed over the next few days, we hoped to at least get a glimpse of a few from the air.
We went out to the helicopter landing site, and found out that Alexander was not allowed to go up (nor did he particularly want to), so he and I stayed in the cozy station while Frank goes up with the first group, along with Chris, Ruth, and Ralph. Alex and I drank hot cocoa in the station and watched the helicopters take off and land. He still hated his snowsuit, and stared pensively out the window. His expression is either "Wish I could go on one of those big whirly contraptions" or "I wonder why my parents hate me so much to make me wear this damn snowsuit."
This post is part of a series on a trip we took to Canada in 2002 to see the annual polar bear migration through Churchill.
November 9, 2002
At 9 am on November 9, we arrived at our final destination: Churchill. Churchill is a normally a quiet little town on the shores of the Hudson Bay in Manitoba, with a population just under 1,000 people. Every year in late fall, polar bears migrate through the town and onto the bay, after waking up from hibernation. Every year, dopey tourists like us migrate up to Churchill to try to catch a glimpse of these magnificent bears, with somewhat mixed results.
After three days and two nights on the Via Rail Train, we finally emerged bleary-eyed at our final destination. We had to wrestle Alexander into his snowsuit to deboard the train, and he was not at all not happy about it. It was like trying to dress a baby alligator. He seemed to have the strength of ten toddlers all of a sudden, and used all his might to try to throw the snowsuit off and out of the window of the train.
We brought along enormous bags, all of which we had to try to wrangle off the train, along with the unhappy toddler, and catch up with our group at the train station. It was like walking into a cryogenic deep-freezer when we got off the train, but the day was clear and bright. A North Star School bus waited to take us on the first leg of the tour when we got off the train.
Our extremely perceptive tour guide, John, suggested that they drop off Alexander and me at the playground at the Town Center. The rest of the group went on to an Inuit museum and to see some of the town's sights, including the famous polar bear jail, where bears who stray to close to town are housed until the bay freezes over. Then, they are airlifted out to sea, with a tag and a stern warning not to come back. The townspeople used to shoot the bears who wandered into town, after a few mauling incidents, but given the state of the polar bear population, they opted to try for a peaceful co-existence instead.
This is part of a retrospective series on our trip to see migrating polar bears in Canada in 2002.
November 7-9, 2002
At the Winnipeg Train Station, we hopped on the Via Rail Canada train with our group from John Steel Rail Tours with our regulation one-per-customer carry-on bags. We walked down the long, narrow corridor in search of Deluxe Sleeper Car E. Ruth and Ralph had booked the Regular Sleeper Car, and Chris had a Roomette. We were curious to see the difference. Frank and I had taken an overnight trip from Paris to Florence on our honeymoon, so my expectations for the Deluxe Sleeper Car were pretty low. This was good, because the Canadian VIA Rail met my low expectations.
Our Deluxe Sleeper Car was the size of a walk-in closet and consisted of two bunk beds that folded into a seat in the daytime. The bathroom that was the size of a rather cramped telephone booth. Superman would have a hard time changing in that one, I thought to myself. The bathroom gave a new meaning to the term term “water closet.” The sink folded down over the toilet, which was actually a pretty clever space-saving innovation, since you don’t normally use both at the same time.
We were next door to Ruth and Ralph, whose place looked amazingly similar to ours. The only difference we could discern was that we had a tiny, narrow metal closet by the bed that was about half the width of a high school gym locker. It was big enough to hang a shirt or two, but none of our bags would fit in there. Ruth looked in our room and said, “Hey, we don’t have a locker!”
I replied, “That’s what makes this room de-luxe! We paid extra for that locker! Worth every penny.”
This is part 4 of a series on our vacation to Canada and Minnesota in 2002, before I had a blog. Eventually, we see polar bears. Honest.
November 6-7, 2002
After leaving the Land of 10,000 Mennonites, we drove back to Winnipeg. Frank insisted that we stop at the Canadian Mint, for some unknown reason. I stayed in the car because mints (other than the chocolate kind) just don’t do a thing for me. Frank went in and was the only visitor. He bought an ounce of gold, some coins and a stuffed polar bear for Alexander. He said there was no one inside, and it was “quiet as a tomb.” I started to sense a pattern developing on this vacation. I decided to rename it the "Quiet as a Tomb Tour."
After our brief stop at the Mint, we drove into Winnipeg to find the posh Fairmont Hotel. On the outside, it was a tall, gray, nondescript building, but the inside was nicely furnished and the staff was helpful and friendly. They were not ready for us when we arrived, so we drove to the Forks Shopping Mall, not far from the Hotel, right across from the train station.
I bought a big red fleece jacket that said “CANADA” across the chest, like the wildly popular ones the Canadians wore in the 2002 Winter Olympics. I'm pretty sure now that actual Canadians didn't wear these jackets, but I felt a sort of solidarity with them. Plus, red is my color, so it was as much a fashion statement as political a political one.
There was a small Manitoba Museum outside the mall, so we checked that out as well. It had a stuffed polar bear, a buffalo, and some exhibits on Manitoba agriculture. This was our first polar bear sighting on the trip, albeit a stuffed on.
When we got back to the hotel, they were ready for us, so we checked into our room on the 19th Floor. We were on a Gold Level floor that had a special lounge for tea and evening drinks, along with coffee and pastries in the morning. The floor also had its own concierge desk. The people who worked at the desk took a shine to Alexander immediately and lavished him with attention.
This is Part 3 of a series on our Great Northern Adventure 2002, in which we take a circuitous route to visit some polar bears in Canada.
November 5-6, 2002
After our exciting jaunt into North Dakota, we drove northeast to
Steinbach, Manitoba. Frank’s ancestors were Mennonites, so
Frank has always been interested in Mennonite history and settlements.
There is a large Mennonite population in Manitoba, and most of it
appears to be centered in Steinbach.
As we drove in, Frank noticed the
car dealerships had the names like those of his ancestors, like Friesen
and Penner, which thrilled him to no end. I guess that gave the place an air of familiarity to him,
but I was unimpressed. I suppose I would have felt differently if they
had names like “Choi” or “Kim."
We found our way to the Frantz Motor Inn, which Frank had reserved in
honor of his late Grandmother Tena Franz. “Probably some distant relation,”
The place had a creepy, “Twin Peaks” sort of atmosphere,
with blood red carpet, beat up walls and dim naked lightbulbs swinging
overhead. There was something unsettling about the experience, like we
might see a ghost wearing a polyester leisure suit or possibly see “Crime Scene” or "Biohazard" tape around one of the doors. It may be somewhat telling that I
can only describe these places in terms of old television shows—they
seemed to be stuck in time, and in this case it looked like the place
had not been redecorated for about 30 years. Our room was actually much nicer than the hallway led us to believe it would be.
We ate dinner in the motel’s restaurant, The Brass Lantern. It was
unremarkable except for the fact that the portions were huge and served on what might have been used as a turkey platter instead of a plate. It was
just what we needed, more big bland food. Alexander’s chicken nuggets
were about the size of his 95% percentile toddler head. We retired to our room
and watched the results of the U.S. elections. The Republicans
appeared to be making significant gains in both the House and Senate. We went to sleep depressed.