Great Ice Bear Adventure 2016

Walking with Polar Bears!

Located on the western shore of Hudson Bay in Canada, sits the town of Churchill… the town is named after John Churchill, the 1st Duke of Marlborough, an ancestor of Winston Churchill, in fact John’s father was also a Sir Winston Churchill. But it’s not history that brings us here, it is because this is the Polar Bear Capital of the World!

 

Back in 2006 we spent two days here going out on two Tundra Buggy tours. Our visit to Canada was timed to catch the end of the salmon runs on the western coast of the country (grizzly bear viewing), which meant we were in Churchill during mid-October. Not considered the optimum time of year, but we did manage to see 3 polar bears. It has taken us ten years to get around to returning, this time we would aim to hit the middle of the ‘best’ time to view the bears and hopefully the number and quality of views would be much better!

 

We arranged this trip direct with Churchill Wild, a Canadian family owned and operated adventure tourism company. This new adventure not only included a day out on a Tundra Buggy but also walking with Polar Bears!

 

Where’s Churchill? It’s in Manitoba, Canada, see the map below…

Brief Overview of the Great Ice Bear Adventure

Our adventure started in Winnipeg (after a hop & skip from London & Toronto (flights arranged by us)).

 

The Churchill Wild Great Ice Bear Adventure tour started with a group dinner in the Grand Winnipeg Airport Hotel (where we spent our first couple of nights in Manitoba).

 

The next morning we transferred by air to Churchill, where we were then taken by fixed-wing aircraft in two groups to Dymond Lake Lodge and saw our first polar bear from the gravel runway.

 

The first tundra walk was after lunch and for the next two days we ate, walked, ate, walked, ate, slept and repeat. The two full days at the lodge were followed by a transfer back to Churchill for an afternoon free to explore the town.

 

The tour finished with a day out on a Tundra Buggy before our flight back to Winnipeg.

 

The next day we left Winnipeg and spent a couple of nights in Toronto before our return back to the UK.

Weather

Churchill has a subarctic climate with cool summers and no dry season. The area around Churchill has tundra, seas, shrub land, fresh water lakes & rivers. During late October and November the temperatures rapidly fall with average daily highs decreasing from 3C to -14C, exceeding 2C or dropping below -23C only one day in ten. The coolest hours of the day are from 4am to 10am with the coldest at 8am and the warmest at 3pm. The day has gained half its ‘warmth’ by 11am and lost it again by 7pm.

 

To give you an idea of the length of day light at this time of year, on November 6, our first full day at Dymond Lake Lodge, the sun rose at 7:45am and set at 4:15pm (note we didn't slip the hour back until the day we left the lodge so Dymond Lake Lodge time sunrise was 8:45am and set at 5:15pm during our stay).

 

Cloud cover, we hoped we might see the Northern Lights during our visit, on average the sky is clear or mostly clear only 13% of the time, partly cloudy 10% of the time and mostly cloudy or overcast 76% of the time. We were fortunate to have one clear night during our stay and we had a minor display of the lights.

 

There is an 82% chance that precipitation will happen at some time during the day. When it does occur it will likely be light snow (75% of days have light snow and 16% moderate snow). That snow is most likely to appear around midnight and least likely around 1pm.

 

The wind speed is usually a moderate breeze (6m/s) and is rarely outside of a light breeze to a strong breeze and doesn’t vary much during the day.

 

Overall we were incredibly lucky with the weather that we had, the group before our arrival had to endure much colder temperatures and some blizzard like conditions. We had great lighting during our first & second day at the lodge and on our day out on the Tundra Buggy. The temperatures were mild for the time of year and raised above freezing during the day, which caused some of the snow to melt and then re-freeze again over night on the trails.

Camera Equipment

With only 20lbs (9kg) of hand luggage allowance each (which is strictly enforced) it can be tough deciding what can and cannot be taken with you! Space on the two flights is limited too, so if you want to keep your hand luggage with you, you might want to take your gear in two smaller bags rather than one larger bag.

 

We left our trolley bags behind and stored them at the airport hotel in Winnipeg. Instead we used our smaller camera bags (that we take out in the field) along with cables & spare batteries. In a small ruck sack we carried our valuables, laptop & chargers. Any items like lens wipes, dust blowers and filters went into our checked luggage to help keep the weight down. Basically, only essential items and electronics were kept with us.

 

Even with these restrictions we manged to take both our 7D MII’s & their 100-400mm MII lenses (including Alan’s 1.4x extender III), the 7D MI & its 15-85mm lens (for landscape shots).

 

We transported our Manfrotto 190XPROB tripod & monopod in our checked luggage.

 

Taking your camera & lens into the warmth straight from the cold will cause condensation to form on the lens and possibly inside the camera. If you then take the camera straight back outside the condensation may freeze and damage your equipment. Sealing your equipment inside a Ziploc bag before you take it from the cold into the warmth of the building will stop this from happening. During the day leave your equipment outside (don’t forget to put your lens cap on to stop any blowing ice from landing on the lens and remove the battery to stop it from draining prematurely). At the end of the day (before going inside) remove the batteries so you can start charging them and seal your camera equipment into your Ziploc bag along with some of the cold air. Then place in your room while you have pre-dinner drinks and dinner… by the time you get back to your room the equipment should have reached room temperature and then can come back out of the bag. If the Northern Lights put on a show during the night, don’t forget to reseal your cameras up before you go back into the warmth again!

Pre-tour Preparation

As mentioned in the camera equipment section above, we did some careful planning for our hand luggage arrangements. The weight restrictions for checked luggage wasn’t as much of a problem at 50lbs (22kg). We used 90L soft holdalls to ensure we met the 55inch total size restriction, again leaving our usual trolley luggage and Winnipeg & Toronto clothes behind at the Winnipeg airport hotel.

 

To help maximise what we could squish into our holdalls we decided to go with ones without wheels, it's surprising how much weight they take up. We only had to take our luggage from the hotel to check-in (a supply of trolleys/luggage carts are kept at the hotel) and other short distances like collecting it at the end of the flight, so the lack of wheels wasn’t a problem.

 

Churchill Wild recommend the following items – we have put comments against each item as to whether we took the items and whether we found them useful or wished we had taken them!

 

Binoculars – decided not to take, we both have 100-400mm lenses on our cameras so used them rather than have to carry another item on tundra walks (we didn't miss them)

 

Day pack for hiking – yes, took it with us on hikes just in case we needed to remove any layers.

 

Indoor shoes or slippers – we took a spare pair of shoes, but didn't use them, we walked around in our socks.

 

Sunscreen/lip balm – yes, only used the lip balm, but suncreen may have helped reduce the redness from the cool wind.

 

Sunglasses – yes, useful to reduce glare from the snow.

 

Thick mitts – yes, essential item!

 

Knit or fleece winter hat – yes, essential item!

 

Warm sweater or heavy fleece – yes, we took a thin fleece & medium fleece so we could adjust our layers.

 

Warm hiking socks – yes, we also wore liner socks.

 

Long underwear/thermals – yes, we wore thermal leggings and thermal longsleeved tops under our other layers.

 

Insulated snow pants – as well as our thermal leggings we wore fleeced lined trousers/pants and our waterproof leggings, we were very fortunate the weather was mild and our layered approach was perfect, however, we would suggest you check the weather forecast the night of your welcome dinner. If the forecast shows temperatures much colder than we experienced and you don't have good insulated snow pants or boots consider renting gear from Churchill Wild, there is nothing worse than being cold and once it gets into your bones you will be miserable. If you find you are too warm you can always take off layers.

 

Insulated winter boots – yes, but not to the standard of the ones you can rent from Chruchill Wild. As mentioned above, with our two layers of socks and toe warmers our feet were never cold, but check the forecast, cold feet are a nightmare and if you are unsure whether your gear is up to the job ask at the welcome dinner for advice.

 

Warm parka – yes, we also took our rain jackets to go over the top of our parkas but never needed the rain jackets.

 

Ziploc bags for camera gear – yes, Churchill Wild will provide bin liner sacks/bags but Ziploc bags work much better. We used 2 gallon Ziploc bags and our cameras with lenses attached fitted inside and sealed nicely (see further info on this in the camera equipment section above).

 

Balaclava – no, we wore thermal buffs and pulled them up over our cheeks

 

Ski googles – no, we used our sun glasses

 

Hand/foot warmers - yes, essential to give a boost to your gloves when you take your hands out of them to take photos ad keep your toes warm while walking on the ice.

 

We didn't take our Yaktrax and so wish we had! The snow melt and refreeze created slippy conditions, so if you have space, take yours with you just in case!

Great Ice Bear Adventure Tour Review

The Great Ice Bear adventure was a 7 day tour which included 6 nights of accommodation, 1 night in Winnipeg, 3 nights at Dymond Lake Lodge, 1 night in Churchill and 1 further night in Winnipeg.

 

There were 14 guests on the tour all couples (there should have been 16 on the tour but one couple cancelled last minute). Age range from late 20s to mid-70s.

 

Churchill Wild have number of permanent & seasonal employees and local companies that assist with the various stages of the tour. Starting with Doreen Booth who did a wonderful job of answering per-tour questions and hosting the welcome dinner on the first day of the tour. Doreen ensured we all checked in successfully for the flight from Winnipeg to Churchill and once at Churchill we were met by Koral who took care of us along with Rose for our transfers to the lodge.

 

The lead guide for our stay at the lodge was Terry Elliot assisted by Josh. Terry appeared to have a great understanding of the bears and of reading their moods. His confidence with the bears gave us confidence in him and we never felt the bears were put under any stress by our presence. A photographer himself, he was willing to give tips on camera settings (note while out on walks with the bears the guides did not take cameras with them, their role of monitoring ours and the bears’ behaviours were their first and main priorities).

 

The Grand Hotel at Winnipeg Airport was used for the first & last night of the tour, rooms were nicely sized giving plenty of room for all our gear. Dymond Lake Lodge exceeded our expectations, the rooms were pleasantly decorated (by no means luxurious), but had everything we needed with private facilities, nice hot shower, plenty of power sockets, good storage space for gear and a hairdryer (yay!) There was also a communal lounge (more information and photos can be found in the trip report). The night in Churchill had the most basic accommodation (we stayed at the Polar Inn), although not exactly modern it was still fine.

 

The welcome dinner at the Winnipeg hotel was buffet style and was very nice. The food at Dymond Lake Lodge was excellent… actually too good and we both put weight on during our stay!! We had four meals in Churchill, one dinner & one breakfast was included in the price of the tour.

 

Wildlife viewing was done on foot during our time at Dymond Lake Lodge and by Tundra Buggy from Churchill. Walking with polar bears sounds like it’s a dangerous activity and your guides having rifles may make you think there is a serious risk that you being there may result in a bear being shot… seriously, this is the last thing the guides want to do and the chances of this happening are pretty remote. Polar bears are the most inquisitive bears we have ever encountered, they will actually walk towards you rather than run away. That doesn’t mean they will attack you, this is where listening to your guide is really important and staying together as a group is essential. We had several close encounters with the bears and Terry would interpret the bear’s body language and use low impact techniques to discourage the bears from getting too close to us. These included talking to the bear, stamping his foot and on a couple of occasions throwing a small stone at them – these worked every time. Should the bear have continued walking towards us, Terry & Josh carried a noise pistols to shock the bear and as an absolute last resort they had a riffle… these were never used. We never pursued the bears, when walking on the tundra we kept to trails and on the ice we walked towards the bears but stopped and checked the bear’s reactions before moving any closer. When a bear would walk towards us the guides would put themselves between the group and the bear, this is where taking responsibility for yours and your group’s behaviour can help keep Churchill Wild’s safety record so perfect! Be aware that your guides’ main focus is on the bear, you can help by not giving them anything else to worry about stay together as a group do not keep moving to the edge of the group to get a better photo! Do not leave gaps between the group, if you spot a member of the group straying from the rest of the group calmly ask them to come back. Do not kneel or lie down to take photos unless you have the permission of one of the guides. If you see someone else doing this speak to the guide and then, assuming they have permission, wait your turn. Everyone lying on the ground like a load of seals is not the best idea around polar bears!

 

We were fortunate to have polar bears around the lodge for the majority of our time there, in fact we became quite blasé about their presence surprisingly quickly, even by our first lunch we were quite happy to eat without staring out the window at the bears! The lodge is surrounded by a fence, but you still need to be conscious of their presence and be careful not to stick parts of you outside the fence! We had several occasions where we were photographing bears through the fence and they would approach us coming right up to the fence. Cameras should not be stuck out through the fence, the bears can move quickly and should your camera get caught on the fence the bear could make a grab for it. Churchill Wild’s advice is to step back from the fence and maintain at least a metre (a few feet) gap between you and the fence.

 

Throughout our stay at Dymond Lake Lodge we felt safe, very conscious of the risks, but safe as long as we followed the advice of our guides. We never felt the bears were pressured or stressed by our presence, in fact they were incredibly relaxed carrying on with their normal activities of eating berries & seaweed, play fighting and sleeping.

 

Having a free afternoon in Churchill gave us an opportunity to learn more about the people of the area and experience ‘town life’ too and finishing with a Tundra Buggy trip gave us the opportunity to see more bears (for those that like to count bears we saw at least 14 different bears around the lodge & at least 20 different bears on the Tundra Buggy).

 

Churchill Wild’s Great Ice Bear Adventure and walking with polar bears has been one of our most favourite wildlife experiences ever, it more than lived up to our expectations and some. 

Trip Report

Part 1

Days 1 to 4

UK to Winnipeg via Toronto and exploring Winnipeg.

Part 2

Days 4 to 9

The Great Ice Bear Adventure!

Part 3

Days 10 to 13

Winnipeg to Toronto, exploring Toronto and back to the UK.

Comments or Questions?

If you have any questions about our polar bear adventure or just want to say hi, please visit our contact page... please remember we are not a travel agent, we can only give you information on adventures that we have done ourselves :)

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