Polar Bear Safari

This was a one day tour to see polar bears booked through Classic Canadian Tours. We were to fly out from the Northern Caribou terminal at the south end of the Calgary airport on Canadian North airlines.  Our 6:15 am departure was delayed because the airline was swapping planes.  We flew on a 737, not some prop or other little plane like we had originally imagined.  A naturalist Les Stegenga, who has worked at the Calgary zoo and started his career studying polar bears in Churchill, gave us a talk about polar bears and the Churchill location as we waited.

We boarded, then had a minor mechanical issue, de-iced the plane, and finally left at 8:20.  En route we were fed breakfast and listened to more information about bears and the intended itinerary.  Since we were late leaving, we would stay longer. The view as we neared Churchill.

We landed at 11:30, got onto a school bus and headed east from the airport along the coast of Hudson Bay.  Below the school bus with a high powered rifle, which the driver described as a polar bear confidence device.

The view from the school bus looking towards the shore of Hudson Bay.

We arrived at the Tundra Buggy launch just before noon.  There are two companies with these buggies. Our tour had three for the 114 people, about 38 on each buggy.

We headed out about noon. We drove for 30-45 minutes on the tundra. Not sure how far it was but the buggies don’t go very fast and the road is a dirt and ice track. Some of the ride was like a roller coaster going up and down, and very bumpy at times.
Jim, the Tundra Buggy driver.

This is supposed to be the best time and place to view polar bears because they are gathering to go out onto the Arctic ice where they can hunt seals.  The coast near Churchill has a lot of fresh water flowing into the Bay and is very shallow so freezes before other areas of the Bay.  The tour, however, warns you there is no guarantee you will see a bear. As we kept driving with no sightings, we were wondering if we were not going to see any bears when finally we spotted one across one of the many shallow frozen pools of water.

Everyone was very excited and many tried to squeeze onto the balcony at the back of the buggy.

The windows on the buggy slide open as well and those who couldn’t fit outside were taking photos through the open windows.  The previously warm buggy soon got cold as photographers (me included) tried out their telephoto lenses as the bear continued to amble along.

The driver thought we could find a bear closer to the buggy and after a short drive, we saw one hanging around the willows.  The willows looked more like scraggly bushes than trees.

Our driver slowly moved the buggy closer.

Me standing in the back in the freezing wind.  Gusts were forecast at 60 km.  I saw another bear in the far distance.


The bear then decided to lie down and have a snooze.


Since it didn’t seem bothered by us and we were so close, we waited and had lunch–hot soup, sandwiches, pastry and hot chocolate or coffee.  The hot food was appreciated as the buggy was again cold from having the windows open for so long and the door to the back balcony constantly getting opened.  But despite the 30-40 minutes we waited, Snoozy the bear continued to nap.  It got up once, everyone got excited, then it lay back down in a different position.

There was another bear walking around on the other side of the buggy but it never got very close to us before it disappeared from view among the willows.

The driver spotted another bear along the coast line, so we drove there.  The bear was checking out one of the other buggies.  Our driver called the bear Buggy Love because it seemed so interested in the buggies.

The bear moved along the shore line and paused to eat some sea kelp.





My short movie which is shaky because the wind was moving my arms:

Buggy Love bear then came over to investigate our buggy and wandered around and under it. Scott managed to photograph the bear’s ear as it walked underneath the buggy which has a clearance of about 9 feet.

While we were looking at the bear we also spotted, for the second time, a gyrfalcon, the largest falcon species and very rare.  It was chasing snow buntings, black and white birds which were migrating south.  This was my attempt to photograph the birds but I can’t see them in this photo.  They moved quickly, especially since they were being chased by the gyrfalcon.

Meanwhile, Buggy Love bear moved out from under the buggy and eventually wandered off.

Big feet!




We drove on and spotted another bear, although it might have been Buggy Love, again.

The bear eventually wandered onto some ice and lay down using its paw as a pillow.

It was lying quite close to Snoozy the Bear, who we were watching while we ate lunch and who was still napping amongst the willows.

They didn’t seem bothered by each others presence. Our driver was certain they were aware of each other because their sense of smell is so keen they can smell seals from a mile away, so they would easily smell each other when they were this close.

As we were driving back we saw our last bear.  It walked towards us from a distance.  You could really notice how pigeon-toed their walk is.






Looks like this one got punched in the nose.

He walked past the buggy to lie down.






With the excitement over, we headed back as the sun was setting.

We were told there are a lot of ptarmigan amongst the willows but they’re white and no one spotted them. I did see hare tracks in the snow but no Arctic hare.  Another group saw a red fox.


We got back on the school bus and drove into the village of Churchill. The driver estimated there are 700 permanent residents. The commercial area consists of one street mostly filled with gift shops. We went to Northern Images, an Aboriginal, Dene and Inuit artists co-operative.  Scott bought himself a dancing bear soapstone sculpture by Asunaa Kilabuk from Iqaluit. We picked up some small gifts for the girls as well.

Main street Churchill.

The school bus took us back to the airport where we boarded without going through security or getting boarding passes.  We just walked out, up the stairs and into the seats we had when we flew in. We flew out just after 8:00 pm.  Not many lights make up Churchill.  Never saw any aurora borealis, unfortunately.

We were fed a hot dinner on the plane and to make up for the late start, wine was included.  My kind of service!  We were back to Calgary and home before 10 pm.

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