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CHURCHILL HOTEL OR TUNDRA LODGE? POLAR ROVER OR TUNDRA BUGGY?

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Aerial view of Great White Bear Tundra Lodge
Aerial view of Great White Bear Tundra Lodge
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Planning a Churchill, Manitoba polar bear tour requires several decisions. We agonized over which trip to take.

Polar bear-viewing tours range in length, cost and what's included (flights or rail travel from Winnipeg, meals in Winnipeg, helicopter flights and dog-sledding), in addition to watching polar bears. The biggest decision was whether we should stay at a Churchill hotel or tundra lodge.

Places to stay

There are several bed & breakfasts, inns, lodges and hotels in Churchill. If you stay in a hotel in town, you have a private washroom, more spacious lodgings and the daily opportunity to eat in Churchill restaurants, visit attractions and shop in local stores.

Polar bear inspects tundra vehicle
Polar bear inspects tundra vehicle
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

On the downside, you have to travel 15 miles (24 kilometers), by bus to and from the parking spot for bear-viewing vehicles.

Polar bear habitat

Tundra lodges (Great White Bear Tundra Lodge and Tundra Buggy Lodge) are located in polar bear territory. These towable bunkhouses on wheels consist of a series of sleeping cars linked together with a lounge car, dining car, utility and staff cars, as well as outdoor observation decks.

All have over-sized wheels, so inquisitive bears have difficulty reaching windows and viewing platforms. The advantage is that you can look for bears from your bed and dining table windows at dawn and dusk when they are more active (before and after day-tours begin).

The disadvantage is that you sleep in train-style berths, share washrooms and can only safely leave the lodge in vehicles. The Tundra Buggy Lodge has upper and lower berths, separated by curtains. Great White Bear Tundra Lodge has single-bed berths, separated by walls.

View northern lights

If you stay at a Churchill hotel, your polar bear tour guide will wake you up, on request, to see northern lights. He will bring you to a safe place where you can photograph the aurora borealis.

If you're staying at a tundra lodge, you can watch the northern lights from the windows or outdoor decks. For aurora borealis photography, the movement of tundra lodge cars makes tripod use impossible. Northern lights excursions from hotels offer stable ground for long time exposures.

Viewing polar bears from Polar Rover
Viewing polar bears from Polar Rover
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Tundra vehicles

You also have to decide between Tundra Buggies and Polar Rovers. Although both all-terrain vehicles have bus-like carriages and shoulder-height wheels, there are some important differences.

Unlike four-wheel-drive Tundra Buggies, all custom-built Polar Rovers have flush toilets, warm fabric-covered seats, folding airplane-style tables and six-wheel drive, which gives drivers more manoeuvrability in snow drifts and on ice patches. Both are heated with propane stoves.

How fast do tundra vehicles travel? The average speed of Polar Rovers is eight to 10 miles per hour (13 to 16 kilometers per hour). Even at these speeds, they jiggle and shake, rattle and bump as their 700-pound (318-kilogram) wheels roll over rocks, ice, snow, muskeg, gravel and mud.

Taking photos of polar bears from Polar Rover windows
Taking photos of polar bears from Polar Rover windows
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Tour routes

Whichever company you choose, ensure that they have permits to travel on designated trails at least as far as Gordon Point in the Cape Churchill Wildlife Management Area, where many bears congregate. (One tour operator, Frontiers North, brings visitors into Wapusk National Park, located east of the wildlife management area.)

We met one group of visitors who took a less-expensive tour with a company that only had a permit to go to Halfway Point. They saw only "specks on the horizon," while we saw bears up-close, beyond Halfway Point.

Our decision? We booked a six-day hotel-based trip at the Aurora Inn with Churchill Nature Tours, which uses Polar Rovers that they rent from Great White Bear Tours. We weren't disappointed.

Photographer with polar bear hat
Photographer with polar bear hat
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Rules for polar bear-viewing

Safety was a priority with our Churchill Nature Tours guide, Steve Clubb. As soon as our group boarded the Polar Rover, he laid down the rules.

He pointed to the windows, which unlatch and roll down half-way. "Make sure that camera straps and scarves don't hang out the windows so bears can't pull on them."

Because the vehicle had 40 seats we each had our own window, a benefit when photographing bears. The spare seat also allowed us space for jackets and sweaters, which we peeled off as the vehicle warmed up.

"While the vehicle is bouncing over the tundra, stay seated and don't use the washroom or stand on the back observation deck," he said. "The driver will stop on request."

Although he didn't prohibit the white fuzzy polar bear hat with tiny ears and black felt eyes that one passenger wore, he did ban food, drinks and water on the back deck. We soon learned that we didn't need to bait the bears. Their curiosity alone was enough to attract them to our tundra vehicle.

Polar bear watches passengers in tundra vehicle
Polar bear watches passengers in tundra vehicle
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Observation deck

The world's largest land carnivores loved viewing us on the back decks of Tundra Buggies and Polar Rovers as much as we loved photographing the polar bears from the decks. Some stood on their hind legs and peered over the 12-foot-high (3.7-meter-high) barrier protecting us from their massive teeth.

Other bears sat on their haunches and looked up at us through the grated floor. "Polar bears are totally controlled by their noses," explained Steve Clubb.

Polar bear's sense of smell

Polar bear licks boot through floor grate
Polar bear licks boot through floor grate
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

"Their sight and hearing are as good as ours, but they can detect scents from 16 miles (26 kilometers) away." We watched with fascination as the Arctic predator swerved his directional nose from side-to-side, inhaling our scents like a vacuum cleaner.

One bear appeared to have a foot fetish. After sniffing our feet through the metal grating, he stood up and licked our boots with his purplish-black tongue.

Curious about an approaching Tundra Buggy, the polar bear trudged off to investigate it, leaving us all behind, grinning and comparing his digital images on our cameras, camcorders and smartphones.

"That got everyone's heart racing, didn't it?" quipped Steve. "No one yawning and falling asleep after lunch now!"

Lunch in our tundra vehicle that day consisted of bowls of hearty minestrone soup, assorted sandwiches and mouth-watering apple fritters. Steve and Ward Brown, our driver, served the lunch only after ensuring that all windows were closed to prevent aromas from attracting polar bears.

Polar bear cam on Tundra Buggy
Polar bear cam on Tundra Buggy
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Polar bear cam

If you are planning a polar bear trip to Churchill, but can't wait for a Polar Rover or Tundra Buggy tour, check out the polar bear cam on the Internet.

During October and November days, the Tundra Buggy web cam travels through the Cape Churchill Wildlife Management Area, taking video images of polar bears.

One camera is mounted on the mast. The other is located near the driver's seat.

Watching polar bears in the wild will undoubtedly motivate you to visit Churchill to take your own photos of the great white bears.


TRAVEL INFORMATION

Churchill Nature Tours

Travel Manitoba