Polar Bears – November 2021

This is the the Empty Nest Birder’s wife writing on his blog.  It’s been two years since the last post, so he asked me to write about a recent trip to Canada. 

When Don and Adam returned from their trip to Cuba in January, 2020, none of us had any idea that would be the end of our travels for such a long time.  They encouraged Clarissa and me to plan a trip together.  We jumped at the opportunity to go see polar bears and made arrangements to go to Canada in early November, 2020.  Well, that trip was cancelled due to Covid. 

Undaunted by circumstances, we signed up to go in November, 2021, after Canada opened its border.  To enter Canada, we had to provide proof of vaccination and a negative PCR test within 72 hours of entering the country.  Masks were required in all indoor public places, and vaccination cards were required in all places where food and/or drink were served.  We felt very safe and comfortable there. We left on November 3, a day before our tour was to begin.  The flights were on time, so we had the next day to explore Winnipeg, the capital of Manitoba.  We walked around the Legislative Building, but entry was not permissible for visitors.     

From there we walked to the Art Museum.  It’s impressive inside and outside. 

The Forks Historical area is the heart of the city at the intersection of the Red and Assiniboine  Rivers, with warehouses converted to shops and restaurants, plus ample green space dedicated to festivals, concerts, and exhibits.  It was a fun place to shop, eat, and people-watch. 

We ran out of time to see the Human Rights Museum, but the outside was unique.

In the evening we had a pleasant dinner and orientation.  We met the people with whom we would spend the next week.  Our initial sense was that these 14 people who would be joining us would be a good fit.  We were not disappointed and enjoyed the company of our fellow trip-mates.  I suppose there’s some natural selection since not everyone is interested in such a trip.  The U.S., Canada, France, and Switzerland were represented.

The next morning, November 5, we all flew to Churchill, on Hudson Bay, in northern Manitoba.  Churchill is known as the “Polar Bear Capital of the World”.  The traditional polar bear season encompasses the months of October and November as the temperatures drop and cold air blows.  During this time, the polar bears congregate on the coast in large numbers while waiting for Hudson Bay to freeze.  This allows them earlier passage onto the Bay where they will have a key advantage to feast on seals, their primary food source, until the spring.

We were then to fly on to Dymond Lake Lodge farther north along the Bay.  But the weather made it impossible to fly in the small plane. 

It was a real nightmare for our tour operators, Churchill Wild.  They had to scramble to find something for us to do for the rest of the day, as well as find restaurant space and overnight housing for all of us when everything was already booked. Churchill is a small town of about 900 residents and limited hotel space. We were hosted at the home of someone’s aunt, a 2-room B&B, etc. We had nice accommodations, plenty of food, and a great afternoon in the beautiful hoarfrost. They rounded up a tour bus and asked a retired employee to drive us around looking for wildlife.  Not only did we see our first polar bears, but we saw a very beautiful red fox.  It was the only one we ever saw.  

The next morning, November 6, we were off to the lodge. It was exciting to finally be on our way, and the flight in the small plane was perfect for viewing the area.

The lodge was all enclosed in fencing so we were safe walking around.  There were two buildings, each with 4 double bedrooms, a common area with seating and a fireplace, large windows for viewing, and an observation deck up above.  Between the buildings was the main lodge for dining.   

We met our three guides who went over the safety guidelines for our hikes across the tundra to view wildlife up close and personal in their natural habitat.  I had been taking my daily walk for the past several months in preparation for the trip.  I assumed I would be the oldest one of the group, but I was determined to not be the slowest. As we walked around the outside of the lodge fence, we saw our first polar bears.  A large older bear was lying down while a younger one was trying to get up the courage to come closer.  He would come a little closer, but then decided it might not be a good idea, and returned to the frozen lake.  We all watched in awe of the beautiful creatures. 

These animals are huge.  Male polar bears can grow to more than 1,300 lbs and stand 10 feet tall.  But despite their massive size, these bears can move with surprising speed. It was time for lunch, so we went back inside the fencing.  Who do you suppose was there outside the fence waiting for us?  Scarbrow.  The people at the lodge gave him that name due to the big scar on his eyebrow.  Evidently he had been in a fight with another polar bear at some time in the past.

After lunch we went back out for our first big hike.  We were officially in Nunavut, standing within the high tide mark.  This is only possible during low tide since Nunavut is the bay.   Nunavut is a massive, sparsely populated territory of northern Canada, forming most of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.  Its islands have expanses of tundra, craggy mountains and remote villages, accessible only by plane or boat.  It was separated officially from the Northwest Territories in 1999.

We saw a snowy owl a long distance away from us.  It was the only one we saw on the trip. 

We saw bears 

and their big tracks in the snow. 

Back to the lodge for social hour and an interesting presentation by one of the guides.  Dinner and off to bed. Everything at the lodge was done to make our trip comfortable and memorable, even the pancakes for the breakfast on November 7. 

This morning we were surrounded by a coating of fresh snow, more than was usual for the area.

We saw a couple polar bears.  We spied this one who was spying on us. 

When we returned for lunch, this one walked all the way across the lake to pay us a visit. 

And then there was the polar bear who is missing a foot.

Evergreens have no branches on one side due to the high winds.   

A polar bear overlooking Dymond Lake.

Another full day of watching the polar bears.  Tonight there’s a quiz over the information the guides gave us last night.  Clarissa was the only one who got a perfect score.

There are always 3 guides.  Two look ahead for bears while one looks back so as to not be surprised from behind. 

It’s a good thing because the one missing a foot showed up on our morning outing on November 8.  He was not backing down.  Two of the guides hollered at him, threw rocks near him, and finally had to shoot off a screamer to scare him.  I wouldn’t say he was exactly scared, but he slowly turned around and walked away.  It was pretty tense for a while, but our guides handled the situation well.

And now it’s time to leave the lodge and our guides and fly back to Churchill.  What a great experience.  

We had some free time before dinner.  We visited the Polar Bear International house and found a little souvenir shop near our hotel.

Today, November 9, we’re in for a different experience.  We’re treated to a safari in a Tundra Buggy. 

The polar bears are quite curious and are not afraid to come close to the vehicle. 

We saw several polar bears throughout the day, but the highlight was watching them spar.  

This poor little guy was born in the spring and lost his mother.  He will likely not survive unless he is adopted by another mother to show him how to go out on the ice for the winter to hunt and eat.   

And we finally got a closer look at some ptarmigan.  We had seen them before, but a long way off in the distance.  They certainly blend in with the background.

We flew back to Winnipeg for a late dinner at our hotel conveniently located right across the street from the airport.  The group chose to eat together one last time to share stories and email addresses. 

What an amazing experience!  And it was extra special sharing it with Clarissa.