A polar bear is an awesome creature. Mythological, philosophical, artful, mystical. Sources disagree on their numbers but it is safe to say that polar bears are rare. Giants of the ice and tundra. And I saw them. Last November, I signed up for Churchill Polar Bear Tours. Based in far, far away Churchill, Manitoba, Canada, this is the jumping off point for mid-Canada’s polar bear population. They walk across the tiny town of Churchill and wait as the Hudson Bay freezes over. Then they lumber across, in search of seals.
I started my tour in Winnipeg, and then went on to polar bear country in Churchill. The first stop in Winnipeg was the memorable Mariaggi’s Theme Suite Hotel & Spa. Here the rooms treat guests to an array of experiences from around the world. Rooms have themes including Japanese, African, and my suite, the India-themed room complete with a waterfall hot tub and a pool table. It’s like visiting two places at the same time! Just outside the hotel is the Winnipeg Free Press News Café, where diners can watch journalists at work while enjoying soup and a sandwich. Owned by the local newspaper, reporters office here and diners can talk to them or just do some expected eavesdropping while the reporters work. Next we had a chance to explore the historic Exchange District.
Established during the turn-of-the-century, this area was once the hub of North America. The Chicago-style buildings offer great shopping, dining and cultural opportunities. Make this a leisure day so you can have time to take in as much as possible. The Celebrations Dinner Theatre was a definite favorite. We enjoyed a three-course meal while watching “The Big Boom Theory,” a spoof on the popular “Big Bang Theory.” What a treat! And no tour of Winnipeg would be complete without a stop at our next destination. The Forks, boasted to be one of Winnipeg’s most beloved places, sits at the junction of the Assiniboine and Red rivers. Early Aboriginal peoples traded at The Forks, followed by European traders, buffalo hunters, Scottish settlers, riverboat workers, railway workers, and tens of thousands of immigrants, over a span of 6,000 years. Today, The Forks is Winnipeg’s number one tourist destination, with more than 4 million visitors each year. All along the way are parks, promenades, bicycle paths, urban lofts, residential areas, art studios, and dining, dining, dining! We got a sneak peek of the impressive Museum of Human Rights, set to open next year in The Forks. This $351 million museum alone will surely captivate guests for hours. The “idea” museum’s goal is “to bring people together to engage in discussion and commit to create a world where everyone is respected.” You might want to set a whole day aside to eat and enjoy this museum while visiting The Forks. And be sure not to miss the Winnipeg Art Gallery while you’re here. It is home to the world’s largest collection of Inuit Art.
Winnipeg’s French District is home to the St. Boniface Basilica. We had the privilege of taking in the beauty of this cathedral and its grounds. It is the principal church in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Saint Boniface and sits in the center of the city. The stained glass is spectacular. While in the city’s French Quarter, don’t miss the authentic French cuisine at Chez Sophie. Charming and delicious! Manitoba is home to Canada’s second largest French-speaking population, and you can take in all the sights, sounds and flavors right here in the French District. Wear comfortable shoes and make it a day!
Culturally diverse, Winnipeg is home to more than 90 ethnicities. They have the third largest Ukrainian-origin population, after the Ukraine itself and Russia. Places worth a visit: Hermanos Restaurant and Wine Bar – fun, lively and an amazing menu. Reservations, please! If at all possible, make plans to have Sunday brunch at the Fort Garry Hotel. The brunch has won awards and the fresh, bountiful and tasty choices are served in a white-linen, Champagne popping, elegant and historic dining room. And before you go, do consider a tour of the Manitoba Legislative Building - not the usual tour. Local author and historian, Dr. Frank Albo, guides guests through a most unusual mystery of one of Canada’s most unique buildings. Albo’s tour, as so aptly put on his website, “reveals a trail of occult clues concealed in the building’s architecture including: hidden hieroglyphic inscriptions, numerological codes, and Freemasonic symbols so intelligently masked they have escaped historians and visitors for nearly a hundred years.” I shuttled to the Hilton Airport Suites for the beginning of the polar bear tour. At dinner that night, we met the other 20 guests. Quite an international array of folks. We met each other and got a great orientation.
The next morning we were off! Churchill Yippee! After arriving in Churchill from Winnipeg, about a two-hour flight, we found ourselves boarding an old, yellow school bus for the five-mile ride into town. It was cold, very cold, although sunny. A change of plans! Because a clear day is not a given in this area in November, and it was clear, we immediately went for a helicopter tour. Originally scheduled for later in the week, this proved to be a great call as we never again really had such blue skies. Up we went over the tundra. Down below, in a 45-minute period, we saw several dozen bears. Some were slowly walking along, others scampering – all heading toward the edge of the Hudson Bay. Some bears were in pairs but most were alone. An amazing way to start the tour. Soon we checked in to the clean and practical Aurora Inn. Dinner, as all our meals, was at Gypsy’s Bakery and Restaurant. Clean, friendly, tasty meals, hot coffee and smiling faces are on the menu here. The next day we were given some facts and the basic drill about polar bear safety. Weighing up to 1,300 pounds (females about half the size of males), the polar bear is the largest land carnivore in the world. And Churchill has one of the largest single populations in the world, about 900-1,000. Churchill lies near the southern limit at which polar bears are able to live year-round. The ice throughout Hudson Bay melts completely by the end of July or early August and doesn’t refreeze until early November. This means that all bears must go ashore for about three to four months. During this time, the bears are not actively hunting and must survive on fat reserves built up in the winter. And we were off to see the bears as they made their way back across the now-frozen Hudson Bay to hunt seals!
We layered our clothing (brrrr!), boarded our tundra vehicles, and got our first glimpse of the bears from this vantage point. Two curious males walked the length of our tundra vehicles during an early stop. One appeared to want to join the other and, squatting down to show submission, met up with his friend. A short time later, we saw another bear sleeping on the ice! Hard to imagine as we sipped cocoa in the frigid temperatures. Traveling along at only about 12 mph, I wished I had been told to bring binoculars. We crossed into Nunavut and it was so cold that it hurt. We spent all day on the tundra, slowly moving from place to place – looking for bears. We had lunch aboard and there is plenty of coffee and hot cocoa to keep you warm, although it is never really warm. The old-school windows slide down in order to take photos so there goes any real warmth. But still – this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The cold really didn’t matter. Two days were spent on the tundra with one day in the middle going to shopping, dog sledding, and, usually, the helicopter ride. Did you know that Churchill is one of the best places in the world to see Northern Lights? Mother Nature treated us to an absolutely breathtaking display. With a forecast of a crystal clear night, we rode the bus to the outskirts of town. Pure black skies began filling with color. Wispy, smoky pinks, blues and greens took larger shape. For more than an hour, we were treated to a fantastic overhead show. The lights never stop moving. Absolutely one of the best things I’ve ever done. Fantastic.
The next day we took a dog sled ride with Churchill resident, David Daley, whose job is airplane mechanic, but whose hobby is dogs. He needed a way to help pay for their food, and the idea was born … Wapusk Adventures. He and his wife have four children and she runs the family’s store in town. We took a short ride to the camp, where we could hear the dogs happily barking hellos even before we could see them. We all piled into a nice cabin with a welcoming fire where David entertained us with his colorful stories until we boarded the sled and were off for a ride. Again, it was freezing cold. You will be frozen. One mile is plenty to have an enjoyable adventure. Back inside the cabin, hovering over the fire and gulping coffee, Daley presented us with certificates and cookies. All too soon it was time to go. Could it really have gone so quickly? All in all, I saw about 30 different bears. Several of them were close – poking around our tundra bus – others farther away, tucked into a ball in a snow drift or far below the helicopter. These creatures, said to be the most photographed animal in the world, are appealing and appear cuddly and cute, but they do not fear humans and are fiercely strong. They live 25-30 years but due to a loss of habitat (loss of ice attributed to global warming), the polar bear is designated as “threatened’ by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. With little more than 25,000 left in the world, traveling to the far north and surviving the cold extremes is something I highly recommend.