Churchill is a tiny town with a population of roughly 900-1000 polar bears and roughly the same amount of people. On any given day there could be more bears then people in the town. Churchill sits on the Hudson Bay, just below the Arctic Circle. Because of its location it attracts polar bears waiting for the ice-up to happen. These bears really heavily on the freezing ice so they can make their way out and start hunting after hibernating. Sometimes bears are found wandering through town or in peoples backyards. Interestingly enough, the residents of Churchill leave their cars unlocked so that pedestrians can lock themselves in if they find themselves in the vicinity of a polar bear.
There are two ways to get to Churchill, either by train or by plane. The Via Rail Canada train leaves from Winnipeg and takes approximately 48 hours to reach Churchill. There are two plane carriers, Calm Air and Kivalliq Air, both of which have direct flights into Churchill, also leaving from Winnipeg. The plane ride takes about an hour and a half.
Polar Bear Spotting... "Look for the Frito"
I remember waking up my first day in Churchill just hoping that I would see a polar bear sometime during my three days on the rover. We made the drive out of town to the rover station, a name I adopted, since this is where the rovers are left overnight. We quickly boarded the rover, grabbed a seat and headed out onto the Tundra. We started down a path and only a few minutes after leaving the station we were driving through a couple feet of water. Not but a couple minutes later, there she was; our first polar bear! She was tucked into some pushes with her nose covered trying to stay warm in the gusting winds. I was so pumped!
I had a fantastic guide on this trip and he certainly made a huge difference. I learned tons of information about the Tundra, bear behavior, spotting and tracking and research. I would say the most surprising thing was actually the color of the bears. When I got to Churchill I expected to see some very fluffy and very white polar bears. However, I quickly learned I needed to be looking for “Frito” colored snow blobs, a very technical description my guide came up with. They are a little dirty after spending so much time on land.
At the culmination of my trip I had seen roughly thirty bears, including adult males and females, cubs and juveniles. I also had an opportunity to see some other arctic creatures including hares and the arctic fox.
Things to Do
1. You absolutely MUST go to Gypsy’s Bakery and Restaurant. Just make sure you bring an appetite and leave some room for dessert. This place is family owned and operated and is a local stop (so you know its good). I had my first Nanaimo bar here, which I definitely recommend you try.
2. If you have an opportunity, I recommend you head down to the town complex and see if you can get onto the ice to try your hand at curling. It can be tricky to find this tucked away ice gem but it’s totally worth it!
3. Head out to the Inukshuk and take a photo. The inukshuk is used for navigation, indicating trekking routes and marking special places. If you are lucky you may even see an arctic fox that lives in the area. If your super lucky you might see a sun dog, which is a halo made up of ice crystals. They are a little difficult to photograph but absolutely magnificent!
4. Stop by the Eskimo Museum that houses carvings, kayaks, a stuffed polar bear, arrowheads and a little gift shop with some interesting books. This museum is only one room but it took over an hour to explore everything.
5. Drive by Polar Bear Jail. You cannot go inside but you can see the building, which is an old aircraft hanger, right by the airport. The jail is used to hold "bad" polar that have caused problems in town. By housing them here the animals are kept from having to be put down. So, they just wait patiently, sometimes for months, to either be released when the ice-up happens or they are relocated by helicopter northeast of Churchill.
It is literally bellowing freezing with the wind in the Arctic. You definitely want to dress in layers both in town and when you are on the rover. The rover is heated so if there are periods where you don’t see bears you may get warm, but when those bear sightings start you are going to want to have the windows down to get some great pictures.
Photography... Lenses, SD cards, batteries?
I found I used every lens that I brought, which included a Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8, Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8, and Nikkor Fisheye 16mm f/2.8. I used the 24-70 lens the most since the polar bears came pretty close to the rover and it was great for scenery shots. So, if you are buying a lens for this trip and can only buy one I would recommend a 24-70 lens.
I recommend you bring at least two batteries, but three would be better. The cold kills the camera batteries pretty fast. I brought some extra hand warmers and put them in my camera bag by the batteries to keep them warm. These seemed to work pretty well and then I just charged them up each night in the hotel. SD cards are a little trickier. You never know how many pictures you are going to shoot so the more SD cards the better. I shot about 10,000 pictures while I was there. I carry about 100 GB of cards with me at any given time but I did not use even a quarter of that while on this trip.
Photography in the arctic can be a little tricky because of the snow, lack of sun, the color of the bears and the temperature. On the last day I had some sun, which made for good pictures but you should be prepared to shoot in some pretty overcast and snowy conditions. Snow can make picture taking tricky and the fact that you are shooting "white" bears on a white background can make it even more difficult. I highly recommend you learn how to use your histogram if you are shooting on a DSLR. This can give you a quick idea about the quality of your picture. For my point-and-shoot photographers, many cameras have snow settings, which I have found work pretty well.
Temperature change can be an issue in this climate as you move from a freezing temperature into warmer places like restaurants or your hotel. I recommend putting your camera gear into a plastic bag before taking it into your hotel. This will allow for a slow adjustment. Do not take the camera out of the bag for a while and its best to leave the lens attached so you don't get any condensation in the camera body.
Lastly, it snowed quite a bit while I on the tundra so I found myself constantly having to wipe snow of the lens and camera body. Make sure to bring a few lens cloths in case one gets wet.