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Photo by Robert Painter

Churchill Manitoba Tundra: Polar Bears and Tundra Buggies

POP! POP! POP! POP! On my third day in Churchill, Manitoba at about 4:30 in the morning I awoke to gunfire. In this tiny, peaceful community it turns out that this is not an unusual happenstance. I had been warned that this could happen, so I didn’t feel the need to jump out of bed and run outside in 32 degrees below freezing weather to check it out. But, I did go to my window and open the drapes enough to look out and catch a glimpse of a young man, weapon in hand, running past my building and into the street. He vanished around the corner and I saw him no more. So, I crawled back into my warm bed and went back to sleep. He was, I found out later, scaring away polar bears.

Polar Bears

Polar bears are big. Polar bears are powerful. Polar bears are the world’s largest land predators. Large adult male polar bears can weigh more than 1,500 pounds. And some polar bears can be a problem for humans living in polar bear territory.

The people of Churchill seem to have a great relationship with the bears. People come from around the world to view the majestic and sometimes comical bears. The bears don’t seem to mind and often appear as though they might be performing for the delight of these visitors. But, sometimes the bears want to spend too much time in town and end up in the polar bear “jail.” After a stint in jail they are tagged and if they can’t learn to stay out of town they may get a free ride to a remote location 30 kilometers or so out onto the tundra. The “gunfire” that awoke me, by the way, was the bear patrol encouraging some bears to leave town.

Yes, there is actually a bear patrol that exists to protect the citizens of Churchill from these giant animals. They don’t harm the bears, but they do try to assist the bears in learning to keep a safe distance from the human inhabitants of the area.

Tundra Buggy Tours

The best, and safest, way to see these behemoths is to go out on a Tundra Buggy. These buggies have evolved into very large vehicles with giant wheels. They have lots of room inside with wide aisles, many windows, a gas heater to keep you warm and even an observation deck in back for taking photos. If you think this is the Arctic version of a photo safari you’re right. Most of the same rules apply. The plan is to view the animals in their natural habitat and to try to do them no harm.

It would appear that the bears have become accustomed to seeing the big buggies out on the tundra. Some will walk or run away from the buggies, some will go about their daily activities and just ignore them, others will offer wonderful, playful “performances” and some will even approach the vehicles, stand tall on their hind legs and peer into the windows of the buggies. You might wonder who is providing the entertainment for whom?

There are several tour operators in Churchill. I spent my time with Frontiers North Adventures and their Trundra Buggy(R) Adventure

Starting in Winnipeg

After getting off my plane in Winnipeg, I walked over to the Sheraton Four Points Hotel at the airport and checked into my room. It was early enough in the day that I had time to walk the 2 or 3 kilometers into town. It was a bit chilly, but good preparation for the upcoming visit to Churchill. I bought a few snacks at the SuperStore to have available in my hotel room in Churchill. After an evening meeting of the rest of the people in my group where we met each other as well as our guide, Derek, we turned in with visions of the coming week in our heads.

The next morning we boarded our 51 year old Convair for the flight to Churchill. What a pleasure to fly in this great old completely refurbished plane with lots of that missing commodity from new, modern aircraft - legroom. I’m 6'2" and would be happy to fly in this plane for all my travels.

Our hotel was the Aurora Inn in Churchill. A terrific choice. Not only was it spacious - living area downstairs with a fully furnished kitchen and an upstairs loft bedroom - but it provided a computer room with free internet access and a lobby area large enough for our group to meet every morning before heading out onto the tundra. Eating our meals in restaurants was a bit expensive so it really helped to have the kitchen. I cooked my own breakfast every morning and had a couple of evening dinners in my room (there is a grocery store about a block from the inn.) The only problem with that is you miss the evening time with your new friends - but you do save a few bucks. I did cheat one morning and went to the Gypsy Bakery - the cinnamon rolls were great and cost no more than any Cinnabon or Starbucks in the states.

More than Bears

I should add that there is more to see than polar bears from the Tundra Buggies. My group spotted several arctic foxes, quite a few ptarmigan and even an owl, but we couldn’t get very close to the owl. As for the bears, we kept count one day and I think the number was 51. They do move about and it is possible that we counted a few more than once, but it was a remarkable day. Everyone had a great time and took hundreds of photos. Photo by Robert Painter

Unfortunately, the one really bright, sunny day during the week was the day we spent in town, visiting the Eskimo Museum and participating in a wonderful cultural arts presentation. It was a perfect day in Churchill, but I would rather have had the light for the bear photos. But, that’s not a real complaint. Watching one bear chewing on a Caribou antler and then rolling on his back with all four feet in the air was worth the trip by itself.

Meeting native artist Myrtle deMeulles (Caribou hair sculptures) and Inuits Peter and Mary from Nunavut were highlights of the trip. Their descriptions of life in the north were enlightening and rewarding. I have hopes of visiting Nunavut in the future to spend more time with the fine artists of that area.

For More Information
Visit DestinationWinnipeg.ca and TravelManitoba.com


A former college professor, Robert Painter is author of one of the highest ranked Southwestern Art and Travel books on Amazon.com. He has traveled extensively throughout Indian country attending virtually every major American Indian art show in the Western U.S. and visiting Native American communities throughout the country. Robert has recently completed cruises on the Crown Odyssey, the Silver Cloud, the Silver Shadow, the Norwegian Dream, Seven Seas Navigator and the Windjammer S/V Mandalay. He has traveled to Italy, Greece, Barbados, Russia, Denmark and more countries than we have room to list. Contact him at rpainter2006@comcast.net

Story and photos by Robert Painter.