Anna Among the Polar Bears

Anna Brill had the incredible good luck to win a trip to see polar bears with Natural Habitat Adventures.

Anna Matt Churchill Nat Hab Polar Bears
My fiancé Matt and I on the Tundra

Note: as the author of this blog, I will be writing this post in first person. – Anna

Where I Went

I started with 2 nights in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, during which I participated in the Extra Day in Winnipeg program. Natural Habitat Adventures then flew us on a charter flight to Churchill, Manitoba, a small town of about 800 people right on Hudson Bay, where we spent 4 nights. After an amazing experience in Churchill, we flew back down to Winnipeg, where we spent our final night.

The Experience

I participated in their Classic 7-Day Polar Bear Adventure. There are so many exceptional components to this expedition, starting with the guides. The guides are trained by World Wildlife Fund, and they all worked as guides for other reputable companies before finding Nat Hab. Our guide, Kurt, was a naturalist from Wyoming, with the Tetons and Yellowstone in his backyard. His field guide on Yellowstone and Grand Tetons National Parks is the best selling field guide to the region; it’s a great understatement to claim that our guide was a passionate and experienced naturalist.

Our bus driver, Claude, who drove us around Churchill area, and our rover driver, Val, who drove us around the tundra, were both Churchill natives who could spot notable wildlife off in the distance. Once, Claude saw a polar bear out of his left-hand window at least 200 yards away – while driving! He stopped so we could take pictures, and even lent us his binoculars.

Kurt Claude Nat Hab Polar bears
Kurt, our guide, and Claude, our driver

Another exceptional aspect of the trip was, of course, the nature viewing. In Churchill, Natural Habitat Adventures has crafted itineraries and forged partnerships with amazing restaurants, good accommodations, and most importantly, a company that builds rovers for viewing polar bears. The rovers are like a school bus combined with a tank, with an observation deck on the back. The wheels of the rover are 6 feet in diameter, which serves multiple purposes: passengers are sufficiently elevated above polar bears, and the vehicle can navigate the rocky paths and icy rivers of the tundra. There are 32 seats on the rover, which are configured like a school bus. Nat Hab accepts a maximum of 16 guests on their trips so that every passenger gets a window seat.

The observation deck is the only way to view wildlife in the open air while on the tundra, because it is never safe to leave the vehicle when polar bears are in the area. The deck also allows for polar bears to meander under it, and polar bears are still very much visible while underneath the deck.

[Coming soon: a video of a polar bear under our observation deck!]

Kurt, Val, and Claude were all quite adept at spotting wildlife, and they always made sure everyone in the group could get at least a glimpse when they did. Val was extremely conscientious about not disrupting polar bears while she navigated the tundra, meaning she would not just drive up to a polar bear. While she and Kurt wanted to make sure we could see polar bears up close, we also wanted to respect the fact that we were guests in the bears’ habitat. They instructed us to remain quiet and not attempt to entice the bear in any way to approach our vehicle. Occasionally, a more curious bear would approach us, and those moments of interaction were absolutely the highlight of the trip.

While roaming the tundra, we would stop to view bears, but we also stopped for other forms of wildlife: snow bunting, ptarmigan, snowy owls, ermine, and an arctic hare all made notable appearances, and we stopped to observe (and photograph) them for as long as we were able. If it looked like the animal we were observing was going to be around for awhile, Kurt and Val would set up scopes or lend us binoculars so that we could see them in as much detail as possible. One day during lunch on the rover, two snowy owls sat in the sight of our scopes for well over an hour. We could see them turning their heads and opening their beaks to communicate. In addition to educating us on these animals’ appearances, behavior, and survival status, Kurt was constantly giving us photography tips.

polar bears Nat Hab
Polar bear, as seen from our rover vehicle

The accommodation in Winnipeg is the elegant, historic Fort Garry Hotel. The rooms, food, location, and service are lovely. In Churchill, also known as Polar Bear Country, the accommodations are certainly less luxurious, but they suited our needs perfectly. We stayed in the Churchill Hotel, which had just been renovated. The rooms were a nice size and they were clean, there were stations in the rooms and around the hotel for making tea/coffee/hot chocolate, and breakfast was delicious.

The food throughout the trip was also exceptional, but I’ll go more into that in the next section.

Potential Travelers to the Arctic: Points to Consider

Physical Guidelines

Almost anyone can do this trip: I’m 26 and was the youngest person on the trip, and the eldest person on the trip was a 91-year-old man who walked with a cane. Since we spent a great deal of the days in our rover on the tundra, there were very few physical demands. We were given some free time, with the option to be active, but the trip overall was quite sedentary. In terms of the cold, Natural Habitat provides boots and parkas for the duration of the trip, and they are of very high quality.

With regards to dietary restrictions, I was extremely impressed with what Nat Hab and their selected restaurants could provide in such a remote arctic location. The food in general was incredible, and both the vegan on our trip and a gluten-intolerant person in another group told me they were accommodated with a great variety of food options. There were several meals that included avocado, the salads had many different ingredients and tasted fresh, the soups were delicious (from a vegan/gluten-free carrot and yam soup to a not-so-vegan chicken soup), and from seafood to bison burgers to curries, there was something delicious and filling for everyone at every meal. And this is in a town of 800 people where there are no roads leading to it, and a train that only delivers food and supplies once per week!

Budgeting Guidelines

For anyone hoping to see the Arctic one day, keep in mind that both the Arctic and Antarctica can be a higher-budget journey. These experiences through Nat Hab are wonderful because of the high caliber of the guides, the accommodations, and the level of service. The experience is all-inclusive and prepaid. From the time we touched down in Winnipeg until the moment we flew out of Winnipeg at the end of our trip, we paid nothing additional for food, accommodation, transfers, charter flights, or tours; the only additional costs to us were some alcohol and souvenirs (and sometimes, alcohol was complimentary with meals).

For the 7-day Classic Polar Bear Adventure, prices vary, but tend to be around $6,000 per person, plus whatever it costs to fly between your hometown and Winnipeg. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and Natural Habitat Adventures goes above and beyond to make it count.

Polar bears Nat Hab
A curious polar bear peeks into a rover vehicle

When to Go

Natural Habitat Adventures only offers wildlife experiences during what is considered peak season for the experience. For this trip, the window is early October through November, when the Hudson Bay freezes and the bears leave.

 

Natural Habitat Adventures is a preferred supplier within the Signature Travel Network, of which Kahala Travel is a member. TravelDesign International is an independent affiliate of Kahala Travel and a member of Signature Travel Network.

To learn more about Natural Habitat Adventures, or to contact Anna with questions, please reach out to her at anna@traveldesigninternational.com and/or by phone at 619-589-6700. All photos in this article were taken by Anna during her travels.

 

 

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