THE BUCKET-LIST SERIES: A BLOW BY BLOW OF OUR TIME IN THE SNOW
The Bucket-list Series: A blow by blow of our time in the snow
At the end of last year Annie, our intrepid explorer, headed out to the snow-covered hinterlands to spend time in the company of some pretty incredible polar bears and the people who protect them. As far as bucket-list destinations are concerned, Annie reported back to us that this Snow Safari is hands-down one of the most epic bucket-list experiences you can have. Read her travel journal and you’ll see why…
We arrived in snow-covered Winnipeg, capital city of Manitoba, where we spent the first night. After a welcome dinner, we attended a briefing which outlined what we could expect over the next few days.
The following morning, we flew to Churchill in northern Manitoba, a small town on the western shore of Hudson Bay. Rich in history, this “polar bear capital” made its mark as a trading post around 1717 and was used primarily to harness the North American fur trade. It is the home of the Thule people who date back to the year 1000, and from whom the present-day Inuit evolved.
Gateway to the polar bears
In winter, Churchill is the “basecamp” from where polar bear safaris launch. But in summer, you’ll no doubt be entertained by abundant sightings of Beluga Whales.
With a population of just over 800 people and only one main road that runs through the town, it was easy to wend our way through to the Polar Bear Holding facility. En route, we got to see the incredible murals of Polar Bears that adorn many of the buildings in Churchill. The murals reflect the talent of Winnipeg artist and activist, Kal Barteski, as well as several other muralists from around the world. Bold and off-the-charts in scale, these works of wall art underline the effects of climate change and the impact that climate change has on Polar Bears.
When we arrived at the Polar Bear Holding facility ,the guide explained the role that the facility plays in reintegrating polar bears into the wild. Established in the late 1970’s, “Polar Bear Jail” was built primarily to reduce human-animal conflict. Since then, it has managed to achieve its goals of protecting humans from polar bears and vice versa, minimising damage to properties by polar bears, minimising food-conditioning and human habituation of polar bears, and relocating polar bears to safe locations that are away from urban areas.
Take me to the tundra!
After lunch, we took to the skies in helicopters and headed out to the tundra. From our eagle-eye perspective, we were treated to our first glimpse of polar bears in the wild. Just before we landed, the pilot pointed out dark shapes that interrupted the pristine, white snow-scape. We got a rare and impressive sighting of moose as they traversed the endless, white terrain.
Greeted by ex-zoo keeper “Buggy Bob”, we were taken via tundra-buggy to the Tundra Lodge.
A unique approach
The Tundra Lodge is a genius “pop-up hotel” solution that enables travellers to visit this unique destination while keeping their environmental impact and carbon footprint as light as possible. Functional, clean and cosy, it’s all about the destination, the experience, and the spectacular nature. Shared sleep-spaces echo the sense of kinship that original explorers, scientists and researchers tend to experience. And while intimacy may not typically be everyone’s cup of tea, the dynamics that develop from being in close quarters lend themselves to conversation and connection (and dare we say, sometimes hilarity.)
But it’s so worth it. After all, the window-period for this once-in-a-lifetime experience is short. Tours on the tundra are only available for a limited time and for a limited number of travellers, as polar bears are typically only prevalent for around six-weeks of the year. Waiting patiently for the “big ice” so that they can feed on ring seals, polar bears are hungry during Polar Bear Safari season. With only around 25 000 polar bears left in the wild, it is a privilege to be able to see them in their natural habitat.
Part of the experience
Pared down, simply adorned but comfortable, Tundra Lodge gives guests the opportunity to experience what they came for: nature and polar bears. An unspoilt snow-scape stretches as far as the eye can see, and allows for prime, first hand viewing of the polar bears. Consisting of two dormitory-style carriages and one dinner cart, guests have the opportunity to share insights, experiences and excitement with other guests and staff.
Guests will enjoy outstanding meals in the company of other explorers and will have access to resident scientists, expedition leaders, photographers, and other polar bear experts. You’ll also have the chance to get to know some of the fascinating staff and talk to people like Buggy-Bob, who have stories to share and lessons to teach. The lodge has good WiFi, which means guests are able to report back on their adventures to folk back home, as-it-happens.
For two full days, from 8am to 4pm, we traversed the tundra in search of Polar Bears. From lone males and pairs, to sows with cubs, we were extremely lucky and got to see an abundance of bears. As with every natural phenomenon, polar bear spotting is not guaranteed. It all depends on the arrival of the ice which can’t be predicted from year to year. Lectures are informal – typically given while on the tundra vehicle – which allows information to filter through in concert with the overall adventure.
Blending in seamlessly with the landscape, feathery-white Ptarmigan birds are harder to spot than polar bears. But, led by our trusty guide, we managed to catch sightings of these rotund, white-winged grouse of the tundra.
On the day of departure, we were able to spend one more morning on the tundra before having lunch and leaving for Churchill. With time to spare when we got there, we visited the Itsanitaq Museum, saw Inuit artefacts and learned about how they lived. We also had time to pop into Polar Bears International and take a look at their new “house”. Built with donor funding, the house is a multi-purpose space that facilitates education, scientific research, community interactions, employment and internship.
Global warming is the single biggest threat to polar bears: if the seas ice goes, so do polar bears.
Global warming heavily impacts ice, which is the “lifeblood” of the circle of life for animals such as polar bears and the ringed seals they feed on.
The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet.
Global warming causes rougher sea ice and more open water which is extremely difficult for young polar bear cubs to negotiate.
Autumn freeze-up is delayed by global warming, which in turn prevents sows from reaching their denning areas.
Traditional models of conservation – such as creating reserves – can’t be applied to polar bear conservation.
Decreasing greenhouse gas emissions in order to counteract global warming is the only solution to conserve arctic habitats.
What can you do?
Live lightly and reduce your carbon footprint wherever possible.
Vote for leaders who understand that we are the stewards of the earth and who will implement policies accordingly (like introducing carbon taxes and reforming agriculture practices.)
Only support organisations and brands who truly have sustainable practices.
Choose to travel with eco-friendly companies and their preferred partners who are equally committed to supporting sustainable practices and responsible tourism.
Forge a connection with wildlife. It’s easy to preserve something you care about and are connected to.
Reduce personal carbon emissions by consolidating travel, whenever you can.
If you donate towards a conservation cause, make sure it is going to a reputable organisation who is accountable and effective.
Educate children about where EVERYTHING comes from – food, clothing, electronics, cleaning products, and all consumable items. Explain the ethics that are involved in production – in terms of natural resources, the environmental cost, and the human cost – so that they can make informed decisions.