The Mother of All Polar Bear Tours
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What began as an end-of-the-season blowout party for the staff and organizers of our infant polar bear-watching season years ago near Churchill evolved into one of the most sought-after trips for pro photographers and TV media looking for images of polar bears.
Slowly at first, then as a flood, the word got out among pro wildlife photographers and TV news and documentary crews that this was THE place to get images of bears. Think of all the TV documentaries, news programs, magazine and newspaper articles you’ve ever seen about Churchill and its polar bears. Astoundingly, the overwhelming number of those photos and video footage were taken on our Cape Churchill expedition. All the major TV networks, like CNN, ABC, NBC and CBS, as well as PBS, National Geographic and BBC have sent teams of journalists and film crews on this trip.
Why? It is hands-down the best opportunity to photograph large numbers of polar bears and other wildlife in a starkly clean, gorgeous setting, reminiscent of the classic High Arctic.
In mid-November, at the end of the regular Churchill bear-watching season, the Tundra Lodge, which has spent six weeks or so along the shore of Hudson Bay, is broken up into its component modularized trailers and one of the world’s most unusual (and labor-intensive!) journeys begins.
Like a scene out of Star Wars, some six to eight giant Tundra Buggies, each towing an even larger trailer perched on 6-foot diameter tires, creep across the vast, empty frozen tundra sometimes in blizzard conditions. Swirling snow, often driven by gale-force winds, periodically envelopes this bizarre caravan, swallowing them from view.
Cape Churchill lies about 25 miles due east of the town of Churchill and another 10 to 15 miles further from the regular bear-watching area. Here, we could extend the normal bear-watching season by another couple of weeks as the waters of Hudson Bay froze later than closer to Churchill. Once the Bay waters freeze, the bears are gone overnight, heading off for their winter seal hunt.
Our early ‘party animals’ discovered that the Cape landscape is one of stark beauty – smooth eskers (ridges deposited by Pleistocene glaciers some 10,000 years ago), and broad inter-tidal ponds that have frozen into great expanses of glimmering ice. Along the Hudson Bay shore, driven by winds and storm tides, great blocks of sea ice pile up, creating beautiful sculptures of brilliant white and blue.
Besides, not only were there bears here, but BIG bears and LOTS of bears! Mothers and cubs! All milling about doing the things that bears do when waiting for the sea ice.
Once at the Cape, the trailers are re-linked together like a great rubber-tired passenger train: a ‘dining car’, ‘lounge’, a couple of ‘sleeper cars’ and several utility units housing food, fuel and a generator. We pick the most photogenic locations so that photographers can shoot bears any time of day or night with beautiful backdrops, right from camp.
During the day, however, the group divides up into several Tundra Buggies which take off for the day to find more bears, foxes, ptarmigan, caribou and and other wildlife, even an occasional wolf. The Buggies return at the end of the day, and those who aren’t busy downloading and processing their photos and video head for the lounge for drinks and to swap stories about the day’s expedition.
Dinner is served in the ‘dining car’ — hearty Canadian fare that ensures no one loses weight on the trip. After dinner, it’s back to the Lounge for slideshows and talks from speakers who are oftentimes world-renowned scientists and photographers.
I’ve been involved with the Cape expedition since the earliest days in the mid-1980s, when it was just a couple of Buggies and a tiny dining trailer built out of the body of an old school bus. We slept on plywood boards laid over the seat backs on the buggies. To my knowledge there is no other land-based expedition today that requires this much massive machinery and human effort to position wildlife enthusiasts in the middle of one of the harshest, most difficult, but exciting areas on Earth.
You won’t find a better opportunity to view and photograph polar bears than this!
— Randy Green
Now, you can join IWA director and professional photographer Randy Green on our 2013 Cape Churchill polar bear tours.
See all of our Polar Bear Tours.