Wapusk National Park, Canada
Over a period of seven days we experienced a wide range of weather conditions. There was sunny and cold, overcast and cold, snowy and cold and then there was day five which was windy, snowy, very windy and cold and then it got real cold. Notice the commonality of the conditions. This was after all mid November at Cape Churchill and more specifically the Wapusk National Park located along the shore of the Hudson Bay in Manitoba, Canada. The weather was perfect, at least for the “Wapusk” the Cree word for White Bear and the primary subject of this photo excursion.
I booked my spot on the Tundra Buggy Lodge more than a year in advance and from what I understand booking earlier for this very limited excursion is now required. The “Lodge” is operated by Frontiers North which is well known for their “Tundra Buggy” tours out of the town of Churchill, Manitoba. This was one of their “Specialist Tours” geared for photographers with a limit of 38 guests, leaving plenty of room for moving about in the four tundra buggies at our disposal. Each o the buggies will seat about 40 passengers.
Arriving at the Winnipeg International Airport I walked to the Sheraton Four Points Hotel direct adjacent to the airport and was very pleasantly surprised with the wonderful accommodations arranged by Frontiers North. A fantastic “Snow Mantra” parka, a gift for all passengers from the Canada Goose clothing company and Frontiers North hung in the room. Later that evening all the guest gathered together for dinner and a briefing on our travel arrangements to Churchill the next morning and what to expect over the next week at the lodge.
Early the next day we boarded a charted plane from Winnipeg to the small town of Churchill, about a two hour flight. There are two ways to reach Churchill, by plane or train; although by sea might be an option, but not a good one this time of year! When we arrived a bus and driver were waiting to take us on a tour of the town. As I recall the driver pointed out the liquor store three times as we killed time waiting for lunch at Gypsy’s Diner. I opted for a hike and a strong bitter cold wind seemed to become a head wind no matter which direction I walked giving a good taste of things to come. There are several souvenir shops along the main street, a few restaurants and a grocery store where you can purchase your last minute supply of munchies and those hand warmers you forgot to pack.
Churchill is touted as the Polar Bear Capital of the World and with good reason. For about six weeks beginning in early October this small community of 1,000 residence plays host to travelers from around the globe having come to witness the gathering of the world’s largest land predator in the most accessible polar bear viewing area in the world. An adult male bear can reach more than 1,500 pounds and range from 6 to 10 feet long. Mothers with cubs can be spotted as well as the males during the many day trips via “tundra buggies” offered by Frontiers North as well as other providers in town.
By earlier afternoon we were being transported by bus to the “launching area” for the tundra buggies, a large tall wooden platform with about a dozen docking areas situated about a twenty minute ride out of town on the tundra’s edge. After about a four and a half hour buggy ride our home for the next seven nights appeared on the horizon in the late afternoon light. One bear and two arctic fox were spotted on the ride out to the lodge but there was no time to stop for photos and the buggy was too packed with passengers to make it worth the effort.
After backing up to the Tundra Buggy Lodge we slowly transferred to our assigned very cozy quarters and our assigned bunks. The beds were stacked two high and four long on each side of the two coed style bunkhouses which had one shower and two bathrooms placed in the center of each. If you forgot to pack your ear plugs don’t worry as there was, at least on our trip, a very large box full of them in the lounge car behind the bar. You’ll need them! The rest of the “Lodge”, besides the two bunkhouses consisted of the previously mentioned lounge car, and the kitchen/dining car all being connected by an outdoor platform so you never leave the safety of the facility during your entire stay.
By eight in the morning on our first full day at the Cape we had loaded ourselves and our gear onto our assigned buggy and were off…sort of. We’d gone no father than fifty yards when we stopped to watch two female polar bears with four cubs total lying in the snow just as the sun came over the horizon, and what a magnificent sunrise it was. This was only the beginning but if it had been the only opportunity to see and photograph the bears I would have been a pretty satisfied photographer. I imagine we spent more than an hour photographing this scene before continuing on.
We didn’t get far before other bears were spotted. The light remained wonderful and we were told it was very much a rarity to have this kind of weather, clear blue skies, a light breeze and relatively mild temperatures. The wind speed did kick up a few notches later in the day but that actually worked in our favor.
We had seen several male bears sparring throughout the day but one mock battle stands out. Four bears were in a group rolling around in the drifts of snow that had piled against the natural barrier created by a stand of willows. Our driver worked the Tundra Buggy around so the sun was pretty much behind our subjects. That’s when the real action began as two of the bears stood to do battle. The snow here has a very fine granular quality to it and as the sparring continued the backlighting of the bears with the powder like snow flying off their coats made for some very dramatic images.
By four that afternoon, and each day thereafter we returned to the Lodge where most people climbed into their bunks to download the days catch. It was not uncommon for the power to go out, probably due to the fact everyone had their battery chargers plugged in overloading the breakers. My headlamp did get some use on this trip.
Most days were pretty much the same as far as the territory we covered and the amount of time spent on the tundra. The terrain might best be described as a giant gravel bar interspersed with a few banks of willows and the Hudson Bay to the north-northeast. One feature that did stand out and was often the primary way of getting a sense of direction was a very tall tower with a small hut perched on its top. An observation post at times it now also has attached to the framework a satellite dish which is used for broadcasting the live feed from the National Geographic “Polar Bear Cam”. Starting in early October you can watch the bears gathering in Churchill on your computer, video captured by a camera mounted to “Buggy One”. Check it out!