Face to Face with a Polar Bear

Ashton Palmer

Face to Face with a Polar Bear

Ashton Palmer

Jun 2014

Seeing a polar bear up close is one of life's greatest thrills. Few animals on our planet command such respect and reverence for their beauty, strength, and power. Encountering one of these graceful creatures while they roam quietly across the sea ice and on land throughout the Arctic is an experience that takes your breath away.

Every Fall, massive polar bears congregate on the tundra outside the town of Churchill, Canada. While I had seen polar bears on Baffin Island as an Expedition Leader many years ago, it was nearly always from a distance. However, since I had heard amazing reviews of the up-close encounters with polar bears on trips outside of Churchill, I decided to set out on a 6-day Arctic tundra safari to see for myself if this type of adventure would be a good match for ExpeditionTrips travelers... Wow, was it!

We flew into Winnipeg, Manitoba, and met our group at the gorgeous Fort Garry Hotel to review trip specifics with our full-bearded guides, Brad and Jared. A short time later, we boarded a charter flight to Churchill and when we stepped out of the plane, we were greeted with a temperature of 4 degrees Fahrenheit. Hello, Arctic Tundra!

Our trip was similar in pace to an African safari. We spent our days exploring the tundra in giant rovers spotting polar bears, Arctic hare, silver and red fox, and a number of Arctic bird species. The polar rovers resemble huge transformed school buses with enormous tires to elevate the vehicles high enough to prevent the bears from reaching the windows because, yes, that's how close you have the chance of getting.

Seeing the polar bears in such proximity was utterly incredible. They are massive, lumbering animals that appear to move slowly, until you realize how much ground they cover in their strides and come to understand how fast and powerful they really are. There was one bear, in particular, that we observed for over an hour while he napped in a snow bed, awakening periodically to stretch, roll around, glance over at us, and then lay his drowsy head back down to continue resting.

Another absolute highlight of the journey was a dog sledding excursion on the final day. The people who operate these trips are spectacular, and have such a remarkable passion for what they do. Their dogs were happy, healthy, and eager to get hooked up to the sled for a run! It was a wild and wonderful experience.

Our guides were fantastic wildlife spotters, as well as hosts and Arctic gurus, who spoiled us with hot chocolate, tasty snacks and delicious meals, most of which were eaten on the buggy. Our group was also a ton of fun – there were a total of twelve, guides included, and we all shared binoculars and assisted each another with amazing camera shots. And I just can't iterate enough how truly magnificent it felt to be in the presence of polar bears and experience them in their natural environment. It's a memory that doesn't fade with time, and will certainly never be forgotten.