Animals take the lead

<p>Within minutes of arriving in the community of Churchill, Man., perched on the windswept subarctic tundra, it is clear you are in a part of the world where animals, not humans, run the show.</p>


Churchill hosts bears, whales



jonathon hayward/cp


A mother polar bear and her cub sleep near the ice outside Churchill, Man.

Within minutes of arriving in the community of Churchill, Man., perched on the windswept subarctic tundra, it is clear you are in a part of the world where animals, not humans, run the show.

Visitors are sometimes warned not to wander around the town of 900 at night, to avoid an encounter with a polar bear. On Halloween — in the middle of prime polar bear season — residents use their vehicles and flashing lights to block roads and secure a perimeter for trick-or-treaters.

To the east of town the treeline ends, giving way to barren rock and soil where foxes and other wildlife roam free and there are no signs of man’s footprint — no buildings, no roads, only the wild terrain that leads to the waters of Hudson Bay.

It is precisely this raw state of nature, including the abundance of polar bears, whales and other creatures, that draws thousands of tourists every year.

Even the guides who take visitors out on the land remain awestruck after years on the job.

“It is really inspiring still for me to lock eyes ... with a polar bear,” said John Gunter, whose family takes visitors to see the massive animals in the safety of oversized off-road buses called tundra buggies. “When this 1,000-pound creature is leaning up on the side of a buggy, and he’s staring you in the eye, that’s powerful stuff. We look like a big human sandwich and they’re hungry — they haven’t eaten in about four months — so they see if they can eat us.”

Visitors can spend from one to three days in the buggies, depending on the tour package purchased. Some tours allow visitors to also spend nights in the buggies, sleeping under the endless sky among the animals.

The bears arrive like clockwork every autumn, around the end of September, gathering along the shoreline near Churchill as they wait for the bay to freeze. Somehow, they know the water in this area freezes first — a result of fresh water from the nearby Churchill River diluting the salty water of the bay.

They stick around for about two months before leaving by the end of November, when they head out on the ice to hunt seals.

Come late spring, a different set of tourists arrives to watch the region’s other large animals, beluga whales. Thousands of the white, four-metre-long whales congregate in the area by the end of June. Visitors can ride in small boats among the gentle beasts. The truly adventurous can kayak or snorkel alongside them.

The whales are so playful, they seem to engage their human visitors in games of hide and seek. They stay in the area until September.

The most challenging part of a trip to Churchill may be securing a booking. There are only a handful of hotels in town. Spaces on the tundra buggies and other tours can fill up months in advance. The community 1,000 kilometres north of Winnipeg is accessible only by air or by a meandering train ride that can take more than 36 hours.

Visitors are encouraged to buy all-inclusive packages. Otherwise, they run the risk of getting a flight to the community only to find there are no tours or rooms available.

The trip is pricey. Most packages, including airfare from Winnipeg, accommodations, meals and tours, start at about $1,000 per day, and run between two and five days. Yet most visitors say the trip is well worth the trouble and expense.

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