Hey friends! I’m jumping out of my typical chronologically-based coverage to skip ahead and share my recent trip to Canada. We’ll be back to Thailand soon!
After my aquatic adventures were over, we still had a few last land-based excursions to enjoy outside the quirky town of Churchill, Manitoba. Ever the girl scout, I was prepared for both temperature fluctuations and camouflage needs at all times.
The afternoon after my morning snorkeling excursion, my Frontiers North tour itinerary called for an afternoon of dog carting. I have to admit, I was skeptical — and even discussed with my tour guide Doug the possibility of sitting the afternoon out. For one, I was cold and exhausted and curling up with a hot chocolate and editing my video footage from the morning sounded like a dream. For two, I’d never really considered the ethics of dog sledding or carting before and as a passionate animal adorer I didn’t want to support anything that wasn’t completely up above board.
However, in just a few short days I’d come to greatly respect Doug’s judgement, and so when he assured me that I’d be impressed with the care and respect shown for the dogs and that he felt it was something I should experience, I agreed. After all, the history of dog sledding is deeply intertwined with the history of this region. To understand it is to understand a piece of this culture.
Enter Dave of Wapusk Adventures. Dave is the founder of the Hudson Bay Quest, a dog sledding competition that stretches from Churchill, Manitoba to Arviat, Nunavut, as well as an accomplished musher himself. After an enthusiastic welcome from the dogs outside, we piled into Dave’s cabin to learn more about his life in Churchill, his Metis background, and his passion for his dogs.
The house we were in was humble, but Dave proudly showed us the premium protein dog food he had shipped in from Quebec. He told us stories of effectively throwing races he stood a good chance of winning because he had to prioritize his dog’s health and comfort, and of long nights on the trail spent hunkered down in a sleeping bag on the snow, surrounded by his pack of dogs. He told us that the proudest he felt was when he won awards for best kept dogs, rather than fastest time.
While the dogs conditions might have been different from what I was used to — I certainly felt uneasy with the idea that they spend most of their time chained outside — Dave’s love for his dogs felt heartwarming and familiar. Perhaps not all dogs need to cuddle up on queen size beds with their owners, ride in the front seat and wear Halloween costumes to be happy (I can hear my cocker spaniel Tucker protesting from his poolside perch in Los Angles right now).
In the winter, dog sledding tours are of course a popular draw. In the summer, wheeled carts are used to run the mile-long “Ididamile,” a play on the famous Iditarod race. As Dave and his crew started pulling together a team of dogs for the first few runs, the dogs seemed to lose their minds with excitement. This is indeed a breed that loves to work, run, and please their people. The route was exhilarating, and I loved watching the dogs move in unison as they seamlessly responded to the musher commands.
Should you go dogsledding? It’s a decision every traveler has to make for themselves, and I encourage you to do research on the topic and vet (pun intended!) your intended operator closely. I know that I’m glad I went.
The next day was somehow our last in Churchill — oh, how it had snuck up on us! But we had one final land-based adventure before setting off on our late night flight back to Winnipeg: a day out on Frontiers North’s own Tundra Buggy.
These extreme all terrain vehicles allow for navigating tricky winter terrain and safe yet up-close wildlife viewing. These buggies are so big, you need to use a special platform to get on and off them!
In the summer, the buggies follow an existing set of tundra trails built by the Canadian and American Armed Forces in the 1950s and 1960s. In the fall, some guests even stay overnight in the mobile Tundra Buddy Lodge within Wapusk National Park, a prime polar viewing region. Frontiers North proudly proclaims to hold the only business license to house guests inside Wapusk, one of Manitoba’s two national parks. They also hold the most permits to operate on the trail network within Churchill Wildlife Management Area. Basically, these guy are kind of a big deal around here.
Our driver Jim was quite the character, and it wasn’t long before he was pointing out animals across the tundra. For brief sightings, like a fox scampering away with a bird in its jaws, we’d simply observe and photograph from the open windows of our seats. For more bucket list sightings like curious polar bears, we’d park entirely and could walk out on the back viewing deck for an even more wide-open look.
In terms of quantity, we were spoiled for polar bears on this day, spotting over ten in total. That said, we never really got the up-close quality I’d been aching for — I greedily wanted one of the polar bears to approach the vehicle, as these curious creatures are known to do in the colder months.
However, that kind of interaction in the summer is quite rare, and we were lucky to see as many as we did. Doug told us he firmly believed the good energy of the group increased wildlife sightings, and that we were knocking it out of the park for that time of year.
Someday, we may look back and marvel even more greatly at these sightings. It’s no secret that the polar bears have been having a rough few decades. The playing field of legal hunting from aboriginal groups is made uneven by modern inventions like snow mobiles and guns, development threatens the bear’s natural habitats and most importantly, climate change has shortened the bear’s hunting season drastically.
With Hudson Bay melting earlier and each summer and freezing later each fall, bears have less and less time out on the ice to build up their fat reserves for the rest of the year. So it’s no surprise that their numbers have dropped by 22% in the past thirty years, and trend that shows no sign of stopping if we don’t curb or reverse global warming.
I think we all went home with a new appreciation for how important it is to do just that. But in this moment, we simply adored watching the bears go about their lives, sussing out what we could about their personalities and their moods just from sitting and observing them for a while.
Look how well-fed this runner was! Looks like someone had an unfair serving of seals…
I knew for this trip, my mediocre Canon 70-300mm lens wasn’t going to cut it. So for the first time ever, I coughed up $170 to rent a Canon EF 100-400mm from Borrow Lenses.
Unfortunately, I don’t know if I’d do it again. While the company’s customer service was great, I was disappointed with the quality of the lens. Another photographer on my trip had the same one (which she owned) and the image quality between my banged-up rental and her much-revered lens was huge. Looks like it’s time to start saving for my next big glass investment!
We spent an entire day in the buggy, stopping for a hearty and healthy lunch while gazing peacefully out the windows. It was a truly magical end to a truly magnificent trip.
I could not have enjoyed my time with Frontiers North more than I did. While I don’t think of myself as a “take a tour” kind of girl, every time I do, I find myself impressed by how well organized it is, by how much I learn, and by how greatly I enjoy the company of my guide and fellow travelers. This was no exception.
I have no doubt I’ll find myself back in Churchill. Whether to get up close and personal with the polar bears in the fall, to witness the northern lights and indulge in a pop-up restaurant of my dreams in the winter, or to come back and try my hand at photographing the belugas again in the summer.
There’s just something magnetic about this beautiful place.
Goodbye for now, Churchill.
Where to stay: Accommodation is simple and functional in Churchill. I stayed at the Tundra Inn which was lovely. Their sister property Tundra House is Churchill’s first hostel, starting at $35 a night and operating yea- round expect for October and November when it is used as housing for seasonal workers.
Where to eat: We didn’t have to go far — our best meals of the trip were at Tundra Inn’s beloved onsite restaurant! Gypsy’s Bakery was another favorite.
How to get around: The town is tiny and easily walkable — just keep an eye out for bears. Here is a list of local taxi rates, if you aren’t on a tour and need to get around.
Bonus tip: Plan ahead early — and I’m talking a year or more — for October and November’s busy bear season. I heard travelers who show up unaware by train during this period are given a floor to sleep on in the local church, as the few hotels and guesthouses have booked up long in advance. I also found mesage boards filled with people who booked last minute and had to change hotels every night in order to make their trips happen! For this reason and many, many others, a tour is often the logistically easiest way to go.
This post was written by me and brought to you by Travel Manitoba. Many thanks for Frontiers North for hosting me.
I had Doug as my guide with Frontiers North back in 2013 – he is so great! And we also went to Dave’s for dogsledding (though it was in the winter!). How COOL is Dave? I was pretty skeptical about dogsledding, too, but I now understand that sled dogs are just another breed of dog. When they’re younger, they don’t want to be lap dogs or house dogs – they just want to RUN. That’s what they’re bred for, and there’s no way to force a dog to do something like that – they have to want to. I’m glad you enjoyed it. And I’m SO jealous of your polar bear sightings!
Isn’t Doug the best? I adored him! And yes, I learned a lot from the experience with Dave. I suppose travel is all about opening our minds to other ways of thinking and doing… and that definitely happened for me in Churchill!
Looks like an amazing Canadian adventure! I would love to do this someday, thanks for all the amazing photos and practical info
You are welcome Cate! Maybe I’ll join ya… dying to go back already!
Polar bear sightings are a dream for me! It’s a shame you didn’t get closer; that’s usually my complaint with wildlife outings, too. And I rarely have the right lens with me to really capture the moment, although I doubt I’ll be investing in another heavy zoom lens anytime soon. For what it’s worth, I think your shots are great!
Thank you! I was pretty happy with the zoom capabilities, but there was just this strange distinct blurring around the edges of the frame, like I had an impressionist painting filter on in iPhoto or something. And maybe I just have been super spoiled by certain wildlife experiences where I was right up in their faces! But anyway… just an excuse to go back in bear season 😛
Love this! We recently moved to Winnipeg and have been talking about doing a trip to Churchill since we got here. It’s so tempting, now just to find the time! I love that you still got to see the polar bears even though you weren’t there during “peak season”. Definitely the adventure of a lifetime.
Absolutely! I had thought we’d see one or two for sure… but the amount we did see was just astounding! And believe it or not, our best sighting was the very first day, straight off the flight!
Fun! Somehow buggies kind of call up memories of a smaller vehicle in my mind. Certainly not the big beast in your pictures!
Ha, true… I suppose they have many connotations as I’ve definitely been in little things called “buggies” too. These were indeed beasts!
Token Alaskan here! I admittingly have never been to a sled dog camp, but my understanding is that running is what they’re meant to do. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s the huskies and malamutes you see in warm climates that I feel bad for. So much heat and likely not much availability for a large surface area for them to run around. Glad you visited the Great North, even if it was in the summer time 😉 a good warmup for a future winter visit, where you’d for sure turn into a Popsicle. There’s not enough down in the world to keep the chill at bay during the 7 month long winters!
That’s a really good point Kristen! For some dogs, getting to run like this is probably the ultimate luxury and dream. I do always wonder about huskies I see in hot climates :-/ Must be uncomfortable…
Looks magical even in Summer
I’m biased, but I’d say it’s the best time to visit 🙂
I once was sceptical of dog sledding, and then I heard of this company in Canmore. After doing my research I learned the dogs got as much pampering, and excercise and downtime as elite athletes. When I first arrived at the staging area I got the vibe from the dogs of ‘can we go now’ after that I loved every minute of it and knew the dogs were dying to run. I’ve been wanting to go to Churchill to see the polar bears and am so pumped now after your posts. PS I’m glad you are exploring this beautiful country!
Ha yes the dogs were GAGGING to get running once they saw the carts being set up. They were so happy! I loved watching it! If only I was so excited to do cardio ha ha.
Funny, we also spent $170 to rent the 100-400mm lens our Euro trip. While we rented it earlier this summer after my camera broke on the Vineyard and LOVED it for Bonnaroo, I agree that I wouldn’t use it again for a trip. Not only is it bulky, the zoom function which is why I really rented it was less than subpar. I was equally meh about it and probably won’t post any of those photos I took with it.
But! Can we get matching polar bear gear for our next winter trip together (in summer, we wear flamingos; in winter, polar bears?)?
Interesting! Yeah I wasn’t wowed. My photos had this strange impressionist-esque blur to them. But YES to matching polar bear and flamingo gear! Just ordered a flamingo swim suit last night… are you in my search history?! Ha ha!
HA! Remember my flamingo swimsuit I wore in Bonaire? You MUST bring yours (and your flamingo float) to Orlando so we can have a photo shoot!
If it arrives in time (ugh NO AMAZON PRIME AVAILABLE?!) you’re on!
This sounds like it was an amazing trip! Churchill in the summer sounds pretty cool, but i also can’t wait to read about when you head back for a winter visit 😉
There aren’t enough layers in the world to keep me warm… it will be interesting!
Really hope the dogs are in good care. I do not like to support animals for entertainment. That’s why I wouldn’t go for an elephant ride in Thailand or watch animal shows performing tricks. And I seriously hope will be the end of orcas in captivity in all marine parks.
Did you hear Seaworld ended their captive breeding program? They are taking care of the orcas they have currently in captivity for the rest of their lives, but no new ones will be introduced. Exciting moment for those who love animals!
You have a great blog here, miss 🙂
I am someone who plans to start a blog of my own, what do you suggest where I start? Where do I build my own site? Through wordpress? I need some advice.
Thanks Adam! I recommend checking out my obsessions page — there is a list of resources there that I used to build this very site! Hope you find it useful!
I’m sad your Churchill posts are coming to an end! I’m glad you gave the dog-sledding a chance. When done properly and by someone who cares deeply about their dogs, it can be a wonderful thing. For some northern communities, it can even be a potentially life-saving necessity (Balto, anyone?).
So true Marni! It is intertwined with the history of northern communities in a way I didn’t previously understand.
Hmmm… that’s definitely an interesting point about what I would call “pampering” my animal and what someone else’s definition is. It’s definitely an exercise for me to open up my mind and think that just because it’s different than what I would do, doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Thanks for sharing your experience!
That’s exactly what I took away from the experience. So important to consider another perspective, especially when a guest in someone else’s culture.
Such a surreal set of images, taking in Polar Bears during the summer months!
I have complete respect for Mushers and I believe the majority revere their animals, ever since first reading about the Idiatrod in Alaska!
Such a reliance between dogs and musher surely suggests most treat their animals well
I was skeptical, but this experience definitely opened my eyes. I’m sure there are bad apples out there as there are in any industry but what I saw at this kennel was a lot of love. It’s good to be challenged every once in a while.
Hi Alex ! I’m coming back to this post (which I really enjoy) because I stumbled accross a topic on a French backpacking group on Facebook. A girl was asking about info on how to go see the polar bears, etc and most of the responses were along the lines of “leave polar bears alone, it’s just disturbing and killing them even more” (on a pretty agressive tone). So I was interested in having your opinion on that kind of tours, especially since you said being skeptical about the dog sleding. Then what about invading the bears environment, etc ? I am myself really mixed about this, as I have done whale watching tours and it’s a similar subject I think… I need more opinions lol. Thank you !
Interesting topic. I definitely arrived in Churchill feeling like, “um, if there’s all this conflict between humans and bears, shouldn’t the humans just move?!” But even in my short time there, I begun to understand why people feel so deeply connected to this piece of Earth and why some would never even consider moving. Climate change is bringing forth enormous clashes between mankind and other species.
I can’t speak to all organizations but I know that Frontiers North was INCREDIBLY responsible, and we never behaved in a way that made me feel uncomfortable or like we were pushing the limits.