Winter Wildlife Encounters: Polar Bears and Whales

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Few things compare to getting within two feet of a 1200-pound bear in the sub arctic or so near a gray whale in the Pacific that you can smell the fishy scent of his blowhole spray.

Whether you opt for polar bears and ice or whales and warm beaches, these wildlife encounters will turn winter from a boring to a brilliant season.

From the outdoor viewing platform, we watch the 10-foot tall polar bear, North America’s largest land carnivore, step slowly, but deliberately, ambling towards us across the frozen terrain of Churchill, Manitoba, Canada. When this arctic giant stops alongside our vehicle, he jumps up, presses his huge paws against our tundra buggy’s metal sides, and stares. Then, he raises his snout, the size of a man’s forearm, ever so slightly back and forth– the better to sniff us.

We stand transfixed, but surprisingly unafraid. Up-close, these bears with their round bellies, purple tongues and pigeon-toed gaits, remind us more of overgrown stuffed toys than vicious predators. Also, our super-sized bus’ glass windows as well as its outdoor, elevated deck remain reassuringly just out of the bears’ reach. Plus, Frontiers North, our outfitter, has been taking people on tundra adventures for years.

How much wildlife you see depends on the weather and the animals. About 1200 bears roam the Churchill area from mid-September to early November. They gather along the west shore of Hudson Bay, waiting for the water to freeze in order to hunt seals from the thick ice. When the bay turns solid, the bears depart.

On our three day trip in late October polar bears surround us. We sleep on the bears’ turf in a base lodge created by linking the stationary buggies into a train-like hotel. From the dining and parlor car windows, we observe bears rolling on their backs, juggling clumps of frozen kelp, or snoozing, nestled against snowdrifts. After breakfast each day, we board a roving buggy to search the flat landscape for more white giants. We come across mothers with cubs as well as males playfully rearing up to swat each other. We also see black ravens, fat as house cats, and arctic hares scampering through the willow banks.

One night a blizzard of thick snow and roaring gale winds literally rocks our lodge, but the next evening, the sky turns so clear that the northern lights, the Aurora Borealis, glow like godly fireworks, dancing across the heavens in undulating sprays of green, blue and white.

Alas, a polar bear safari comes with a few inconveniences. It takes a long time to arrive in Churchill; most arrangements require overnighting in Winnipeg. Although you can take day trips to the bears from town of Churchill, staying on the ice adds to the experience by giving you more time with the bears without seeing other buggies. However at the Tundra Lodge, you bed down in a single bunk-like train berth and share two toilets and one shower with 16 people. But for animal lovers like us, the Tundra Lodge is worth the trouble; the trip is one we’ll remember forever.

We spot the telltale heart-shaped spray not 40-feet from our skiff. Within seconds, the back of a 40-foot long Pacific gray whale breaks the surface. The whale then dives out of sight, only to reappear inches from our boat—so close that we can almost pat her barnacled head. Her curious calf rolls so close to the bow of our boat that we can hear the rhythmic whistle of its inhaling. Both cow and calf gracefully dive under our boat only to circle back to our port side.

For decades these whales have made the 5000-mile journey from Alaska to Magdalena Bay, Baja California where the protected lagoons provide safe havens for birthing and nursing. During prime whale season, February through mid- March, nearly 17,000 whales inhabit the bay.

On our family-friendly camping trip with Outdoor Adventure River Specialists (OARS), when we aren’t yelling “Thar she blows!” we swim, slide down sand dunes, sea kayak through a nearby mangrove estuary, and admire the night’s starry, starry skies.

Frontiers North Adventures:
204-949-2050, 800-663-9832,
Book well in advance, as polar bear season is short.

Outdoor Adventure River Specialists