By Jen McNally, Adventure Prep Specialist at Natural Habitat Adventures
On a recent expedition to Churchill on Nat Hab’s Tundra Lodge Adventure, I was wowed to see polar bears in the wild. Within ten minutes of arriving at Nat Hab’s Tundra Lodge, a large female bear stood up on her hind legs right below us, sniffing at our boots through the metal grate of the viewing platform. My fellow travelers and I watched in complete silence and awe until she shuffled away. A man whose wife had given him this trip for his sixtieth birthday turned to me and said, with tears in his eyes, “I got to see a polar bear!” I felt it, too, the sheer joy and wonder that come from an up-close experience with a majestic creature in its natural habitat. We saw many more bears over our three-night stay at Tundra Lodge, including two young males sparring, bears joyfully rolling in the snow, and even a mother and cub, but that very first, very close encounter is the one that has stayed with me the most.
Besides the magic of seeing polar bears, what surprised me about my adventure was the breadth of unexpected experiences that didn’t involve bears. Here are six of them, in no particular order:
1. Watching an Arctic fox hunt for lemmings
While searching for bears from the Polar Rover one afternoon, we encountered an Arctic fox crisscrossing the tundra with purpose, occasionally stopping to turn her ear toward the ground. It was fascinating to watch this bright-eyed creature stop abruptly to listen or to stick her muzzle into holes in the snow, hunting for tiny lemmings, which make burrows in and under the snow. We watched her for almost thirty minutes, during which she pounced multiple times–in picturesque fashion–and was successful in her pursuit at least twice. We also observed a second Arctic fox in the same area, and the two briefly tussled when they accidentally crossed paths, not wanting to share those lucrative hunting grounds. Excitement on the tundra!
2. Viewing the aurora borealis
Upon arriving at the Tundra Lodge, I was charmed by the signs on the bedroom doors saying, “Please Disturb.” This means you’d like to be awakened if the aurora borealis is spotted. On our first morning, that’s exactly what happened, although I was sweetly notified by the giddy voice of a fellow guest who had spotted the spectacular sight on her way to the dining room for a cup of coffee. And there they were–beautiful, dancing green curtains of light.
Our Expedition Leader explained that due to its proximity to the Arctic Circle (and the Van Allen Belt), Churchill has some of the most intense auroral activity on Earth, with an average of over 300 nights of activity each year. Being able to see it, though, depends highly on weather conditions…and good luck. (Nat Hab’s Northern Lights & Arctic Exploration trips visit Churchill in the winter, when skies are often clear, increasing the odds of seeing the lights.)
3. Seeing the murals in town
In 2017, artist Kal Barteski created the SeaWalls Churchill project, bringing together eighteen artists from around the world to paint murals on buildings (and even on a crashed plane!) in and around Churchill. Many of these murals portray Arctic wildlife or honor Indigenous people, and all were meant to bring hope to Churchill’s residents after flooding washed out the rail line that year, further isolating the town for several months. On our last day in Churchill, we were lucky enough to get to see a few of these murals, which are not only beautiful but also deeply moving.
4. Standing at the edge of mighty Hudson Bay
I live in coastal Maine, so water views are not new to me. But there was something very special about standing at the edge of Hudson Bay, watching the waves crash ashore and imagining the bears soon making their way out onto a vast expanse of ice. A magnificent Inukshuk also graces the shoreline, a human-shaped navigational landmark traditionally built of stones by Inuit people throughout the Arctic. It’s a powerful reminder of the long history of Indigenous people in this area.
5. Meeting Dave Daley and his sled dogs
Dave Daley is a musher who grew up in Churchill. He is also a member of the Métis people and proudly shares his culture with visitors. I loved meeting his dogs and experiencing the dog sled ride through the boreal forest, but most of all, I enjoyed learning about his beliefs, language and people’s history. This was a fascinating and unexpected highlight of the trip.
6. Sunrise over the tundra
Watching the sunrise in a place where you cannot see any structures–or other humans–for miles is simply amazing. We were lucky to see beautiful sunrises at Tundra Lodge (no filter was used on these photos). The light reflected off the many pools of ice, creating a magical sight. What a wonderful way to start a day of adventures in nature!
The town of Churchill, the surrounding tundra, and its many inhabitants (both human and otherwise) provide a completely unique and unexpected adventure–even to the most experienced nature traveler. I hope to return to see the beluga whales that congregate at the mouth of the Churchill River in the summertime. Maybe I’ll even be lucky enough to see caribou, an Arctic hare or a snowy owl…plus, I hear the wildflowers are amazing!