Churchill Manitoba Polar Bears

Lightchase Photography Tour

November 2008


In November 2008, I took another trip with Lightchase Photography. This was different than my previous trips because it was for one primary see Polar Bears in Churchill, Manitoba. We started off our trip in Chicago, IL. Our tour began with a drive from Chicago to Thompson Manitoba. As we got near Pisew Falls, we were able to get out and take a few landscape shots.
Pisew Falls provided the perfect backdrop for a few winter shots. After leaving the falls, we finished our drive to Thompson and boarded the train to Churchill. The train often runs late, and our trip was no different. The train ride was scheduled to be about 20 hours long....which only seemed like about 40 hours. Due to the time of year we went, the ground was not completely frozen, causing the train to travel along at a slow pace. We traveled overnight, so at least we had a chance to get a little bit of sleep as we traveled. However, I couldn't really sleep. I spent most of the time looking out the window into the darkness and listening to the other passengers snore...they obviously didn't have a problem sleeping! The next day, we arrived in Churchill. As soon as we arrived, we were met at the train station by Lance Duncan, the owner of Duncan's Den, one of the B&Bs that would become our home for the week. Lance and Irene (his wife) were wonderful. I felt at home immediately. This was totally unexpected for me, since I had never really cared for B&Bs before. I soon learned that Duncan's Den had one more occupant that couldn't be ignored...Monte. He definitely thought he was in charge. After we unpacked and picked up the rental cars, we were off to try to find Polar Bears. Unfortunately, we didn't find any on our drive through the countryside. We did however see a fox or two and lots of bear tracks.
We stopped by to take photos of the Churchill sign, like all good tourists do. Our next day we arrived at the Tundra Buggy launch site before anyone else, even the drivers. We waited in our van for the drivers to arrive. After our driver got everything ready, we left on our first day of Polar Bear Exploration. It was amazing how quickly JP, our driver became part of our group. He was a welcome addition, bringing additional information about the bears and lots of humor . He also managed to always get us in the right place at the right time. Our first trip out, we spotted our first bear (the laying down next to the brush above). We stopped for everyone to grab a quick picture, as JP explained not to worry or waste too many shots because we would get much better opportunities. We continued on and found another bear, this one was on the move. He moved in front of the Tundra Buggy, and remained on the "road". So as not to disturb the bear, we stayed behind him, moving slow. You can see below, the view we had through our front windshield. Soon after we started this bear met up with another bear and started to play. It was fun to watch the interaction between the bears.
The bears then moved off and toward 2 other bears...we couldn't have asked for a better start! We decided we had enough shots of these bears so we headed off to find more bears. Just a few minutes later, JP got us in a great position to photograph this mother and cub.
As the mother and cub walked off, we noticed a Gyrfalcon hovering over a patch of brush. We knew this was something special when JP grabbed his camera and quickly started snapping photographs with us. After the Gyrfalcon flew off, we started on our way again. We continued to see bears throughout the day as the weather changed.
People always ask me how close we were to the bears. Here are some photos of a Tundra Buggy like ours and one of the bear encounters. We were fortunate to have one bear jump up on the side of our buggy, just like this one did.

Our first day ended with a few ptarmigan and a beautiufl view of the area. Finding a whilte bird in the snow is always a challenge. The sky was getting dark and this bear took advantage of a little bit of cover to get out of the wind and snooze. It was a fantastic first day out with bears. We were scheduled for every other day out on the Tundra Buggy. Another pleasant surprise was that JP was scheduled to be our driver all 3 days. Our next day in Churchill, we had arrangements to go dog sledding. Our arrangments were made with Blue Sky Bed & Sled, which was where the 2nd half of our group was staying.

As our next Tundra Buggy day started off, we picked up JP on the way out, so we could be the first ones out on the tundra. On the way out we told JP that there were 2 things we wanted to see this day. The first, was 2 males sparring and the 2nd was a mother with 2 cubs. We arrived and headed out, well ahead of any of the other tundra buggies. However, our quick start was quickly derailed when an "ice bridge" collapsed under us. We were completely stuck. Looking out the back of the buggy window, the buggies behind us looked like they were sitting on a steep hill. It was, however, us that was off balance (a phrase that could be used even when our tundra buggy was level!). We were quickly towed out of the creek by another buggy. After we were towed out of the creek, JP and the 2nd driver were out assessing the situation and started "sparring", just like polar bears. We couldn't help but laugh and try to snap pictures of them. Even though we were stuck, JP had already ensured we saw the first thing on our list for the day (guess we should have specified male POLAR BEARS sparring. We had definitely lost our lead as one after another Tundra Buggies stacked up behind us. They called in a dozer to fill in the "bridge" so we could all cross the area. After our exciting start, we were finally able to get going again. It wasn't long before we began to see Polar Bears again.
We had the chance to photograph the bears with the bay in the background. A mother with 2 cubs. We were able to check off the 2nd thing off our list for the day.
This mother kept a watchful eye out for any other bears in an effort to protect her cubs. She quickly moved them off as another bear moved into the area. As the male moved into the area, we were in the perfect position to photograph the bear with a little iceberg in the background. It was a perfect opportunity.
If there's one thing that's more difficult to find than an white bird on a snow covered landscape, it's an Arctic Fox on a white covered landscape in the middle of a snow storm and blowing snow. This was our only chance to photograph this little guy.
We finally found another one of our little white critters....A Snowshoe Hare. We saw this snowshoe hare run up and stop a little distance in front of the Tundra Buggy. It was amazing to see how he just disappeared as soon as he stopped, blending into his background so well. He wasn't close enough to get a good shot. We were discussing how great it would be to see a him closer when the bear we were watching moved in the direction of the hare. He turned and ran back by our Tundra Buggy, and stopped right next to us...another perfect opportunity! Once again, we were in the perfect location...Thank you JP!
By the end of the day, we had an opportunity to see 2 male polar bears sparring! Actually it was our 2nd chance for the day, only this one was a lot closer than the first. As we were heading back to the launch, we stopped to photograph a couple of ptarmigan. About that time a whole flock of them landed directly in front of our buggy. Shortly after that we were on our way back to the launch for the evening...when we ran out of gas. Another great adventure, we got to transfer from one tundra buggy to another out on the tundra. They backed one buggy up to ours and opened the tailgate for use to move from one to another.
Our next day in Churchill, we decided to go out and try to find luck with the moose, but we had a beautiful snow covered landscape to enjoy on our drive. As we started off our 3rd day, one of our vehicles had a frozen emergency break, making it impossible to drive, so we had to put 12 people (our group & JP), along with all of our photography gear and supplies for the day into one van. Needless to say it was a little bit cramped. Felt kinda like you would imagine the little clown car with endless supply of clowns exiting. November 17th we headed out on our last day on the Tundra Buggy. We knew how fortunate we had been with the bears as well as the weather. We couldn't have asked for anything more for our adventure...except for some shots in the sun. We found this bear rolling in the snow and enjoying himself.
One other thing that made this day unique was that the ice had moved into the bay, providing us with a very different look for the background as well as different behavior from the bears. As we started watching these two bears, one decided to give us a little show and climb up on the ice as he walked off. The other, not to be outdone, took a different route so we had yet another unique opportunity.
It was fun to watch this bear test the ice as he moved across. As you can see, he has an extremely wide stance to distribute his weight out on the ice.
The sun finally came out and provided a very different look for the bears.
Our final bear encounter for the day was fantastic, actually the trip was a memorable one. JP got us positioned right in front of a mother and two cubs.
While mom was taking a nap, this little cub decided to play. It went up on the snow. It was acting like it was stalking a seal. He would move up and then pounce in the snow. There were several tundra buggies in the area watching this little group.
We were there for a couple of hours, snapping away. It was an incredible encounter.
After our final day with the bears, we had the next day off, while we waited to depart on the train for our long ride back to Thompson. Once again our plans were about to change. We found out that the train had broke down and was running late. We waited around for several hours before finding out that the train would not be arriving that day. Instead, they were going to fly everyone out. It was great that the trip back would take about 2 hours rather than the 20 hour train ride, however it also brought about a few problems. Thompson was apparently a popular location because every hotel, every room was booked up. Our fearless leader spent hours on the phone begging and pleading for any available rooms. He came through and was able to find us all rooms for the night. We ended up at 3 different locations, but we all had a bed to sleep in. The next morning, we headed out for our long drive home. Our first stop, for sunrise was at Pisew Falls. Although this tour was different than any of my other Lightchase Photography Tours, it was an incredible experience.
Although this tour was different than any of the other Lightchase Photography Tours I've been on, it was an incredible experience. We couldn't have asked for a better opportunity with the bears. I would like to thank Lance & Irene at Duncan's Den for helping us out in so many ways and for providing a wonderful relaxing comfortable place to call home for the week. And of course, there's Monte, who was always there to welcome us home and greet us in the morning. I'd also like to thank JP for always getting us into the right place for some of the most incredible polar bear encounters, you're the BEST! Last, but certainly not least, I'd like to thank Mark for all the work and planning you put into all of your tours. After my 10th trip, I'm still having fun and learning new things that improve my photography! Most of all, thank you for your friendship and for making each trip an incredible experience.