Tuesday 27 September 2022 – The plan for the day was simple – get out on a Tundra Buggy and find polar bears. So, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and breakfasted, we got on the bus and Joe took us for a half-hour drive to the Buggy Dock
where number 15 was to be our chariot for the day.
We were a small group, so there was plenty of room to spread out in a nice warm cabin.
Our driver was “Buggy Bob”, a man of great experience in driving these great big things across terrain which is tricky, but not impossible; we would go along old tracks originally created by the military in the 1940s and not deviate from them in order to minimise disturbance to the local wildlife. This is Buggy Bob.
I reckon he looks a lot like Sean Connery in The Hunt For Red October, but Jane disagrees.
The ride in these great beasts is not the smoothest, as it’s over very rough terrain, including places where water has covered the trail.
I want to give you some idea of how ungentle the ride is, but unfortunately “buggy” also applied to the software for my stabilising gimbal which I use with my mobile phone. I couldn’t get the two to co-operate and so this is the best I could do under the circumstances. I will try to get you a better impression during tomorrow’s ride.
We covered about 25 miles in 6 hours, so progress is barely above walking pace. But it’s a good way of seeing the wildlife without the risk of attack from a disconcerted bear, and it’s warm (the temperature outside was about 4°C and the brisk wind was once again of the lazy variety, so it gets my vote).
The scenery is at times quite striking, with fall colours becoming more and more established.
We passed near the accommodation buggies of a tundra lodge offered by another tour company
and were near the Churchill River when an excited cry went up as someone spotted what might have been a Beluga Whale swimming along. So we stopped for a closer look. Many people were delighted to have seen these Belugas, but frankly I found it difficult to be greatly moved, as this was the scene.
The Belugas are the white flecks towards the middle of the picture. Even zoomed in, they don’t, to me, present a scene to get excited about.
There were apparently some Eider ducks to be seen, too.
If you zoom in, they are the little black dots just above where the waves are breaking.
There was more excitement as we saw bear footprints – an adult and a cub, apparently.
The next excitement was the sighting of a bald eagle.
Yes, there it is.
But then it flew away.
Jason, one of the tour leaders reckoned he saw a beaver.
It turned out to be a muskrat.
We passed a site where Frontiers North are establishing their own residential lodge in the midst of all this tundra.
This will be fully commissioned and operational within a couple of days to receive the first guests of this year’s Bear Season (basically October and November).
There was even more excitement as we saw a Tundra Swan – the second largest bird in North America behind the Trumpeter Swan, Mark tells us. In the end, we saw it was a family of two adults and four cygnets, who took one look at us and moved away, slowly and with dignity.
Mark diverted us for a while with an explanation of why these Spruce trees have grown the way they have – clumped together, bushy at the base and scraggy at the top.
The weather is the driver of this. Ice particles driven by the wind strip the upper branches back; snow covers the ground to a depth of two feet on average and stops this happening for the lower branches. The short growing season and the snow also prevents the normal conifer reproduction method of dropping cones with seeds in them. Instead, the branches grow round and back down to the ground and “sucker” new growth before themselves dying back. Apparently beneath the little “skirt” of branches the temperature can be up to 10°C warmer, helping the trees establish an underground network for spreading through the permafrost and providing a congenial microenvironment for small creatures.
We saw some snow geese. They heard us coming and flew away.
Later, we came across an unusual sight, which was a single snow goose, just wandering around seeking food.
Then someone saw a Ptarmigan.
Bob confirmed it as a Willow Ptarmigan. Excitement mounted as we saw there were several,
all with the distinctive cute feathery leggings.
The scenery continued to be striking at times.
In the photo above, you can see that the path leads in to water, and so we relied on Bob’s skill and experience to get us through safely.
And then it was 4pm and we were back at the Buggy Dock.
This was an opportunity for a group photo (to be published when I can get my hands on it). Notably, there was an armed Bear Guard on duty (shown here chatting to Bob) whilst we were outside the Buggy.
I can’t imagine why, because there weren’t any fucking bears anywhere around. To prove this, Joe took us on a drive round the back roads in the bus, past various locations such as the “golf balls”,
that once housed radar tracking technology for the rockets that were tested hereabouts, and the shipwreck,
the rotting remains of a ship called the Ithaca which ran into trouble in the 1950s when ice crushed the rudder into the propeller and has been abandoned there ever since.
But no bears.
I took a couple more pictures of the town of Churchill as we headed back to the hotel, which add to its strong identity as a frontier town.
But no bears.
And that was it for the day, for me at least. After dinner, Jane went to a talk given by a trapper, but I stayed behind to deal with the recalcitrant gimbal and to see what photographs could be rescued from a day which had, apart from the bird life, featured a bear minimum of activity. We go out in the buggy again tomorrow, with our fingers firmly crossed for the polar opposite of today’s searching. I hope you will come back to find out how we got on.