Churchill, Canada is the self-proclaimed “polar bear capital of the world”, on the edge of Hudson’s Bay just below the Arctic Circle, where the bear population easily outnumbers the town’s 1,000 year-round human residents.
Yes, I saw plenty of polar bear on a recent visit, and also beluga whales and caribou.
Standing on its hind legs, an adult male polar bear can reach 18 feet or more, so you don’t want to be in a cute little subcompact car, or even a pick-up, that a curious bear could push over or climb on.
The “tundra buggies” that carry tourists for close-up views of these phenomenal animals are bigger and tougher than the bears. Think school bus on steroids.
These are special vehicles, purpose-built mostly from scrap metal and spare parts in a town where it can get to 50-below in winter.
The tundra is super-fragile, with about one-inch of topsoil that somehow manages to sprout inch-high wildflowers each Arctic summer, when temperatures can soar to 75 degrees.
There is absolutely no off-roading in any season, snow and ice, or rock and mud.
“Any tire tracks would stay there forever, since the land never regenerates,” George Crombie told me.
He’s the garage manager for Frontiers North, one of Churchill’s tundra bus operators, which coined the phrase “tundra buggy”
The tires are as tall as I am, which is five feet.
Height is important when you are slogging through three feet of melted ice, as we did on one outing, and so that curious bears can look in, face-to-face with delighted tourists on the other side of the windows.
There’s a wide center aisle between two rows of seats, so you can move around easily with your camera or binoculars, plus an outdoor animal viewing deck in the back for when the bears are safely distant.
Top speed is around seven miles per hour, which feels fast when you are bumping through bear-size potholes, even on gi-normous tires.
The Frontiers North tundra buggies sit atop an International Truck DT466 chassis with a 210hp diesel engine, and heavy-duty 66×43 tires similar to those used by massive agricultural combines.
Between normal wear and cracking from the extreme cold, each $3,000 tire (plus $800 shipping) lasts around five seasons, then gets recycled, usually sent to ranches in Canada or the U.S. to fill with grain as cattle feeders.
Everything is recycled in Churchill. The local road ends just a few miles out of town, so the only way anything gets here is by train – two days from Winnipeg, one from Thompson, where the highway ends – freighter, or plane. I flew from Winnipeg.
Residents joke that the only thing that leaves Churchill is tourists. Vehicles certainly don’t.
My rental was a 1995 Ford F-150 truck with 214,000 kilometers, a tape cassette in the dash, and a reassuring rumble each time I turned the ignition.
GPS? You don’t need it. Besides, there is no satellite coverage here.
That’s ironic, since Churchill was an important early warning station during the Cold War for American and Canadian military guarding against a Soviet invasion.
That’s when the roads were built. The old radar stations still stand outside town, now used as an environmental study center.
Another irony is that although my smartphone had no service, my hotel had high-speed DSL. People communicate here via old-fashioned landline phones. Tour guides, police and rangers use walkie-talkies.
Because of the bears, everybody leaves vehicles unlocked with keys in the ignition, just in case somebody needs a quick getaway.
No kidding – I saw polar bear footprints in the sand on the beach two blocks from my hotel. Trust me – I walked back to my hotel immediately, looking around with each step.
The afternoon I hiked with a local guide, he was carrying a rifle powerful enough to stop a bear in its tracks, if needed. We didn’t.
Crombie joined Frontiers North after several years in Afghanistan as a civilian master mechanic, teaching U.S. Marines and Canadian soldiers to fix anything.
Now, he teaches Inuit high school kids (in the U.S., we call them Eskimos) from Churchill and nearby villages to build and maintain a dozen or so tundra buggies.
He said the toughest part of his job is finding eco-friendly, bio-degradable products, especially anti-freeze. Many green products just don’t work at minus-30, and many companies just won’t ship to the Arctic.
If you go: The official website is Churchill.ca.
I stayed in the Tundra Inn, one of five hotels and B&Bs in town. The most upscale is Lazy Bear Lodge, a log-style lodge.
In summer, you can kayak or swim with beluga whales. In winter, the best bear-watching is via multi-day trips in motel-like tundra buggies that sleep up to 40.