Polar bear tours are primarily held in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area, a provincially managed zone 25 kilometres east of Churchill. It has traditionally been one of the areas in which polar bears gather each fall. It has also become an area where tundra vehicles filled with eager tourists gather each fall.
There are eighteen permits issued for use by tundra vehicles. Starting at a place called Halfway Point, the polar bear viewing trails stretch another ten kilometres east to Gordon Point and the location of the original tundra vehicle lodge.
Many of the tundra vehicle trails near Gordon Point were first used when it was a military training grounds. The United States military first moved into the Churchill area in 1942. Practically overnight, they set up a tent city in Hudson Square, right in the middle of town and eventually developed an entire military community near the present-day airport.
In the early years, the Churchill area was primarily used for cold weather exercises to test both men and equipment. One of the few landmarks in the Wildlife Management Area is First Tower, a military observation tower, located near Gordon Lake. It is a holdover of the cold weather exercises held in this area. By the late sixties, the bulk of the military presence in Churchill had departed. With this decline in activity, polar bears began appearing in and around the community of Churchill.
Soon, a few local residents began offering polar bear watching tours on assorted off-road and track vehicles. Al Chartier was one of the first to head out to Gordon Point area via track vehicle for ‘nature’ tours. This started a wildlife viewing industry that is now over forty years old.
One of the more famous entrepreneurs was Len Smith, creator of the world famous Tundra Buggies®. These vehicles were first featured in the 1982 National Geographic special ‘Polar Bear Alert’. Tundra vehicles based on his design are now the primary means of viewing polar bears.
On average, about 300 polar bears pass through or near this area each year. Bears that choose to stay, generally become acclimatized within only twenty four hours, gaining confidence and an ease amidst the tundra vehicles.
How to Drive a Tundra Vehicle
While most polar bears are quite comfortable around tundra vehicles, it is important to understand their behaviour. The main challenge for any tundra vehicle driver is to anticipate the bear’s immediate behaviour. Often, a tundra vehicle can be positioned so that the bear’s natural path leads to a closer viewing opportunity.
Also, never underestimate the curiosity of a polar bear. If you have enough patience, the bear will often get up and walk over to the vehicle, just to check things out.
If a bear is already moving, just park and wait for it. Of course, chances are it has something else on its mind already and probably will not stay around your vehicle for long.
When approaching a resting bear, try not to drive straight towards the bear. An angled approach is much less likely to be taken as ‘aggressive’. There are three behaviours to watch for while approaching a resting bear. They signal the bear’s attitude towards the tundra vehicle. It is important to keep your hand on the ignition, ready to shut the engine down, as these three behaviours can occur over a few minutes or a few seconds.
First, watch for eye contact. Bears are extremely observant and will begin to watch potential threats without moving a muscle. Second, they may raise their head, lifting for a better view or nosing the air for an identifying scent. Finally, many bears will slightly move their paw if they are feeling uneasy. This signal at any time is a sign to stop immediately and let the bear decide matters from there.
Different bears have different ideas of personal space, some pass by Gordon Point completely, seen only as a distant speck; others walk or even climb right up on the vehicles.