Our safari started from Winnipeg, the capital city of Manitoba province, with snow falling on the day of arrival to set the tone for the remainder of our safari. Winnipeg is quite a charming city, with some great restaurants, a wonderful old hotel in which we stayed - the Fort Garry - and some interesting sights. While in Winnipeg we picked up our polar boots and parkas supplied by the safari ground handlers, Natural Habitat Adventures, and met our dedicated polar bear guide. Brad Josephs has been guiding polar and grizzly bear trips since 1999 and there's not much he does not know about these animals. We hope to work with Brad on all our future polar bear safaris!
Day one of the safari saw us take a chartered Boeing 737 to Churchill, about two hours north of Winnipeg, on the shores of Hudson Bay. We arrived to a wintery wonderland of snow as far as the eye could see, and a very frontiers-type village. After a hasty lunch we were fortunate enough to be able to witness a bear reloaction from the "polar bear jail" where bears that trespass into the town of Churchill are held long enough to realise Churchill is not a good place to be, then airlifted out some 30 miles onto the northern tundra to continue their migration northwards.
However, excitement was high for our ensuing adventures, and at breakfast the next morning, around 6am - still pitch dark outside - there was an excited hubbub in the dining room! One of our regular travelers, Greg, asked me what my hopes and expectations were for the day. I gave it some thought and raised my fingers - four. "If we see four polar bears I'll be totally happy," I replied. Greg told me he'd love to see a bear and two cubs...which I thought was setting the bar a bit high!
Well, to cut the story short - by lunchtime that day we'd seen a dozen bears, including a mum and two cubs right up alongside our tundra vehicle, the polar rover, several males sparring, and had two bears stand up against our rover in an attempt to see inside! Wow...mind blowing!!!
Life on the polar rovers is interesting, fun and exciting. They are spacious and quite comfy, huge and powerful. There's a propane heater in the back, but because we were a group of photographers, with cameras & condensation to consider, the inside temperature was kept relatively cool - read cold - so there was not too much condensation on cameras and lenses when venturing in and out (there's an open viewing platform out back). The rovers have a flush toilet on board, and hot soup along with tea, coffee or hot chocolate are on offer. I had an interesting experience when I placed my Coke on the floor during lunch one day, to find it semi-frozen when I picked it up a few minutes later! Most of the photographers enjoyed the added freedom of photographing on the open back deck, but it is difficult to stay outdoors very long when there's a gale blowing, and snow & ice are whipped in your face! On the first day I stayed outside for over and hour...and had my eyelid & lashes freeze closed! Brrr...
The land of the icebear is harsh indeed, but beautiful in its starkness. We enjoyed many stops to photograph the landscape, stunted spruce trees crusted with ice, frozen ponds with bear tracks crossing them, but most of all we enjoyed the polar bears and their antics. We had a number of sparring episodes, and a great sighting of a young male taking a snow bath right alongside the track on our second morning.
But back to the fire. As my friend Greg said the next day...you can sell this as the Fire & Ice safari, but it is not something we'd like to repeat. About 10 pm on our last night we got a knock on our door. I was about to get into the shower, having just completed our packing for the early departure next morning, so Sharna opened to find a member of the lodge management saying: "The hotel is on fire...please evacuate." Ever practical, Sharna turned to me and said: "I'm taking the cameras outside. Get dressed quickly." Fortunately both camera cases were ready pack, standing behind the door, so she picked them up and left the hotel by a back entrance near our room. Outside Sharna quickly did a head-count of our guests and saw that everyone was outside, apart from Greg and Mary. She immediately asked two of the hotel staff to move one of our elderly guests into a motor vehicle as she was standing inthe cold in a night-dress, sneakers and her parka. She then returned to the hotel to find Greg & Mary, whom she encountered walking down the passage carrying some of their baggage. Returning to our room, she urged me to hurry up - I was finishing dressing again - grabbed her clothing bag and a duvet off the bed, and once again left the hotel. I picked up my bag which was waiting fully packed on the bed, scooped the clothes we'd laid out to wear the next day into a black trash can liner I'd used to protect my cameras & lenses from condensation, and followed her out into the snow.
By this stage the Churchill fire department was on the scene, as well as buses from Natural Habitat into which all guests were shepherded out of the wind and cold. The hotel was not quite ablaze as yet, but thick toxic smoke was billowing from the building. getting on to the bus where most of our guests were, Brenda - a South African traveler - informed me that her passport was still in the building in her bag "on my bed."
I returned to the lodge and asked the fire chief if he could send someone into the room - I pointed it out to him - to collect the bag, knowing that a South African abroad without a passport faced many major obstacles! He responded that he was not interested in saving "personal belongings", so I decided to go in myself, skirting the fire officers who seemed to be having trouble getting water to flow through their hoses.
I made my way to Brenda's room, and there on her bed found the small brown bag she'd taken on the polar rovers each day, as well as a duffel bag with her clothing. I grabbed these and made a hasty exit, confident I'd saved her documents! But when she saw me Brenda wailed..."that's not my passport & cards, they are in my handbag, on the bed...or next to the bed."
So I went back to the hotel, where the firemen tried to prevent me from entering the building. Again I skirted them and went through a back entrance, made my way to the passageway where Brenda's room was located...and then as I entered the room the electricity exploded, lights went out and a cloud of smoke erupted through the floor. I was forced to beat a hasty retreat, empty handed! Many of our guests left the hotel empty handed, or relatively empty handed, though almost everyone else did take their passports etc with them. Some lost clothing, others cameras and cellphones. It was a traumatic night of fire amid the ice, one that most will never forget. I was relieved however that the Natural Habitat Adventures staff in Churchill and Winnipeg reacted so quickly and so well - as one of our guests, Mary, later said: "I do think Natural Habitat has handled the situation as well as anyone could have hoped for or expected. Thanks to you, Daryl, for choosing the best, as always."
Hopefully anomalies such as fires on ther tundra are a once-in-a-lifetime mishap. I certainly look forward with eager anticipation to the polar bear adventure next year.