Who wouldn’t be keen on joining a naturalist-led group of wildlife watchers on a safari to observe, learn about and photograph five of Canada’s top mammals, including polar bears? You can do just that in Riding Mountain National Park and Churchill in Manitoba, Canada.
I couldn’t wait to join Frontiers North’s eight-day Big 5 Safari. This Manitoba outfitter meets guests in Winnipeg, Manitoba, where everyone gets to know one another, have dinner, and spend the night at Four Points by Sheraton.
Day two saw us depart for Riding Mountain National Park, roughly three hours’ drive west of “the Peg.” Here we spent two days seeking black bear, plains bison, and moose – and whatever other critter passed our way.
Then? Off we flew to Churchill, northern Manitoba, seeking polar bears and beluga whales. Staying at the Tundra Inn and having free time allowed us to explore and get a sense of what it’s like to live in a remote northern community on Hudson Bay.
What astonished me is how polar bears affect life here… but more on this later.
In a nutshell, that’s what Frontiers North offers us… but let me say this: I’ll never, ever forget this trip because of the informed guiding plus simply stellar opportunities to see animals in their environment.
Mother Nature Rules
Naturally, Frontiers North cannot guarantee wildlife sightings. For instance, by chance, we didn’t see black bears in Riding Mountain.
However, we did see the plains bison herd complete with calves, bulls and cows – plus two moose.
In Churchill? When kayaking in Churchill Bay, suddenly we were surrounded by about 100 belugas which rose, blew, inhaled, and dove in unison.
It was spiritual, where the orchestrated symphony of sound and movement evoked a sense of being in “Mother Nature’s womb” – unforgettable. And the polar bears? Elegance personified.
We watched them swimming in the ocean and patrolling boulder-strewn beaches where their casual confidence betraying their role as top predator.
But, what was the Big 5 Safari like in these oh-so-different environments?
Riding Mountain National Park (RMNP)
It’s a rich environment supporting not only the three mammals Frontiers North hopes we’ll glimpse, but also wolves, coyotes, fox, lynx, beaver, elk, deer and more. So it’s important to keep one’s eyes peeled, constantly.
Fescue prairie is full of wildflowers such as monarda, harebell, fireweed and yarrow. And as any photographer knows, it’s exciting to capture the impression of landscape – even on a misty, drizzly day, photos of raindrop-draped spiderwebs are gorgeous.
Travelling along the Park’s roadways in Frontiers North’s Shuttlebug shuttle bus offers good opportunities to spot bears, moose and bison – and drivers were happy to go out at dawn and dusk, the best time to find wildlife.
A cluster of cars on our first day revealed a bull moose: the 2-metre or so span on its antlers made me wonder yet again how these giants can possibly pass between tree trunks.
Suddenly, it slipped into the woods. The moment was gone, and everyone erupted into excited chatter.
There’s nothing like an early spotting to get one’s adrenaline pumping. During our two days here, we hiked the grasslands and aspen forest – and drove into the plains bison enclosure.
Before departing, we were given the option of a dawn drive – I jumped at the chance, spotting my second moose, this time a female grazing on water lilies.
Even though Parks Canada maintains a herd of 30 individuals or so at Lake Audy enclosure, these large creatures are surprisingly elusive.
We were lucky: the herd milled about our bus, giving great views of cows and calves and (thrillingly) several bulls, whereas other people we met at Parks Canada’s visitors centre saw none.
Indeed, our shuttlebus was forced to stop several times because the herd nonchalantly wandered into the road, ahead of us.
Mothers nursed their calves; bulls eyed one another warily – and one mounted a female, giving us an up-close-and-personal view of mating procedures…
At the visitors’ centre, a Parks Canada interpreter spoke about this species which once roamed North America’s plains in herds of hundreds of thousands.
Their thundering hooves caused the earth to tremble… and First Nations Plains peoples depended upon them for food, shelter, tools and clothing. However, when Europeans arrived with firearms, bison were almost exterminated.
Transit from RMNP to Churchill
On day 4 Calm Air whisked us 1,500 kilometres from Winnipeg to Churchill: this flight is an eye-opener where Manitoba’s vastness reveals itself.
First we flew above the gleaming expanse of Lake Winnipeg and then we were into the northern boreal forests, which give way to tundra landscape.
It’s a spectacular journey where lakes twinkle below and the tundra’s flatness seems unending.
Churchill’s small airport accentuates the fact we’ve landed in a remote northern frontier town where residents tend to be characters.
It’s what I’d expected: to me, remoteness breeds a certain tenacity, wit, and self-assuredness – and Churchill’s characters are nothing if not self-reliant.
Everyone wants to see a polar bear and truly, from the moment we alighted we realized we’re in “PB” territory.
Did you know Churchill has a polar bear jail? Did you realize the Royal Canadian Mounted Police drive around, looking for people wandering the streets if a “PB” has been spotted?
Something else I didn’t know? As a wildlife watcher and keen outdoorswoman, I love beachcombing and exploring trails solo. Well… that’s not allowed. Bears can and do resemble the large boulders strewn about the shoreline.
’Nuff said. I had to curb my zeal for solo exploring. And, when we spied our first bear from Frontiers North’s Tundra Buggy, I understood.
Polar bears are the largest bear on Earth and, when we glimpsed one swimming powerfully to a beach, walking out and shaking itself like a dog, well… it was impressively fast, agile – and huge.
We spied several bears: on the beach, in the ocean, lying amid the boulders on shore, and strolling the tundra.
One of our guides, Paul Ratson, took us to his home where we saw his bear-proofing techniques. Not only does he have electric fences ready to give bruin a jolt, there are bear “mats” – metal “rugs” of spikes plus an enclosure protecting his door.
Moreover, guides on the nature tours have rifles slung over their shoulders – and will use them if necessary. Happily, our hunt remained solely a photo-safari but the message is clear. Although bears look cute… they’re dangerous.
So, as I mentioned above, bears rule in Churchill – until, that is, they become unruly. Persistent bad behaviour lands them in the jail where they are not fed, then released far, far away where hopefully, they’ll decide not to return.
Naturally, the vast expanse of Ocean is a haven for wildlife and here at Churchill, the “smiling” white whales represent the fifth “Big 5.”
Again, Mother Nature dictates sightings: there’d been stormy weather immediately before we’d arrived, so the ocean was cloudy. However, the next day, fortune smiled. En route to Fort Prince of Wales National Historic Site of Canada we spied them: white forms in a cobalt sea. Sensuous, they rise and fall in the waters, sometimes turning their heads to get a good look at us.
Some of us opted to kayak in Churchill estuary and that’s when the belugas surrounded us. A storm had just passed: we paddled out accompanied by a black sky, thunder, and persistent drizzle.
When the clouds parted, sun briefly emerged, and the glistening rocks became a background to the belugas encircling our kayaks. We fell silent as the belugas performed their breathing and diving ballet.
Suddenly, a white form glided toward me. I bent over as the beluga stopped, twisted sideways and, in a heart stopping moment of intimacy, we regarded one another. It dove beneath my kayak, giving it a playful bump, and swam to rejoin the perimeter of whales. Magic!
Frontiers North’s Big 5 Safari? Is it worth it? Oh yes. I’d return in a heartbeat. Truly, this trip reveals why Travel Manitoba’s slogan is… “Canada’s Heart… Beats.”
Go. Experience. Be as overwhelmed and thankful amid nature as I was.
Looking for more things to do in Manitoba? Here’s why a Winnipeg winter can be a lot of fun.