My job as a Tundra Buggy Driver

Interpretive Guide and Tundra Buggy Driver JP McCarthy, like many of our guides and drivers, enjoys an adventure-seeking lifestyle that includes working seasonally doing what he loves. His winters are spent as a Ski Guide with Mustang Powder on the Monashee Mountains in British Columba, and his summers are spent working as a Rope Access Technician. In the autumn, however, JP has spent the past nine years helping our guests experience incredible polar bear adventures in Churchill, Manitoba.

This is an excerpt from a blog that JP wrote about his experience working in the Polar Bear Capital of the World. (Full blog post can be found here).   

In anticipation for winter, and to get a jump-start on adapting to the cold temperatures to come, I spend two months every fall in Churchill, Manitoba as an Interpretive Guide and “Tundra Buggy” driver for Frontiers North Adventures. The mission: to find and photograph the worlds largest land carnivore, the polar bear.

Previously to applying for this job nine years ago, I couldn’t have spoken a single word about this majestic animal other than “it’s white and big”. Today, after working closely with many biologists and reading countless books on bear biology and behaviour, I can easily recite to you their life cycle and tendencies, from copulation to death.

Nanook, the great bear of the north, is an apex predator and has shaped and modified human occupation of the north for centuries, long before the Hudson’s Bay Company established its first trading posts. So closely tied to our native communities, the polar bear commands respect and is revered with great regard as it travels quietly over unimaginable distances. For many this beast evokes curiosity and people from around the world come to Churchill to see and learn about polar bears.

You don’t have to be an eco-tourist, a photographer or even a bear enthusiast to fully appreciate a polar bear expedition in this otherworldly place at the centre of our great country. Hidden in plain sight, Churchill is becoming the focus of Travel Manitoba’s advertising campaigns. Just ask anyone who has been in one of Calgary’s retro-fitted LRT stations where major adverts have been posted, painted and glued on to every surface available from walls to stairs, floors and ceilings - even the trains themselves have been completely covered in polar bears, belugas and northern lights, three of Churchill’s major attractants.

Along with these, the town sits in the epicentre of three important converging biomes; the tundra, the boreal forest; and the ocean. This is why, in the same day, you can see arctic and red fox; arctic and snowshoe hares; black, brown and polar bears; and seals, beluga and orca whales. It is located under the most active part of the aurora borealis belt and has the single largest concentration of polar bear in the world as well as the most important beluga estuary on the planet. It is also littered in cultural history with Cree, Dene, and Inuit along with the Prince of Whales Fort from the Hudson’s Bay Company. Churchill is a place that every Canadian should see in at least one of its wildlife viewing filled seasons.

My job, as Driver and Interpretive Guide is to ensure a great experience to the viewer. This is by no means as easy as it sounds. Much like with ski guiding, everyone arrives with different expectations therefore pleasing everybody can be challenging. As a driver, it is paramount that I understand bears so that I can position my vehicle in a way that does not disturb the bear, and at the same time gets us up close and personal. One must also factor in wind to reduce vehicle movements for professional and amateur photographers as well as to limit the freezing cold air entering freely while windows are down.

The experience is unlike any other, with bears standing up and leaning on the buggies so you can see and hear their breath. Moms and cubs are a sensation as well as big males sparing. We see arctic fox and hares, interesting bird species like the white morph gyrfalcon. It is Canada’s most diverse safari and as such remains, in my mind, a must see to believe.

For more information on Churchill visit www.frontiersnorth.com or check them out on Facebook (Frontiers North Adventures).

Photo credits: JP McCarthy

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