Falling asleep among the polar bears

Imagine yourself in the middle of nowhere. No buildings, no crowds, no sounds of city life – nothing but the whistling of the wind and a great flat expanse as far as the eye can see.

It’s almost as if you are the last person on earth. This is how I feel as I stand on the observation deck at the Tundra Buggy Lodge.

Frontiers North Adventures’ Tundra Buggy Lodge sits at the edge of Hudson Bay on the tip of Polar Bear Point, so named for the seasonal residents that congregate in the area, awaiting the forming of the bay’s sea ice. Guests from all over the world travel to Churchill – the Polar Bear Capital of the World – to catch a glimpse (hopefully more than one!) of the world’s largest land carnivore.

The feeling of desolation found on the tundra disappears as soon as I set foot into the Lodge itself. It’s a warming atmosphere, not only temperature-wise, but for the soul as well. Gathered here are people from all walks of life who have an itch for adventure and a common desire to experience something amazing.

As I walk through the accommodation units – similar in style to train cars with sleeping berths made private with thick sound-dampening curtains – I nod hello to my fellow guests who are taking advantage of the peace and quiet of their bunks to look over their photos from the day. We had a very successful day out on the Tundra Buggy, seeing several bears and learning about their lives and habits from our guide, Hayley Shephard.

Hayley has been coming to Churchill as a guide for Frontiers North for over a decade. She is a wealth of knowledge and is eager to share that knowledge with anyone that is willing to listen; this is clear as I step into the lounge car, where I find Hayley surrounded by a semi-circle of guests who are listening to her talk about her Churchill experiences with the same look in their eyes you would find in children listening with rapt attention to their favourite storybook.  There’s only one thing that could tear the guests attention away from Hayley at this point – the call of “polar bear!” and the rushing of guests to the window to see one of the huge bears lumbering by outside the lounge window.

Polar bear sightings outside the Tundra Buggy Lodge are common. The Lodge is the only “building” for miles and if there is a bear within sight, they are often drawn to check things out. Polar bears are very curious creatures and are known to approach the Lodge to see if there might be anything edible to enjoy. Unfortunately for the bears, the Tundra Buggy Lodge is completely polar bear-friendly, meaning that there’s no way for the bears to gain access to anything that they might deem food. The Lodge is on wheels over five-and-a-half feet high and not one drop of food, water or waste touches the ground – it is completely self-contained. In fact, one of the first things we learn as we board the Tundra Buggy is feeding polar bears is illegal and punishable by a $15,000 fine . 

Not that bears don’t try – apparently this year the Lodge has been visited several times by a male bear known to the staff as “Sam”. Sam has made several (futile) attempts to gain access to the Lodge kitchen and thus the door through which the kitchen staff receives their supplies – about seven feet above ground level - has been given some extra security to deter further attempts. A poster bearing (ha!) a photo of the offender with scrawled text stating “Wanted: Sam for unlawful breaking and entering” is taped to the fridge reminding staff to be vigilant – and to keep a sense of humour about their neighbours in this very different neighbourhood.

Dinner at the lodge is an incredible experience – who knew in the middle of nowhere they would be serving gourmet meals? During our stay we’ve enjoyed chicken cordon bleu, bison lasagna, fresh green salads, delectable chocolate cheesecakes and other sinfully delicious desserts (I’m told calories don’t count on the tundra, thankfully).

Although the food is delicious and the accommodations are amazing, we were here for the bears! And bears there are, whether we see them while exploring the tundra on our daily Tundra Buggy excursions, or as we enjoy our meals in the dining car. One of the best features of the Tundra Buggy Lodge are the outdoor observation decks that connect the accommodations units to the lounge and to the dining car. These platforms are open to the elements, allowing for encounters with bears, photography opportunity and, if the sky is clear, incredible northern lights viewing.

All it takes is one moment standing in the cold clear air on the observation deck, surrounded by a flat and vast landscape, to realize how in the middle of nowhere we really are, and just how much it’s one of the best places in the world to be.

Writer: Brandi Hayberg

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