POLAR BEAR EXPRESS & RV CARAVAN
December 5, 2008
Filed under Camping Destinations
When it’s the first week of October and you’re in North Dakota, you can rest assured that summer is over. Stopping in at the Devil’s Lake Wal-Mart, we made our first purchase of foul weather gear when we threw down 88 cents for a windshield ice scraper.
Rubbing elbows with duck and goose hunters who were making last minute purchases to support their habit, we grabbed our ice scraper, a cup of coffee and set out on the remaining leg of our journey to the International Peace Gardens on the North Dakota/Manitoba border. Here we would rally with 20 other RV adventurers and begin an odyssey that would take us to the land of the polar bears.
We could have patched together an endless number of details that go into planning such an adventure, but we wanted it to be effortless. We also wanted the wisdom of a wagon master and a tail-gunner who had previous experience coordinating and guiding RV travelers like ourselves on this adventure. Fantasy RV Tours, one of a couple of RV caravan companies offering this adventure, was our host.
Fantasy handled all of the planning and the campground reservations. They arranged for the guided tours and featured gourmet dinners (many were included in the basic price). On many mornings, the Fantasy wagon master (husband and wife team) had coffee and doughnuts waiting outside our Air Stream Safari travel trailer.
We found the comradely of sharing this unique destination with others to be one more reason for using the services of an RV caravan company. Late each afternoon, we were briefed on the next day’s activities, and in the morning when we departed, were led by the wagon master.
The Fantasy tail-gunner (also a husband and wife team) was always the last to depart in the morning and the last to arrive at the next campground at night. The tail-gunner was always there, always available, should anyone experience any kind of difficulty. Simply put, their mission was “to help.”
Every RV is required to carry a CB radio so everyone—the wagon master, the tail-gunner and each other—is in touch at all times. The wagon master also uses the CB radio to point out and explain places of interest as the caravan rumbles along. A Fantasy RV Caravan permits people to travel solo or with another RV to the next campground. The choice was ours. It’s a great way to travel.
Winnipeg—the Capital of Manitoba—is a cultural crossroad. French, Ukraine, German, Polish and Italian quarters are all represented here, as are all of the arts. And for the sportsman, the Red River (that runs through the city) yields trophy catfish. Touring the city, we stopped at the Museum of Natural History, a must-see place when visiting Winnepeg, for it tells the story of a once raw land and the people who carved a home out of this wilderness.
But the city is not what Manitoba is really about. It’s truly a big, wide-open and wild place. Working our way north to Thompson (500 miles above the International Border where we would leave our RVs), a subtle transition from fertile farmlands to wilderness took place. Spotting caribou, eagle, bear and even an occasional wolf, the October skies were laced in every direction by the V-shape formations of migrating geese heading south. And like a giant magnet, Manitoba’s lakes and streams draw anglers from all directions, whose quest is to land a trophy.
With reserved RV sites waiting for us in Dauphin, The Pas, North Lake and Thompson, we were hosted to everything from mining museums to gourmet dinners. But it was in the tiny town of Thompson (where the road literally ends) that we would leave our units and board an overnight train (with sleeper accommodations) for the final leg of our journey to Churchill on the Hudson Bay.
Served dinner onboard the train and then lead to our own sleeping compartments, we woke up in the morning as the train pulled into the Churchill station. Here our tour guide met us for a day of touring the greater Churchill area that included ship wrecks, 19th century forts, a cargo plane wreck that happened 25 years ago and where everyone walked away (the plane is still almost intact), and the city’s museum. All meals were included during our stay in Churchill, as were our hotel accommodations that we enjoyed for the next three nights.
BUGGIES AND BEYOND
Motorized, four-wheel-drive touring platforms called tundra buggies are built right here in Churchill for the express purpose of taking visitors out among the polar bears so they can safely and comfortably experience these beautiful giant behemoths. The buggy is heated and has bathrooms. The driver, who also functions as naturalist/guide, serves hot beverages, pastry (baked fresh daily at the local Gypsy Bakery) and lunch. It’s the best of all worlds, and for three days we were able to get up close and personal with 25 different polar bears. For the photographers in the group, this was heaven!
Polar bears can grow to weigh as much as 1800 pounds, and for a short distance, can run as fast as a quarter horse. And although they look “cute and cuddly,” they are dangerous predators who are the pinnacle carnivore in their environment. These white giants demand respect.
Beginning about the end of September, the polar bears start a migration north along the shore of Hudson Bay (as they have done for thousands of years) to where they wait near the town of Churchill until the Bay freezes over. Then once again they can go out on the ice and hunt ring-neck seals (one of the polar bears favorites) until June.
What Churchill has done to protect the bears is to create a safe zone for the bears outside the Churchill City Limits. However, there occasionally are troublemaker bears who venture into town. When they do they are trapped and placed in a polar bear jail to wait until the Bay freezes. While in jail they are given only water, and have no contact with humans. Giving food to the bears is strictly prohibited, for it makes the bears associate humans with food, which further aggravates the situation.
The polar bear management program that Churchill has put into place has proven to be a successful way to bring about a peaceful coexistence between man and bear. Because 1000-plus polar bears migrate through here at the same time each year, tourism to Churchill to observe and photograph these creatures from the comfort and safety of a tundra buggy continues to grow.
We were completely awe-struck during this entire tour. The beauty and majesty of the wild countryside and its bountiful wildlife; the friendly citizens, cities and towns; and the camaraderie, comfort and security of traveling with a group, made this fantasy trip a real-life adventure.
FANTASY RV TOURS