24 massive polar bears! That’s the number of sightings during my one hour helicopter tour yesterday with Hudson Bay Helicopters in Churchill, Manitoba. I’d never seen a polar bear in the wild before. I’d expected to see a few during my trip to northern Manitoba; that’s why I came. It’s what I signed up for, but I never expected to see two dozen in one hour.
I arrived in Churchill yesterday morning and began my 7 day adventure with Churchill Nature Tours. Our first major experience was a one-hour helicopter flight over the city and the surrounding area. By luck, I was with the Vice President and pilot at Hudson Bay Helicopters, Derek Longley. He has a vast knowledge of area and knew exactly where to take us to see the most number of bears. I assumed the polar rovers would give me the best views, but I might have been wrong. The helicopter was able to take us places we couldn’t go in the rovers and in a much shorter time.
We arrived at Hudson Bay Helicopters at 2:45 for a 3 o’clock flight. Most tour flights that I’ve experienced in the past were about 20 minutes, but this was a full hour of air time. I worried about being cold in the helicopter but there was a heater next to my leg and I was warm and toasty the entire flight. Everyone had a window seat and the windows opened for the best photo shots.
Every time we saw a bear or a group of bears, Derek would give the people on the right and the left equal viewing time. I spent most of the time taking photos but I did put the camera down and take it in for myself. How many people have the opportunity to see polar bears in their natural environment while flying around in a helicopter? It’s moments like this that I need to take time for myself and enjoy it with all of my senses.
The first bear that I saw made my heart race. I couldn’t believe that he was directly below me. I was a guest in his home, but unlike the welcoming gorillas and chimpanzees in Uganda, these bears wouldn’t allow me to walk freely among them. They would rip me to shreds in seconds if I was on the ground and in the open. This isn’t Disneyland and they are man-eaters. Wild. Free. Hungry. They are beautiful from the safety of a helicopter.
Derek made sure that our group had the best flight experience possible. He didn’t rush or worry about the time. It was easy to see his passion for flying and for the wildlife in Churchill and it was contagious. I was giddy with excitement every time I saw a new bear. I was amazed at their size and surprised by their huge, furry paws. I don’t know what I expected for an animal of that size, but they were truly spectacular.
When I heard about the helicopter flight over Churchill, I was excited but I thought it would be mostly scenery and maybe a couple polar bears in the distance. This flight was polar bear after polar bear after polar bear in perfect view. It ran over the slotted hour and the pilot maneuvered like he was part of The Elite Helicopter Unit. We couldn’t stop talking about it for the rest of the day. It was an unbelievable way to set the tone for our polar bear adventure in Churchill.