The Polar bears of Churchill

Day 1

3am. Ouch. I should be used to these early starts now. I have caught coaches to the airport at around 4am for Brown bears, huskies, moose. Now I was jumping out of bed bright eyed and bushy tailed (I wish!) in the hope of viewing some Polar bears this coming week!

Everyone who asked me where I was going on my next trip would gasp and say “Amazing!” And I would cross my fingers and say “I hope so!” You never know with wildlife. They don’t always make a point of coming out and saying hello. But at the price of this trip I was hoping for success even if they did throw in a ticket to the luxury lounge at the airport! And a lot of good movies on both flights, first to Toronto, then to Winnipeg. After such a long day (and what felt like a bit of a grilling at Toronto- did I really look that shifty?), it was lovely to be stopping at a hotel right next to Winnipeg airport. Before the day was over (how many days- still the one!?) we got to meet our guide and everyone else on the tour. And pick up the warm clothes I had hired- very much needed!

Our guide was impressive, very welcoming, very approachable, I liked him straight away. And he said there had been a LOT of successful bear viewing on all the tours! This is exactly the right season, literally after our tour, when the temperature and the ice changes the bears will move on.

The company has a very good relationship with Polar Bears International, the polar bear conservation charity, and Churchill, the town that we were to spend the week seeing the polar bears, (polar bear capital of the world!) well, they are also passionate about conserving the bears. The polar bears have grown up with only the tundra buggies passing through, so they are perfectly used to them, hence why we are so lucky how close they come. With the extremely bumpy roads also helping to keep anyone else apart from the tundra buggies out!

Anyway, it was really fantastic to know how much this company really cared about the wildlife. How excited we all were to get to Churchill and get started!

Day 2

Not quite such an early start, but early nonetheless. All meeting for breakfast together gave everyone a chance to get to know each other. I was surprised to be the only one there from England! Everyone else were from Australia, Phoenix, Florida, Winnipeg, Switzerland, Germany. I did however happen to live in the same town as the Florida couple’s best friends that they stay with every year! Small world!

After a very delayed flight we eventually made it to Churchill. The snow had been too rough there when we first took off so we had to sit and wait and wait.

On the plus side, as soon as we made it to Churchill, we pulled over in the bus, because a polar bear had been sighted and was being transported back to the wild! In a small town like Churchill, the bears do sometimes venture a bit far! So after a rather slow start, we saw a polar bear straight away! Later on that day, we saw a fox too!

The rest of the day involved a tour of Churchill, a lot of beautiful snowy landscapes. I loved our accommodation and adjoining pub ‘The Tundra Inn,’ it was so cosy and characteristic. I could have stayed there a long time! I decided I love Canada!

Day 3

Polar bear viewing time!

After breakfast it was on board the bus followed by our tundra buggy and we were chugging along for the rest of the day on board. Huge white vehicles specifically built as the safest way to view polar bears for everyone involved. At the back, you can go outside, making sure you have no food or drink on you, or you can also get some brilliant photos from inside the tundra buggy with the windows open.

I spotted one of the first polar bears! It was like the Sweden wildlife trip again, the satisfaction of shouting “BEAR!” and watching everyone stand to attention!

And what an unbeatable sight! To see such a glorious animal mooching through the snow, something I had only ever seen on TV documentaries, right there in front of me in the wild…just breathtaking.

It took a while, but all of a sudden it was polar bear central! Normally around late morning on these tours you manage to come across a good sighting of a group and that’s a good opportunity for the morning coffee stop. And time to take millions of photos and videos. Ditto afternoon lunch stop.

We stopped to watch a group of sleeping bears. We kept thinking one of them was going to get up..a stretch every so often showing off some impressive, huge, hairy paws, occasionally putting his head up…but no. You can’t blame him, he looked very cosy!

We were very lucky to see a pair of bears sparring. Thought to be a pair of young males. Looked worse than it was. I imagine a real fight would be a lot more ferocious and probably blood involved! But we saw them standing on two legs, teeth bared, we could have watched them forever!

Grand total of twenty three bears spotted that day! What an experience! Both our guide and our driver said we were extremely lucky with our viewing so far with regards to the amount we saw and bear activity. Sparring, rolling in the snow, digging for food. But the following day of polar bear viewing was even better…

Day 5

What?! Where’s day four? Well, let’s face it, we’re all here for the polar bears, day four was great but it wasn’t a day on the tundra buggy, viewing polar bears. Climbing aboard that tundra buggy for the second time, I was buzzing.

We had a different driver and both drivers I thought were fantastic. Both kept us supplied with lots of goodies in the form of Halloween candy, cookies and Baileys if we so wished in our hot drinks!

With many years of experience between them, both had a lot to say which everyone wanted to hear, including an eventful story when a bear opened the door on one of them once!

Today we had a VERY close encounter. A polar bear was walking towards us getting closer and closer and before we knew it, he was right in front of our vehicle! All of a sudden, it was polar bear central all over again as one polar bear climbed up at the tundra buggy in front of us, and then went on to lick the tyres!

There is a lodge on wheels that people can stay in for a holiday during this season to view the polar bears all day and all of the night! It was by the lodge today where we stopped for a long while as the polar bears descended in large numbers! One of them was lying under the lodge!

We saw more bear sparring, which I couldn’t stop videoing. It was like being in any amazing wildlife documentary.

The cherry on top of the cake? The mother of all finishes to end this amazing day of spotting FORTY polar bears? A mother and two cubs! And in true finale style they kept their distance first of all, then proceeded to come closer. I’m not sure I will ever see anything as wonderful as the polar bears in the wild. This beats them all. I’m in love with polar bears and I’m in love with Canada!

Moose!

The highlight of the wildlife watching in Sweden was of course those beautiful brown bears, but the moose are up there too! I’m a little bit in love with reindeer, I’ve seen them in Finland and Swedish Lapland so I was very excited to see some moose!

The last night was the night in the bear hide, the night before we were on the river boat watching for beavers and other semi aquatics, moose were on the schedule for the first night!

This was my first proper wildlife watching holiday, rather than volunteering and I took to this sort of holiday straight away. Not really a surprise. Everyone has their eyes peeled looking out of the windows. Suddenly the lady next to me shouted, “Moose!”The van stops, we all spin round, and there is this huge, gorgeous, majestic moose, I am just in my element. I decide then and there that I’m a little bit in love with moose too, they are so beautiful, there is something so special about seeing animals in the wild!

I spotted the second one! Oh, the proud moment, being able to be the one to shout “Moose!”

A grand total of four moose spotted that night. On the second night we were on the lookout for wolf tracks, wolf howls, the sight of a wolf is very rare in the wild, but they are there! We had a rather unsuccessful, rather long and rather un glamorous night hiking and me being eaten alive, the mosquito s were so relentless. We had to ditch the usual plan of waiting for wolf howls, it was getting so late, two people had managed to fall over hiking (not me for once!). So we went to look for more moose! The night  definitely ended on a high as we spotted a moose, roe deer, fox cubs and finally a moose with twin babies! Fantastic!

Wildlife watching holidays are so much fun! When you get back home, you have to get used to not constantly keeping your eyes peeled and getting ready to shout “Moose!” or “What’s that, is that a deer!”

Wildlife watching in Sweden

The brown bears of Sweden

So far Sweden’s Mammals had not disappointed. We had seen moose in the wild, including a moose cow with twin calves. We had seen fox cubs, roe deer, mountain hares and beavers. Not to mention absolutely stunning scenery.

Now we were heading North, off to spot some brown bears, I was very excited! We met our lovely hosts and their very beautiful dog and we were given instructions, this was important so as not to jeopardise bear sightings! No coffee as it smells too strong, only tea. If you must talk, talk in hushed tones, as is the case whenever you want to see wildlife! Even if you need to sneeze or cough you need to muffle it. Sleep on your side, the bears don’t want to hear your foghorn snoring! My granddad wouldn’t have stood a chance when it came to sighting a bear! Work as a team, take it in turns to sleep but wake each other up if the bears come.

A ten minute drive, then a twenty minute walk up the hill to the bear hide, our home for the night. Our host left us with “If you hear knocking, you can open up, you hear scratching, maybe don’t!” Truly back to nature, and that is one thing I really loved about this holiday, so peaceful. The hide consists of a row of bunk beds, a row of chairs with a letter box sized window to look for the bears. And a toilet. Basic is so worth it for brown bears though!

I tried and failed for the first couple of hours to sleep as the bears are more active late at night. I wrote and wrote to pass the time, diary entries of the holiday. It did pass the time it got later and later I would pause to pick up the binoculars, this went on and on until I heard “BEAR!” Yes! The girl next to me had spotted them, a grand total of two brown bears, one very cautious and kept coming back and then running away at great speed, which was extraordinary, breath taking to watch. The other clearly had the munchies and just ate and ate and moved around to another spot and ate some more. A lot of time passed as we watched these bears. I was blown away. Nothing beats seeing these animals in the wild, I was sad when the experience was over. Just to see them running and observing and just showing their normal, natural behaviour, it was just unbeatable. They are so beautiful and they were really quite close too!

Our host was up early as promised in the morning to walk us back. I left with some beautiful, stunning bear photos and amazing memories, very happy and hungry for more wildlife watching!

Bear sanctuary in Romania- a place of beauty

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After my previous week away animal volunteering abroad, I was completely ready for another placement and to book another week off for more animal volunteering. I found a volunteer opportunity for a bear sanctuary in Romania online, and what really struck me was how well it looked like the bears were cared for. Unlike some places, their welfare really was absolute top priority, no tricks or gimics for the public, just beautiful wilderness enclosures where the bears can have everything they need and are entitled too, but have always been denied in their previous abusive homes. They are all rescue bears, rescued from many horrible, upsetting situations such as circuses, poor quality zoos and even outside shops and restaurants as a sad tourist attraction.

My favourite bear, Max, was rescued from someone who abused him, made him blind and used him as a tourist attraction.

After enquiring and hearing from a previous volunteer, I was quick to book. Part of the cost of the placement includes a donation to the sanctuary and I really wanted to help by volunteering.

So I arrived on the Friday, we then had the weekend to enjoy before volunteering all week, then going home. On Saturday, we were taken to the bear sanctuary to be shown around before volunteering. And I fell in love with the place! Around the mountains with lots of beautiful views, the best of all of course being the sight of all the bears, happy and with their every needs catered for! I met Max, my favourite bear, and was shown a video of him when he first discovered the water and was taking his first dip. It was very moving after his upsetting story, a bear who had known nothing but abuse now living like a bear should-with a good diet, a big pool of water and lots of wilderness and tunnels and dens.

We also met a bear who had previously been a circus bear, and was now free from having to perform and flip for her next meal.

I walked around, the whole place was really beautiful. It was a beautiful perfect home for the eighty plus rescued bears and also a small pack of rescue wolves, rescue donkeys and a lot of dogs!

So we got taken back to our accommodation, and us volunteers cable cared up to the big Brasov sign and took a long trek back down! After visiting Dracula’s castle on Sunday, it was time to volunteer.

As a volunteer, we had lots of privileges, we could walk around the sanctuary as we pleased, many dogs in toe, and observe the bears. There were lots of photo opportunities, and there was also huge steps with a high up lookout point where you can get a great view of the sanctuary and the bears and take lots of photos. It was up here that I had the highlight of my week, seeing Max get into the water and have a long bathe! He scrubbed himself with some shrubs too and lay back, orange in hand, the ultimate chilling pose! Next door was a bear up a tree! Opposite was one bear, enjoying the peace next to his pool.

We also had a cute bear follower, part of the volunteering was gardening, maintaining the areas around the enclosure, raking up the leaves and one bear took it upon himself to ‘help’ getting whatever wood he could find and taking it apart, as if he was trying to work too! Or he would supervise just watching us and following us around. And if he wasn’t supervising, the many dogs of the sanctuary were keeping us company, I was very, very happy to not be short on dog companions.

I love the bear sanctuary. Their welfare really was number one, top priority, possibly the best place I’ d ever seen for that. They have the public in, but not going around as they please just for guided tours, which the volunteers can help with. This is nice, because after what the bears have been through there s not too much exposure to the public and its as much like the wild as possible. Where they can’t be released back into the wild, because they wouldn’t survive, the sanctuary is doing the next best thing.

Back home I miss the bears, the dogs, the mountains, I love them all so much and have lots of lovely memories and photos!