Jill Goes to Cape Churchill

Posted Dec. 8th, 2013 by Jill Mangum

November 17, 2013

I’m about ready to head out on my first journey to Cape Churchill along the shores of Hudson Bay. I’ll be volunteering for Polar Bears International during my time there. Each year, Frontiers North Adventures generously provides Tundra Buggy One to Polar Bears International in order to bring the world of the polar bear and other arctic animals to those around the globe.

I’m a little nervous about being on a the Tundra Buggy Lodge for a week straight without touching the ground, but am very, very excited at the same time – polar bears, the tundra, arctic fox – and the adventure begins with a flight out of Bozeman. I’ll arrive in Winnipeg in late afternoon and spend the night here and then fly out to Churchill the following day. Here we go!

Polar Bear at Cape Churchill.

Polar Bear at Cape Churchill.

November 18, 2013

A bright and early morning today for our charter flight to Churchill. We are in flight by mid-morning and on our way north. Aside from a train, a plane is the only way to get to the small town of Churchill, Manitoba, Canada, polar bear capital of the world. A remote place to say the least. About 30 minutes into the flight, we’re informed the plane is turning back to Winnipeg because an engine light has come on, and a few minutes later someone across the aisle says, “Is your propeller still spinning? Because ours isn’t.” Thankfully, our propeller was still spinning and we had a good laugh – thankfully, too, these planes are able to run on one engine. Spirits are high –  the adventure has begun. We head back to Winnipeg and spend most of the day with the friendly folks at the Assiniboine Zoo until we board another plane and fly to Churchill – with both engines intact, of course 🙂

November 19, 2013
The PBI house is busy wrapping up the season and getting Tundra Buggy One ready for the trip to Cape Churchill in Wapusk National Park, so there is plenty of work to do. After tying up loose ends and then dinner at the Tundra Inn, we make our way to the buggy launch, board Buggy One and head for the lodge at Polar Bear Point, where we’ll spend the night before heading to Cape Churchill.

For those of you who don’t know, the Tundra Buggy Lodge is a caravan of tundra buggies linked together (sort of like a train by amusement park train manufacturers) to make a comfortable place to eat, sleep and lounge while out on the tundra. There are two bunk buggies filled with bunk beds for the guests on the trip, a dining/kitchen buggy, a lounge buggy, and several other buggies to help maintain the lodge – I would guess about 12 buggies, give or take a few, in total. It’s also well worth mentioning the crew, as the lodge would be inoperable with them. They are like a well-oiled machine who know the ins and outs of the buggies and are prepared for anything while out on the tundra.

Meet The Buggy Drivers


November 20, 2013
Breakfast is served at Polar Bear Point and then we tightly pack up items in the lodge, because if we don’t, many dishes and other items will be jarred around and possibly broken along the journey. The lodge is disconnected after all is packed up, and the larger buggies (bunks, lounge, dining/kitchen) are linked to a few of the smaller drivable buggies so they can be towed to our final destination, Cape Churchill. The crew works as quickly as possible and the next thing we know we’re on our way, with Buggy One leading the way and the rest of the lodge convoy in tow.

Although it is only a 17-mile journey from launch to Cape, it is a long one. BJ Kirschhoffer, PBI Director of Operations, tells me the buggy goes about 5 to 10 miles per hour on the rocky landscape, maybe a bit faster if the conditions are ideal. With low visibility and a rocky road, it proves to be a slow trek. We are warm in the buggy though, so we are happy. Polar bears , polar bears, polar bears…

Hauling the buggy lodge out to Cape Churchill in near white-out conditions.

Hauling the buggy lodge out to Cape Churchill in near white-out conditions.

There are a few hiccups on the excursion to Cape – a drive shaft breaks and a fuel pump goes out, but the buggy crew fixes these almost before we notice, within minutes. They are highly skilled at what they do. Then one of the larger buggies being towed gets stuck in the ice. This proves to be a bit more complicated than a drive shaft or fuel pump, as this machine weighs nearly 80,000 pounds – not something a few guys can just push out as we’d do when getting stuck in the snow back in Montana. Floor mats won’t work for this one! The crew works hard in the blistering cold and chilling winds. Several attempts are made to dislodge the stuck buggy, and although it budges a few times, it doesn’t seem to want to fully push out of the rut. The crew keeps a positive attitude and perseveres, and finally they have success. It takes three buggies towing in front and one pushing from behind to force the buggy out of its position. Cheers erupt from all and the convoy pushes on. We arrive fairly late and the crew sets up in the dark of night. It has been a long day, and eventually everyone is tucked comfortably in their bunks and ready to start searching for polar bears the following day.

November 21 – 26, 2013
Rather than completing this blog day by day while out at Cape, I’d like to highlight some of the things that stand out from the trip.

Polar Bears International (PBI) – with BJ, Kt and Krista
First of all, I’d like to thank Polar Bears International for giving me the opportunity for this amazing experience. I was on Buggy One every day working with PBI while out at Cape. It was nice to learn hands-on and be involved in what they do out there. One of PBI’s main objectives at Cape is the operation of the tundra buggy cam. A web stream that broadcasts live from the tundra, the buggy cam is an educational tool that brings the polar bears and their arctic habitat to classrooms, zoos and others around the world. Cameras are set up at several locations and operated remotely by people around the world – one on Buggy One, one at a tower they call the cape tower, a couple on the lodge itself, and I believe another in another location. After spotting a polar bear, arctic fox or wonder of the Arctic, the remote operators control the cameras to follow the animals around the tundra while folks at home watch live. This is all possible because BJ (and a few others unknown to me) somehow managed to get Internet set up out here in the middle of nowhere. It seems to operate from a fuel cell – way above my head – but BJ sure seems to have it all figured out 🙂 I should mention the Internet is faster than ours here in Bozeman – pretty amazing!

Along with the buggy cam, another main objective of our trip was to do some Google mapping in the greater Churchill area. This consisted of driving the buggy around to literally map out the area for Google. Stay tuned for the roads of the far north!

Frontiers North Adventures and Tundra Buggy Adventures
The buggy cam and PBI’s educational outreach efforts would not be possible without Frontiers North Adventures/Tundra Buggy Adventures and their gracious donation of Buggy One. It was really inspiring to see such a large group of people working together in a positive manner to make the Cape Churchill trip a success. Even in the more challenging times, there seems to be a light-hearted disposition and the crew seems more of a family than just workers who co-exist. They welcomed PBI with open arms and created a joyful atmosphere…and we especially appreciated the salads set aside for us every night 🙂 Thank you, FNA and Tundra Buggy Adventures for everything!

A tundra buggy out at Cape Churchill. Manitoba, Canada

A tundra buggy out at Cape Churchill. Manitoba, Canada

The Tundra
After living in the eastern Montana prairie for several years but now being surrounded by mountainous terrain on all sides  in Bozeman, I can honestly say I’m not especially fond of what I like to call the “flatlands.” Of course, as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to appreciate certain aspects of eastern Montana, but that is another subject for another day. The tundra, however, although flat and seemingly limitless, has a special kind of beauty that is almost hard to put into words. Perhaps it is the remoteness that makes it so appealing, or the way the pretty purple-colored boulders lay dotted along the snowy ground. There is no question the tundra of the north has some of the most captivating sunsets I have ever seen (and I’ve seen a lot), and to see the northern lights dancing in the sky was breathtaking as well. Throw a sundog in the mix, or the continuous masses of ice built up on Hudson Bay against an ocean blue sky. Well, I guess it is not so hard after all to see why there is something magical about the tundra. Oh, did I mention the sunsets?

Ice on Hudson Bay.

Ice on Hudson Bay.

The Animals
Though we have some sunny days, howling wind, blowing snow and freezing temperatures make up the unforgiving weather in this subarctic climate, and it’s amazing to think that any living thing resides here and depends on this climate to survive. But several species have adapted to this region of the world – the polar bear, the arctic fox, arctic hare, snowy owl – just a few of the animals seen this time around by various folks on the trip.

I’ve always looked at polar bears (and still do) and thought what spectacular creatures they are, and I’ve always liked the way that many of them seem to be smiling. While working on Buggy One, we were fortunate to see some polar bears – a few up close and personal. It’s hard to describe what it feels like to be pretty much face-to-face or to look into the eyes of a polar bear. Frankly I can’t say which one I enjoyed more; they were both unforgettable experiences. I love their curiosity. To be that close to a polar bear was awe-inspiring to say the least (I even put down my camera), and I’d have to say that probably not too many encounters with the wild animal kingdom could ever match this. I love the way nature has a way of making you remember to respect this colossal world in which we live – that it’s not just about us, or the things we own, but rather an amazing gift we should all cherish. It’s saddening to think that these elements of nature might not be around for future generations…what will there be to provide inspiration?

Polar Bear at Cape Churchill. Manitoba, Canada

Polar Bear at Cape Churchill. Manitoba, Canada

November 27, 2013
It’s hard to believe, but it’s time to depart. The adventure is over. A week ago, seven days on the lodge sounded almost like an eternity, but now I’m saddened to leave. On to the buggies, and we’re headed back to the town of Churchill…

The bears are now making their way out onto the ice to hunt for seals. Happy hunting to these mighty bears – may they have a successful season full of seals and grow fat and happy as we enter into the new year…they may not have many left. Farewell, Cape Churchill, polar bears and the far north. It was a pleasure getting to know you.

To learn more about polar bears and their arctic habitat, please visit Polar Bears International.

Check out some videos below about the Legendary Cape Churchill trip. Produced by Handcraft Creative out of Manitoba.

2013 Legendary Cape Churchill Trip Video


All videos produced by Handcraft Creative out of Winnipeg, MB, Canada.

Add Your Voice!
There are 5 comments on this post…
  1. Portrait of Tanya Cox

    Tanya CoxOn Dec. 14th, 2013

    Great write up Jilly! Glad you had a good time in my old home town:) Thank you PBI!

  2. Jennifer LaPierreOn Dec. 9th, 2013

    Jill, this is beautifully written and so inspiring. I can’t wait to see all your pictures and hear all about your adventure in person!!! I love you, am so proud of you, thanks for sharing.

    • Portrait of Jill Mangum

      Jill MangumOn Dec. 10th, 2013

      Thanks Jen! Give me a call when you are in town 🙂

  3. Fred KurtzOn Dec. 8th, 2013

    Well Jill, you can add writer to your resume. This was a great and interesting blog. Hats off to you. I am so glad you got to go.

    • Portrait of Jill Mangum

      Jill MangumOn Dec. 9th, 2013

      Thanks Fred – glad you enjoyed 🙂 The trip really was amazing, and I feel very fortunate to have experienced it.

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