Every October and November, just before the ice begins to form on the shoals off of Hudson Bay, an annual migration of a unique species takes place.
These large mammals have adapted to the frigid conditions. They are covered in thick coats. There is a clear hierarchy among the group, observable by periodic sparring wherein the youngest of the tribe will test their merit against grizzled old-timers. While upon first glance these beasts look threatening and ferocious, it soon becomes evident they are in fact curious, even personable creatures.
And that’s just the Tundra Buggy drivers.
Tourist season in Churchill, Manitoba has come to a close and with the annual shutdown comes the eventual exodus of the people who ply a living in the polar bear capital of the world. As the bears move north onto the ice that has formed with the dropping temperatures, a dedicated flock of Jasperites fly south, having spent eight weeks showcasing the magic of the arctic landscape to excited tourists.
Visitors to Churchill come from all around the the world, but every year the tiny town is inundated with a disproportionately high number of current and former Jasper folk—all of whom seem to have a rafting background.
Ever since Jarrett Long got a job there in 1999, the recruitment of Rockies river guides has been continuous. Trevor Lescard, Jim Baldwin, Kevin Pearson, JP McCarthy, Brian Nicolle, Neil Mumby, Katrina Turcott, Kerry Lee Morris and Luke Johnson, among others, have all made the trip to the 58th parallel in the last 10 years, to make their mark on—and make some cash from—the tourism industry there.
Lescard, who was the second Jasperite to bring his guiding skills to Churchill in 2005, said the October-to-November gig is a great fit for raft guides who have two months to wile away before ice walk guiding, or ski bumming, begins.
“Seasonally, it works really well,” Lescard said.
But more than just good-timing, the job of driving a specialized tundra vehicle—40 passenger all-terrain buses which crawl along the shores of Hudson Bay to bring guests to the bears—is well suited to a capable raft guide. Skills like reading the environment to give your guest the best possible experience, being adaptable when things don’t go as planned, balancing the line between safety and excitement and always having a smile on your face, are things you become familiar with on the river, Lescard said.
“You’re always dealing with people out of their comfort zone,” he said. “People want to be entertained, to learn something.”
The learning isn’t just for the guests, however.
Like any trade, the more you do it, the more proficient you become. Brian Nicolle, who spent six seasons as a driver for Frontiers North Adventures, one of two companies licensed to give polar bear tours out of Churchill, said the guides become adept at not only spotting wildlife on the horizon, but figuring out tricks to giving guests a special encounter.
“Curious bears might stretch up and put their faces right near the windows,” he said. “If your guest has that experience, where a bear looks them in the eye, they’ll love you for the rest of the day.”
And they are long days. Drivers typically pull 10-14 hour shifts, waking at 5:30 a.m. for breakfast before driving to the Tundra Buggy launch, 23 kilometres away on a rough road originally created by the U.S. military. Once at the launch, the drivers have an hour to warm up, clean and ready their vehicle for a day’s adventure. Lunches are made, propane heaters are fired and itineraries to find the best viewing experiences are drawn up. When the guests arrive, whether it’s the first day of the season or the 50th, the drivers have to be amicable, accommodating and entertaining.
“It’s full on,” admits former Jasperite and current Tete Jaune resident Neil Mumby.
Mumby, who only had one day off this season, said it’s incredible seeing people witness these special animals for the first time. “People burst into tears on a regular basis,” he says. However, by the end of the season, he’s always glad to come home. “You get tired of talking,” he said. “You’re exhausted.”
Jasperites know the rigors of a short, intense high season. But the the similarities between Churchill and Jasper don’t end there. Both communities are small and isolated, both depend heavily on transient staff and both have an intrinsic relationship with Parks Canada. While Churchill is not located directly in Wapusk National Park, the community acts as a gateway to the protected areas where female polar bears den and give birth to their litters.
“Churchill feels like a northern Jasper,” says Nicolle. “It’s a parallel universe.”
Indeed, even Wapusk’s park superintendent calls Jasper home. Longtime Jasper park warden Brad Romaniuk spent 2014 stationed in Churchill. Back home now, he said Jasper seems like a big city compared to its northern counterpart.
“It’s a small town for sure,” he laughed. “Everyone figures out who you are pretty quickly.”
To the trained eye, it’s not only drivers or Parks Canada staff who are instantly recognizable, but polar bears, too. Mumby said he was sad to learn this past season that a bear he had come to know over the past seven years had passed away.
“You get to know these bears. You have long-standing relationships with them,” he said.
The same can be said, of course, for all the migratory creatures of Churchill.
“After a day out on the tundra, you sit down in Jasper House and compare photos,” Nicolle said. “It’s a pretty tight-knit group.”