While New Year’s resolutions are oftentimes hard to keep, Mobile business owner Matt Finklea made sure he turned his resolution into reality by embarking on one wild, wintery adventure.
“It’s been a dream of mine for a little over 10 years now to see polar bears,” he said.
Upon returning home from ringing in the new year in Miami, Finklea set out to fulfill his dream and immediately began researching arctic destinations via the Internet, discovering a cozy hotel called the Lazy Bear Lodge in Churchill, Manitoba, Canada. Though the lodge was full, Finklea was referred to a small bed and breakfast called The Traveller’s Touchstone B&B, and was introduced to Denise Earle.
“Her and I got together, and she just guided me in all the right directions,” he said.
After Earle set up Finklea with Mark Ingredrigson and Rob Bruce-Barron of North Star Tours, Finklea’s plans quickly began to snowball and before he knew it, he was on his way to Canada with winter gear and a backpack in tow.
Finklea first flew into Winnipeg Canada, where he then began a two-day adventure to Churchill. Weather permitting, there is only one flight in and one flight out from Winnipeg to Churchill and only between 25 to 30 people can board each flight, Finklea said.
“So on an average year, there’s only about 400 people that actually get to go and experience the bears,” he said.
Finklea finally arrived to the “Polar Bear Capital of the World” on Oct. 30. Also known as the “Beluga Capital of the World,” the town of Churchill sits on the western shore of the Hudson Bay and is most famous for the many polar bears that migrate to shore, waiting on the bay to freeze.
After the bay freezes over, the polar bears will move out onto the ice and feed on ringed seals, their primary food source, until the ice melts the following spring.
“When I was there, it is their most aggressive time,” Finklea said, noting about a three-week time period starting the last week of October and lasting through the first weeks of November. “They’re all getting antsy waiting on the Hudson Bay to freeze over.”
According to Finklea, polar bears, whose paws are as big around as a soccer ball, are the only animals that actually stalk and track humans and have a heightened sense of smell that enables them to smell prey from up to 50 meters away.
“They look all soft and cuddly, but they are far from it.”
In fact, there is a law in Churchill that requires everyone to leave their car and house doors unlocked in case there is a need to make a fast escape from the polar bears, Finklea said.
Finklea said there were a couple occasions when he got within 40 feet of the bears, but he always ensured he could immediately get into a nearby vehicle if needed.
“They just kind of stopped and stared at you … at 50 yards, they’re pretty much as fast as any human or animal on the planet,” he said. “A little joke is when you go out to see the bears, you always want to carry someone that runs slower than you.”
However, polar bears do sometimes have an unusually gentle side, Finklea said, noting a National Geographic documentary called “Unlikely Friends” which he said was filmed in Churchill and captured the polar bears commingling and playing with eskimo dogs.
“They’ve never harmed any of the dogs,” he said. “It’s just the strangest thing.”
Because polar bears will actually roam into town occasionally, Churchill has a “polar bear patrol” and “polar bear jail.” When bears are captured, they are marked to track how frequently each particular bear roams into town before they are flown by helicopter back out into the tundra, Finklea said.
“The day I left, I actually got to the airport and Denise sent me a message that a bear was in her backyard in the middle of the day around 2 p.m. …right in town,” he said.
According to Finklea, Churchill is a town of only five blocks and home to only about three restaurants and a couple of remote hotels. The population in Churchill is approximately 800 full time residents and a mixture of “first nation” eskimo Indians, he said.
“It makes small town USA look like New York City,” he said.
However, with the average daytime high temperature around negative 7 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit before windchill, Finklea said he was able to take part in other exciting subarctic activities like dog sledding, visiting a rocket testing site used by NASA until the ‘80s and and even trying caribou meat, commonly known as reindeer, for the first time.
But, “without a doubt,” the polar bears were the best part of the trip, Finklea said.
“It’s just been such a number one thing on my list that I’ve wanted to do,” he said. “Now I’m going to have to come up with my new number one thing. This definitely takes the cake in adventure.”
“I was only a couple hundred miles from Santa Claus,” he joked. “I was going to fly up there and see him, but I couldn’t round up enough reindeer.”
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