I once referred to a tundra vehicle — those iconic white machines that transport wildlife lovers across the tundra to watch polar bears — as a school bus on steroids. So in honour of Polar Bear Week, here’s a lesson on what it’s like to view polar bears from a tundra vehicle in Churchill.

The wheels on the tundra vehicle go round and round, round and round, round and round

One of the most defining features of these vehicles is its massive wheels. At 1.7 m (5’5″) tall, the large wheels serve two purposes: one, to help the vehicles navigate over the uneven tundra, and two, to keep you at a safe distance from curious bears. Standing on their hind legs, bears can reach up to 10 feet. And keeping a safe distance from the world’s largest land carnivore is definitely a good idea.

The windows on the tundra vehicle go click click click, click click click, click click click

When a bear is spotted, the driver will bring the vehicle to a stop and you are free to pop down the windows getting an unobstructed view to watch and photograph the bears. And although the vehicles are toasty, there’s no stopping that wind blowing off Hudson Bay from swirling around inside, so dressing warmly in layers is a good idea. Full gear is also recommended when you go out on the open back deck, where you can soak it all in.

The driver on the tundra vehicle says “take a seat, take a seat, take a seat”

Two tundra vehicles in Churchill, ManitobaThe drivers are experienced — they know the trails inside the Churchill Wildlife Management Area like the back of their hands. That being said, they also know a ride on a tundra vehicle is a bumpy one. Tundra ponds, rocks deposited by retreating glaciers, and shifting permafrost make for uneven terrain. The vehicles move slowly and carefully and while you will have the urge to jump up and shout with glee every time you see a bear, for your own safety you’re asked to keep seated until the vehicle is stopped. Staying quiet is also a good idea as loud noises spook the bears.

The soup on the tundra vehicle is slurped right up, slurped right up, slurped right up

The day spent on the tundra vehicle observing polar bears is just that — a full day. You’ll be on the tundra vehicle from around 8:30 until 4:30, which means lunch is enjoyed onboard. A simple but hearty lunch of soup and sandwiches tastes so much better when you’re eating while watching a polar bear. You’ll also enjoy a morning coffee or hot chocolate break, and water and cold beverages are also provided. The only rule about food on the tundra vehicles is that you cannot take any food or drink on the back deck. We don’t want bears to associate people with food, so the rule ensures not even a crumb can reach the ground. There is a washroom onboard, so you’ll be comfortable the entire day.

The heart in your chest goes thump thump thump, thump thump thump, thump thump thump

Polar bear view from tundra vehicle in Churchill Manitoba

Photo by William Au

Once you’re on a tundra vehicle and head out on the trails, the sense of anticipation and excitement over seeing that first bear is almost palpable. Rocks have a knack of looking like slumbering bears and willows whipping in the wind will catch your eye. But then you’ll come across it — a polar bear in the wild. And while your first instinct will be to capture the moment on camera, take a minute to watch and be awed at the majestic creature in front of you. And that bear may just come up to your tundra vehicle to get a closer look, and even though you know you’re safe, your heart will start pounding as you have the most incredible wildlife experience you could ever imagine.

So whether you’re on an Arctic Crawler with Lazy Bear Expeditions, a Polar Rover with Great White Bear Tours, or a Tundra Buggy with Frontiers North Adventures, your experience on a tundra vehicle will be a once in a lifetime experience, with memories worthy of being repeated over and over and over.