Arts & Life, Sports, Travel

Slow & Steady: Churchill drift

I’m going to admit last year behind the wheel has been extremely exciting. Week after week for the last year, I’ve been in the driver’s seat of a brand new vehicle. Some fast, some not so fast. Many of which were extremely fun to drive. Very few, not so fun and fun is always a relative term. While road testing the Ford F-150 Raptor this summer, driving along a straight and extremely flat highway was not fun. Driving the Raptor through a rock quarry and over sand dunes, fun doesn’t even begin to describe the feeling behind the wheel.
The setting for my next driving adventure was in the polar bear capitol of the world, Churchill, Manitoba. Flying up to Churchill for a work project last month, I had no idea I would be sitting behind the wheel of Churchill’s iconic Tundra Buggy as I crawl along the shores of Hudson Bay. These massive custom built monster bus-like trucks slumber along the frozen tundra of the sub-arctic full of wide-eyed tourists eager to see their first polar bear.
Driving the Tundra Buggy across the frozen tundra was almost like driving a big school bus, except the trails are extremely bumpy and turning the Buggy takes several turns of the wheel. Except for some key landmarks, the buggy trails that wind through the Churchill Wildlife Management Area are unmarked. Thanks to our guides, a GPS navigation system was not necessary. Satellite radio on the other hand would have been a welcome bonus.
Everything about the Tundra Buggy is huge. They’re outfitted to carry 40 passengers with short school bus type bench seating and internally heated by a 13,000-BTU propane stove. While temperatures outside the buggy are -30 (with windchill), everyone is nice and toasty inside until you open the windows when you see polar bears approaching.
The Tundra Buggy is powered by the same engine you would find in many semi-trailers, a DT 466 International diesel backed by a 653 Allison automatic transmission. The engine only pumps out 240horsepower and gives the Tundra Buggy lots of low end torque. You won’t be burning rubber on the tundra as the Tundra Buggy has a top speed of 40-45km/hr.
The tires on the Tundra Buggy are just under 6’ tall and provide enough ground clearance to get through snow drifts and shallow ice ponds. The 5-10 tonne cab of the Tundra Buggy sits on top of a Navistar International truck chassis and keeps curious tourists safely out of reach from even more curious polar bears. Polar bears standing upright on their hind legs can reach up to 8-11ft.
The 3m high back deck of the Tundra Buggy also provides an open air experience while watching polar bears.  It’s also a great vantage point for everyone that has a panorama feature on their cameras and smartphones. Due to the unforgiving terrain and extremely bumpy ride, no passengers are allowed on the back deck while the Tundra Buggy is moving.
As Canadians, remember this is all in your back yard. On the several tours through Churchill, I’ve met people from all over the world that have Churchill on their bucket list. Traveling up to Churchill during polar bear season in late October to early November should be on everyone’s bucket list. If it’s not, I suggest you add it now!
Driving the Tundra Buggy was extremely fun and the best reward of that adventure was when several polar bears came by to say hello. All this would not have been possible without the amazing folks from Frontiers North Adventures and to all the Tundra Buggy drivers that treat each day on the tundra as a new adventure!


Ron Cantiveros is a Winnipeg-based writer. Follow him at: @RonCantiveros

For more, follow @SpectatorTrib