It took 100 years, but Elsa Bailey's dream of seeing polar bears in person came true this week in Churchill.
The 100-year-old woman from Colorado Springs, Colo., spent five days in Churchill where she cruised in Polar Rover tundra buggies, slept on the tundra in the mobile Tundra Lodge, saw polar bears from as close as nine metres and took a dogsled ride.
"I wanted to do this for years and all of a sudden, it manifested," said Bailey, who was the guest of adventure specialist Andrea Reynolds and the Natural Habitat Adventures company from Boulder, Colo.
"They asked me what I wanted to do for my 100th birthday and I said I wanted to see the polar bears. I've seen them on TV but this just feels different, when it's real."
While on the tundra, it took some searching to see the enormous bears.
"All of a sudden, we saw two bears walking along the beach towards us. They started wandering around between the two Polar Rovers and it was really exciting, just seeing them there," she said. "It was two male bears. In this season, the male bears very often tolerate each other. One of them stretched up and tried to climb on the great, big, tremendous tire of the Polar Rover."
Bailey said they saw other bears farther away but these two came right up to the vehicles.
"We had looked for them all week. We had seen them in the distance lying down and all of sudden, they were real. It was very exciting," said Bailey.
The up-close sighting happened on Thursday, the last day of her trip that began Oct. 11. Bailey spent three nights at the Tundra Lodge, a mobile lodge outside Churchill that includes four tundra buggy cars linked like train cars, two nights in Churchill and two nights in Winnipeg at the Fort Garry Hotel.
The energetic adventurer celebrated her 100th birthday on May 10 by downhill skiing at Colorado's Araphahoe Basin.
Why not? She's been skiing for 75 years.
"You don't want to sit and do nothing and die," Bailey said, laughing. "I feel very lucky to have this experience."
Reynolds said Natural Habitat Adventures has donated trips to see the polar bears to other causes in the past, but the chance to go with a 100-year-old woman doesn't come along too often.
"We just love wildlife ourselves and our company is based primarily on wildlife opportunities around the globe," Reynolds said. "It always is wonderfully exciting to see the expressions of joy and fulfilment. For me, it was a great opportunity to share that with Elsa. She's a real joy to have along."
Bailey and Reynolds also saw a polar bear being airlifted in a net from Churchill's polar bear holding facility to be released back into the wild. They were told the bear weighed about 334 kilograms.
Not surprisingly, Bailey is already planning her next adventure.
"Next year, I'm going to Yellowstone Park with this company. Andrea took such good care of me," Bailey said.
"I'm all for it, but it was hard to keep up with her," Reynolds said, laughing.