|Building a Great White Bear Tour Polar Rover
Don Walkoski, owner and founder of Great White Bear Tours, Inc., long ago built a four wheel drive Chevy van by replacing the standard axles with top loading differentials that came from a front-end loader and fitting them with large off-road tires. This machine was supposed to be a family oriented off-road picnic vehicle, something to take friends on outings during the summer and the boys out hunting in the fall. Fortunately for Don, fate intervened when internationally famous nature photographer Norbert Rosing commissioned “Old Blue” for some polar bear photography. Don then decided to build some serious off-road machines.
Although conceivably one could rent a pickup truck and go out on the tundra to view the bears, the only safe means of seeing these magnificent creatures from close up is from a professional tour vehicle. These machines are custom designed to deal with the demanding conditions of the low arctic tundra ground clearance and large rocks, ruts, and water. The cabin height above the ground is most important to assist in keeping the tourists from petting the bears and to allow superior visibility. These machines run double shifts (day and evening tours) through rain, snow, and temperatures regularly dropping below -20oC (below 0o F), and there is no road service out on the land (nor does anyone like to be on the ground when there may be as many as 20 or more bears in the immediate vicinity), so the rovers must be reliable and are designed to meet these demands. They carry up to 40 passengers in reasonable comfort for 7 hours at a time, while doing minimal damage to the trails on which they travel. The season lasts a short 6 weeks, but demand for tours is high and every vehicle is booked at least a year in advance. Breakdowns can be costly in this remote region where the only transportation to the outside world is via air or train.
Before Don built his first full size tundra vehicle he looked at what was available on the market. It didn’t take long to realize that nothing was available or affordable in the OEM market that was suitable for the conditions in Churchill. A welder and heavy equipment mechanic by trade, Don decided that he could gather together enough parts both locally and across Canada to put together a serious vehicle for far less than he could buy a new one. Not having coach building experience, Don built a rolling chassis and contracted to have a coach build for it. The “Monster” (so called because of its extreme height and aggressive looks) was an instant success with the tourists. For an encore, Don modified the chassis and coaches of two standard over-the- road buses, adding differentials and tires from off-road construction equipment as well as modifying the bus bodies to provide more space for the passengers. Again, both of these machines were well received, but Don was still not satisfied; there was still lots of room for improvement.
Don laid out a plan for a new modern lightweight all aluminum body with features like the sloped front windshield so people can see the action straight down in front of the bus; rolled roof corners which strengthen the body as well as giving the bus a much better look and a rear deck area that has a see through floor which allows visitors to see the polar bears beneath their feet in complete safety. The body has a unique mounting system to allow the huge wheel frame assembly to twist beneath it without damaging the body or glass. The entire coach was now being built in Churchill by Don and the staff of Great White Bear Tours Inc.
A modern Great White Bear Polar Rover typically begins life not as a bus but as an airport fire control crash truck. These vehicles are heavily built eight wheel drive fire trucks, capable of delivering 6 thousand gallons of water and flame retardants to a disaster site. Due to Department of Transportation regulations, these vehicles are generally retired from their emergency duties well before the rolling chassis is anywhere near the end of its lifespan. A single crash truck provides 4 differentials with planetary drive ends, frame rails, transfer cases and lots of other spare parts that can either be used in the project, sold or used in other projects (as it is in most remotes locations, necessity is the mother of invention in the north).
Once the frame has been relieved of the crash truck’s water tanks, cab, twin Detroit diesel V8 engines, and most everything else, the rails are sandblasted and painted and new spring mounts are fabricated to handle the suspension system. The frame is then prepared to mount the International DT466 diesel engine that will power the machine. If this will be a four wheel drive machine, the rear suspension is entirely modified from the “stock” walking beam suspension used by the crash truck manufacturer. Additional cross members are fabricated to accommodate the Allison automatic transmission and Fabco custom transfer case and mounts for the fuel and propane tanks are added.
Coaches are made almost entirely from aluminum. A box aluminum skeleton is attached to an aluminum sub frame. Custom formed sections make the transition from sides to roof. A plywood floor is added, and then the aluminum skin panels go on. Polyurethane adhesive is used to mount the skins, insulation is added as well as interior finish panels. Electrical and plumbing systems, windows and rear deck grating are then added. The rover is then painted and ready to use.