Sunday, 08 September, 2013 21:25
Guest Post and Photos by Katlin Miller
Author Katlin Miller outside Seal River Heritage Lodge
When most people think about polar bears, they probably picture massive white bears roaming a never-ending blanket of snow and ice hunting for ringed seals. Similarly, the word beluga likely triggers reminiscences of the song ‘Baby Beluga’ or the white whales featured in some of SeaWorld’s most popular exhibits. For three Colorado residents however, the lasting memories of polar bears and belugas will, forever more, be much, much different.
Johnnie, Tasha, and Katlin Miller, of Granby, recently joined 15 other adventurers from around the world to embark on a week-long vacation of a lifetime. Flying from Denver to Winnipeg to Churchill and finally to the Seal River Heritage Lodge, the three weren’t exactly sure what they were in for when they signed up for Churchill Wild’s Birds, Bears and Belugas trip.
Most wildlife enthusiasts know that if you want to see polar bears, Churchill, Canada, is the place to go. After all, it is commonly identified as the “Polar Bear Capital of the World” and even has its own polar bear jail just outside the town limits.
Tundra buggies are the most common mode of travel for polar bear seekers wishing to see the top carnivore of the Arctic. However, tundra buggies are not the only option for polar bear viewing. If you want the real, on-the-ground, polar bear experience, you’ve got to go with Churchill Wild.
Foggy morning polar bear at Seal River
Located on Hudson Bay near the Seal River Estuary, Seal River Heritage Lodge is one of several Churchill Wild lodges located in the wilds of Canada. Known for being a secluded getaway, you won’t see another soul in sight, or even another plane, train, or automobile.
The little single-engine “Beaver” that drops you off at the Lodge is the only connection you will have to the outside world until it returns to pick you up five days later. Hopefully you learn to like the members of the group, and the lodge staff, because you are literally stuck with these folks for the duration of your trip.
Admittedly, the lodge staff, made up entirely of immediate and extended family members, with the exception of the two guides/bodyguards, were absolutely stellar and heart-warming. The food was also five-star cuisine!
Our fellow adventurers were also great people with many diverse experiences and backgrounds. In addition to the three of us (ranchers), we were accompanied by a principal, swimming pool builder, retired real estate agent, chemist, accountant, family of four, hilarious doctor from the Bronx, psychiatrist, librarian, and even a famous travel writer.
While tundra buggies provide a safe, high-perched, behind-the glass, kind of experience; it would be deemed BORING when compared to Churchill Wild’s EXHILIRATING walking trips. Furthermore, tundra buggies only provide polar bear viewing opportunities in the fall, whereas Churchill Wild offers summer trips too.
Photographing polar bears at ground level
These summer trips provide tourists with a different scene for polar bear viewing. You won’t see any snow, ice, or ringed seals this time of year. In fact, the typical white background of most polar bear photos is replaced with the vibrant pinks and greens of lush fireweed, grass, and willows. Ringed seals are also replaced with sik siks (arctic prairie dogs).
Likewise, the ferocious, terrifying, killing beasts of the winter turn into a mellow, sleepy bums in the summer. They often lie around on the rocks during low tide and appear as “polar boulders”. Sometimes it takes a second, third, or even a fourth look to see if that boulder over there seems to have a furry texture or if it’s moving. If the true identity of that boulder is too difficult to discern from the “compound”, than why not just take a hike and see for yourself?
Don’t get me wrong, safety is still of the utmost concern and one is constantly guarded by guys with guns when outside the compound, but the nerves of walking alongside the largest land carnivore on earth seem less than frightening. Even up-close-and-personal encounters provided exciting, yet comfortable, viewing experiences.
Churchill Wild is the ONLY tourist company in the world that allows you to step outside the safe confines of a vehicle, fence, or structure and actually walk with polar bears. You walk out in the open and approach bears to within 50 yards both on land and in the zodiac boats.
When in the compound (the fenced yard surrounding the lodge, made 12’ high with 6” wire mesh), guests can literally get within a few feet of the bears. The guide did mention at one point that the fence would not keep a desperate bear out, but rather just act as a deterrent or small obstacle.
Nevertheless, we all flocked to the fence when the opportunity arose to stare into the eyes of passing polar bear. The bear in the photo album below was totally calm and seemed to care less that there were a bunch of ecstatic tourists just on the other side of this seemingly wimpy fence. He stuck around for an hour or more, posed several times for the camera, fiddled with a bird feather on the edge of the deck, swatted some nagging mosquitos, and even took a snooze before our eyes!
Another time, we got very close to three different polar bears swimming in the water. We were in our zodiacs, but still…they were so close and are excellent swimmers.
Though polar bears often steal the show in Churchill, an equally impressive distant relative, the beluga whale, deserves just as much credit. Thousands of belugas migrate into the Hudson Bay during the summer to raise their young, shred dead skin, and enjoy the summer season. Their spirited chirps, whistles, and chatter, ring underwater and righteously honor their reputation as “Sea Canaries” (aka not-so-feathery seabirds).
Beluga whale couple at Seal River
Seeing beluga whales from above the water is majestic in itself, but the real action comes when you take the plunge into the water with them. Even though they are carnivores in the sense that they eat fish and other sea creatures, belugas are very gentle and friendly when it comes to people. Just hook up your snorkel and face mask and start humming your favorite song.
The belugas don’t care if you’re a rock star or a beginner singing nursery rhymes; to them, it’s all new and different. Before long, their curiosity becomes irresistible and belugas start showing up everywhere. Swimming within inches of you, the whales sometimes even give little nudges, nibbles, or even a kiss. It is truly a life-changing experience to be touched by a beluga!
All in all, Churchill Wild’s catalog of world-class trips is a MUST-DO for any avid traveler or wildlife aficionado. From furry boulders to feathery and not-so-feathery seabirds, you’ll see it all at Churchill Wild’s Seal River Heritage Lodge.
Trips are suited for all sorts of people. Kids, parents, grandparents, singles, families, and couples are all welcome, and everyone will thoroughly enjoy it. In addition to the Birds, Bears, and Belugas trip that the Millers took, Churchill Wild also offers several other polar bear and wildlife-viewing trips.
Churchill Wild does not disappoint!
Note: A selection of Katlin’s photos from Seal River Heritage Lodge are included below. You can view her full photo album from the Birds, Bears and Belugas Adventure here.