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Strolling through time at Nanuk

by Nolan Booth, Director of Lodge Operations, Churchill Wild

Small girls. Big history. Mooswa.

Small girls. Big history. Moosawa.

We have the honor of doing a major construction project at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge this year with a big anniversary at hand.

One hundred years ago this summer, during the limited months that Hudson Bay was not frozen, a small vessel took on water and sunk near the shore just miles from what is now Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. To this day we still enjoy short trips out west to see the Moosawa and explore the area. Quite often there are polar bear or wolf tracks surrounding the vessel.

And if nothing else, it is just a nice place to sit up off the ground and think about our past and the incredible things people have accomplished on or near this unforgiving landscape.

About eight miles up the coast from Nanuk is the wreckage of a Hudson Bay Company boat which wrecked in 1914. Reportedly, the boat was never seaworthy enough for the shallow water of the bay. Strong winds and high waves resulted in the boat taking on water, the engine room filled and the ship broached.

We have done a fair bit of research and have even had scholars investigate the wreckage, yet to this day the name of this lady evades us. The only clue we have is a notation in the typed History of Nanuk booklet at the Lodge, which I would assume was started by the original owner and has been carried on over the years.

Not too many years ago Mike and Jeanne Reimer took over the Nanuk location and added it to the lodges in the Churchill Wild family. We are now creating new memories and writing our own history.

What will people discover about us 100 years from now?

Strolling through time...

Strolling through time… at Nanuk.

Arctic Discovery Safari! Our newest adventure!

Churchill Wild is proud to announce our newest adventure, the Arctic Discovery Safari!

Nanuk Polar Bear Approach

Are you ready for this?

The Arctic Discovery Safari will profoundly re-establish your place in nature by immersing you through time in one of the planet’s untameable wilderness areas:  the Canadian Arctic.  You will be exposed to the history of the area, encounters with the beautiful beluga whales and polar bears, and your journey will conclude with five days deep in the heart of the coastal home and denning area of the majestic polar bear.

Wow what a place – amazing!” — Jules G. on TripAdvisor

From kayaking with beluga whales to walking with polar bears, your immersive experience begins in Churchill, the gateway to the historical fur trade. It is from Churchill that you will first encounter one of the many uniquely adapted mammals of the arctic ecosystem, the beluga whale.

Your Churchill visit will be completed with a gourmet dinner hosted by local resident Helen Webber in her home. Helen has a multi-generational connection with this northern community going back to the fur trade, and you will enjoy her culinary talent first hand while also taking home your meal in the form of a cookbook from her bestselling series Blueberries and Polar Bears.

From Churchill you will be transported to the remoteness of our Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge, the home of our Mothers & Cubs Adventure deep in the wilds of the Hudson Bay coast where you will be humbled by face to face encounters with the undisputed lords of this area:  the mighty polar bear.

From short jaunts to get up close and personal with a pair of polar bears sparring within view of our lodge, to day trips further afield in our custom designed tundra vehicles, complete with a packed lunch and traditional arctic tea boil, there is no better way to experience the sheer vastness of the Arctic ecosystem and the habitat of the polar bears and black bears in their summer home.

Polar bears are curious creatures and it is not uncommon for them to visit our guests and saunter up to the perimeters of our secure arctic home and save you the trekking! These close encounters provide interactions with the bears that make for a rare and unforgettably unique experience.

The convergence of the boreal forest with the tidal flats of Hudson Bay surrounding Nanuk plays host to an incredible richness of wildlife and encounters with black bears and the elusive wolves are not uncommon, along with a surprising diversity of birds who seek nesting refuges in the vast areas of the Arctic.

You can also enjoy the greatest light show on earth from the comfort of the lounge or dining room, or even your bedroom! The northern skies are a perfect ballroom for the Aurora Borealis!

The Churchill Wild culinary experience provides the metaphorical icing on the cake for your life defining experiences during your stay! Your taste buds will delight, whether you are indulging in some of our appetizer specialties such as succulent bacon wrapped caribou or dining on one of our many exquisite entrees accompanied by our hand selected Canadian wines.

Should you decide that curling up by the fireplace with a good book or enjoying a hot drink and sharing stories with your fellow adventurers is what you need, our comfortable lounge area provides you with the perfect setting.

But don’t be surprised if you’re interrupted by a bear during dinner, or while you’re relaxing.

It happens.

Polar bear approaches at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge

Hold your lens steady…

For more information on the Arctic Discovery Safari:

Toll-Free: 1.866.UGO.WILD (846.9453)
Telephone: 1.204.878.5090
Email: info@churchillwild.com

Churchill Wild featured in exclusive $1 million safari itinerary

JourneyToNaturesEdge

Churchill Wild’s Seal River Heritage Lodge has been featured in a new exclusive $1 million safari itinerary called Journey to Nature’s Edge.

The itinerary, created by the wildlife specialists at Natural World Safaris, heads around the globe to 12 different countries in search of 18 endangered species. The safari has been designed to raise awareness and understanding of conservation issues, with a percentage of the cost of the trip being donated to each project visited.

Journey to Nature’s Edge has received considerable international press interest, being featured by CNN, The Telegraph and Independent, among others, and there have been a number of enquiries from prospective travelers.

Will Bolsover, Managing Director at Natural World Safaris, felt it was important to include polar bears in the list of endangered species supported by and encountered during the trip.

“Polar bears are one of the flagship species that are in trouble due to climate change,” said Bolsover. “They spearhead the fight against climate change and are also one of the most incredible creatures to see in the wild.”

“We chose to visit Churchill, Canada in search of the polar bear, as it provides one of the most expansive wilderness backdrops remaining in the world today. Through Journey to Nature’s Edge, we want to show our clients the world we live in, and for them to understand the true size of our world, but also to understand the challenges that we face when it comes to conservation, globalization and climate change.

“Seal River Heritage Lodge was the natural choice for the accommodation during this leg of the trip. It is the perfect base from which to explore this remote region with expert guides, comfy lodging and some of the best polar bear sightings within this region. Away from the madding crowds of Churchill, Seal River Heritage Lodge provides exclusivity along with both fall polar bear safaris and summer polar bear tours, putting our clients in the right place at the right time.”

Fore more information please visit Journey to Natures Edge.

Churchill Polar Bear Alert Program protects both bears and humans

by Bob Windsor, Manitoba Conservation

Polar bears that get too close are often housed before being relocated. Photo courtesy of Bob Wendt.

Polar bears that get too close are often housed before being relocated. Photo courtesy of Bob Wendt.

This story originally appeared in Fur Harvester Magazine and is reprinted here courtesy of author Bob Windsor.

Churchill Manitoba is known as the Polar Bear Capital of the World, and rightfully so.  Manitoba is home to some of the approximately 1,000 polar bears of the Western Hudson Bay sub-population, and people from all corners of the world flock to Churchill for an opportunity to see the great white bears.

Churchill is built on the bear’s natural migration path, and as a result, it’s not uncommon to see polar bears in the community or skirting along the nearby Hudson Bay Coast. The people of Churchill have learned to co-exist with the bears and have had success in doing it to a degree not found anywhere else in the world.

But it wasn’t always this way. In the late 1960s, the number of bears waiting for Hudson Bay to freeze around Churchill in the fall was as high as 80, and up to 40 bears at a time could be seen in the local waste disposal grounds.

At that time, polar bears posing a threat to human safety or personal property were generally shot. In 1963, 1966 and 1967 there were serious human-bear confrontations in and around the community, and in 1968 there was a fatal attack on a small boy. This led to calls for a program to better manage polar bears in this area.

Three tranquilized polar bears being relocated via helicopter, 70 km north of Churchill.

Three tranquilized polar bears being relocated via helicopter, 70 km north of Churchill.

In 1969, the Polar Bear Control Program was created. The program had three main objectives: to protect human life, to protect personal property from damage by polar bears and to ensure polar bears were not unduly harassed or killed.

During the 1970s there continued to be human-bear encounters, although none were fatal.  Persistent and aggressive bears had to be euthanized for the protection of the people, as there was no other way to handle bears that consistently returned to town. An average of 15 polar bears were destroyed each year in the area.

In 1976, 24 problem polar bears were relocated by DC3 airplane from Churchill to the Kaskattama River area, close to the Manitoba-Ontario border on Hudson Bay. This endeavor was very expensive, and some of the bears returned quickly and had to be destroyed.

It was decided that a holding facility for polar bears would moderate the need to euthanize bears. In 1979, construction started on the facility, which was designed to hold 16 single bears and four family groups. The holding pens are built of concrete bricks with steel bar doors and ceilings.

While the facility was under construction, the Polar Bear Alert Program was established in 1980. The priorities of this program include:

  • protecting human life from polar bears
  • protecting polar bears from harassment or the need to be euthanized
  • minimizing damage to property from polar bears
  • minimizing the potential of food conditioning and/or human habituation of polar bears
  • ensuring the safety of Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship staff working with the Polar Bear Alert Program

The Churchill area was divided into three control zones: the living/working area in the community (Zone 1), the inhabited perimeter area (Zone 2) and the remote area (Zone 3).  The level of tolerance for the presence of polar bears is lowest in Zone 1, where all bears are immediately removed.

In 1982, the Polar Bear Holding Facility was put into use and it has held over 2,000 bears to date. Most bears captured are housed at the Polar Bear Holding Facility. The facility was upgraded in 2006 and currently has 28 holding pens, five of which have air conditioning for warm weather use. The amount of time each bear spends in the facility varies, and depends on the amount of space available and the location and frequency of capture.

Bears captured in Zone 1 are held for a minimum of 30 days, with the exception of family groups that are relocated as soon as possible. This 30-day rule was to lessen the chance of a polar bear returning to Zone 1, and also prevents the bears from having the opportunity to become conditioned to human food sources.

The bears are provided with water or snow, but are not fed, as polar bears do not normally feed until they are able to hunt for seals on the frozen Hudson Bay, and survive on the fat stores from the previous season. Also, feeding the bears could condition them to associate man with food, which could lead to the bears returning to Churchill in future.

Today’s Polar Bear Alert Program is staffed with two natural resource officers and three resource management technicians with additional staff during the peak season. The program involves public education, minimizing bear attractants and removing bears from a defined area in and around the community.

Staff monitors a 24-hour emergency bear line. Anyone seeing a bear in or near the community can call (204) 675-BEAR and staff will respond. It is not uncommon during the peak period from mid-October to mid-November for staff to be called out five or six times a night. As the weather gets colder and the ice is closer to forming, the bear activity escalates. Just before freeze-up, staff has chased more than a dozen bears along the edge of town in one day.

The removal of bears from the community or an area where they pose a danger is accomplished by hazing. This involves shooting scare cartridges from shotguns or pistols that cause loud bangs or screams, and following the bears with vehicles.

Bears that do not respond to noise stimulus are sometimes shot with rubber bullets (which don’t harm the bear) or a paint ball gun to encourage them on their way. Particularly stubborn bears are sometimes pushed away by helicopter. If a bear continues to return and will not enter a live trap, it will be immobilized with the use of a tranquilizer gun. This is done by either shooting from the ground, or darting the bear from a helicopter.

Polar Bear Culvert Trap

Polar Bear Culvert Trap

To prevent bears from entering the community, staff will establish a “trap line” around the perimeter of the community to intercept the bears. Bears are captured by use of culvert traps, which are large culverts with metal screens on one end and doors on the other.

The traps are baited with seal meat and fat, which is attached to a trigger in the front of the trap. When the bear enters the trap and pulls on the bait, the door is released and locks. The trap is permanently mounted onto a trailer, which allows the bears to be transported to the Polar Bear Holding Facility.

In 2011, staff responded to 341 polar bear occurrences and handled 61 bears. The most common age class of bears handled is sub-adults (between two- and five-years old).

Each bear is weighed when entering and exiting the Polar Bear Holding Facility, and is measured for length and girth and checked for overall health before it is released.

If not previously handled, each bear will receive ear tags and lip tattoos. The lip tattoo is a number matching their ear tags, and becomes the bear’s permanent “name”. Information such as the date and location of capture, as well as the bear’s health information, is recorded on a data sheet, which is later entered into a data base.

Each year the data base is updated and every bear that has ever been captured will be on record. Many of the bears handled have been tagged previously, some of which have been handled numerous times.

Before freeze-up, bears that are released from the holding facility are tranquilized and then transported by helicopter in a sling approximately 70 kilometers north of Churchill.  They are then released along the coast of the Hudson Bay. Most of the bears will continue moving northward looking for the first ice to form.

At the time of release the bears are marked with a green cattle marker spot on the top of their shoulder. This spot allows for easy recognition of released bears during that season, but wears off within a month or two. Very few bears return to Churchill during the same season. Those that do return and are able to be recaptured are held until the end of the season.

Polar bear jail in Churchill. Polar bear holding facility.

The polar bear holding facility in Churchill houses both single bears and family groups until they are ready for relocation.

After ice forms on the Hudson Bay, the remaining bears in the facility are released directly onto the ice of Hudson Bay by vehicle. The bears are loaded into culvert traps and hauled to the coastline and released. When the bears see the ice they are more than happy to get out on it, and to start hunting for seals.

The Polar Bear Alert Program is unique, and receives a large number of media and group presentation requests each year. Requests are accommodated as time permits, with the priority given to those that promote public education.

The most publicized and dramatized night of the entire bear season is Halloween. The safety of children trick or treating is a very real priority, and warrants special preparations. A helicopter patrol is done before dark and any bears found near town are hazed away. At least 12 two-person units are established from various agencies including Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship, R.C.M.P., Parks Canada, Canadian Rangers, the fire department, emergency medical services and Manitoba Hydro.

Some units take up strategic vantage positions while others form mobile patrols. Several media film crews and numerous photographers roam around the community to record the event. Experience has proven the best way to avoid any “tricks” is to carry a good supply of “treats” to share from your patrol vehicle.

The staff who administer the Polar Bear Alert Program in Churchill are fortunate to experience the privilege of working with these magnificent predators. Nowhere else in Manitoba offers the unique experiences that the staff in Churchill come to enjoy.

The Polar Bear Alert Program is recognized globally for its achievements in protecting human life and preserving the lives of polar bears. The number of bears euthanized in protection of life or property is, on average, less than one per year. Thanks must be given to the people of Churchill, whose cooperation makes this unique program such a success.

Award-winning photographer and author Dennis Fast to lead November 2014 Polar Bear Photo Safari at Seal River

Award-winning photographer/author Dennis Fast to lead 2014 Polar Bear Photo Safari at Seal River

Dennis Fast will lead 2014 Polar Bear Photo Safari at Seal River.

Award-winning photographer and author Dennis Fast will once again lead a Polar Bear Photo Safari at Seal River Heritage Lodge this year, from November 10-16.

The Polar Bear Photo Safari takes place during prime polar bear season, when the bears congregate in large numbers on the Hudson Bay coast waiting for the Bay to freeze so they can begin their annual seal hunt. The Polar Bear Photo Safari attracts professional and amateur photographers from around the world, primarily due to its rare ground-level access to polar bears and the resulting specialized photo opportunities.

Churchill Wild’s chief photographer for over 20 years, Fast is one of Canada’s best known photographers. His images have appeared in numerous calendars and books, including Wapusk: White Bear of the North, which showcases stunning images of polar bears and their Hudson Bay environs, and addresses the threats to the bears’ traditional migration patterns and their existence in the Churchill area.

Fast’s images also appear in his most recent book, Princess: A Special Polar Bear which tells the story of a mother polar bear who teaches her cubs about life in the Arctic regions of Canada. Designed to be read aloud and to connect children with the excitement of the outdoors, Princess details the relationship between Princess and her cubs, Braveheart and Wimpy, and touches on many of the same challenges and issues parents and children face every day in their own families.

Polar bears sparring near Seal River Heritage Lodge. Dennis fast photo

Polar bears sparring near Seal River Heritage Lodge.

Calendars that have featured Fast’s photos include those published by National Geographic, National Wildlife Federation, Inner Reflections, Manitoba Autopac (including an exclusive polar bear calendar in 2010), Parks & Wilderness Society, the Nature Conservancy of Canada and many more. Thirty-five of Fast’s best polar bear photos are also on display in the new International Polar Bear Conservation Centre (IPBCC) in Winnipeg.

Fast’s expertise and experience photographing in extreme northern conditions have put him among the select photographers in the world with a talent for capturing the light and magical qualities of the north. He’s traveled extensively across Canada, Belize, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Ecuador, Peru, Greenland, Iceland and the United States in pursuit of the perfect shot, but the polar bears of Hudson Bay will always be one of his favourite subjects.

“Polar Bears are among the most magnificent predators on earth and have fascinated me since childhood,” said Fast in an earlier interview with book publisher Heartland Associates. “I never dreamed that someday I would actually walk in the land of Wapusk (Cree for white bear). I still remember in vivid detail my first sighting of a wild polar bear and the feeling of awe it inspired with its beauty and latent power. Since then, I have had many polar bear encounters, ­ from mothers and young cubs coming out of their dens, to adult males wrestling for supremacy.”

“When you’re on the ground and a polar bear gets close to you, the shot is that much more intimate,” said Fast. “You can’t get these types of shots from above, from a vehicle. You have to be there, on the ground. At the Lodge you can get them either by hiking over the tundra or through the specialized fence that surrounds the Lodge.”

Polar bears wrestling eye-to-eye on the sea ice at Seal River. Dennis Fast photo.

Eye-to-eye on the sea ice.

The beauty of the Seal River Heritage Lodge location is that polar bears have to walk by the point of land that juts out into Hudson Bay where the Lodge is situated, 60 km north of Churchill and nine km north of the Seal River. Polar bears are naturally curious. They smell the cooking at the Lodge and they’re also interested in the activity.

It’s not unusual to have polar bears meander right up to the front door of Seal River Heritage Lodge, and at various times of the year bears will spend days lying around the Lodge enjoying the sights, smells and sounds of humans. It’s a unique environment where humans can meet polar bears in their natural home amidst spectacular scenery.

Using a super wide angle lenses you can not only get unobstructed shots of the bears up close, but also of the landscape in the background. The wide buffalo fence keeps the bears out while still allowing for exceptional photos. Smaller zooms can go right through for really intimate shots.

And it’s not just about polar bears. Last year there was a herd of caribou at the Lodge and three years ago there were over 3,000 caribou in the area, although the actual number of caribou around the Lodge at any given time depends on weather patterns. Arctic foxes have been known to come right into the compound and just about take food out of your hands. There are also arctic hares, and in 2009 photographers were lucky enough to catch a White Gyrfalcon. Additionally, the unique combination of location and weather at the Lodge can  result in phenomenal northern lights viewing.

“Through guiding photo tours and staying at the Lodge I’ve met some fascinating people,” said Fast. “From professional photographers and photojournalists at elite publications like National Geographic and the L.A. Times, to some of the world’s wealthiest people, I’ve traded stories with some very interesting and enjoyable company. I’ve met people from Japan, Mexico, China, Russia, Germany and the USA at the Lodge. It is truly a one-of-a-kind experience.

Polar bears relaxing north of Churchill at Seal River Heritage Lodge after sparring. Dennis Fast photo.

After the battle…

“The facilities at the Lodge are excellent. The food is superb, prepared from the family’s award-winning cookbook series Blueberries and Polar Bears, and the trips are all-inclusive. That’s important.

“Expenses can add up on a trip to Churchill when you take into account airfare, hotels, hot meals, day tours etc. So the cost of staying at the Lodge is actually quite reasonable when you consider it’s an all-inclusive adventure vacation and you’re actually staying in the wild, experiencing the polar bear’s natural environment. Yet you still have all the comforts of home along with outstanding meals and great company.”

And of course, a chance to meet polar bears, eye-to-eye.