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Walking with polar bears at Seal River Lodge — Special Guest Report

Polar Bear Walking Photo Journey Report, Tropical Birding Trip Report, October 2013
Guest post and photos by guide Iain Campbell of TropicalBirding.com

PolarBearPeaking

I am used to being somewhat underwhelmed when people sprout hyperbole. You go there and it is not quite as amazing as they made it seem. Well I can say that this trip to Seal River Lodge was point blank the best photographic and wildlife adventure that I have ever experienced.

After five days with polar bears, I wanted to stay for another week, and was excited when our flight out was delayed by four hours. Time for one more walk.

The trip started in Winnipeg, where you arrive the night before to ensure you make the early morning flight the next morning to Churchill, Manitoba on the southwestern banks of Hudson Bay. After arriving in Churchill, people needing warm weather gear got fitted out and we took a small 8-seater plane for a low flight north to Seal River Lodge. As we left Churchill we flew over the last of the Taiga forest and onto the tundra. The landscape is not classically beautiful, but glorious in its starkness.

On arrival onto the small runway at the Lodge, the snow was blowing strong, our temperatures dropped, and one person decided that the two minute drive to the lodge was better than the 10 minute walk, so she headed off with the luggage. The remaining six of us braved it out, and were rewarded by our first polar bear sighting off the edge of the runway, chilling out in some willows.

After settling in, grabbing a great lunch and getting an introduction to dealing with massive carnivores that you feel inclined to cuddle, we set off with Tara and Andy, the two local guides who made us feel completely at ease.

We were about to walk around the tundra with polar bears, so having A-grade guides who know their stuff was very important. On the first afternoon we had a bear rolling around, stretching and generally just checking us out. We also had an Arctic Fox in its new winter plumage.

Polar Bear rolling around on the tundra at Seal River Lodge.

It was only that night that we really spent time to check out the Lodge. If you want plush with all the bells and whistles, satellite television and a spa, this is not it. It is however, much better than that, very comfortable with ensuite bathrooms, and there is an extremely cozy lounge to hang out in and chat. And best of all, amazingly helpful staff that do everything to make sure that you have a brilliant experience. Where in the world do you have staff that hops up hourly through the night to call you when the northern lights are shining? Well, they do here.

The food was outstanding, and although I would have been happy in an igloo eating beans, it was fun to have great food every lunch and dinner to warm you up between walks.

The next three days were very similar, where we left the compound, walked on the tundra and on Hudson Bay looking for polar bears. We found at least one polar bear on each walk, but they were always in different situations, different lighting and doing different things.

At no point did I, or any others in the group, feel as though we were doing the same old, same old. So although it was almost all white, it was by no means only polar bears. We spent a lot of time stalking down the flocks of hundreds of Willow Ptarmigan that have turned into their winter plumage. They would let us approach quite closely and you could have taken decent shots with a 300mm. We also chased Arctic Hare all over the place but only managed really good looks inside the Lodge compound.

Willow Ptarmigan Hudson Bay

Sometimes you did not need to head out of the Lodge compound to have a close encounter. Bears are walking up and down the coastline of Hudson Bay, so every few hours or so, one may walk past the Lodge.

Now, sitting for a month waiting for ice to form would test even the most Zen polar bear, so having a person to interact with is a pretty interesting way to fill in the time. If one was in the area and I went out to the compound and sat beside the fence, the bear would come up to the fence. I spent about 20 minutes with the one in the photo above before I was late for lunch and being rude to the kitchen staff. I went in, had lunch and watched him play in the snow.

When we went on the walks, the guides talked about all aspects of Arctic biology, history and culture. We found ourselves talking about Inuit and First Nations lifestyles while being watched by another local. The general protocol was to not let new bears get too close (about 100 yards) before the guides made noise to keep them away. When it was a bear that the guides knew, and knew its behavior, they would let it get to a safe distance.

Arctic Fox at Seal River Lodge

There was one bear that followed us a lot, and would walk to within 30 yards and usually lie down and watch us before dozing off. Now that is not to say that there were not times when my adrenalin went sky high with a bear not wanting to back off.  At no time did the local guides lose their composure, and they were always in control of the situation.

The photo at the top of this trip report was one of those situations. The bear did not want to back down, and after having noise made and snow thrown at it, he went and hid behind a large rock and kept poking his head above the rock to watch us. Now playing peekaboo with a massive carnivore seems surreal, but every time he popped his head over the rock, we would all make a noise saying, “We still see you Bob”.

Again, the local guides were in complete control of the situation, which did not feel threatening, as the bear was showing signs of nothing but curiosity.

On the last day of the trip the plane that was due to pick us up had mechanical difficulties, and it looked as though we might not be able to get out, and the new group might not get in. In a show of a first rate operation, Mike and Jeanne from Seal River Lodge sent a message on the radio that “Guys you are getting a helicopter safari”.

Polar bear and Iain at the Seal River Lodge fence.My last image of this spectacular place was taking off from their front door in a helicopter, rising right over their roof, before shooting off towards Churchill flying low over the tundra.

An exhilarating experience, landing in Churchill just on dusk, heading for a wonderful meal with our group in the local restaurant before flying back to Winnipeg that night. Would I go back?

In a heartbeat.

Need more information about this trip and/or future trips with Iain Campbell?

Web: www.TropicalBirding.com
Phone: 1 (409) 515-0514
E-mail: info@tropicalbirding.com

How fast can a moose run? Scarbrow knows.

by Terry Elliot, Churchill Wild Guide

Yesterday was a great day on the Great Ice Bear Adventure!

Beautiful sunny skies at sunrise, and we could hear a moose calling on the other side of the lake, so we gathered everyone up and walked across the ice.

Moose are hard to find, so my expectations were low, but when we approached the far shore we spotted a cow and calf and then a bull! We managed to catch them slicing through the trees in the video above, but they were quick!

We came back and found two arctic foxes on the bay and then spent the afternoon on the ice with our resident bear “Scarbrow”. The photographers were in heaven. The light was beautiful and Scarbrow circled around to give us every angle! We finished the day with a spectacular display of northern lights!

Don’t know how we will top that today, but it isn’t even breakfast time yet and Scarbrow is already performing at the fence for us.

We get the feeling he already knows how fast a moose can run.

Scarbrow knows how fast a moose runs.

Scarbrow knows how fast a moose can run.

The Cranberry Queen

by Mike Reimer, Churchill Wild

The Cranberry Queen, Helen Webber, on the shores of Hudson Bay at Seal River Heritage Lodge.

The Cranberry Queen, Helen Webber, on the shores of Hudson Bay at Seal River Heritage Lodge.

What do 5,000,000 Cranberries look like?

Why not ask the Cranberry Queen, who has personally handled each one of those delectable beauties. Helen Webber, the Grand Queen of the Webber/Churchill Wild empire, has spent the last 40 Septembers faithfully collecting buckets and buckets of incredibly tasty wild cranberries with which to complement the lodges’ Arctic cuisine.

It takes some real dedication to the needs of the palate to spend all those cold fall afternoons crouched over the berry patch all the while keeping a sharp eye out for wandering polar bears. Many recipes for our bestselling cookbook series Blueberries and Polar Bears were developed by Helen and friend Marie Woolsey using these marvelous berries to enhance a variety of meals at the lodges.

Additional cranberry pickers are always welcome! From L to R, Mike Reimer, Helen Webber, Krysten Martens, Karli Reimer.

Additional cranberry pickers are always welcome! From L to R, Mike Reimer, Helen Webber, Krysten Martens, Karli (Reimer) Friesen.

Wild cranberries vastly surpass any tame grown berries for flavour, texture and gourmet pizzazz, and one taste of these tundra delicacies over snow goose pie or roasted turkey pretty much ensures the supermarket variety stays on the shelf. And let’s not forget one of our all-time favourites, Cranberry Cake with Butter Sauce!

Helen Webber, Seal River Lodge

Helen Webber. Cranberry Queen and Cookbook Author. At home on the tundra.

This past fall while cooking (yesssss, Helen is still working!) for the Arctic Safari at Seal River Lodge, Helen took a little time to harvest the bountiful crop of berries sprayed across the tundra near the lodge.

Along with her trusty assistants, Helen hauled in 300 cups of crimson berries in six hours, setting a new record for the foodie team and likely establishing Helen as the most prolific cranberry picker of all time! I’m thinking there must be a spot in the Guinness record books for this category.

Hopefully some of the kids and grandkids pick up on this talent, as Helen keeps threatening to hang up her bucket for good soon.

Churchill Wild sponsors 2nd Annual Polar Bear Marathon in Churchill, Manitoba

Polar Bear Marathon 2013. Athletes in Action. Sponsored by Churchill Wild.

Polar Bear Marathon 2013. Will you be there? Click Image for Registration Form.

by Ray Hildebrand

Churchill Wild is pleased to be the sole sponsor of the 2nd Annual Polar Bear Marathon, scheduled for November 22, 2013 in Churchill, Manitoba.

This is a very unique running event that requires resolution and perseverance in order to complete the marathon course in and around Churchill. The weather at this time of year can be very harsh and this environment adds a unique challenge to the test that a marathon represents for the participating athletes.

The time of year also sees the last of the polar bears gathering on the Hudson Bay coastline in anticipation of freeze-up, which enables them to access food and replenish their depleted nutritional demands out on the Bay ice. All runners are required to run in pairs with an accompanying vehicle that secures their safety from these large predators and also serves as a mobile aid station if required.

This event is in support of the Athletes in Action work done in the Sayisi Dene First Nations community of Tadoule Lake, and this year three members of this community are registered to participate in the race.

Polar Bear Marathon 2013 was snowy!

Polar Bear Marathon 2012 was snowy!

“The Dene people have a rich history with the Hudson Bay coast that we operate in,” said Jeanne Reimer of Churchill Wild.  “We are now benefiting from the stewardship that they applied to the environment that they managed generation after generation, and we are very pleased to be able to participate in this marathon as a means to reciprocate through our support of this community”.

“Our business involves hosting guests from around the world and we have the privilege of showcasing this incredible eco-system to them,” said Jeanne’s husband Mike.  “Our involvement in the Polar Bear Marathon provides an opportunity to promote the deep connection we have with the Dene people through the world of sport, which shows no boundaries or cultural distinctions.”

“Of course we will be cheering for the Dene runners to win the race!” added Jeanne.

Your course awaits... Polar Bear Marathon 2014.

Your course awaits… Polar Bear Marathon 2013. Churchill, Manitoba.

The Polar Bear Marathon provides a unique spectacle for the residents of Churchill as well, and events are planned that will be open to everyone.

If you would like more information on this year’s Polar Bear Marathon please contact Albert Martens via e-mail at aemart@mts.net, phone (204) 346-1345 or mobile (204) 371-9780. Download: 2013 Polar Bear Marathon Registration Form (PDF)

Need more inspiration?  Read Albert Marten’s Report on the 2012 Polar Bear Marathon, check out his photo album of the event and watch the video below by one of last year’s star participants, Eric Alexander of Higher Summits.

We look forward to seeing you this year!

Summer at Seal River Lodge, Notes from an award-winning wildlife photographer

Guest Post by Steven Blandin, Award-Winning Wildlife Photographer
www.bird-wildlifephotography.com

Churchillwild - Splashing Bear

When is the best time of the year to go on a polar bear safari?

That was my initial inner question when my wife showed interest in exploring the possibilities of a trip to see polar bears. I knew we did not want to go as far as Northern Europe, and as it turned out, Canada was in fact the place with the larger population of polar bears.

Now set on finding a great spot in Canada, it seemed that the west bank of Hudson Bay would be the ideal place to see polar bears from July to the middle of November. Why? Because polar bears cross the large Bay after spending the winter north of the Arctic poles. They then congregate west of the Bay waiting for it to freeze anew, so that they may cross and head back to their winter turf.

Churchillwild - Summer landscape

That left us choosing between three seasonal time periods: summer, early autumn with the fall colors or late fall, when there would be snow on the ground. Not wanting to go on our adventure when temperatures were too low, we opted for a summer trip. That might seem counter-intuitive to some, as most of us imagine polar bears on a snowy landscape.

We decided that the Fireweed blooming season, which lasts about three weeks, would be the ideal time to go. The plants flower with purple colors and in big numbers. This provides a very unique green and purple backdrop, which we thought would be a bit different than the typical snowy environment. We targeted a week with likely Fireweed blooming days and booked our adventure.

Churchillwild - Bear Portrait
Flying on a small plane from Churchill to the Seal River Heritage Lodge offered a fantastic view of the grassy coastal landscape on the Hudson Bay shores. And the green contrasted superbly with the rice in the waters. Wait… the rice? Yes!

Large pods of beluga whales can be spotted from up above, and they give the impression of bowl of soup filled with rice. A great introduction to this remote land, we thought, this was going to be a very nice photographic experience!

We arrived to a warm welcome from Lodge owners Jeanne and Mike Reimer and our other hosts, who did wonderful work in the week that followed. The food was absolutely delicious, the rooms were quite comfortable, and our guides were amazing.

We saw polar bears every single day! Whether during walks, or just staying at the Lodge and peeking through the fence, we had memorable encounters with the bears. And all of our meetings with the bears occurred in an environment that was safe for both us and the bears.

Churchillwild - Golden Bear

I was also very happy with the fact that we had not missed the blooming Fireweed season, as we arrived in the last week of blooming. Even though we had missed the most intense blooming days, we were still amazed by the very unique purple and green color mix. We were also delighted to have photo opportunities in which the blooming flowers contrasted beautifully with the majestic bears.

Polar bears are curious creatures. On more than one occasion they actually walked towards us. Another key characteristic that struck me was that polar bears sleep quite a bit! Maybe they should be renamed the polar lions.

Churchillwild - Approaching Bear

We had a specific male polar bear sleeping close to the Lodge for a few days on a small peninsula, but he also took occasional walks and swims. We really felt that he was like another guest who just preferred to spend his nights under a starry sky.

Churchillwild - Sleeping Bear

The Seal River area is not only known for polar bears, but also for its migrating beluga whales and the aurora borealis. The latter phenomenon occurs when particles in the atmosphere are swept by the solar wind, and can be visible during clear nights for a few minutes to a number of hours. Though there are more clear nights during the winter, we did experience a couple of nights with spectacular northern lights. And we did not have to freeze to death to capture good shots!

Churchillwild - Aurora Borealis

Being on the Hudson Bay coast, we also took the opportunity to hop on a couple of the Zodiak boats to experience a swim with the belugas. Having been raised in the warm waters of the Caribbean, the icy waters of Hudson Bay were an initial concern, but once geared up with dry suits, tied to the boat by our ankles, and floating in the water, we found that we did not get cold, and the whales swam within arms-length of us.

In the end, I believe every season brings unique opportunities for a polar bear safari. We experienced the summer season, but the fall is highlighted by beautiful yellow and red colors, along with potentially more diversity in wildlife viewings. And late fall and winter adds the expected and still magical white coat of snow. So really, one might want to experience every single season!

Churchillwild - Yawning Bear

This trip allowed me to add many top notch polar bear photographs to my blog.