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Guest Posts

Furry boulders and not-so-feathery seabirds at Seal River Heritage Lodge

Guest Post and Photos by Katlin Miller

Author 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

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

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

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.

 

30 years with Churchill Wild – A guide’s quick perspective

Polar bear standing at Seal River

There’s something in the air.

by Quent Plett, Churchill Wild Guide

My experiences working with Churchill Wild have been amazing, with new and unique wildlife adventures on a daily basis.

Starting in the early ‘80s, when I first ventured north to work for the Webber family at North Knife Lake, cutting and peeling the logs that where to become the new North Knife Lake Lodge, we have had some fabulous encounters with the local wildlife including wolves, bears, moose, eagles and more.

Many beautiful sunsets have passed since those early days at North Knife, but the extraordinary experiences have kept on flowing.

Beluga swims by  in Hudson Bay

Good morning from Hudson Bay!

Majestic herds of migrating caribou, waves of snow, ross and Canada geese, seals, siksiks, Arctic fox and hare, Willow Ptarmigan and many others too numerous to mention have graced our presence, but none have given us more thrills and excitement than the polar bears and beluga whales. These past few weeks at Seal River Heritage Lodge have been a superb continuation of wildlife wonders.

We have had numerous mother polar bears with young cubs visit us and two large males have been wrestling just outside the large dining room windows at Seal River Heritage Lodge, adding to the already breathtaking view. The beluga whales as usual have also been very cooperative.

Polar bear mom and cub posing for camera.

Posing for the camera.

Seeing the huge smiles and looks of childhood wonder on the faces of the drysuit clad guests as they emerge from the icy Hudson Bay water after having had dozens of whales mere inches away from them, and even touched them on occasion, says it all. From our youngest guests like Jacob (4-years-old) and Zachery (8) to some of our older guests, the experiences are equally incredible.

To those of you who have been here, we look forward to your next visit! And for those of you have not been here, we hope to see you soon!

Polar bear Mom on the lookout with cubs at Seal River.

On the lookout.

Contentment at Seal River

Polar bear mom with nursing cubs at Seal River Lodge.

Contentment in the morning at Seal River Lodge. Photo by Richard Voliva.

There is a reason the adventure tours at Seal River Heritage Lodge are called Birds, Bears & Belugas at this time of the year. The guests are treated to the most amazing wildlife sights in the North.

It is said “if you don’t like the weather, just wait five minutes.”  That applies to the wildlife here at the Lodge as well. Just “wait five minutes” and there is something new to see. To say the views, sunsets and wildlife are stunning here, falls short. From polar bears on the ground, to swimming with beluga whales, we have seen it all.

Including this morning’s sighting of a mamma polar bear nursing her two cubs, that I was able to capture on what we call “film” these days.

Fantastic!

Direct from Seal River Heritage Lodge,

Richard Voliva

Guest captures elusive Wolverine on film during Great Ice Bear Adventure at Dymond Lake Lodge

Dymond Lake Lodge has been a hot spot for wolverines over the past few years but these solitary predators are often difficult to spot during the day. Amazingly we’ve had regular sightings of two wolverines this year.  Kim Spragg, one of our guests at Dymond Lake Lodge this year for the Great Ice Bear Adventure, was lucky enough to get some video of one of these elusive creatures this week. Thanks Kim!

YouTube Preview Image

Armed with sharp claws and crushing jaws, wolverines are the largest land-dwelling species of Mustelidae, better known as Weasels. Well known for their ferocity, wolverines have been documented not only killing prey many times their size, but also fending off much larger rival predators including polar bears! Learn more about Wolverines.

Keep your distance!

World-class bloggers, writers and videographers highlight Churchill Wild

We’ve had some great coverage by some world-class travel bloggers this year, at both Seal River Heritage Lodge and Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Below are a few of the stories you may have missed. Enjoy!

Polar bear near Seal River Heritage Lodge Photo Credit: Renee Blodgett

Polar bear near Seal River Heritage Lodge - Photo Credit: Renee Blodgett

Renee Blodgett, the founder of We Blog the World, Magic Sauce Media and co-founder of Traveling Geeks, wrote about Seal River Heritage Lodge in Canadian Polar Bears on Churchill Wild’s Hudson Bay. Renee wrote a long, wonderful and detailed article. We have included a few excerpts below

I’ve had lunch with a Prince in India’s Rajasthan, crossed the Somalian border by foot, went diving in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, watched gorillas in the Rwanda and Ugandan forests before they opened it up to tourists, ridden an ostrich in Africa and swam with turtles in the Galapagos Islands. And alas, at Churchill Wild, gazed into a polar bear’s eyes through tall grass and was mesmorized by his beauty and fun spirit.

Even though I still get a thrill by visting any new place for the first time as I wrote about recently on my way to Calgary, the bar gets higher the more you’ve traveled. As for top adventure experiences in the world, Churchill Wild ranks up there as one of the top places you should visit in your lifetime, particularly if you love nature and being out in the wild.

There’s something awe-inspiring and breathtaking about seeing polar bears in the wild and watching them in their natural habitat – play, eat, flirt, roll on their backs and yes, even sleep. What makes Churchill Wild so unique is that you are surrounded by a combination of raw beauty and polar bears on every side of you amidst a cool Arctic sky. Like sleeping in the African wild, you cannot go for a leisurely stroll outside the lodge since you may just run into a polar bear when you least expect it. There are roughly 950 of these polar bears along Western Hudson Bay shores and roughly 25,000 Beluga whales in nearby waters.

 Depending on the time of year you head north, you can kayak or swim with the belugas while viewing their adorable dolphin-like faces through a mask.  I jumped off the side of a boat with a dry suit on and did precisely that - the experience was truly incredible. If you head north, be sure to include extra time to hang out with the beluga whales as well — it’s magical to listen to them underwater…a bit like a flock of birds and fish all singing together in unison at the same time. If you’re into native birds, be sure to bring your binoculars since you’re likely to spot some while you’re trekking along the Hudson Bay. If you’re interested in heading north in the summer or fall to hang out with the polar bears and beluga whales, here’s how it works: Read more…

Thanks Renee!

Birgit-Cathrin Duval, aka takkiwrites, a freelance journalist, photographer and author wrote about Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge in A Summer with Polar Bears for the German Web site Taz.de. Note, her story is written in German, but if you have the Google Chrome Browser, you can translate it to English.

Below is an edited excerpt from her article translated to English.

We stutter through the completely flat, soggy tundra. All Terrain Vehicles, known as quads, pulling the trailer on which we sit. You can’t get any closer o the wilderness than this. Andy (our Guide) has spotted a bear, a few hundred meters away. We continue to walk. No one speaks. All are banned, waiting for instructions. Andy proceeds, we follow him. Close together, so as not to startle the bear. But the bear has already spotted us. Curious, like a little boy, he lifts his nose. Andy gives a sign we should stand still. He waits. The polar bear has reacted to our presence. He dissociates himself from us. We will not approach further. But the polar bear comes closer. My heart is beating in my throat. Suddenly the bear disappears into the bushes. Nervously, I step on the spot, only the smacking of rubber boots on the muddy ground is heard. Where’s the bear? Two furry ears and a black pair of eyes appear between green bushes. Somehow cuddly. Read more…

Percy Lipinski, of Vancouver B.C. and a member of TripAdvisor.com, compiled some great videos about his trip to Churchill Wild, including this one entitled Churchill Wild Polar Bear Expedition for CNN iReport, and also submitted the video along with another on Beluga Whales to TripAdvisor.com.

“We hooked up with Churchill Wild to track and observe Polar Bears,” said Percy. “Amazing experience… swimming with very large Beluga Whales is something you will never forget. Don’t forget to bring your splash proof cameras.”

Thanks Percy!

And last but certainly not least the Canadian version of  AskMen.com mentioned Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge as part of Cape Tatnum in its Top 10: Isolated Towns. We’re #4!

Thanks to everyone for all the amazing coverage of our polar bear lodges, we really appreciate your insights and efforts. If any of our other guests out there have something they would like to submit: photos, stories, videos, we certainly welcome them here.

Thanks Again!