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Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge

Award-winning photographer and author Dennis Fast to lead late fall Polar Bear Photo Safaris at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge and Seal River Heritage Lodge

Polar bear approaches at Nanuk.

Polar bear approaches at Nanuk.

Dennis Fast has been Churchill Wild’s chief photographer for the past 20 years, starting out as a guide in 1993 and progressing to lead numerous photo safaris. This year he will lead the Polar Bear Photo Safaris that take place at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge from September 23-30, 2013 and two that take place at Seal River Heritage Lodge from November 10-16 and November 14-20.

One of Manitoba’s best known photographers, Dennis’s images have appeared in many calendars and books, including the award-winning best seller Pelicans to Polar Bears, a Manitoba wildlife viewing guide. His calendar credit list is impressive and includes 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. Most recently, 35 of Dennis’s best polar bear photos were placed in the International Polar Bear Conservation Centre (IPBCC) in Winnipeg.

PolarMomandCubNanuk540

Polar bear Mom and Cub at Nanuk.

Dennis was a school principal for many years before retiring in 1998 to devote more time to his dual passions of birding and photography. He first met Churchill Wild’s Mike and Jeanne Reimer in the early ‘90s through Mike’s sister, who gave a presentation at his school. That led to doing photography workshops for the Churchill Northern Studies Centre and eventually to flying over what is now Seal River Heritage Lodge when it was an abandoned whale research centre ravaged by wolves and polar bears in 1993.

“I thought Mike was crazy at the time,” said Dennis. “But I started out guiding for him and look at it now. It’s the most gorgeous showplace on the tundra.”

Hmm... how come all the other bears are white?

Hmm… how come all the other bears are white?

Dennis has made major contributions to a number of books since then, including Wapusk: White Bear of the North, the first book to feature his work exclusively. Wapusk: White Bear of the North showcases stunning images of polar bears in their Hudson Bay environs, but also addresses the threats to the bears’ traditional migration patterns and their existence in the Churchill area.

Over the past 10 years Dennis has photographed polar bears every season, and has had some amazing encounters with the world’s largest land carnivore. He has also observed firsthand the changing climate of the North and its effect on the polar bear. Ever-shortening winters have left many bears still hungry when summer approaches, and it has made them leaner and more aggressive, and driven them to increasing contact with man and his refuse.

Batten down the hatches! Storm at Nanuk.

Batten down the hatches! Storm at Nanuk.

Most recently, Dennis’s images appeared in The Land Where the Sky Begins, which was commissioned by the Nature Conservancy of Canada to document the last remnants of Manitoba’s tall grass prairie and aspen parkland. Written by Barbara Huck, one of Canada’s premier natural history writers, The Land Where the Sky Begins is lavishly illustrated with photographs of the landscapes and wildlife that constitute this vanishing wilderness.

Dennis has traveled extensively across Canada, Belize, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Ecuador, Peru, Greenland, Iceland, and the United States in pursuit of photographs, most recently to Iceland and Greenland to photograph landscapes. The latter, along with the polar bears, are what attracts him to all three of Churchill Wild’s polar bear lodges.

What's going on over there? Polar bear Mom and Cub at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge.

What’s going on over there?

“They’re all different,” said Dennis. “Seal River has the lunar landscapes when the tide goes out, Dymond Lake is a little more inland with trees and Nanuk is flat with smooth beaches, lagoons and grasslands on the coast, and tons of birds. Each have their own unique qualities. And they all attract polar bears.”

And the light conditions should be ideal.

Polar bear approaching fast at nanuk Polar Bear Lodge.

Polar bear approaching fast!

“There’s no warm water mixing with cold air to produce fog as it does when you’re near Churchill,” said Dennis. “The clear skies should result in some excellent opportunities to photograph the northern lights. I’m expecting the same at Seal River with the Solar Max. At Nanuk we’ll take the ATVs out to the coast every day to see the mothers and cubs, but we’re also going to get some exceptional landscape shots and photographs of other wildlife in the area.”

That wildlife includes thousands of different birds, wolves, moose, caribou and more. And Dennis will be helping his fellow photographers not just with the technical aspects of taking pictures, but also the processing of the images.

“I’m really looking forward to helping everyone get the best photos possible,” said Dennis. As are we!

On the beach. Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge.

On the beach. Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge.

Churchill Wild celebrates 20th Anniversary! Thank You!

by Mike Reimer, Churchill Wild

Seal River Heritage Lodge 2013

Celebrating 20 years! Seal River Heritage Lodge 2013.

20 years? Say it isn’t so. Wow!

Seems like just yesterday we were flying north up the coast from Churchill to have a look at a couple of old tumbled down shacks near the mouth of the Seal River, with hopes of finding a spot for a polar bear lodge.

Dennis Fast shook his head in disbelief when he first spotted the site.

“You better buy it quick before Jeanne sees it!”

Seal River Lodge in 1993

What we saw from the plane in 1993!

Well, we made the plunge, and as they say, the rest is history.

The first few seasons were “interesting” to say the least, and thank goodness we had Jeanne’s parents Doug and Helen Webber backing the program with their years of experience in the fishing and hunting lodge business.

Our first summer (1993) was spent cleaning up the site and making the existing building habitable. It had been used previously as a whale research station and for some goose hunting, but had sat abandoned for many years. All the windows and doors had been knocked out by marauding polar bears; the swallows were nesting in the light fixtures; and the Arctic foxes had found it a convenient spot to get out of the wind for a bathroom break.

With much elbow grease, lots of paint, new beds, plumbing, electrical, roofing and some new doors and windows, we eventually had a place to call home. Of course, just to remind us of whose turf we were on, a curious polar bear smashed out one of the new windows in the first week before we had a chance to get some bars up.

That first season was not a real money maker to say the least, with only one client, but the adventure level was very high. We had an endless supply of new routes and trails to explore and establish!

Like most small businesses, Jeanne and I ran the whole show for a few seasons while we got our feet under us. Jeanne was chef/housekeeper/bear guard/hostess/expeditor/berry picker (with our kids as helpers) while I did all the other stuff, none of which I can seem to remember right now!

I do remember that our first bedroom, which eventually became the laundry room, was five feet wide by 14 feet long with Jeanne and I at one end and our girls — Rebecca, Karli and Allison — stacked three deep like cordwood at the other end. When Adam came along he slept on a shelf above our bed! All very cozy, the kids loved it and thought it was all one big adventure, though Jeanne had some other ideas at times.

Dining Room at Seal River Heritage Lodge

Dining Room at Seal River Heritage Lodge today. We've come a long way!

We discovered, much to our delight, that Seal River had an incredible array of flora and fauna. It was going to be a spectacular choice for an ecolodge! The mechanics of building and operating the lodge came naturally (mostly!) as we had both gained a wealth of very valuable experience working together with Doug and Helen at their lodges. They were pillars of much needed support in those early years.

Operating any sort of lodges or remote camps in the Arctic has its share of challenges, as the source of all supplies is usually hundreds of miles away. And they are being purchased from people who really do not have a clue as to how difficult it is to get anything to us.

Everything must be ordered weeks and sometimes months in advance, to be shipped by train from Winnipeg to Churchill where it can be flown to the lodge, or, in the case of building materials, dragged over the sea ice during the winter with our old 1956 D6 Cat. If anything breaks down you can measure in days and weeks the amount of time it takes to get a replacement part, and sometimes the season ends before the new parts arrive!

Our environment entirely dictates our activities, and on this type of jobsite you might find yourself stuck offshore on an ice flow; broke down in a howling blizzard on Hudson Bay; or sitting in the floatplane on a lonely stretch of river waiting for the fog to lift so you can get much needed groceries to the lodge.

Inside Seal River Heritage Lodge

Interior of Seal River Heritage Lodge today. It wasn't always this nice!

Occasionally you might find yourself whacking an overly curious polar bear on the nose for sticking his head through the shop door, or crawling under the lodge at 3 a.m. to thaw out frozen pipes. There’s a whole host of weird and challenging things at all kinds of crazy hours, in all sorts of weather. Never a dull moment in this business!

There have been many, many adventures and challenges over the years. Maybe someday we’ll find the time to write them all down in a book. At present we continue to add new destinations and safaris. Along with Seal River Heritage Lodge and the Birds, Bears & Belugas summer polar bear experience, we also operate Dymond Lake EcoLodge, home of the Great Ice Bear Adventure, and Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge, home of Mothers & Cubs, as well as North Knife Lake Fishing Lodge, the Arctic Safari, Polar Bear Photo Safari and Black & White Adventure. Our growth has resulted in the need for more staff. Luckily, we have been blessed with the best. Those little kids we used to stack up on the shelves are now our chefs, managers and admin staff!

Jeanne & Mike

Jeanne & Mike Reimer

Of course, we couldn’t have done any of this without you, our guests. A big polar bear hug goes out to all of you, for spending your hard earned dollars and time with us. We have thoroughly enjoyed your company and made many lifelong friends.

Thank you for making it all possible.

Mike Reimer, Churchill Wild

Nolan Booth named new Director of Lodge Operations at Churchill Wild

Nolan Booth with Polar Bear at Dymond Lake Lodge

Nolan Booth with friend at Dymond Lake EcoLodge

Nolan Booth has been named Director of Lodge Operations at Churchill Wild. Congratulations Nolan!

Nolan has been with Churchill Wild for the past five years managing Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge, home of Mothers & Cubs, and Dymond Lake Lodge, which hosts the Great Ice Bear Adventure, but has worked on and off for Churchill Wild and its associated lodges for over 25 years. Nolan’s wife Doreen is the Manager of Sales and Guest Relations at Churchill Wild.

Responsibilities in Nolan’s new position will include guest relations, staffing, day-to-day lodge operations, building and construction during the off season, and making sure the lodges run with all the comforts of home during the peak travel season, which includes maintaining the solar power system and the generators.

“We’re doing some renovations and major upgrades at Dymond Lake Lodge and Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge this year,” said Nolan, who is looking forward to the challenge. “During the summer when there is a good amount of sun, the lodges can run almost exclusively on solar power. The generators are there for backup though, and are used as necessary.”

Next week, Nolan, Riley Friesen and Mike Reimer will be jumping into the Bombardier to haul a new generator, batteries, equipment and new windows on a giant sleigh across Hudson Bay to Dymond Lake Lodge. The 22 km trip will take the adventurous trio across the Churchill River, through Seahorse Gully and across Button Bay on Hudson Bay. Equipment and building materials will also soon be on their way to Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge, where a new “bigger and better” lodge is being built.

“At first the new lodge at Nanuk will be used as the main kitchen, dining room and lounge for the guests,” said Nolan. “Later we will be adding sleeping quarters to it.”

Born and raised in Churchill, Manitoba, Nolan also spent 10 years in the Yukon, and has been around either polar bears or grizzly bears all his life. The 40-year-old “bear” veteran started out in the lodge business over 25 years ago with Doug Webber at North Knife Lake Lodge, doing whatever it took to make the facilities run smoothly, and it has been a natural progression to the polar bear lodges of Churchill Wild.

“You deal with polar bears in Churchill and grizzlies in the Yukon,” said Nolan. “When you’re salmon fishing in the Yukon, the grizzlies are basically doing what you’re doing. You share the river with them and you have to be careful.”

Nolan has also fished for brook trout in the Mistikokan River near Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. In that case it was the polar bears he had to watch out for.

“Bears are in my blood,” he said. “I’m looking forward to this. And the three different lodges each have something unique about them, so it’s always interesting. Dymond Lake Lodge is on the tree line and the lake; Seal River Heritage Lodge is right on the Hudson Bay coast; and Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge is located on the coast in the historically significant area of York Factory, surrounded by two of the largest and most powerful rivers in Canada, the Nelson and the Hayes.”

“We had our best season ever at Dymond Lake Lodge last year. There was good bear traffic and it’s always fun to be out walking with the guests when the polar bears are around. The feeling people get when they first see a polar bear up close in its home environment is almost indescribable. I’ve been around bears all my life and my heart still races when I see a polar bear.”

“Last year was also an excellent year at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge,” continued Nolan. “We saw both black bears and polar bears on a daily basis, and all kinds of other wildlife. The black bears and the polar bears never get too close to each other. The black bears run away when the polar bears move in. I’m really looking forward to getting back up there this season and hanging out with the bears.”

“It’s my dream job.”

Nolan Booth (Center) with Polar Bear Guides Steve Schellenberg (Left) and Terry Elliot (Right))

Nolan Booth (Center) with Polar Bear Guides Steve Schellenberg (Left) and Terry Elliot (Right))

Award-winning photographer Robert Postma to lead Polar Bear Photo Safari at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge

Polar Bear Roll - Photo Credit: Robert Postma

Polar Bear Roll - Photo Credit: Robert Postma

Award-winning photographer Robert Postma will lead the 2013 Polar Bear Photo Safari at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge in early September, and he’s excited about getting back on the tundra at ground-level with the world’s largest land carnivore.

“It’s an amazing opportunity,” said Postma speaking from his home in Whitehorse, Yukon. “I’ve never been to Nanuk, but have wanted to go ever since I started visiting the Churchill Wild Lodges, especially to head a photo safari. I’m looking forward to helping the other photographers get some great shots, give tips and advice, answer any questions they might have.”

The 41-year-old Postma has worked as professional photographer since 2003. His photos have appeared in numerous magazines including National Geographic, Canadian Geographic, Up Here, Our Canada, Mountain Equipment Co-op and Astronomy, as well as in brochures, annual reports and calendars. On April 2, 2012 his photo of a great horned owl bursting from an abandoned toolshed in Saskatchewan appeared as the Photo of the Day on the National Geographic Web site. Examples of Postma’s work can also be seen on the gallery section of his website at at www.DistantHorizons.ca and also on his Robert Postma Photography Facebook Page.

A few of Postma’s photo contest wins include the 2010 Banff Mountain Festival Photography Competition, The Nature of Things and Planet in Focus Nature in Focus Environmental Photography Competition, the Show us your Canada photo contest in 2004 and 2008, the Up Here Fantastic Photo Contest and Canadian Geographic Photo Club’s Annual Photography Contest in 2011, for which the theme was extreme weather. He has worked on Ellesmere Island in Nunavut and traveled all over North America as well as to Iceland, Australia, Bolivia, Peru, Guyana and Lebanon.

The Nanuk Polar Bear Safari represents a perfect progression for Postma, who was part of the group that attended the 2012 Polar Bear Photo Safari at Seal River.

“I always look forward to my trips with Churchill Wild,” he said. “I‘ve been to both Seal River Heritage Lodge and Dymond Lake Lodge and they were phenomenal experiences — first class, great meals, gracious hosts and excellent guides. And for some reason I’m just drawn to remote landscapes.”

It doesn’t get much more remote than Nanuk. Located approximately 150 kilometers southeast of Churchill on the Hudson Bay Coast within the Kaskatamagan Wildlife Management Area, Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge is only a 10 minute bush plane flight from Canada’s historic York Factory, the original trading post established in 1684 by Governor George Geyer of the Hudson’s Bay Company.

“We still find remnants of old ships occasionally in the mud flats,” said Churchill Wild’s Mike Reimer in an earlier interview, perhaps referring to the Battle of Hudson Bay in 1697, the largest Arctic naval battle ever fought. “From brass railings to cannons to old grave sites, you never know what you might find. And our guides are direct descendants of the Western Woods Cree, the “Home Guard Indians” who worked with the Hudson Bay Company over 300 years ago at the original settlements — guiding, hunting, interpreting and procuring wild game and furs for them.”

And not only is the area surrounding Nanuk drenched in history, it’s right in the heart both the newly discovered polar bear denning areas and the impending solar maximum, which occurs approximately every 11 years. According to Canadian Geographic in their January/February article Sun Struck, 2013 promises to be a once-in-a-decade opportunity to experience the sun’s magnetic power at its height, which could mean northern lights displays that are even more spectacular than usual at Nanuk.

“Solar activity, — flares, sunspots, solar winds and other forms of radiation — is governed by changes in the sun’s magnetic field,” writes Peter McMahon in the article. “These activities wax and wane on a fairly predictable 11-year cycle known as the solar maximum. The peak of this cycle hits this year (predicted to be September 2013 or later), which is why skywatchers and scientists are so excited. The solar maximum should bring with it the brightest and most frequent auroral displays for more than a decade.”

“If we get clear skies during the solar max we could see some stunning aurora borealis displays,” said Postma, who has taken numerous photos of nature’s most spectacular light show.  But what he’s really looking forward to is photographing polar bears at ground level on a picture-perfect backdrop that includes the Hudson Bay coastline, fall colours and beautiful interior lagoons.

“I’ve photographed polar bears from both the tundra buggies and on the ground,” said Postma. “But it’s on the ground where you can really get the good shots. I like to try to portray emotion in my photographs. I want people to experience what I was feeling when I took the shot. I like to get down low, looking up at the bears. People don’t think about that, but when you’re on your knees at eye level with a polar bear, it’s intense, and that comes across in the photos.”

“If the bears are interested they will sometimes get as close to 30 feet from you,” continued Postma” “But I’ve never felt scared or threatened. The guides are knowledgeable; they know the bears and they always have their eye on them. All precautions are taken.”

After a hearty breakfast, Postma and his band of photographers will hike the tundra in search of polar bears and the perfect shot. They’ll do the same after lunch and sometimes even after dinner. That’s assuming they aren’t interrupted by polar bears at the Lodge fence or a spectacular Northern Lights display.

“Walking on the tundra up there is a special kind of experience,” said Postma. “I’ve done it a lot, but I’ll never get bored of the wide open spaces. It awakens a part of me that just lays dormant.”

“It’s good for the soul.”

Polar Bears Sparring - Photo Credit: Robert Postma

Polar Bears Sparring - Photo Credit: Robert Postma

Manitoba Conservation officials discover large number of new polar bear dens on Hudson Bay coast near Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge

Polar bears relaxing Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge

Polar bears relaxing near Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge

It’s probably too early to tell whether a spring Polar Bear Photo Safari is in order for Churchill Wild’s Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge, but the recent discovery of a large number of new polar bear dens along the Hudson Bay coast in the vicinity of Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge by Manitoba Conservation officials make it a distinct possibility.

Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge is located 250 km southeast of Churchill, Manitoba, on the Hudson Bay coast near York Factory, and is currently home to Churchill Wild’s Mothers & Cubs summer polar bear adventure. According to Manitoba Conservation officials, the newly discovered polar bear dens are located in an area southeast of Wapusk National Park and east of the Nelson River, a region along the southern end of the polar bears’ range which is not as well-known as Churchill and other areas to the north.

“At this point we do not have enough information on the number of dens, their locations and if there is any potential for a spring Mothers & Cubs Polar Bear Adventure,” said Rick Kemp, Director of Marketing and Communications at Churchill Wild. “But we do know that Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge is located in the heart of the newly discovered den sites, and this bodes well for many exceptional polar bear encounters in the years ahead.”

The discovery of the new polar bear dens could indicate that the bear population in the area is in excellent shape, but the Province of Manitoba is undertaking a three-year study to get more detail. An aerial survey released by the Nunavut government recently estimated the polar bear population in the area at 1,000, which was surprising. A survey done in 2004 had predicted the number of polar bears in the area would decline to about 650 in 2011.

The 2004 prediction was based on the fact that the ice covering this particular stretch of Hudson Bay is now present for three weeks less than it was in the past, reducing the time that the polar bears are able to hunt seals, thus affecting their livelihood. Scientists were also worried that climate change would affect the permafrost that the polar bears use to build their dens. Polar bear dens do not collapse on permanently frozen ground, but if warming temperatures cause the permafrost to recede north, the denning areas would be in jeopardy.

“The sheer numbers of polar bears moving up and down the coast past Nanuk indicate a very healthy population,” said Mike Reimer, founder of Churchill Wild. “This has been our best summer to date. Nanuk is located near Cape Tatnum, which is the premier landing site on Hudson Bay for polar bears coming off the last of the summer ice, due to prevailing winds and ocean currents. Once again we experienced a late sea ice break up this year, which gave the bears an excellent opportunity to extend their seal hunt. As a result, we are seeing a lot of polar bears this year that are in exceptional condition.”

“Manitoba Conservation has not indicated that they will base their research study out of Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge,” said Kemp. “But we would certainly welcome the opportunity to be part of this important discovery mission. Polar bear populations and their overall health are a concern for us all, as we come to grips with climate change and its impact on these beautiful creatures.”

“Churchill Wild is dedicated to providing life-changing polar bear experiences at our remote wilderness lodges,” continued Kemp. “Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge is without a doubt poised to become a “must see” destination for discerning adventure travel enthusiasts.”

There will be five departures for the Mothers & Cubs Polar Bear Adventure at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge in 2013, beginning on August 28 and running through to September 30.