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Polar Bear Tours

Surrounded by polar bears, sharing a meal at Seal River Lodge

Polar bear mom and cub after seal lunch at Seal River Lodge

Mom and cub relaxing after lunch at Seal River.

by Mike Reimer

Wow! The action at Seal River Lodge is hot and heavy early this year for our great white bears just off the ice!

We’re literally “surrounded” by polar bears as we speak, just point the camera or scope at a point on the compass and you’re likely to see one or two bears. We’re not sure what caused this early concentration but we are not complaining!

Ever wondered what groups of animals are called?

Here at Seal River we have “gaggles” of geese, a “paddling” of duck, a “convocation” of eagles, a “colony” of gulls, a “husk” of Arctic Hares, and today we had a spectacular “sloth” of polar bears.

Six gorgeous bears spent the day sharing a ringed seal one of them had managed to catch. Said seal made the fatal mistake of falling asleep on a nice warm rock on lodge point while the tide was going out and forgot to leave, ending up several hundred meters from the receding water line. This is huge no-no when you are trying to survive on a coastline liberally sprinkled with hungry polar bears and you also happen to be loaded with thousands of calories of their favourite snack, seal fat!

This must have been one of those seals that didn’t belong in the gene pool, and it certainly provided hours of incredible polar bear watching for our Churchill Wild guests. The bears are satiated and fresh as they emerge from their icy Hudson Bay hunting grounds, but they’re certainly not going to pass up an easy meal.

At times there were as many as six bears, including a couple of family groups that were graciously sharing their prize. This certainly won’t be the case come fall when the new ice is forming and the last seal-meal is a distant memory. At present the bears look very well fed and in fabulous shape, so we’re looking forward to another great summer!

Shaping up to be one of our best polar bear viewing seasons yet!

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.

Nursing professor learns, loves and laughs with polar bears at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge

by +George Williams, Photos courtesy of Jo Eland

Jo Eland gives polar bears a rest at Nanuk Polar bear Lodge. Nina Williams photo.

Jo gives the polar bears a rest.

“When you brush your teeth make sure you spit in the fire, otherwise the grizzlies will come in.”

That’s what professional photographer Robert Postma told Jo Eland while rough camping along the Dempster Highway in Canada’s Yukon a few years ago. Jo got no such advice last year when walking with polar bears at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge, but she likely didn’t need it, as polar bears and grizzlies are two very different animals.

She did however, appreciate the insights and education she received from polar bear guides Andy McPherson and Albert (Butch) Saunders while at Nanuk.

“The knowledge of the guides at Nanuk was impressive,” said Jo. “And even though we were on the ground within 100 yards of a polar bear at different times, at no time did we ever feel unsafe or insecure. They watched the bears like hawks.”

Polar bear walks the Hudson bay coast at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Jo Eland photo.

And my heart didn’t skip a beat once. Well, maybe once. ~ Jo Eland

A highly educated (PhD RN FAAN FNAP) Associate Professor of Nursing at The University of Iowa, Jo admitted she wasn’t quite prepared for walking with polar bears when she arrived at Nanuk, but she soon embraced the adventure.

“After looking at the photos on the Web site, we thought the bears would come right up to the fence,” said Jo. “We never thought we would be walking out to the polar bears, but it was exhilarating to get so close to them in their own environment. And my heart didn’t skip a beat once. Well, maybe once.”

While bears do come up to the fence that surrounds the Lodge (and interrupt meals) on a regular basis, especially black bears, on most days at Nanuk the guests are out traversing the mudflats in the “Tundra Rhino” tracking polar bears, enjoying the vast stress-relieving landscapes of the Hudson Bay Coast. Jo particularly enjoyed the day trips, despite losing a boot in the mud one day.

Jo Eland taking photos of polar bears at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge

Jo Eland ~ Polar Bear Photographer.

“One of my boots came off when we were walking out to a polar bear, but it was my own fault. You need proper fitting boots, which the Lodge does provide. I brought my own and they were too big. I stumbled a bit but Nolan (Director of Lodge Operations) grabbed my arm and helped me out. My camera gear was okay, I was okay, and we just kept on going.”

Actually, we think Jo’s comment at the time went something along the lines of, “I’m still here aren’t I! It’ll take more than that to stop this old gal!”

Polar bear relaxing on a gravel bar at Nanuk. Jo Eland photo.

Polar bear relaxing on a gravel bar at Nanuk.

Considering her background as a specialist in pain management, and some of the work trips she has taken over the past 25 years, Jo’s comments were not unexpected. This winter, her and her students spent three weeks in India working with the poor in a hospice, while also taking photographs for the families.

“I’ve been going to India for five years now,” said Jo. “Most of the people have no family photos, no photos at all. So I combine my passion for photography with my passion for helping people. Eighty percent of the people we see there live below the poverty line. This year we took a picture of a mother and her disabled daughter, whom she had cared for since the age of four, 37 years. They had no photo of themselves together. It really makes you appreciate your lot in life.”

Prior to her trips to India, Jo had been traveling to Italy for 20 years, utilizing her medical skills to assist in children’s hospitals. Jo has now spent a total of 27 years working with children with cancer. Such a career, while immensely satisfying, can take a toll on a person.

Northern Lights over Nanuk Polar bear Lodge. Jo Eland photo.

Northern Lights over Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge.

“Trips like Mothers & Cubs are much needed,” said Jo. “They free your mind. You can’t see and do India without clearing your head later on trips like Nanuk. I’ve done a lot of living in my 66 years, but this was my first time seeing the polar bears and I loved every minute of it.”

“Getting that close to the bears was marvelous,” continued Jo. “But it was much more than that. The people, not only the other guests on the trip, but the Lodge staff, were remarkable. The staff at the Lodge had an excellent work ethic and an exceptional desire to please. You just don’t find that anywhere. I’ve been to hundreds of 5-star hotels and I’ve never been looked after like I was at Nanuk. And to top it off, when we left the Lodge to fly out on the final day, the pilot did a few extra circles over the polar bears for us, so we could get a few more photos. Who does that?”

Jo also admired the ingenuity and creativity it took to build a Lodge in the Artic, and the owner’s commitment to the environment and to those less fortunate in the area.

“If a piece of garbage had floated in off the Bay, the guides would always stop to pick it up,” said Jo. “And there was their commitment to the less fortunate, which included personally delivering excess meat from hunters in the area to a food shelter in Gillam, where it would find its way to elders who couldn’t hunt anymore.”

Some of that meat might also make it into specialized dishes at the Lodge, such as moose stew in a bread bowl.

“I’m pretty picky about my food,” said Jo. “And I’d never seen that before, or tasted anything like it. The food was fascinating, interesting and excellent.”

Godwits at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Jo Eland Photo.

Godwits at Nanuk.

An experienced photographer, Jo took a 400 mm lens with her on the trip, but said that many in the group were simply using point and shoot cameras and getting good photos.

“One of the guests in our group, Mandy from Australia I think, was using an iPhone,” said Jo. “And she was having a great time. Robert Postma was leading the group, and both he and I attached our lenses to some of the cameras belonging to the others in the group, so they could get some close-up shots. When I showed people our photos, they couldn’t believe we were on the ground walking with polar bears. It was such a privilege being on their turf and getting so close to them. I don’t think people really appreciate what it’s like to get that close to polar bears in their own environment.”

The highlight of the trip for Jo came on the final day.

“The guides spotted a polar bear on a sand bar,” said Jo. “We walked out to her as a group, and she posed for us for hours, cleaning her paws, rolling over… We learned, loved and laughed. It really was, the experience of a lifetime.”

Polar bear sitting on gravel bar at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Jo Eland photo.

Final day polar bear posing for the group.

Walking with polar bears at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge

This story originally appeared in Huffington Post Travel. It is republished here courtesy of author Richard Bangs.

You can’t drive here; you can’t boat here; you can’t even walk here… you’d be eaten. We’re somewhere in the back end of nowhere, some 300 kilometers from the closest paved road; 1500 kilometers from the nearest Whole Foods. If you cry wolf here, everyone believes you.

 

 
It’s the third day of a week-long safari. Not in Tanzania, Botswana, Zambia or anywhere in Africa. We’re in the sub-Arctic, on Cape Tatnum, Hudson Bay, Manitoba, 57 degrees North Latitude. We’re on foot, in knee-high Wellies, sloshing single-file behind our guide, Andy MacPherson, towards a big mother polar bear. The general rule is to halt 50 or more meters from a polar bear. They’re master predators, largest land carnivores on the planet, top of the food chain, and are hungry this time of year. They feast on ice-breeding seals in the winter months, hunting from floating bergs on Hudson Bay, “The Cold Ocean.” But when the ice breaks in July, sleuths of bears come ashore and wait.

There are some berries and birds, and the occasional whale carcass that washes up onto the sand. But mostly the bears live off stored fat reserves and wait for the ice to come back in mid-November. It is the longest period of food deprivation of any mammal on earth. Now it’s September, when the sun describes a horseshoe around the margins of the sky, and life is beginning to drain from the land. The beasts are, at this time, justifiably famished.

Polar bear with her cubs at Nanuk.

Polar bear with cubs at Nanuk.

Not many get to see polar bears in the wild. Most who do take a Tundra Buggy tour in Churchill, riding in giant tank-like buses that allow looking down at the melancholy wandering of Ursus maritimus without any chance of attack. Others see the bears from the decks of cruise ships plowing through the Arctic Oceans. But very few ever actually walk among the bears.

Some call Andy “The Polar Bear Whisperer.” He doesn’t disavow the title, but admits he can’t really Dolittle with the bears; rather he has come up with techniques to “keep them off balance.” Polar bears are intelligent, curious, and socially complex, he says, though there are several instinctive responses to humans approaching, and each bear has his own contextual personality and reaction. If she deems approaching vehicles, or a walking group, threatening, she might turn and run. Or she might charge. But once a response kicks-in, it is near impossible to stop. So, if kept disoriented, Andy postulates, she won’t decide on an action, but will wait for more information.
 

 
“Each time we interact with a bear we have the opportunity to add either positive or negative experiences to her toolbox,” he softly explains. “And that accumulation of knowledge affects the bear’s decision-making process.”

We have slowly walked around a long sandbar, being careful to stay downwind of “Pihoqahiaq,”(the ever-wandering one), as the Inuit call her. Her eyesight is supposedly similar to ours, but the ears are much better. And it’s very quiet here. The few sounds the polar bear knows include the crack of ice, the whoosh of wind, and the claver of geese. So, the human voice is unfamiliar, and can potentially trigger the wrong behavior.

So, Andy signals us to be quiet. The white giant, though, stands up, and begins to amble in our direction on large, silent feet. Her face is inscrutable, though the eyes say someone is home. She taps the air with her Roman nose, which has, Andy says, a better sense of smell than a bloodhound. I imagine everyone is thinking the same as me… if she attacks, who will be the slowest runner. The bear keeps stepping towards us. The Arctic air suddenly seems hot from the flame of risk. I expect Andy to back up, but instead he steps towards the bear…. a face off.  Andy has two small rocks in his hand, which he clicks, a sound meant to keep the bear a little off-balance. And Andy speaks to her, a note of mysticism in his voice.

“Hi Beautiful. We’re just here to say hello. How is your day?” He speaks in a low monotone, which he says sounds like Charlie Brown’s teacher to the bear. It is meant to be non-threatening, and mildly confusing. The bear and Andy keep moving closer, and we obediently stay behind, and formally still.

I look around to scope an escape route, but there is nothing. We’re a kilometer from the taiga forest, which doesn’t have a tree worth climbing anyway. On the other side, the second largest bay in the world, named for doomed explorer Henry Hudson, with water deadly cold, and bears are faster swimmers anyway. Behind is a loamy coastline, desolate as the mare on the moon, and polar bears can outrun a race horse from a standing start. I recall a bit of advice I heard from a guide years ago on the Seal River: “Most polar bears are left-pawed, so if the beast charges, leap to her right.” But I used to be a guide, and know the adage true: “How do you tell if a guide is lying? His lips are moving.”

Andy McPherson, Polar Bear Guide, Churchill Wild, Manitoba, Canada

Andy the Polar Bear Whisperer.

Regardless, all bets are on Andy. He continues to step forward, facing the bear, eye-to-eye. He clicks the rocks. Slung around his shoulder is a 12-gauge shotgun; on the belt of his camouflaged chaps, a starter pistol and a can of pepper spray. His back-up: Albert Saunders, a Swampy Cree born near here, bringing up the rear, and equally equipped. Albert has worked this coastline for years, laying trap lines in the winter, and hunting polar bears, with binoculars, in the summer.

Finally, less than 20 meters from one another, the bear turns, and plods away, like a bulldozer back to the yard. It would have taken her seconds to leap forward and rip off Andy’s head. But she chose something else. We all let out sighs. It was, all and all, a sublime encounter, an agreeable kind of horror.

The 18th century Irish philosopher, Edmund Burke, tried to account for the passions evoked in the human mind by what he called “terrible objects.” He was interested in our psychic response to things that seized, terrified, and yet also somehow pleased the mind by dint of being too big, too fast, too powerful, too uncontrollable to be properly comprehended. He wrote: “Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of The Sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.” He went on to summarize that terror was a passion that “always produces delight, when it does not press too close.”

There are few places where one can plunge into the reality pudding of proximity to an ice-loving ursid, or any large predator, on the ground, in the field, eye level, with no fences or glass between. The Nanuk Lodge, named for “the master of the polar bears” in Inuit mythology, is one such place.
 

 
It takes at least two days to get to sub-Saharan Africa from almost anywhere in North America, and once there it takes a few days to get through the fog of jetlag. It takes me a day to reach the western edge of Hudson Bay from Los Angeles, two time zones away, arriving in time for moose burger soup, and an afternoon safari into the habitat of the Monarchs of the North.

I fly commercial to Winnipeg, capital of Manitoba, and then Calm Air to Gillam, a dam town on the Nelson River, and finally a charter Britten-Norman Islander over endless spots of water that look like human eyes glittering or brooding, as the mood strikes, mirroring, it might seem, the soul of the landscape. We bank sharply, and then swoop to land at the small dirt strip in front of Nanuk, corrugated with footprints the size of hubcaps.

Flying over Hudson Bay, Manitoba, Canada.

Flying over Hudson Bay.

Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge, owned by Churchill Wild, is surrounded by a 10′ high page wire fence, evoking the feeling that we, the humans, are in the zoo, especially when the animals rear haunches and place paws on the linkage. Inside the fence is a boneyard of animal skeletons found nearby, adding to the Planet of the Beasts sensation. Within the first few hours a black bear and a polar bear circle around our cage, looking for a way in. They bite, shove and pull at the wire mesh. We climb the wooden viewing tower, half as an added precaution. The polar bear finds a cardboard box, filled with empty wine bottles, awaiting an air pickup, and sticks her snout in for a few good sniffs. When she finally chooses to move on, we retire to the Common Room, and snack on caribou bacon wraps, and sip Pinot noir in front of the large handmade stone fireplace, backed by a huge bay window that looks, when a bald eagle perches on a black spruce outside, like a giant screen saver.

We’re utterly, completely, totally off the grid, except for the satellite Wi-Fi. The protracted twilight is spent reviewing digital photos of the day, thousands of them, posting on social media, and generally committing philosophy. The group is mostly Australian, and a few Canadians. My friend Didrik and I are the only Americans, or South Americans as some Canadians consider anyone from south of the 53rd parallel.

Dinners are Northern gourmet, freshest tundra-to-table to be found, as Riley the cook hunts much of the fare just beyond the fence. The exception being the quinoa chocolate cake, which I suspect took some ingredients not within walking distance.
 

 
The following days are rich with sensation and awe, and the simple admiration that wildlife can survive in an environment that would defeat us in very short order. After breakfast we board one of the two open-air lodge vehicles, a standard Honda quad bike, and a custom-built 8-wheel drive “aluminum rhino” (a Geo Metro engine inside, and moose antler for a stick shift… it looks, from the front, a cross between the #5 robot in the movie Short Circuit and WALL-E). Neither vehicle offers any protection from 1000 lb. feral quadrupeds, but that’s the point.

As our space station of a lodge fades into the distance we witness flights of avifauna fancy, from avalanches of snow geese, to peregrine falcons, to tundra swans, golden plovers, and the rubber ducky horn perched on the silver rhino. We carve an anfractuous path along a land so raw it looks as though the clock has been reset to zero, across silt flats, peat lands and sedge grasses, through vast, luminous country that provides the supremely satisfying sensation of existing in the midst of something absolute… even if it isn’t.

On the second day, under light that is soft, diffuse and intense at once, we trundle out through bogs and boreal forest towards the mudflats, and at the verge of a small river two black wolves, in full autumnal pelage, lope across our paths. We stop; they stop. The wolves are so fine-looking, but practically pulse with power and barely suppressed savagery. The tension between beauty and violence could snap a winch cable. They approach, and cautiously circle our vehicles. They snuffle, like dogs, and step within a few feet of us.

It’s such a naked, raw, unpredictable experience, knowing that a random, inexplicable tap could trigger a Siegfried and Roy tiger attack. Or what happened to Timothy Treadwell, The Grizzly Man. Or SeaWorld orca trainer Dawn Brancheau, as recounted in the film Blackfish. It would take a trice for the wolves to get to us, to drop us like caribou. But, after several minutes of consideration, they turn and lumber off like shadows into a thicket of birch and bush.

Wolf encounters Rhino Buggy Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge.

Wolf encounters the Rhino Buggy.

Each day we set out in our all-terrains, bobbing through the landscape like boats in a storm. We constantly scope the unsummarized shores of Hudson Bay, and with wildlife sightings, dismount the vehicles and watchfully walk as close as Andy deems safe. In this original scape we witness a range of polar bear behavior, up close and personal.

This is the season, and the prime place, for mothers and c.o.y.s., “cubs of the year,” and we gawp as a mother and her two cubs rest in a day-nest scooped from the sand beneath a turning willow, when another mom, with three cubs trailing, comes galloping across the badlands, either ready to pounce, or fleeing from some unseen hazard. Regardless, the first mom takes no chances, and hastens out of her nest, while the running bear and cubs take over the spot, and settle down. It’s a bear country jamboree.

Under streaks of bone-colored clouds, scratches in the sky, we watch patiently as a bear holds it head like a sphinx, taking her own council, never moving a wit. Another pair on the beach stands erect on hind legs, like taxidermies in The Explorers Club, and battles one another for some sort of dominance. I glass the scene with my Steiners and watch their white fur rippling like a field under wind. A

Another mother emerges from an inlet, shaking the water from her fur like a huge dog, sending out a bloom of spray that glitters in the air like grains of mica. She then swaggers up a small hummock, and turns our way, massive shoulders rolling, expressionless eyes boring into ours. When her big sloped head yawns we all try not focus on the size of her teeth. Every time she moves, Andy clicks his rocks, as though the two actions are connected by a string. It’s all very human-like, and comprehensible, even if we don’t really know anything of what she is doing or thinking. Then, she stops, lies down, and ignores us, so we head back the Lodge.
 

 
“Quork, quork, quork:” the sound at the door, the one with the moose antler handle. Andy enters cupping a wood frog in his palms. It is the cryogenic Walt Disney of Manitoba, in that it spends its winter, frozen solid, but then thaws out to full animation about the time polar bears are leaving the ice for land in the summer. Despite the violence outside our windows, inside Nanuk I am threatened only by a surfeit of tea, hospitality and a tiny green frog.

On the final night, after a dinner of fresh trout, we’re interrupted during a dessert of Pavlovas and cream with an uninvited guest, a polar bear at the fence rattling the postern. But as if the scene is not rich enough, the clear night sky begins to light up with the Aurora Borealis, looking like something at the edge of a dream. What a combo…a giant ice bear at our gate, and the Northern Lights above.

Aurora Borealis above the viewing tower at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge, Manitoba, Canada.

Aurora Borealis above the viewing tower at Nanuk.

We gather outside, into air dank as an oyster, to bathe in the light of this optical phenomenon. I feel as though inside some great fishbowl, a captive on the inside, peering out to a larger universe. A thin nebulous cloud of green appears directly overhead and hovers, changing every few seconds. Suddenly, the fishbowl is alive as flickering tongues of jade lick the “glass” of the bowl, and dancing flames encircle us, spreading up toward some unknown height. Noiselessly they build to a pulsating green, then grow into an electric, dizzying fury. I wrap one hand around the porch rail in a death grip, and place the other over my brow as though to shade my eyes. Finally, I have to head to my room to avoid vertigo.

Gloomy is the day of departure, the surface of Hudson Bay like the lacquered black of Japanese wooden boxes. Looking back at the needles of light flashing over the water, I can’t help but admire this union of what is beautiful and terrifying, this place, which has, until recently, repelled the meddling of Man.

For so much of human history we’ve lived to dominate the natural world, believing the earth a machine that would never break. We are victims of the shears that cut man from nature and nature from man. We today have few elevated conversations with the land, little sense of interconnectedness.

Whatever one’s personal belief system, this landscape, and a safari through it, can provide vital perspective and bearings; can feed the springs of reverence and affection; can quicken our sense of wonder, provoke the imaginings of death, eternity and infinity, and inspire us to great deeds of preservation. More than almost any experience, a stay at Nanuk, validates our brief trek in time; and keeps the wolf of insignificance from our door.
 

 


About the Author:

Richard Bangs

Author Richard Bangs

Richard Bangs has often been called the father of modern adventure travel, having spent 40 years as an explorer and communicator, and pioneering “virtual expeditions” on the Web. He led the first descents of 35 rivers around the globe, including the Yangtze in China and the Zambezi in Southern Africa, while at the same time founding Sobek Expeditions, the first multi-national river running company and the pioneering outfitter for global active wilderness travel.

He has published more than 1000 magazine articles, 19 books, a score of documentaries, several CD-ROMs, and all manner of digital media, and has lectured at the Smithsonian, the National Geographic Society, the Explorers Club and many other notable venues. He writes a semi-regular feature for HuffingtonPost.com, occasionally freelances for other print and online publications, and produces and hosts “Richard Bangs’ Adventures with Purpose, as seen on national public television.

In the early 1990s Sobek merged with Mountain Travel to become Mountain Travel-Sobek (mtsobek.com), then as now, a leader in international adventure and eco-travel. Richard began TerraQuest, one of the first online travel projects, and went on to Microsoft as founder and editor-in-chief of Mungo Park, a pioneering interactive publishing effort. He was also part of the founding executive team of Expedia.com, and served as its Editor-at-Large. He was creator and publisher of Expedia Travels Magazine (published in partnership with Ziff-Davis), executive producer of Expedia Radio, and founder and executive director of Expedia Cafes.

Richard has also served as president of Outward Bound; created the “Well Traveled” series for Slate.com; was founding editor and executive producer of MSNBC’s “Great Escapes”; and produced “Richard Bangs Adventures” for Yahoo! He lives in Southern California with his family. You can also find Richard on Twitter and Facebook. For more detailed information, please visit RichardBangs.com.

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?

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Phone: 1 (409) 515-0514
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