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Polar Bear Tours

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.

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.

 

Make-A-Wish upon a polar bear

by Mike Reimer, Churchill Wild

Norquay boys meet polar bear!

Norquay boys meet polar bear!

Recipe for a polar bear adventure, with whales!

Start with a wish, two wonderful kids, loving parents, 12 polar bears, and endless fields of fireweed. Add a dash of Terry-O-Terry (guide), large amounts of fantastic food, and mix with thousands of beluga whales. Stir in vast amounts of chilly Hudson Bay water. Top with storytelling and fun and simmer gently with warm, cozy nights in the world’s only polar bear eco-lodge.

It comes out perfect every time!

We were blessed this season to receive a visit from Zachary Norquay, who brought along his brother Jacob, his Mom Sara and Dad Alan. I think Mom and Dad likely helped cover some of Zachary’s expenses, while energizer bunny Jacob supplied the extra power!

It was Zachary’s Make-A-Wish®  to come and see our great white bears and he elected to join us for our Birds, Bears & Belugas Adventure this summer. It turned out to be a fantastic choice!

Many polar bears were spotted on both the coastal hikes and the marine adventures in the Zodiaks. The beluga whales welcomed Zachary to Seal River by the thousands, and I think they would have liked to adopt him into their pods.

The lodge staff enjoyed the Norquay family’s company immensely and tried hard to help them “stowaway” on changeover day, hoping to keep them for future helpers! The family also created the thank you video below, which was very kind of them!

We all look forward to the next visit from this great family.

 

About Make-A-Wish® Canada

Make A Wish FoundationMake-A-Wish® Canada and Make-A-Wish® British Columbia & Yukon are part of the largest not-for-profit wish granting organization in the world, serving 30 countries with international affiliates on five continents (Make-A-Wish International®).

Since inception in 1980, Make-A-Wish® has helped make over 225,000 wishes come true for children around the world. Make-A-Wish® in Canada consists of eight regional Chapters and the Canada Office, which is located in Toronto, Ontario. We grant the wishes of children with life-threatening medical conditions to enrich the human experience with hope, strength and joy.

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.

The Ultimate Polar Bear Booter at Hubbard Point

Xie Jianguo of Birds Eye Media taking polar bear photos at Hubbard Point.

Xie says hi from the icy waters of Hudson Bay at Hubbard Point!

Remember when you were a kid and you always had to test the depth of the ice water in the spring? And how that always seemed to result freezing cold wet feet?

Fast forward to adulthood and you’re up to your knees in icy ocean water as the tide rises ever higher, trying to get that perfect shot of a polar bear.

The contents of this post were initiated by a Zodiac excursion north to Hubbard Point, one of our favourite polar bear viewing areas. We had spent several hours with the fine folks from Beijing of Birds Eye Media, enjoying endless gigabytes of polar bears in various settings and light conditions.

The photo gods must have been smiling on as we lucked into a mother with two cubs (Coys, cubs-of-the-year) about to settle down on a rocky spit for supper. All things were in our favour. Sunset on its way with perfect light, rising tide, breeze in our faces and no other pesky male bears to disturb the snuggle fest about to happen.

Walking the Zodiacs in closer to the polar bears at Hubbard Point.

Walking the Zodiacs in closer to the polar bears at Hubbard Point.

Master guides Quent and Mike, (okay maybe Quent) gently poled the boats into shore and walked them into camera range on the rising tide and it wasn’t long before that magic sound of clicking and whirring motor drives filled the air.

Xie Jianguo elected to exit the boat and set up his tripod on the gravel beach for a little more stable support, and once the action started all focus was on the nursing cubs. But as we like to say at Seal River, the “tide waits for no man or woman.”

We shortly realized that those were not gasps of excitement from Xie as the frigid sea water began to seep over the tops of his boots. An hour later, as the chill water crept past his knees, our brave and dedicated photographer finally struggled gamely back into the Zodiac, but frozen feet seemed to be a small price to pay for the award winning photos taken by all.

A gorgeous sunset escorted a very tired and happy crew back to Seal River Lodge, where another gourmet dinner awaited us. There were more true tall tales to tell.