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Polar Bear Tours

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?

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

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.