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Seal River Heritage Lodge

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.

Birdwatching at Seal River Heritage Lodge

Guest Post and Photos by Christian Artuso, PhD
 Bird Studies Canada – Manitoba Program Manager

Seal River Heritage Lodge lies 60 km north of Churchill, right on the Hudson Bay coast. Below is a view of this superb lodge… oh yeah and a big furry white thing.

Seal River Heritage Lodge, Manitoba, Canada

Polar bear relaxing in front of Seal River Heritage Lodge.

This is arguably the best place in the world to watch polar bears, like the mother and cub in the photo below, and these massive animals are certainly the biggest draw for most visitors, along with the beluga whales.

Polar bear mom and cub at Seal River

Polar bear mom and cub at Seal River.

Nonetheless, along with the big mammals, there are many opportunities to view other fascinating wildlife around Seal River, and the birdwatching is excellent. This area, for example, represents the southernmost range limit for certain Arctic species like the Arctic ground-squirrel below, famously known as “Sik-Sik”. These fascinating animals don’t occur south of Seal River and hence are not found in Churchill, but they are very common around Seal River Heritage Lodge.

Arctic ground squirrels, commonly referred to as "sik-siks"  are common around the Lodge.

Arctic ground squirrels, commonly referred to as “Sik-Siks” are abundant around the Lodge.

Seal River Heritage Lodge is further from the trees than Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge, and most of the birding is therefore along the coastal strip. For most birders, having dinner in the main dining room and watching the tide roll in, pushing massive flocks of waterfowl and shorebirds to within easy viewing distance, along with the accompaniment of passing raptors and jaegers and other northern specialties, is the main attraction.

Nonetheless it is well worth going slightly inland towards the treeline transition for excellent birding, with a whole host of specialties. Rocky peat land such as that in the first photo below taken just west of the Lodge, is breeding habitat for the beautiful Smith’s Longspur (second photo below). This area is one of only a few places where you can witness this avian gem on its breeding grounds in spectacular breeding plumage.

Treeline transition: Excellent birding territory!

Treeline transition: Excellent birding territory!

Rocky peat land is prime habitat for Smith's Longspur.

Rocky peat land is prime habitat for Smith’s Longspur.

The treeline transition is also the best place to find the superb Harris’s Sparrow (North America’s largest sparrow and always highly sought after by visiting birders).

The treeline transition is the perfect place to find  Harris's Sparrow.

The treeline transition is the perfect place to find Harris’s Sparrow.

Birding around the small lakes near the Lodge is sure to produce many waterbirds, shorebirds and the thrill of seeing the northern loons up close and personal. The first photo below shows a Pacific Loon with her chick and the second photo shows a Red-throated Loon (both breed locally).

Pacific Loon with chick at Seal River.

Pacific Loon with chick.

Red-throated Loon at Seal River.

Red-throated Loon.

Another northern species with great appeal for visiting birders is the Willow Ptarmigan. They breed near the Lodge and are usually fairly easy to find, although many will leave the area in fall (in late fall Rock Ptarmigan move down into this area from further north). The first photo below shows a male Willow Ptarmigan displaying to a female and the second photo shows a young chick.

Willow Ptarmigan displaying to a female at Seal River.

Willow Ptarmigan displaying to a female.

Willow Ptarmigan chick at Seal River.

Willow Ptarmigan chick.

Short-eared Owls also breed on the open peatland here and are sometimes seen from the Lodge. With considerable luck, it is possible to find other species of owls here, such as the juvenile Northern Hawk Owl (you’ll need to walk back to the trees to find this species). Other owls are few and far between, although Snowy Owls are possible, especially in late fall.

Short-eared Owl Seal River.

Short-eared Owl.

Northern Hawk Owl Seal River.

Northern Hawk Owl.

Most of your birding will occur close to the coast, where the waterfowl and shorebirds congregate. If you enjoy the spectacle of massive flocks of waterfowl such as the Snow Geese shown below, you’ll love the Seal River area.

Snow geese at Seal River.

Snow geese at Seal River.

Common Eider breed here and also occur in large flocks in the fall. All three species of scoter also occur. The photo below shows White-winged Scoter and Common Eider.

White-winged Scoter and Common Eider, Seal River, Manitoba, Canada.

White-winged Scoter and Common Eider

In the fall, flocks of Brant move along the western coast of Hudson Bay. This species is rare anywhere else in Manitoba.

Brants over Hudson Bay.

Brants over Hudson Bay.

Although all three species of jaeger have been recorded in the Seal River area, only the Parasitic Jaeger is regularly occurring. The jaeger show is always a special treat as they perform extraordinarily acrobatic flight maneuvers in order to steal food from other birds such as gulls and terns.

Parasitic Jaeger are seen regularly at Seal River.

Parasitic Jaeger. A regular at Seal River.

The Lodge offers truly superb shorebirding. In July, local breeding species don their breeding colours and may be observed with downy young. By late July the migration is already underway and the flocks start to build. If you hit the tide right, the mudflats can be just teeming with shorebirds. One of the big attractions is the magnificent Hudsonian Godwit. The first photo below shows a Godwit in breeding plumage and the second shows a juvenile feeding on worms in the Hudson Bay mud.

Hudsonian Godwit at Seal River

The magnificent Hudsonian Godwit.

Hudsonian Godwit feeding on worms at Seal River Lodge.

Breakfast time!

A July visit to the area offers a chance to see shorebirds breeding, including observing downy young and juvenal plumages. Below a recently hatched Semipalmated Plover chick crosses the tundra (first photo) and eventually finds shelter underneath a parent along with other siblings (second photo).

Recently hatched Semipalmated Plover chick at Seal River.

Recently hatched Semipalmated Plover chick.

Semipalmated Plover Seal River.

Semipalmated Plover. There are chicks under there!

The next two photos show another local breeding shorebird, the Dunlin, in full breeding colours (first photo) and in juvenal plumage (second photo).

Dunlin in breeding plumage.

Dunlin in breeding plumage.

Juvenile Dunlin at Seal River Lodge.

Juvenile Dunlin hopping across tundra.

Shorebirding in late July and August in the Seal River area is all about finding the flocks feeding on the mudflats. Shorebirds gather here in the tens of thousands to feed in the very productive inter-tidal zone. This is a truly fantastic location to wait on a boulder and photograph shorebirds. It allows you to observe quietly in close proximity to the birds and to witness an array of fascinating behaviours.

Most of the shorebirds here are feeding on the high quantity of worms and other invertebrates available in the inter-tidal mud, as shown in the photo below of a juvenile American Golden-Plover pulling a worm, and again by a Pectoral Sandpiper that has also found a tasty morsel.

American Golden-Plover at Seal River Heritage Lodge, Manitoba, Canada.

American Golden-Plover pulling a worm.

Pectoral Sandpiper at Seal River Lodge, Manitoba, Canada.

This Pectoral Sandpiper isn’t missing breakfast either!

Shorebirds are typically less shy than waterfowl, and sitting quietly in areas where the shorebirds are feeding can allow for fantastic close-up photos, such as this portrait of a Pectoral Sandpiper that walked to within a foot of me as I was conducting shorebird counts.

Pectoral Sandpiper close-up at Seal River.

Pectoral Sandpiper close-up.

In addition to foraging behaviour, you can also observe aggressive interactions, responses to predators, and preening and bathing, as demonstrated below by a juvenile White-rumped Sandpiper.

White-rumped Sandpiper takes a bath at Seal River Lodge, Manitoba, Canada.

White-rumped Sandpiper enjoys a bath.

In this next photo, a juvenile Baird’s Sandpiper stretches in preparation for flight away from the busy mud flat.

Baird's Sandpiper juvenile prepares to take flight.

Baird’s Sandpiper juvenile prepares to take flight.

There are also shorebirds a little further inland on the coastal flats that are grazed by Canada Geese and Snow Geese. In late July, August and early September, this is the best place to look for one of the avian stars of fall birding here — the magnificent Buff-breasted Sandpiper. They are masters of camouflage however, as you will note from the photo below.

Buff-breasted Sandpipers

Buff-breasted Sandpipers. Camouflage experts!

If you spotted three Buff-breasted Sandpipers in the above photo, well done! If you spotted any less, go back and take a second look. The two photos below give you a closer look at these beauties!

Buff-breasted Sandpiper

Buff-breasted Sandpiper poses for the camera.

Buff-breasted Sandpiper.

As did this one!

Other species that forage on these flats include American Golden-Plover, Lapland Longspur and Horned Lark, as shown in the photo below.

Lapland Longspur, Horned Lark and American Golden-Plover. Seal River, Canada.

Lapland Longspur, Horned Lark and American Golden-Plover on the flats.

Below is a close-up look at one of the Lapland Longspurs in fall plumage. July is the time to see Lapland Longspurs in their magnificent breeding colours, but in August and September there are flocks of thousands near the Lodge (Smith’s Longspurs depart earlier than Lapland Longspurs).

Lapland Longspur

Lapland Longspur in fall plumage.

And of course, there are still a variety of northern songbirds to observe, even in the fall here. Below an American Pipit that has already moulted out of its pink breeding plumage interacts with a begging youngster.

American Pipits

American Pipit interacts with a begging youngster.

Amongst several warbler species present, the Northern Waterthrush is a common breeder in the willows around the Lodge. In August I managed to photograph the individual below foraging on rocks in the bay near the Lodge, offering an unusually clear view of this often skulking species.

Northern Waterthrush

Northern Waterthrush foraging on the rocks.

The birds pictured here represent just a small handful of the many species found in the Seal River area. Diversity is very high in the summer and you might record over 100 species on a trip if you encompassed various habitat types. Especially if you were present during the migration, when the high Arctic shorebirds join the local breeders.

Fewer species can be seen in the fall, but that is nonetheless a superb time to watch the spectacle of massive migratory flocks, or to search for rarities, and, of course, to view polar bears and other amazing northern wildlife.

 For more information and photos from Christian Artuso, please visit his Web site at http://artusophotos.com. You can also read Christian’s photo essays on his wildlife blog at http://artusobirds.blogspot.com.

Thanks for the polar bears, caribou, arctic foxes, northern lights… and thank you to our guests!

by Mike Reimer, Churchill Wild

Qamanirjuaq caribou. Out for a stroll at Seal River Lodge. Dennis Fast photo.

Qamanirjuaq caribou. Out for a stroll at Seal River Lodge. Dennis Fast photo.

Hello fellow adventurers!

The long awaited ice has finally arrived and the world’s largest carnivores have moved back to their favourite hunting platform, the rugged sea ice, to begin the “fattening” period. Our friendly summer-fall polar bear visitors will spend the winter dining contentedly on yummy seals.

Polar bear outside Seal River Lodge

Hmm… no seals here. Dennis Fast photo.

We were blessed this year at Seal River with the return of thousands of Central Barren Ground Caribou. These photogenic creatures provided many bonus hours of “shooting.” The caribou herd pictured here is known as the Qamanirjuaq. Numbering an estimated half a million animals, the Qamanirjuaq herd takes part in one of the last great wildlife migrations on the planet, and certainly the largest of its kind in North America.

Qamanirjuaq caribou herd stops by for lunch. Dennis Fast photo.

Qamanirjuaq caribou herd stops by for lunch. Dennis Fast photo.

The caribou ventured south from their summer home in the barrens and are heading into the tree line to find shelter from the harsh winter winds. Most of them will overwinter in the North Knife Lake region of Manitoba, feeding, resting and avoiding wolves until they begin their trek north in the spring, back to the calving grounds.

Arctic foxes have been seen in abundance this year

Arctic foxes were seen in abundance this year!

Not to be outdone, the arctic foxes were back again in record numbers with 40 to 50 in sight at any one time. And of course, the northern lights have done their part and provided many a great light show for bleary eyed but happy photogs.

Lonely Zodiac at Seal River Lodge awaiting the return of summer and another chance to frolic with the belugas on Hudson Bay RJ Payne photo.

Lonely Zodiac at Seal River Lodge awaiting the return of summer and another chance to frolic with the belugas on Hudson Bay. RJ Payne photo.

Thanks to the polar bears bears, the caribou, the arctic foxes, the northern lights and nature, for providing Churchill Wild with yet another great season of adventure travel at our northern Manitoba lodges.

Polar bear says goodbye at Seal River Lodge

Polar bear saying goodbye to Seal River Lodge guests.

But most of all, a sincere thank you to our wonderful guests. You make this all so worthwhile.

Helicopter at Seal River Lodge

Time for a helicopter ride!

Young photographer learns “Fast” on polar bear photo tour at Seal River Lodge

by Mike Reimer, Churchill Wild. Photos by Elijah Boardman.

Relaxed but intense gaze from Arctic Fox at Seal River Lodge.

Relaxed but intense gaze from Arctic Fox at Seal River Lodge.

Thirteen-year-old Elijah Boardman, the youngest photographer ever to join one of our professionally guided polar bear photo tours, is proving himself to be a very adept, capable and enthusiastic “shooter”.

His boundless passion and energy serves as a catalyst to all, encouraging the team to spend every possible moment in what is at times a rather harsh Arctic environment. Eli’s persistence and dedication, along with some coaching from on-site professional photographer Dennis Fast, has resulted in the capture of some wonderful images and lifelong memories.

Caribou running windy cold!

Caribou running windy cold!

Eli was kind enough to allow his mother and father, Karen and Joseph, to accompany him to Seal River Lodge this year, in his quest for the great white bears.

Judging from the quality of his images and the zeal he has for this type of “work” we expect to see Eli back here again sometime in the near future. We’re looking forward to it.

Nice work Eli!

Polar bear says, "I know you're in there." to windsock at Seal River Lodge.

I know you’re in there…

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