New Yorker Betti Zucker was a recent visitor to Churchill Wild‘s Seal River Heritage Lodge. She came to see the polar bears. This is her story.
OMG! It was The Photo Trip of a Life Time, seeing the Polar Bears at Seal River Heritage Lodge! A schlep to get to, but worth every nanosecond!
Our adrenaline was pumping full speed as we stepped off the “little” 8-seat de Havilland plane – that my darlings – included the very cute pilot (sorry I forgot to take his picture). We were met by two terrific guides, Terry and Andy. They happened to be our body guards as well (armed with rocks, flares, pepper spray and the big cahoonas).
The Tundra was still in its full autumn glory. Patches of crimson, gold, rust, mushroom, shades of browns, ombre grays to black, sky blue and rainbows of greens glimmered before our eyes. Playing follow the leader, we marched like little soldiers off the tarmac (gravel airstrip) into the brush to our home for the next four days – Seal River Heritage Lodge.
Suddenly there was a scramble to find our cameras! A bear was spotted a far distance away. Of course, it took ME forever to find the butter colored “lump” that was a bear! Little did everyone know, those pictures were to be deleted later because better ones where waiting to be snapped.
Our host and hostess were the delightful and charming Mike and Jeanne Reimer. We were taught bear etiquette. GIVE THE BEARS SPACE. Not so easy when you’re looking out of a picture window and Papa Bear is checking you out as delicious dinner – or just some oddballs in a glass and wooden cage!
The next morning we awoke to a new landscape! A blanket of snow had feathered its way down to the tundra, while we were cozy, under down comforters, fast asleep.
Each day we took two hikes to view the landscape and glimpse at the bears. Sleeping, the polar bears looked angelic tucked into a cove, adorable nestled behind a bush or just darn cute curled up on a bed of rocks. And the temperature was dropping, which meant more friskiness from the mighty white bears.
The young male Titans of the Tundra (polar bears 5 to 7 years old), would liven the action up a bit and begin to spar with each other. This was their form of practicing defending themselves as adults. For the guests Churchill Wild, this was a photo opportunity! And it certainly gave new meaning to bear hugs and half nelsons!
On the way back to the warm and cozy lodge for a much anticipated delicious lunch, it began to snow! We came across two male polar bears that sniffed each other out (“bear talk” for hello) and began to spar – push, wrestle, roll, swat, bite and hug each other. We had ringside seats!
The snapping of cameras caught the attention of the wrestling polar bears and they began walking towards us! Terry and Andy both thought that 35 feet was close enough. They each shouted out a warning for Nanuk to STOP! But this was not enough! Out came the rocks. Zing! Another gold medal for our wonderful guides – with wounded pride the big bears ran away.
What a difference a day makes! On our third day we were met with very wet snow and freezing rain. Colors of the terrain changed again. Now the frozen blueberries and lingonberries were peeking from beneath the ice.
True photographers, we braved the wet and wind and came back for lunch happy and soaked to our skins. Coats, gloves, hats and boot liners were strewn everywhere in site as we recovered from the elements. Only the diehards (yes BZ, no JZ) went for the afternoon walk. We had spotted four polar bears from the indoor tower (upper loft)! Off we went to get “a little bit closer”. GOOD INTELLIGENCE ANDY and TERRY! We diverted a bear ambush!
I also learned to snap pictures and run behind the biggest men (they would be far tastier than little old me). I do not call that chicken, just very clever! Girls always want to have more fun. So Claire and I went to the “backyard”, a chain linked area with multi-observation stations, for a few more moments of picture heaven. We were rewarded not only with a polar bear on the rocks, but also a Sik Sik (arctic squirrel). What were you thinking little guy? It’s way too cold for you!
That evening, just before dinner we had a visitor at the kitchen bar window. Dinner smelled so good, one of the great ice bears came for a closer look. We all got a pre-dinner cocktail photo shoot of Mr. Bear close up and personal.
The next day was to be our last morning. NO ONE WANTED TO LEAVE! The winds were in our favor. My wishes came true! The wind chill was -5 degrees! Our bags where packed. We were ready to go. The sky began to streak from shades of grey to the most beautiful baby blue. Nevertheless, it was to our good fortune that by early afternoon we were told we had to stay another night. (Boo Hoo?)
We walked to the remnants of an old Cree ancestor camp ground, hundreds of years old. Just majestic! On the way back we were treated to a walk on the frozen water bed. Some areas were not as strong as others. Knowing that we were on shallow grounds, it was fun to see the ice crack. Trick? No. Treat!
We got to see a frozen tundra sunset! Pink shimmering ice and boulders with swooshes and swirls of windswept snow. It looked like we had landed on a magical lunar landscape! The sun setting and the moon rising simultaneously. The snow looking like lace on the ice – breathtaking!
It was October 31. We all got back inside to quickly make costumes! The range of imagination was vast! Included in the merriment was a fireplace, assorted cats, fishermen, divers, girl in pajamas with Barney in hand, a witch and a clown. Mary Queen of Scots even showed up! On the night of goblins and ghosts the guest of honor was not the polar bears, but the Aurora Borealis. Ever so faint due to the presence of an almost full moon, it made a quick appearance! Pictures were far superior to the naked eye!
So we were like a pig in her pen, satiated, as we readied ourselves to leave. Maybe, well… maybe just one more parting shot. The plane; new guests arriving; and a big white polar bear in clear view… SNAP, SNAP, SNAP…
The end of a fantastic experience with the polar bears and the beginning of some very fond memories!
Betti Zucker is the author of the blog Betti’s Beehive, where she shares her thoughts and adventures on art, music, recipes and travel with other like minds.