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Posts Tagged ‘Churchill polar bears’

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.

 

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 polar bears are back at Seal River Lodge!

by Mike Reimer 

The polar bears are back in town!

Mom with polar bear cubs heading towards Seal River Lodge

We’re off to an incredible opening week at Seal River Lodge! This has all the makings of a banner year for wildlife enthusiasts at Churchill Wild!

Yesterday’s sightings of 16 bears included two sets of mothers with coys (cub of year) that were enough to send any camera clutcher into spasms of ecstasy. Okay, that’s maybe a little over the top, but it was pretty darn amazing, not to mention our video canners practically got mobbed by pods of anxious belugas all vying to be the first to land a spot on “Build Films” latest flick. Stay tuned for this one. It comes out in the fall.

On the rocks at Seal River

On the rocks at Seal River

Nolan and crew are down at Nanuk building the new Polar Bear Lodge and they’re having some great adventures with pesky black bears, roaming polar bears, black wolves and curious moose twins coming to visit at coffee time.

Adventure at its finest.

Adventure on Hudson Bay

And over at North Knife Lake Lodge our very own Wolf Whisperer, Doug Webber, is keeping busy playing host to an entire family of wolves spanning several generations. Photos and video coming soon!

Sunrise at Seal River

Sunrise at Seal River

All in all, 2013 is off to a roaring start!

Photos on this page courtesy of  BUILD FILMS.

Great start to 2012 Polar Bear Photo Safari

This message came in today from Mike Reimer at Seal River Heritage Lodge, where our Polar Bear Photo Safari is in full swing!

Polar Bear Mom with Cubs at Seal River Lodge - Missi Mandel Photo

Polar Bear Mom with Cub at Seal River Lodge - Missy Mandel Photo

This week guests from the US, Netherlands, Germany, France, the UK and Russia are finishing up as a group, and guests from France, Hawaii, Thailand and Taiwan are about to settle in.

Hey all you Polar Bear lovers out there!

Our bear season is once again off to a “roaring start” with wildly variable weather wreaking havoc with flight schedules but nonetheless offering visitors some incredible wildlife opportunities.

Freeze up appears to be right on target as our bears wait patiently for the coming ice, which will once more usher them out to their hunting grounds. The bears are all in excellent condition, no doubt due to the late ice breakup this past summer which gave them good access to seals and continuous hunting opportunities all the way through to the end of July.

Missy Mandel has been kind enough to share some of the fantastic ground level polar bear shots that our ecolodges have become famous for.

 Photo credits to Missy Mandel.

Seal River: Wild, Rugged and Natural

The Seal River is located approximately 10 kilometers to the south of Seal River Heritage Lodge.
Seal River Heritage Lodge

Seal River Heritage Lodge

Where the Seal River meets the Hudson Bay there exists a hot spot for polar bears, seal, beluga whales and a myriad of Arctic wildlife  – it is truly one of the world’s incredible natural beauties!

The area is rich in history and unique characteristics that make it one of the most desirable destinations for the world’s dedicated adventure travellers.

It is also a Canadian Heritage Rivers System.

Below is a “fact sheet” from the official website that outlines what makes this area so special.

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Of the four major rivers in Northern Manitoba, the Seal River alone remains completely undeveloped, wild and rugged.

In contrast to the impoundments on the Churchill and the Nelson, and the rich fur trade and exploration history of the Hayes, the Seal River shows virtually no evidence of modern human activity. Although in the days before written history the river flowed through a major native hunting and fishing ground, the Seal now attracts only a few native people and small groups of hardy wilderness adventurers.

For these groups, travel downriver may require two to four weeks of difficult yet exhilarating boating. First, an extensive cold-water lake is encountered where winds can create dangerous waves; then, numerous long rapids in a totally isolated, sub-arctic environment test their survival skills; finally, travellers must navigate a boulder-strewn tidal estuary.

The Province of Manitoba nominated the Seal to the Canadian Heritage Rivers System in June, 1987. The nominated section is 260 km long and extends from the junction of the North and South Seal rivers, at Shethanei Lake, to Hudson Bay.

Geography

The Seal River is located in the roadless wilderness of Northern Manitoba, 1000 km by air charter from Winnipeg. The Seal estuary is 45 km across Hudson Bay from Churchill. Other than Churchill (population 1,300), the only settlement in the area is Tadoule (population 250), a small Chipewyan community located along the South Seal River at Tadoule Lake.

The Seal begins its course at Shethanei Lake ringed by the magnificent sand-crowned eskers that are so much a part of the Seal River landscape. Then, passing stands of black spruce, its velocity increases toward the Big Spruce River Delta, and accelerates dramatically into the rapids and gorges which surround Great Island. Beyond the island, the river leaves the boreal forest and enters a sparsely-treed, transitional subarctic environment of tundra and heath, christened by the natives the “Land of Little Sticks”. Finally, the Seal flows through barren arctic tundra, huge boulder fields and complex rapids, spilling into a beautiful estuary where its freshwaters mix with the salt of Hudson Bay.

Except for the less than two dozen skilled rafting and canoeing parties which visit the river each year, and the occasional native fisherman and trapper, there is virtually no human activity along the Seal River. The remote, roadless nature of this region has meant that activities such as mining exploration have been costly, air-supported ventures, and even the discussion stages of any development of the area’s hydro potential are many years away.

Natural Heritage

Nomination of the Seal River to the CHRS was based primarily on its outstanding natural heritage:

  • The Seal is the largest remaining undammed river in Northern Manitoba.
  • The river valley contains excellent representation of the subarctic boreal forest of the Precambrian Shield, and the arctic tundra of the Hudson Bay Lowlands.
  • The valley is also habitat for 33 species of plants which are rare in Manitoba, and supports some unusually large white spruce and tamarack.
  • Glacial features are everywhere. 300 metre-wide eskers extend up to several hundred kilometres in a north-south direction, sometimes as lake peninsulas or submerged landforms. Northern Manitoba’s largest drumlin fields were formed here by the glaciers, as were extensive boulder fields.
  • The estuary area is actually rebounding from the weight of the glaciers at a rate of about 53 cm per century, among the fastest in the world.
  • The Seal also provides habitat for undisturbed wildlife populations. Common here are moose, black bear, wolf, fox, snowshoe hare, ptarmigan, Canada goose, ducks, otter and beaver. The much rarer wolverine, golden and bald eagle, osprey, and polar bear are also found. Even more important, the river’s estuary is the calving and feeding grounds for 3000 beluga whales, part of the largest concentration in the world and the Seal is winter range for part of the 400,000 strong Kamanuriak caribou herd. (Editor’s Note: This is part of what makes Churchill Wild Safaris at the Seal River Heritage Lodge the best polar bear experience in the world! There is no better place on the Hudson Bay to see the belugas, polar bears and other Arctic wildlife.) 

Churchill mapHuman Heritage

The Seal River area played an important role in native hunting, fishing and travelling. The white man found the area less hospitable. Isolated and difficult to navigate, with infertile soils and a cold climate, the Seal was quickly ruled out as a travel, trade or settlement corridor.

The river’s nomination to the CHRS was not based primarily on its human heritage, but there are several historical features of interest:

  • The number of prehistoric artifacts and archaeological sites along the Seal is unusually large. Fire rings, scrapers, flakes, projectiles and hammers are often exposed on the surface of eskers at campsites and along the caribou trails by the river, between Tadoule and Great Island. The age of these finds spans the Paleo-Indian peoples of 7,000 years ago, to the Taltheili Tradition of 1 A.D. to 1700 A.D. (Editor’s Note: During our  safaris guests often see tent rings, grave sites, fire pits as well as bone and tool fragments. This area was investigated and documented by archeologist Dr. Virginia Petch in the 1990′s) 
  • The remains of Chipewyan and European trappers’ cabins, and 100 year old grave sites marked by picket fences on top of eskers, reflect more recent occupation.
  • The river is also closely associated with one European explorer. Samuel Hearne of the Hudson Bay Company left Fort Prince of Wales, near Churchill, in February 1771, on his second of three attempts to locate the copper fields which the Indians said bordered the northern ocean. Enduring incredible hardship, Herne followed the Seal River inland on foot to Shethanei Lake. He then back-tracked to the Wolverine River which he followed north into the barrenlands. Hearne became the first white man to discover the Arctic Ocean, and his journals and maps were a major contribution to the knowledge of Canada’s north until the early 20th century.
  • An abandoned mining camp on Great Island, operated by the Great Seal Prospecting and Developing Syndicate between 1953 and 1958, is typical of mineral exploration camps which operated in the north during the 1940’s and 1950’s. Well preserved log buildings, a dynamite storage shack, a drilling platform, and other remnants are scattered throughout the site.

Recreation

The river’s nomination to the CHRS was based in part on its ability to provide an outstanding whitewater wilderness river trip. A trip from Tadoule to Hudson Bay would encounter, in order: 20 km of lake travel, with three major sets of rapids and a boulder field between Tadoule and Shethanei lake; 40 km of open, shallow water on Shethanei Lake, where dangerous waves and heavy winds can make travel impossible for days; 64 km of variable channels through numerous choppy rapids and a narrow, deep gorge; 28 km of intermittent whitewater along the scenic channel of Great Island including a possible 3 km portage; 124 km of flat country, transitional subarctic tundra forest and boulder field rapids; 4 km through the estuary’s maze of marshes, tidal flats, islands, shelves and reefs passable only on the north channel and then only when properly timed with the tides; and, finally a rendezvous with a float plane or water taxi from Churchill on the Hudson Bay shoreline.

In addition to a rugged wilderness river trip, the Seal River offers other recreational opportunities:

Shethanei Lake is very reliable for trophy-size lake trout, and large northern pike, and grayling are present throughout the river.

  • Hikes to the top of eskers and rocky knolls are rewarded with 360 degree vistas of a totally natural environment. Short hikes along eskers and beaches, or across Great Island, allow modern-day explorers to follow the timeless migration path of the barren-ground caribou. Visitors can also retrace the steps of Samuel Hearne by climbing the esker that was his vantage point on Shethanei Lake.
  • Wilderness camping is possible at numerous sites along the western two-thirds of the river. However, toward Hudson Bay, only poorly drained campsites on densely-willowed river banks are found.

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To see the Seal River you can book any one of the following Churchill Wild Safaris: