We visited Seal River Heritage Lodge on Churchill Wild’s Great Ice Bear polar bear tour at the end of October 2009. I have always had a huge fascination with polar bears and was extremely excited about visiting the Seal River area in search of polar bears. I tried not to get my expectations too high however, telling myself that we might only get a distant glimpse of a bear.
How wrong I was!
As soon as our plane touched down at Seal River, we could see several bears around us. Within an hour, there were two bears play-fighting a few feet from the front door of the lodge – amazing! I felt like I had died and gone to wildlife heaven!
We were lucky to get a mixture of conditions – the weather was dry and bright when we first arrived, but we then had plenty of snow and at one point the temperature cooled down to -27 degrees.
High and Mighty - Photo Credit: Claire Wilson
Our whole three days at the lodge were jam-packed with photo opportunities. Terry and Andy, our friendly and knowledgeable guides, were ready to take us out for hikes at any opportunity, and we saw plenty of bears every time we ventured outside. Everyone learned a great deal about these majestic animals and their environment, and every day we all came back with full memory cards on our cameras. My husband Pete and I took about 3000 photographs between us!
I was absolutely stunned when I recently received an e-mail advising me that three of my entries had made it into the semi finals!
One photograph entitled “High and Mighty” (Semi-Finalist in the Category Animal Behaviour: Mammals) was taken on our first full day at Seal River when we went for a long group hike. The two bears seemed to want to perform for the cameras!
Clash of the Titans - Photo Credit: Claire Wilson
I shot “On The Rocks” (Semi-Finalist for the Gerald Durrell Award for Endangered Wildlife) the next day, literally feet from the lodge. And the third photograph I submitted, “Clash of the Titans” (also a Semi-Finalist in the Category Animal Behaviour: Mammals) was taken on our last morning at Seal River Heritage Lodge just a few minutes before we had too, reluctantly, leave this wonderful location.
We had such a great time with Churchill Wild! I can’t wait to return for our next adventure!
Churchill Wild Polar Bear Photo Safari host Dennis Fast participates in international photo competition
Professional photographer Dennis Fast is building an international reputation for himself and Churchill Wild is proud to count him among those who are responsible for our success. Dennis was recently selected to be one of 20 photographers in a contest organized by the The Images for Conservation Fund (ICF), which offers prize money of $180,000 and world-wide recognition to the participants.
After almost a decade of being our unofficial resident photographer Dennis now hosts many of our Polar Bear Photo Safari tours which run in October and November. If you take a look around the Churchill Wild Web site many of the beautiful wildlife and landscape photographs are his work.
by Elaine Peters
(This article orginally appeared in, and is reprinted courtesy of, The Carillon Newspaper – May 13, 2010)
It is possible that photographer Dennis Fast could receive recognition for his photography on a world scale. He was accepted into a month-long photo competition in Texas, competing against 19 other professional photographers representing eight countries: USA, Canada, Mexico, France, Holland, Italy, and Argentina. The only other Canadian was from Quebec.
The first step was to be accepted as one of the contestants. The deadline was February, and that had come and gone. But when a couple of contestants dropped out, Dennis was phoned. He felt a little like he came in through the back door. Technically, in order to be considered professional, contestants were supposed to receive 80 percent of their income from photography. That was not the case with Dennis, yet when he told them that he had a couple of books out and had done some other work, that was good enough. He was in.
Dennis Fast with wife Frieda. Ready for their photographic adventure!
On March 12, 2010 Dennis and Frieda Fast set out on their great adventure. One week before the competition started, there was a big event where all the contestants were gathered together. Photographers were paired with landowners by a draw from a camera bag. Once on the 90,000 acre ranch, Dennis had from April 1-30 to shoot with Frieda as his official assistant. The pressure was on. The weather was cool, 24-25 degrees Celsius instead of the usual 35-37 degrees.
When intermittent rains destroyed the roads on the ranch for ten days, the pressure increased. One 4X4 left foot-deep ruts. Eventually Dennis and Frieda were given the use of an ATV so that they could resume their photography. The silver lining to this cloud was that the rain brought out creatures that would not otherwise be seen, for example, toads only come out after rain.
The Images for Conservation Fund (ICF) was running this competition for the third time. The first competition was in 2006 and there were 100 contestants. By now it had been narrowed to 20.
The competition takes place every second year in the Rio Grande area near Laredo, Texas, near the Mexican border. The goal is that ranchers would become open to other uses of their land besides hunting, with the photos from the competition being used to promote photography tourism. One hundred and eighty thousand dollars in prize money is on the table. The top prize is $80,000 to be split 50/50 with the ranch owner whose land the photographs were taken on. This year’s winning photos will be published in a book.
The winners will be announced July 10, 2010. Before then Dennis has to sift through 175,000 photographs and choose the best ones to submit. He can only submit 40: ten of birds, ten of mammals, ten of insects and ten of reptiles.
Just a New York Girl in Polar Bear Land – Guest Blog Post
New YorkerBetti 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.
Big Polar Bear enjoys a nap
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!
Beware the peaceful Polar Bear - Beautiful!
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.
Introducing People and Polar Bears Gets Easier Every Year
Two male polar bears spar on frozen Hudson Bay at Seal River Lodge
As a guide for Churchill Wild for many years I have had the pleasure of introducing people to polar bears and the Northern Experience on many occasions. This year was no exception, and it just seems to be getting easier every year.
I land with part of my group at the airport runway on the tundra near Seal River Heritage Lodge. From there it’s a 5-10 minute walk to the lodge with our resident guards, Andy and Terry. But wait, look at that. Two large polar bears wrestling down on the Hudson Bay ice just a stone’s throw away. We stand mesmerized, cameras blazing away in the soft afternoon light while two huge males push, shove and pummel each other to exhaustion. The only sound is the shock of their blows as they make contact, and the sharp exhalations of breath caught in the clear crisp air.
No other animals would fight so intensely or with such power without a lot of anger involved. But these bears seem to be enjoying it as much as we are. Then, just as dramatically, it is over. Thirsty and over-heated from the extreme exertion, they scoop up great mouthfuls of snow before drifting apart and finding their own quiet spot to have a rest and cool off only a short shuffle away.
Just as we attempt to continue the walk to the lodge, a sik-sik, or arctic ground squirrel, comes bouncing our way. Stopping at only 2 meters, he rears up and gives us all a thorough military inspection! Satisfied that the intimidating group before him is not a real threat, he spins away, spurts around us, and finds his favourite burrow. For me he is a big surprise because, apparently, he doesn’t know that he should have been in bed for the winter by early September at the latest, and it is now well past mid-October.
A Polar Bear Takes a Rest After The Match
Soup is waiting, so we hurry a little more now as we start to feel some hunger pangs. But still another bear is blocking the path to the gate as we approach. Walking up as close as we dare, he finally yields the right of way reluctantly.
You would think all that excitement would be a good enough start for a four day experience at Seal River Heritage Lodge, but Mother Nature isn’t done yet. That evening, just as we are about to begin dinner at 7:00 PM, Terry announces that the Northern Lights have begun to appear in an ever-clearing sky. Dinner will have to wait, much to the chagrin of our hard-working and dedicated kitchen staff.
The Aurora display is breath-taking. Wave after wave waltzes across the sky’s dome in great undulating curtains of green, tinged with red. What a show! Finally, we have to go for dinner, but the aurora continues to dance well into the night.
The next morning a perfect sunrise over the steadily freezing bay, dotted with boulders of lunar style and proportions, is a special omen that the best is yet to come. Are those two bears outside the window really going to start another shoving match? Yes, they are! Without regard to the faces pressed against glass at less than 4 meters away, the titans of the tundra tear up the turf once again.
Nobody on a wildlife trip deserves so much good fortune, but we’ll take it, thank you very much.
Polar bear photos, arctic wildlife, landscapes and people highlight 2009 Churchill Wild Photo Contest
Churchill polar bears high-five each other at sunset on Seal River - Winner! Best Polar Bear Category - Photo Credit: Wendy Kaveney
There were some spectacular photos taken by Churchill Wild guests during the 2008 season! Many of the guests proved to be fabulous photographers, as evidenced by their submissions to the 2009 Churchill Wild Photo Contest.
There were four categories in our first annual contest: Best Polar Bears, Best Wildlife, Best Landscape and Best People.
Wendy Kaveny was the winner in the Best Polar Bears category for her excellent photo of two happy polar bears high-fiving each other at sunset. Joy Roberts won in the Best Other Wildlife category for her incredible photo of a Snowy Owl.
Best Landscape honors went to Judi Pennock for her gorgeous sunset over the Hudson Bay rocks at low tide and Best People photo honors went to Gary Potts for his picture of 11 photographers trekking out on to the tundra in the snow to photograph the mighty polar bears and more.