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Posts Tagged ‘Polar Bear Tours’

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.

 

The Ultimate Polar Bear Booter at Hubbard Point

Xie Jianguo of Birds Eye Media taking polar bear photos at Hubbard Point.

Xie says hi from the icy waters of Hudson Bay at Hubbard Point!

Remember when you were a kid and you always had to test the depth of the ice water in the spring? And how that always seemed to result freezing cold wet feet?

Fast forward to adulthood and you’re up to your knees in icy ocean water as the tide rises ever higher, trying to get that perfect shot of a polar bear.

The contents of this post were initiated by a Zodiac excursion north to Hubbard Point, one of our favourite polar bear viewing areas. We had spent several hours with the fine folks from Beijing of Birds Eye Media, enjoying endless gigabytes of polar bears in various settings and light conditions.

The photo gods must have been smiling on as we lucked into a mother with two cubs (Coys, cubs-of-the-year) about to settle down on a rocky spit for supper. All things were in our favour. Sunset on its way with perfect light, rising tide, breeze in our faces and no other pesky male bears to disturb the snuggle fest about to happen.

Walking the Zodiacs in closer to the polar bears at Hubbard Point.

Walking the Zodiacs in closer to the polar bears at Hubbard Point.

Master guides Quent and Mike, (okay maybe Quent) gently poled the boats into shore and walked them into camera range on the rising tide and it wasn’t long before that magic sound of clicking and whirring motor drives filled the air.

Xie Jianguo elected to exit the boat and set up his tripod on the gravel beach for a little more stable support, and once the action started all focus was on the nursing cubs. But as we like to say at Seal River, the “tide waits for no man or woman.”

We shortly realized that those were not gasps of excitement from Xie as the frigid sea water began to seep over the tops of his boots. An hour later, as the chill water crept past his knees, our brave and dedicated photographer finally struggled gamely back into the Zodiac, but frozen feet seemed to be a small price to pay for the award winning photos taken by all.

A gorgeous sunset escorted a very tired and happy crew back to Seal River Lodge, where another gourmet dinner awaited us. There were more true tall tales to tell.

Contentment at Seal River

Polar bear mom with nursing cubs at Seal River Lodge.

Contentment in the morning at Seal River Lodge. Photo by Richard Voliva.

There is a reason the adventure tours at Seal River Heritage Lodge are called Birds, Bears & Belugas at this time of the year. The guests are treated to the most amazing wildlife sights in the North.

It is said “if you don’t like the weather, just wait five minutes.”  That applies to the wildlife here at the Lodge as well. Just “wait five minutes” and there is something new to see. To say the views, sunsets and wildlife are stunning here, falls short. From polar bears on the ground, to swimming with beluga whales, we have seen it all.

Including this morning’s sighting of a mamma polar bear nursing her two cubs, that I was able to capture on what we call “film” these days.

Fantastic!

Direct from Seal River Heritage Lodge,

Richard Voliva

Great Ice Bear Adventure at Dymond Lake Eco-Lodge receives glowing reviews

“Seeing a polar bear on foot was unforgettable!” ~ Debra Hartsell & Michael James

Polar bear saunters in for breakfast at Dymond Lake.

Polar bear saunters in for breakfast at Dymond Lake.

The Great Ice Bear Adventure is one of the most diverse and holistic fall wildlife viewing packages offered anywhere in the world. It combines four days at Dymond Lake Eco-Lodge, where many of the Arctic’s most famous residents are seen and photographed on foot or from the Lodge, with one day in Churchill on a buggy tour. And this year, with Solar Max, we’re expecting even more spectacular northern lights viewing!

Your adventure takes place in prime polar bear viewing season in October and November at Dymond Lake Eco-Lodge. The Lodge is strategically located approximately 30 kilometers by air from Churchill, Manitoba, the Polar Bear Capital of the World, where approximately 1,200 polar bears congregate and socialize while waiting for freeze-up and their annual seal hunt.

GreatIceBearDeb540

Debbie Blunderfield is all smiles as Scarbrow snacks on tundra fare in the background.

Dymond Lake Eco-Lodge is in the heart of the natural habitat of polar bears, caribou, Arctic and red fox, Arctic hare, wolves and moose along with numerous bird species such as snowy owls, ptarmigan and gyrfalcons. And last year last year, Kim Spragg, one of our guests at Dymond Lake Lodge was lucky enough to capture some rare video of a wolverine. Thanks Kim!

So how does a typical day start on the Great Ice Bear Adventure? Well, breakfast is served at 8:00 a.m. and the first walking tour generally leaves at 9:30 a.m. unless there’s a polar bear in camp! In that case the walking tour has to wait, but no one ever seems to mind meeting a polar bear up close. And taking pictures!

“We were treated to the daily antics of “Scarbrow“, a young male polar bear, who frequented our camp and followed us along the hiking trails. Our accomplished guides were full of information and always made the group’s safety the first priority. We were also treated to what the locals referred to as the best northern lights display of the season. In short, it was a spectacular trip and we would go again in a heartbeat!” ~ Mary Giesler

Scarbrow comes in close for a better look.

Scarbrow comes in for a closer look.

If no polar bears are in camp, you’ll bundle up and head out into the snow. The walks are comfortably paced, as they are geared towards plenty of viewing and photo opportunities and are guided by our professional and knowledgeable polar bear guides, so you’ll do a lot of learning along the way as well. Obviously we cannot allow the bears to approach too closely, and your guides are expert in keeping bears at a safe distance without sacrificing exciting viewing.

 “The guides took good care of us out “in the field” when the bear sometimes got almost too close. It was a really breathtaking experience to step off the small aircraft in one moment and to be about 10 meters away from a big polar bear in the next. The team at the lodge was superb and the food was lovely. The Tundra Buggy Tour completed our stay. We saw a lot of bears on that day.” ~ Renard, Antwerp, Belgium

Polar bears do saunter by the Lodge on a regular basis, so you can often view them from the warmth and comfort of one of our lounges through the massive picture windows. This opportunity is all too welcome when a squall blows in! We have a variety of other activities to take part in as well, should the weather prevent us from exploring the outdoors, though this is rarely the case.

Polar Bear gives us the sneaky eye outside the Lodge.

Polar Bear gives us the sneaky eye outside the Lodge.

Lunches are served at the Lodge and we are generally back at the Lodge by 4:00 p.m. for hot or cold drinks and appetizers. Full course delectable dinners are served at 7:00 p.m. after which, the fireplace is almost always central. Your guide team will give informative lectures and beautiful slide presentations, as well as initiate a discussion about the activities for the following day.

“It was amazing! I had really high expectations and the experience lived up to them. All of the staff were very friendly and the logistics were well coordinated – everything went very smoothly. The guides were extremely knowledgeable and really added to our experience. I’m so glad I opted for Churchill Wild rather than the typical polar buggy tour. Seeing a polar bear on foot was unforgettable!” ~ Debra Hartsell & Michael James

Churchill Wild guests photograph polar bear on Great Ice Bear Adventure

Polar bear poses for us at Dymond Lake.

Bedtime is at your leisure. The entire Lodge area is patrolled for polar bears all night by one of our night watchmen, so be prepared to have your sleep cut short by a nocturnal visit from one of the Great Ice Bears or a dazzling display of northern lights! You’ll definitely want to get out of bed for either one of these experiences!

“One night they woke us up because the aurora borealis was showing. It was in the middle of the night and all of us would have slept right through it if one of the staff wouldn’t have been “on guard”. That was really the “cherry on the pie”. Even though it was the middle of the night and the guides have probably seen the aurora borealis a million times they accompanied us, gave explanation and helped us take pictures of this magnificent display.” ~ Renard, Antwerp, Belgium

The Great Ice Bear Adventure maximizes viewing potential by giving guests the opportunities to see polar bears from a variety of locations, whether it be on the nature trails, from the lodge’s viewing tower, or right from the lodge windows.

Early "riser" outside the window at Dymond Lake Eco-Lodge.

Early “riser” outside the window at Dymond Lake Eco-Lodge.

“We had polar bears posing for us in all kinds of situations. We brought a big lens but the bears were so close we could easily have taken many pictures with our mobile phone and they still would have been awesome. The big advantage of the lodge is that the polar bears (and many other animals) come really close and even if you are not very much into hiking you can still see them right from the comfort of the lodge.” ~ Renard, Antwerp, Belgium

A trip to Dymond Lake Eco-Lodge Lodge means guests will see polar bears like no one on a Churchill town-only package can.

“It was an absolutely awesome experience. We chose this tour operator because we liked the hiking aspect of the trip. The trip includes one tundra buggy day where you do see a lot of polar bears from the vehicle. But walking with polar bears brings your arctic safari adventure to a whole new level.” ~ Werner, Zurich, Switzerland

Walking where the white bear prowls

Walking with polar bears at Churchill Wild

Polar bear saunters by guests at Churchill Wild.

Safaris

Walking where the white bear prowls

This story originally appeared in the April 2013 issue of Up Here Magazine.

In Churchill, a wildlife-watching company steps into daring territory.

When it comes to ferocious carnivores, Ian Johnson’s seen it all. The veteran safari operator from Johannesburg, South Africa, has walked among lions, leopards and rhinos; he’s had narrow brushes with nasty ways to die. But nothing could prepare him for Churchill Wild’s polar bear walking tours last year, when he got within shouting distance of the largest Arctic predator.

“It was mind-blowing,” says Johnson. “I mean, they’re the biggest, most dangerous carnivore on land.”  And yet – though they came as close as 50 metres – Johnson says he felt perfectly safe.

Churchill Wild is the only outfitter in Canada, and perhaps the world, that trots tourists this close to polar bears. How do they get away with it? Andy Macpherson, one of the company’s lead guides, says they’ve got it down to a science.

“It’s all about interpreting behaviour,” he says. Guides read bears’ posture and body language, looking for sign the animals are agitated. And of course, they carry bear bangers and shotguns – but they boast that they rarely use the bangers, and have never shot a bear.

“The guides are so good, you fall into a sense of security,” says Johnson. “You carry on as though there isn’t a large carnivore who hasn’t eaten since June.”

To take your own walk on the wild side, visit their website: ChurchillWild.com.

 

Interested in having your heart beat a little bit faster?

Our Great Ice Bear Adventure takes place in October and November when the bears are congregating in large numbers on the coast of Hudson Bay waiting for freeze-up and anxious to get back to their hunting grounds. This is prime polar bear season!

One of the most diverse and holistic fall wildlife viewing packages offered anywhere in the world, the Great Ice Bear Adventure combines four days at Dymond Lake EcoLodge, where many of the Arctic’s most famous residents are seen and photographed on foot or from the Lodge, as well as on one day in Churchill on a buggy tour. We’re also expecting some spectacular Northern Lights this year due to the Solar Max!

If you would like more information on the Great Ice Bear Adventure, please call 1-866-UGO-WILD (846-9453) or e-mail us at info@churchillwild.com.

We would love to hear from you!

Our Guests Say It Best!

It was amazing! I had really high expectations and the experience lived up to them. All of the staff were very friendly and the logistics were well coordinated – everything went very smoothly. The guides were extremely knowledgeable and really added to our experience. I’m so glad I opted for Churchill Wild rather than the typical polar buggy tour. Seeing a polar bear on foot was unforgettable!

~ Debra Hartsell & Michael James