by Andy MacPherson with notes from Terry Elliot – Seal River Lodge Polar Bear Guides
with photos by Paul McAteer
I’m sure everyone woke up a sometime during the night to the sounds of the howling wind. I know I did. And we weren’t disappointed in the morning. High winds and blowing snow were busy creating a new landscape for those of us brave enough to explore it.
With the temperature hovering between -5 and -11, taking into account the wind chill, our first excursion was more of an exercise hike in white out conditions. Off we went to Swan Lake to look at the ice and five-foot snow drifts piling up on the lee side of the willow, birch and alder trees on the shore of the lake.
We left fresh signs of our lakeshore visit by creating numerous snow angels in the drifts to confuse and tempt any furry four-legged carnivores that might venture this way later. We saw flocks of ptarmigan and finally spotted two polar bears sparring on Two Bear Point at the end of our brisk jaunt, but decided to take an early lunch and join them later.
After a hearty meal we headed north up the coast towards the point where we’d seen the bears sparring earlier. They were nowhere to be seen as we approached and made our way down the spine of the ridge towards the tip. Finally two white heads popped out of the thick willows, one chewing on the others ear, before disappearing out of sight. The polar bears were still here and still scrapping, but we could barely see them!
We moved the group in order to get a better vantage point, but when the bears noticed us they halted their play fighting and began to take more of an interest in us than in their game. They came closer, moving out into the open and laying down together in a comfy knot on a snow drift, one burying its head in the snow like an ostrich. Again we moved and waited patiently hoping they would find the energy to spar again.
Ten minutes later one of the bears had recuperated enough to start a fight – bite a foot, chew an ear – and they were at it again! Stand up, double shove to the chest, hay maker to the side of the head; take down, head lock, roll-out and jump four feet in the air pin wheeling; rear foot kick to the head – a stylized dance that they really seemed to enjoy – or maybe a cross between Greco Roman wrestling and Brazilian Jujitsu. They didn’t stop until a huge bear that had been bedded down just to the north of us caught wind of the sparring partners and decided he wanted in on the action.
But this bear was too big. He was also sporting a jail-house tattoo from the Churchill detention centre. A big green spot, meaning he’d been a participant in the Polar Bear Alert Program Churchill – a bear with a record. The two buddies gave him a wide berth before moving in as a pair to challenge the big bear, pushing him away and over the ridge where he finally bedded down.
The original two bears checked out his trail, scenting carefully, before splitting up. One followed him over the hill and out of sight while the second walked to the edge and posed for us, front feet perched on a rock, looking first for the big bear and then back at us, silhouetted against a dark grey sky. Beautiful! We left the bears at this point, making our way back to the lodge for wine and appetizers while watching the sun set in a clearing sky.
John Grady, a previous fishing trip guest at Webber’s Lodges’ North Knife Lake Lodge, was on the walk today, accompanied by his wife and two daughters. It was their first polar bear tour at Seal River Lodge. He turned and shook guide Terry Elliot’s hand, thanking him for a rare and special walk with polar bears.
“My whole life could be described as a series of long walks,” said Grady. “Today’s experience was and is one of the most important and memorable walks of my life. I first met this amazing family at North Knife Lake Lodge five years ago. What started out as a single fishing trip with Webber’s Lodges turned into a number of fishing trips, culminating with this exotic trip to the land of the polar bears with my whole family and some dear friends. I never thought I would see this country in the winter, when it is such a playground for these amazing bears.”
“I thought you could only see this on TV,” continued Grady. “When I asked my family if they wanted to go on this trip, they thought I was kidding. They couldn’t imagine that you could really do this. That’s the point. The staff and owners of Churchill Wild and Webber’s Lodges make all of this an absolute reality. I hope my kids learn to never let life pass you by. Thank you.”
The wind and snow of the past few days was abating, hinting at an evening of shimmering northern lights. Could there be a better ending to a perfect day… and a walk to remember.