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Posts Tagged ‘Seal River Heritage Lodge’

Walking with polar bears at Seal River Lodge — Special Guest Report

Polar Bear Walking Photo Journey Report, Tropical Birding Trip Report, October 2013
Guest post and photos by guide Iain Campbell of TropicalBirding.com

PolarBearPeaking

I am used to being somewhat underwhelmed when people sprout hyperbole. You go there and it is not quite as amazing as they made it seem. Well I can say that this trip to Seal River Lodge was point blank the best photographic and wildlife adventure that I have ever experienced.

After five days with polar bears, I wanted to stay for another week, and was excited when our flight out was delayed by four hours. Time for one more walk.

The trip started in Winnipeg, where you arrive the night before to ensure you make the early morning flight the next morning to Churchill, Manitoba on the southwestern banks of Hudson Bay. After arriving in Churchill, people needing warm weather gear got fitted out and we took a small 8-seater plane for a low flight north to Seal River Lodge. As we left Churchill we flew over the last of the Taiga forest and onto the tundra. The landscape is not classically beautiful, but glorious in its starkness.

On arrival onto the small runway at the Lodge, the snow was blowing strong, our temperatures dropped, and one person decided that the two minute drive to the lodge was better than the 10 minute walk, so she headed off with the luggage. The remaining six of us braved it out, and were rewarded by our first polar bear sighting off the edge of the runway, chilling out in some willows.

After settling in, grabbing a great lunch and getting an introduction to dealing with massive carnivores that you feel inclined to cuddle, we set off with Tara and Andy, the two local guides who made us feel completely at ease.

We were about to walk around the tundra with polar bears, so having A-grade guides who know their stuff was very important. On the first afternoon we had a bear rolling around, stretching and generally just checking us out. We also had an Arctic Fox in its new winter plumage.

Polar Bear rolling around on the tundra at Seal River Lodge.

It was only that night that we really spent time to check out the Lodge. If you want plush with all the bells and whistles, satellite television and a spa, this is not it. It is however, much better than that, very comfortable with ensuite bathrooms, and there is an extremely cozy lounge to hang out in and chat. And best of all, amazingly helpful staff that do everything to make sure that you have a brilliant experience. Where in the world do you have staff that hops up hourly through the night to call you when the northern lights are shining? Well, they do here.

The food was outstanding, and although I would have been happy in an igloo eating beans, it was fun to have great food every lunch and dinner to warm you up between walks.

The next three days were very similar, where we left the compound, walked on the tundra and on Hudson Bay looking for polar bears. We found at least one polar bear on each walk, but they were always in different situations, different lighting and doing different things.

At no point did I, or any others in the group, feel as though we were doing the same old, same old. So although it was almost all white, it was by no means only polar bears. We spent a lot of time stalking down the flocks of hundreds of Willow Ptarmigan that have turned into their winter plumage. They would let us approach quite closely and you could have taken decent shots with a 300mm. We also chased Arctic Hare all over the place but only managed really good looks inside the Lodge compound.

Willow Ptarmigan Hudson Bay

Sometimes you did not need to head out of the Lodge compound to have a close encounter. Bears are walking up and down the coastline of Hudson Bay, so every few hours or so, one may walk past the Lodge.

Now, sitting for a month waiting for ice to form would test even the most Zen polar bear, so having a person to interact with is a pretty interesting way to fill in the time. If one was in the area and I went out to the compound and sat beside the fence, the bear would come up to the fence. I spent about 20 minutes with the one in the photo above before I was late for lunch and being rude to the kitchen staff. I went in, had lunch and watched him play in the snow.

When we went on the walks, the guides talked about all aspects of Arctic biology, history and culture. We found ourselves talking about Inuit and First Nations lifestyles while being watched by another local. The general protocol was to not let new bears get too close (about 100 yards) before the guides made noise to keep them away. When it was a bear that the guides knew, and knew its behavior, they would let it get to a safe distance.

Arctic Fox at Seal River Lodge

There was one bear that followed us a lot, and would walk to within 30 yards and usually lie down and watch us before dozing off. Now that is not to say that there were not times when my adrenalin went sky high with a bear not wanting to back off.  At no time did the local guides lose their composure, and they were always in control of the situation.

The photo at the top of this trip report was one of those situations. The bear did not want to back down, and after having noise made and snow thrown at it, he went and hid behind a large rock and kept poking his head above the rock to watch us. Now playing peekaboo with a massive carnivore seems surreal, but every time he popped his head over the rock, we would all make a noise saying, “We still see you Bob”.

Again, the local guides were in complete control of the situation, which did not feel threatening, as the bear was showing signs of nothing but curiosity.

On the last day of the trip the plane that was due to pick us up had mechanical difficulties, and it looked as though we might not be able to get out, and the new group might not get in. In a show of a first rate operation, Mike and Jeanne from Seal River Lodge sent a message on the radio that “Guys you are getting a helicopter safari”.

Polar bear and Iain at the Seal River Lodge fence.My last image of this spectacular place was taking off from their front door in a helicopter, rising right over their roof, before shooting off towards Churchill flying low over the tundra.

An exhilarating experience, landing in Churchill just on dusk, heading for a wonderful meal with our group in the local restaurant before flying back to Winnipeg that night. Would I go back?

In a heartbeat.

Need more information about this trip and/or future trips with Iain Campbell?

Web: www.TropicalBirding.com
Phone: 1 (409) 515-0514
E-mail: info@tropicalbirding.com

The Cranberry Queen

by Mike Reimer, Churchill Wild

The Cranberry Queen, Helen Webber, on the shores of Hudson Bay at Seal River Heritage Lodge.

The Cranberry Queen, Helen Webber, on the shores of Hudson Bay at Seal River Heritage Lodge.

What do 5,000,000 Cranberries look like?

Why not ask the Cranberry Queen, who has personally handled each one of those delectable beauties. Helen Webber, the Grand Queen of the Webber/Churchill Wild empire, has spent the last 40 Septembers faithfully collecting buckets and buckets of incredibly tasty wild cranberries with which to complement the lodges’ Arctic cuisine.

It takes some real dedication to the needs of the palate to spend all those cold fall afternoons crouched over the berry patch all the while keeping a sharp eye out for wandering polar bears. Many recipes for our bestselling cookbook series Blueberries and Polar Bears were developed by Helen and friend Marie Woolsey using these marvelous berries to enhance a variety of meals at the lodges.

Additional cranberry pickers are always welcome! From L to R, Mike Reimer, Helen Webber, Krysten Martens, Karli Reimer.

Additional cranberry pickers are always welcome! From L to R, Mike Reimer, Helen Webber, Krysten Martens, Karli (Reimer) Friesen.

Wild cranberries vastly surpass any tame grown berries for flavour, texture and gourmet pizzazz, and one taste of these tundra delicacies over snow goose pie or roasted turkey pretty much ensures the supermarket variety stays on the shelf. And let’s not forget one of our all-time favourites, Cranberry Cake with Butter Sauce!

Helen Webber, Seal River Lodge

Helen Webber. Cranberry Queen and Cookbook Author. At home on the tundra.

This past fall while cooking (yesssss, Helen is still working!) for the Arctic Safari at Seal River Lodge, Helen took a little time to harvest the bountiful crop of berries sprayed across the tundra near the lodge.

Along with her trusty assistants, Helen hauled in 300 cups of crimson berries in six hours, setting a new record for the foodie team and likely establishing Helen as the most prolific cranberry picker of all time! I’m thinking there must be a spot in the Guinness record books for this category.

Hopefully some of the kids and grandkids pick up on this talent, as Helen keeps threatening to hang up her bucket for good soon.

Summer at Seal River Lodge, Notes from an award-winning wildlife photographer

Guest Post by Steven Blandin, Award-Winning Wildlife Photographer
www.bird-wildlifephotography.com

Churchillwild - Splashing Bear

When is the best time of the year to go on a polar bear safari?

That was my initial inner question when my wife showed interest in exploring the possibilities of a trip to see polar bears. I knew we did not want to go as far as Northern Europe, and as it turned out, Canada was in fact the place with the larger population of polar bears.

Now set on finding a great spot in Canada, it seemed that the west bank of Hudson Bay would be the ideal place to see polar bears from July to the middle of November. Why? Because polar bears cross the large Bay after spending the winter north of the Arctic poles. They then congregate west of the Bay waiting for it to freeze anew, so that they may cross and head back to their winter turf.

Churchillwild - Summer landscape

That left us choosing between three seasonal time periods: summer, early autumn with the fall colors or late fall, when there would be snow on the ground. Not wanting to go on our adventure when temperatures were too low, we opted for a summer trip. That might seem counter-intuitive to some, as most of us imagine polar bears on a snowy landscape.

We decided that the Fireweed blooming season, which lasts about three weeks, would be the ideal time to go. The plants flower with purple colors and in big numbers. This provides a very unique green and purple backdrop, which we thought would be a bit different than the typical snowy environment. We targeted a week with likely Fireweed blooming days and booked our adventure.

Churchillwild - Bear Portrait
Flying on a small plane from Churchill to the Seal River Heritage Lodge offered a fantastic view of the grassy coastal landscape on the Hudson Bay shores. And the green contrasted superbly with the rice in the waters. Wait… the rice? Yes!

Large pods of beluga whales can be spotted from up above, and they give the impression of bowl of soup filled with rice. A great introduction to this remote land, we thought, this was going to be a very nice photographic experience!

We arrived to a warm welcome from Lodge owners Jeanne and Mike Reimer and our other hosts, who did wonderful work in the week that followed. The food was absolutely delicious, the rooms were quite comfortable, and our guides were amazing.

We saw polar bears every single day! Whether during walks, or just staying at the Lodge and peeking through the fence, we had memorable encounters with the bears. And all of our meetings with the bears occurred in an environment that was safe for both us and the bears.

Churchillwild - Golden Bear

I was also very happy with the fact that we had not missed the blooming Fireweed season, as we arrived in the last week of blooming. Even though we had missed the most intense blooming days, we were still amazed by the very unique purple and green color mix. We were also delighted to have photo opportunities in which the blooming flowers contrasted beautifully with the majestic bears.

Polar bears are curious creatures. On more than one occasion they actually walked towards us. Another key characteristic that struck me was that polar bears sleep quite a bit! Maybe they should be renamed the polar lions.

Churchillwild - Approaching Bear

We had a specific male polar bear sleeping close to the Lodge for a few days on a small peninsula, but he also took occasional walks and swims. We really felt that he was like another guest who just preferred to spend his nights under a starry sky.

Churchillwild - Sleeping Bear

The Seal River area is not only known for polar bears, but also for its migrating beluga whales and the aurora borealis. The latter phenomenon occurs when particles in the atmosphere are swept by the solar wind, and can be visible during clear nights for a few minutes to a number of hours. Though there are more clear nights during the winter, we did experience a couple of nights with spectacular northern lights. And we did not have to freeze to death to capture good shots!

Churchillwild - Aurora Borealis

Being on the Hudson Bay coast, we also took the opportunity to hop on a couple of the Zodiak boats to experience a swim with the belugas. Having been raised in the warm waters of the Caribbean, the icy waters of Hudson Bay were an initial concern, but once geared up with dry suits, tied to the boat by our ankles, and floating in the water, we found that we did not get cold, and the whales swam within arms-length of us.

In the end, I believe every season brings unique opportunities for a polar bear safari. We experienced the summer season, but the fall is highlighted by beautiful yellow and red colors, along with potentially more diversity in wildlife viewings. And late fall and winter adds the expected and still magical white coat of snow. So really, one might want to experience every single season!

Churchillwild - Yawning Bear

This trip allowed me to add many top notch polar bear photographs to my blog.

Greenhouse on the edge of the Arctic

by Mike Reimer, Churchill Wild

Fresh tomatoes grown at Seal River!

Guests on our Arctic Safari will enjoy fresh tomatoes grown at Seal River!

Churchill Wild, in its quest to be as ecologically responsible as possible, has long been a proponent of country foods and the 100 mile diet. Our kitchens harvest and prepare a variety of wild berries, game dishes and wild caught fish much to the delight of discerning palates from around the globe.

El “Presidente”, better known as Jeanne Webber-Reimer, has inherited all the looks and intelligence of her mother Helen and the stick-to-it-ness of her father Doug. For years Doug has been successfully growing a variety herbs and vegetables at North Knife Lake Fishing Lodge.

Jeanne has always been convinced we could grow vegetables at Seal River, enabling us to serve fresh picked produce on site, which not only tastes a hundred times better than anything picked green in Mexico and shipped thousands of kilometers to our doorstep, but that is also much more environmentally friendly.

Guide Terry Elliot provided the building prowess while Mike collected and mixed local soils, seaweed and compost. As a result, Seal River Heritage Lodge is now blessed with the most northern green house (ok green hutch for now!) in Manitoba on the shores of the Hudson Bay.

Guests this week at our Arctic Safari will be the first to enjoy fresh tomatoes grown on the Arctic shores of Hudson Bay!

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.