Polar Bear Blog

Churchill Wild guide, polar bears, wolves, featured in new National Geographic series: The Big Freeze

by George Williams

Churchill Wild guide Steve Schellenberg, along with assorted wolves, polar bears, Arctic foxes, Snowy Owls and more, were recently included in some of the footage for the new National Geographic series Wild_Life: The Big Freeze, in which filmmaker Bertie Gregory takes viewers on a blizzard-filled adventure to the edge of the Canadian Arctic.

The new series has Gregory walking among polar bears, getting into the middle of a wolf pack and diving under the sea ice with harp seals for a unique in-the-moment experience. His signature on camera commentary brings fresh perspective to wildlife storytelling and helps make an urgent environmental message resonate with the audience.
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Schellenberg was Gregory’s guide at Seal River Heritage Lodge and Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge, both members of the National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World collection, and where some of the footage for the new series was captured. Guests who were on our Polar Bear Photo Safaris at Seal River and Nanuk while the film crews were there enjoyed seeing some of the same wildlife interactions in person.

Schellenberg spent five weeks in October and November at Nanuk and Seal River last fall with Gregory and his crew, which included videographers Spencer Milsap and Connor Stefanison. Schellenberg had guided for film shoots before, and had helped National Geographic prepare some stock footage, but this was different.

Steve Schellenberg. Polar Bear Tracker. NatGeo/Churchill Wild. Click image for video.
Steve Schellenberg. Polar Bear Tracker. NatGeo/Churchill Wild. Click image for video.

I was actually involved in the footage this time,” said Schellenberg. “I never realized that was going to happen. It was a very unique series, because unlike other documentaries where you’re just watching the wildlife, Bertie essentially shows you how he gets the shots and he’s talking about it as he does it. I really enjoyed it, and the three guys I worked with were such professionals. I learned a lot, and there was a lot to learn. Different camera angles. How they use the camera. What the camera gear is. How to get the shots.”

Schellenberg’s days ran from dawn to dusk. He was up well before sunrise getting things organized and in bed by nine every night. There were many long days, but the resulting product made it all worthwhile.

“We had days when there were 3-4 polar bears wandering around checking us out, and checking each other out at the same time,” said Schellenberg. “And then they started sparring. And we had multiple incidences of wolves in among the bears. We had a wolf chasing a bear, a bear chasing a wolf, and wolves on a moose chase.

“It was pretty special for the guests too, who were there for the fall Polar Bear Photo Safaris at both Seal River and Nanuk. Having a film crew like that there, they wanted to meet the guys from National Geographic. And the guests were getting some of the same shots we were.”

There were 16 guests at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge and Seal River Heritage Lodge at the time of the filming, so Schellenberg would help the NatGeo crew while guides Andy MacPherson, Paul Scriver and Emri Canvin would guide the guests. And there were quite a few occasions when both groups were able to witness the same polar bear and wolf interactions.

“The guests were essentially getting a National Geographic experience,” said Schellenberg. “They were seeing the same things we were seeing. National Geographic, BBC, all these top-notch organizations want to come with us now at Churchill Wild to see and video and photograph the wildlife. And we’re offering that exact same experience to our guests. The only difference is that film crews will stay for a month or two and the guests will stay for a week, but they are essentially getting a week’s worth of National Geographic, a world class experience.”

"We had days when there were 3-4 polar bears wandering around checking us out..." ~ Steve Schellenberg photo.
“We had days when there were 3-4 polar bears wandering around checking us out…” ~ Steve Schellenberg.

Schellenberg has been a polar bear guide with Churchill Wild for 10 years, but the 40-year-old from Kleefeld, Manitoba has been a wilderness guide for most of his life. Before the Churchill Wild season starts, he can usually be found guiding kayaking tours on Canada’s B. C. coast with Mothership Adventures, to see orcas, dolphins, harbour seals, black bears, grizzly bears, spirit bears, bald eagles and more.

From December to April you’ll find him guiding trips to Antarctica, South Georgia and the Falkland Islands with Polar Latitudes to see whales, icebergs, multiple different penguin colonies and many different species of seals. This fall he’ll be at Churchill Wild’s Dymond Lake Ecolodge guiding for guests on the Great Ice Bear Adventure, but he knows that his schedule is always subject to change, should we need him at one of our other lodges.

Filming a wolf at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Steve Schellenberg photo.
Filming a wolf at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Steve Schellenberg photo.

“It’s very satisfying,” said Schellenberg. “My job is different every day and I love it. I get to take part in some of the most incredible wildlife encounters on the planet. Being able to help people experience polar bears at ground level is one my favourite parts of the job. It’s something they wouldn’t be able to do without us as guides. We also we get to come back to super comfortable lodges every day, so everything fits together perfectly.

“Manitobans can be very proud of their province,” said Schellenberg. “I’ve traveled all over the world, I’ve done safaris in Africa, guided in New Zealand, the Great Barrier Reef and Belize, Antarctica and British Columbia. These are all world-class places. Manitoba is world-class too, and Churchill Wild offers the best of Manitoba. It really is incredible.”

Every year, the big freeze happens later and ends earlier, raising the stakes for all our animal characters. Ultimately, we’ll learn that despite most of the human population living miles from any sea ice, we are all connected to it, we all depend on it, and we’re all waiting for…

The Big Freeze.

All episodes of Wild_Life: The Big Freeze can be watched for free at natgeo.com/wildlife. You can also see additional behind the scenes footage by following filmmaker @bertiegregory on Instagram. And don’t forget to follow @Steve.Schellenberg on Instagram for more of his Arctic adventures with polar bears and wolves!

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