If you want to see polar bears in the summer and fall, we have to start early.
When most people start researching a trip to see polar bears in Canada, they usually discover the traditional polar bear viewing months of October and November in Churchill, Manitoba, but at Churchill Wild’s remote fly-in lodges on the Hudson Bay coast, our guests actually start seeing polar bears shortly after these grand carnivores come off the ice in the middle of July.
“There’s nothing more exciting than seeing your first polar bear of the season,” said Churchill Wild Lodge Manager Mandy Wallmann. “It never gets old. And this is the time of year when they’re often just-off-the-ice pure white and gorgeous.”
In order to see polar bears during the summer, you have to fly out of Churchill and into the remote areas where the polar bears are already walking, congregating and socializing. Churchill Wild’s fly-in lodges are located in deep the heart of polar bear country, directly in the path of the great white bears traveling along the Hudson Bay coast through the “polar bear corridor.”
Seal River Lodge, 60 km north of Churchill on the Hudson Bay coast near the Seal River estuary, is the first of our polar bear lodges to open up for Birds, Bears and Belugas, a Canadian Signature Experience, from July 12 to August 24.
The opening of Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge, 250 km southeast of Churchill on the Hudson Bay coast near York Factory, for our Mothers and Cubs safari, overlaps the Seal River Lodge schedule when it opens for guests on August 13 and runs until late September. We’re also back at Seal River Lodge for the Arctic Safari from September 4-17 and the Polar Bear Photo Safari from mid-October until the end of November. Dymond Lake EcoLodge, a short flight 30 km north of Churchill, is also opened up for the Great Ice Bear Adventure starting in mid-October and running through to late November.
Missing from the above list of Churchill Wild lodges is North Knife Lake Lodge, which is opened for a special Northern Lights Adventure in early spring and later for exclusive excursions and fishing in late June and early July.
Whew! That’s a lot of properties to open up before summer arrives, and that doesn’t include our numerous remote camps and cabins throughout the north, where guests can observe caribou, moose wolves, a myriad of birds and other Arctic wildlife.
The “To Do List” for opening remote polar bear lodges is long, detailed and designed with one goal in mind — a once-in-a-lifetime polar bear viewing experience for guests.
Starting in February and March, flights must be set up for staff and freight, and guest flights have to be booked with Wings Over Kississing. Doug Webber, patriarch of the Reimer-Webber family and the former owner of Webber’s Lodges, also often flies in supplies. There’s always something needed in the Arctic. And let’s not forget about our construction crews either. We’re always building or renovating something at one of our lodges.
Our annual cat train over the Hudson Bay sea ice during the spring helps us get tens of thousands of pounds of major renovation supplies, mechanical parts, plumbing, solar heating, power and operational equipment to the lodges and then there’s the little things needed to take a meal from ordinary to fabulous.
“We try to buy as much as we can in Churchill,” said Wallmann. “We like to support the local economy. Churchill is a small mostly seasonal community and it needs the support of the operators that utilize it. We’re happy to help whenever we can.”
Before any supplies and staff can be flown into the lodges, a pre-season flyover is done to make sure the runways and landing strips are clear and the water levels are good. Adjustments are made accordingly and then the ground work at the lodges begins.
Wildlife and weather damage checks have to be made, as anything can and does happen during the harsh Arctic winter off season. Polar bear shutters are taken down and electric and bear safety fences have to be checked and rechecked. Guest and staff safety is the top priority at all lodges.
Once all safety systems are checked, the lodges have to be aired out and the sustainable power systems (primarily solar) that store the electricity used for cooking, lights, electrical outlets, computer systems, appliances etc. have to be in working order. Startup maintenance is performed on the generators used for backup emergency power, and heating systems, wood fireplaces and wood stoves are made operational. Then it’s on to the water systems.
Depending on the lodge location, water is either hauled or pumped through a state-of-the-art filter system from local spring-fed lakes. Water and plumbing systems are examined and environmentally sustainable sewer systems are also checked for any maintenance issues.
Now that the lodges are comfortably inhabitable, transportation equipment and communications systems and devices must be made operational. Transportation-related equipment includes 6-wheelers, rhinos, boats, tractors, cats and trucks. Communications systems include satellite Internet, voice over IP, GPS systems and satellite phones.
Now it’s time to roll up our sleeves!
Staff is brought up to speed on their different roles, especially with regards to customer service, and a game plan is made for the arrival of the first groups of guests. A massive deep clean is performed on all rooms, kitchens, washrooms, laundry rooms, washers and dryers. Fire safety equipment including extinguishers, smoke alarms, water pumps, hoses and water hauling systems are checked.
Almost ready for guests!
Polar bear deterrents including screamers, crackers, bear spray and firearms are examined and made operational. Staff can’t go outside the lodge compounds without polar bear guides and deterrents, but outside excursions are required for safety, sanity, customer service and just plain fun.
Rubber boots, personal floatation devices, parkas, jackets and other necessary clothing items are checked and pre-guest excursions help any new staff understand the landscapes, locations and wildlife unique to each lodge.
Guides also go out on their own to check their traditional wildlife routes for signs of wildlife and for any damage to the routes that might prevent the tundra rhinos, 6-wheelers and zodiaks from traversing them. Similar basic routes are followed in an effort to protect the delicate tundra and sensitive environment.
Vehicles are used to get to within a reasonable distance of polar bears, after which guests travel on foot with their guides to meet the planet’s largest land carnivore, face-to-face, at ground level.
“Walking with polar bears,” said Wallmann. “Is an experience you will never forget.”