Polar Bear Blog

Polar bear cubs, wolves and wolverines highlight Den Emergence Quest at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge

by George Williams

It’s a magical time at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge.

Baby polar bears, wolves, wolverines, moose, snowy owls, ptarmigan and a cross fox have been spotted on our Den Emergence Quest, which takes place 250 km southeast of Churchill, Manitoba and 40 km east of York Factory on the Hudson Bay coast.

Churchill Wild co-owner Mike Reimer and long-time Cree guide Albert “Butch” Saunders flew into Nanuk in early March to break a 90 km trail south from Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge through snow drifts and over beach ridges into the boreal forest. They then criss-crossed the trail 50 km east and west at the 15 and 30 km marks from the lodge.

“It took about two days,” said Reimer. “We reverted back to a grid system that allows us to see if a mom and cubs has emerged from the denning areas and crossed the trails.”

To the great pleasure of all at the lodge, the criss-cross strategy worked!

The group currently at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge includes National Geographic photographer Jad Davenport and guests Ruth Elwell-Steck, Sue Chadwick, Tony Yeh and Jean Huang. Elwell-Steck has been to the Churchill Wild lodges on numerous occasions, Chadwick was on the Den Emergence Quest last year, Yeh and Huang are first time visitors to Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge and Davenport has had a number of National Geographic assignments at the Churchill Wild lodges.

Mom tending to her cubs at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Albert Saunders photo.
Mom tending to her cubs at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Albert Saunders photo.

When you’re this deep in the wilderness, experience means everything, and along with Reimer and Saunders this year’s crew for the Den Emergence Quest has centuries of that.

Churchill Wild Director of Operations Nolan Booth (who took the wolf video at the end of this post) is at Nanuk along with Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge Manager and guide Bella Waterton, Seal River Heritage Lodge Managers Ben Lawrence and Nicole Spinks, guides Kevin Brightnose and Emri Canvin and maintenance men Brett Kihn and Tyler Warkenton. Jad Davenport also happens to be a trained polar bear guide.

Saunders and Lawrence did the tracking after the initial trails were broken, and family paw prints were found daily, but it took some time before a mom and cubs were actually sighted.

The trip got off to a good start with the appearance of two wolverines feeding on a moose carcass, one of which is seen in the video below courtesy of Jad Davenport. The weather also cooperated early with balmy temperatures as high as 38°F, but that was followed by near blizzard conditions and windchills that flirted icily with -60°F. That didn’t bother the wolverines a bit, or the wolves, but the polar bears took cover.

“The mamma and her cubs were hunkered down somewhere in the maze of black spruce today,” reported Jad Davenport on his Facebook page on March 7. “A lone cross fox bounced around the willows and a couple of gray jays flew backwards in the North wind. The snow squeaked like we were walking on Styrofoam. We’re hoping a calmer day tomorrow encourages the sow and her cubs to continue their journey towards the Arctic Ocean and seal pups, and safety away from the wolves. Maybe tomorrow, maybe the next day, we’re hoping to witness them putting their first tiny paw prints down on the ice.”

On March 11, the early trailblazing and tracking of Saunders and Lawrence paid off.

“Wapusk-o-sis!” wrote Davenport along with his video of the cute cub at the top of this post. “Butch and Ben of @ChurchillWildSafaris have been tracking this family for us for 13 days through very tough country and today we had our first encounter. Mom is resting while her two cubs climb all over her.”

Mom and cubs hunkered down in the bush. Albert Saunders photo.
Mom and cubs hunkered down in the bush. Albert Saunders photo.

“We’re headed back out again way before dawn tomorrow to keep tracking as she tries to reach the safety of the sea ice,” continued Davenport. “We’re hoping to witness the magic when these 12-week-old cubs first touch the frozen ocean. But the wolf tracks are increasing and two wolves were spotted tonight. Our thoughts and prayers today are with friends and colleagues @Arctic_Wild Christoph and Fabienne, who we miss and who worked so hard last year.”

Christoph and Fabienne Jansen had an amazing encounter with wolves on last year’s Den Emergence Quest and they posted some beautiful photos on their website at ArcticWild.net. They were on their way back for this year’s renewal of the trip when a family emergency required them to return home.

The Jansens have been on three polar bear safaris with Churchill Wild and we echo Davenport’s sentiments for this charismatically friendly couple from Switzerland. We’re very much looking forward to seeing them again in the fall for the Polar Bear Photo Safari at Nanuk.

It appears that our polar bear family made it safely back onto the Hudson Bay sea ice, where Mom could begin hunting seals, restoring her energy and teaching her cubs the ways of the world. She’d deftly skirted her cubs away from the wily wolves that had been visiting Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge.

And serious survival classes were about to begin.

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