Polar Bear Blog

Seal River Heritage Lodge. Polar Bears. Without a camera.

Polar bear in the mist at Seal River. Terry Elliott photo.
Polar bear in the mist at Seal River. Terry Elliott photo.

by George Williams

The first time we went to Seal River Heritage Lodge, I didn’t bring a camera.

It never occurred to me that I might want to take a few photos like the ones you’ll see in the album at the end of this post. Truthfully, I didn’t miss my camera at all, and luckily my wife Nina brought her own point and shoot camera. The polar bears had no trouble posing for closeups, and I simply enjoyed the thrilling experience of being on the ground with polar bears in a world far removed from civilization.

Seal River Heritage Lodge is located on a rugged and rocky area of the Hudson Bay coast, seven kilometres north of the Seal River, and 60 km north of Churchill, Manitoba. Guests arrive at the lodge via small plane from Churchill, although there have been a few boat trips made to Seal River by seasoned adventurers.

Seal River Heritage Lodge on a beautiful summer day.
Seal River Heritage Lodge on a beautiful summer day.

In 2018, Churchill Wild co-founder Mike Reimer and “Captain” Jack Batstone completed the 12-hour 440 km journey from Gillam, Manitoba to Seal River, following the Nelson River to Hudson Bay and continuing north along the coast in a boat specially designed for film crews and photographers from organizations such as National Geographic.

This is not a trip for an inexperienced crew. Hudson Bay is shallow and when the winds are high the going can be treacherous, not to mention the lunar-like 20-ton boulders that lay hidden beneath the surface at high tide. There was a very good reason the great wooden sailing ships that first arrived in Hudson Bay over 300 years ago avoided coming too close to the coast, and lessons were learned the hard way.

Polar bears atop hidden boulders in Hudson Bay. Steve Herring photo.
Polar bears atop hidden boulders in Hudson Bay. Steve Herring photo.

If you visit Seal River Heritage Lodge, there’s a very good chance you’ll be walking among these boulders at low tide, while looking for polar bears. If you happen to be there in the fall for the Arctic Safari, Polar Bear Photo Safari or Fall Dual Lodge Safari, when the ice fog begins to wet the boulders with mystery, you’ll feel like you’re on another planet. If you’re there during the summer for Birds, Bears and Belugas or the Summer Dual Lodge Safari you might occasionally see a polar bear perched atop one of these boulders, appearing as if they are sitting/walking on water.

Polar bear in ice fog at Seal River. Anniversary book cover for Churchill Wild -- 25 Years of Adventure on the Hudson Bay Coast. Howard Sheridan photo.
Polar bear in ice fog at Seal River. Anniversary book cover for Churchill Wild — 25 Years of Adventure on the Hudson Bay Coast. Howard Sheridan photo.

Nina and I saw our first polar bears from the viewing tower at the lodge. A mother and two cubs emerged from the north, trotting across the mud flats towards us. It was exciting to see our first ever polar bears in the wild!

One of the young cubs was rambling as fast as he could go, and Mom wasn’t too happy about it. You could hear her telling the rambunctious youngster to slow down, but he was having no part of it. He was on a mission to find out what the lodge was all about, and nothing was going to stop him. Until he slipped on rock and fell face-first into the mud.

Appearing as if he knew he had embarrassed himself, he quickly regrouped and looked around to see if anyone had seen what he’d done. He started listening to Mom after that, and the trio continued to approach the lodge at a more leisurely pace.

Mom and cubs on the move at Seal River. Michael Poliza photo.
Mom and cubs on the move at Seal River. Michael Poliza photo.

There would be similar sightings of polar bears every day. Sometimes we would go out walking, and other days, for longer treks and lunch on the tundra, we would ride out in small motorized vehicles, following established paths in an effort to minimize our impact on the sensitive landscape. We saw polar bears in a wide variety of settings, including some just outside the fenced-in compound, and a few lazing about in front of the lodge door.

Our guides, Andy MacPherson and Terry Elliott, explained everything to the guests before we ever went out the door into the wild, and everything worked beautifully. Feelings of wonder and exhilaration surfaced whenever we met polar bears, and each encounter added a new twist of amazement to the adventure. I had no real desire to snap a photo, I just wanted to soak it all in.

We did that literally when we slid into a few Zodiaks and rode the waves out to see the beluga whales near the mouth of the Seal River, where thousands of these friendly white whales congregate every summer. We had all the fancy navigation and safety equipment required, in contrast to the early days, when Mike Reimer used his watch and wits to time the tides and navigate safely back to the lodge after a late afternoon of beluga whale watching. If he miscalculated and missed the high tide in those days, it meant a long walk back to the lodge in polar bear territory. He never missed.

Returning to Seal River Heritage Lodge after beluga encounters. Michael Poliza photo.
Returning to Seal River Heritage Lodge after beluga encounters. Michael Poliza photo.

The polar bears were mesmerizing, but we also saw sik-siks, Arctic fox, caribou, Arctic hare, and numerous bird species we couldn’t identify. One member of our group, an advanced birder from the UK, was fascinated by all the different species of birds. Her eyes lit up and her voice rose whenever she saw a species she’d never seen before. Her good feelings, and those of others in the group, made for a warm chemistry that continued back at the lodge. She came back in 2018 to visit Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge.

The service and food at the lodge were exceptional, with meals based on the Blueberries and Polar Bears Cookbooks written by Churchill Wild co-founder and owner Jeanne Reimer’s mother Helen Webber and Helen’s friend Marie Woolsey.

The most memorable dish for us was Wild Arctic Cranberry Cake with Warm Butter Sauce, which we first enjoyed after a chilly hike on the tundra. Following soup and sandwiches made with homemade bread and freshly baked cookies, we tasted the delectable guest favourite for the first time. It was made for polar bear country.

Wild Arctic Cranberry Cake with Warm Butter Sauce. Ian McCausland/Shel Zolkewich photo.
Wild Arctic Cranberry Cake with Warm Butter Sauce. Ian McCausland/Shel Zolkewich photo.

During our hikes to see polar bears around the lodge, we also explored the history of the area. Seal River was designated a Canadian Heritage River in 1992, due partially to the fact that it was historically a busy thoroughfare for Indigenous peoples, who travelled, hunted and fished here. Primitive artifacts dating back to the Paleo-Indian peoples of 7,000 years ago have been discovered in the area.

One of the last great wild rivers in Canada, the Seal River was named after the harbor seals that can be found up to 200 km inland from its mouth. The Seal River also played a role in the exploration of the area for the Hudson’s Bay Company in the late 18th century, when English explorer Samuel Hearne was tasked with finding the Northwest Passage.

Seal River Heritage Lodge has undergone extensive upgrades since we first visited in 2009, and in 2015 it became a proud member of the National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World.

Lounge at Seal River Heritage Lodge.
Lounge at Seal River Heritage Lodge.

When we returned home from the lodge in 2009, I thought, if the world ever finds out about these rare and unique polar bear walking safaris, they will become one of the most sought after wildlife adventures on the planet. Thanks to photographers, bloggers, filmmakers, members of the media, and especially guests who have shared their photos and reviews of Seal River Heritage Lodge, they have.

You will never forget meeting a polar bear face-to-face. Nor will you ever forget the first time you tasted Wild Arctic Cranberry Cake with Warm Butter Sauce, in a cozy ecolodge on the Hudson Bay coast, after a walk with polar bears. The two complement each other like lifelong best friends, and they’ll be forever etched in your memory.

As they are in mine.

Seal River Heritage Lodge Photo Album

The World’s Next Great Safari

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