Polar Bear Blog

Witness to the Wild. Part II. Wellbeing, wonder and walking with polar bears.

Wolf in the willows. Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge.
Wolf in the willows. Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge.

A tale of wellbeing, wonder and walking with polar bears

Story and photos by Cheryl Hnatiuk

(Psst…If you haven’t read Part I of this story, check it out here!)

Being led by wildlife guides was new to me. Most of my photography is done solo and led by feeling.

Without any hype, we were calmly provided with directions on how to act when approaching and viewing wildlife. We were asked to move calmly, silently, and in a single file line. Once we made it to that magic spot that allowed us to observe the polar bear — while at the same time not disturbing him — we were signaled to slowly fan out. Up until this point, I wouldn’t have believed this quality of solitude could be experienced with others, and yet, I felt it. We were being led in the sound that silence makes.

Silence holds a certain tone that you can only hear when your mind is clear of distraction and aligned with all that surrounds it. The space that holds the tone of a joyful moment — sustained for many bars — and in that sustenance there is a stillness and peacefulness that resonates. For the duration of my four day stay at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge, this peacefulness was a dear friend. The calmer I remained, the more intimate were my experiences with the wildlife and the wilderness we were in.

The calm and soothing boreal forest.
The calm and soothing boreal forest.

What’s remarkable about the work of the Churchill Wild guides, is that they were able to hold that calm space even while we witnessed a pack of wolves attempting to attack a polar bear cub while the mother was fending off another polar bear. As the scene unfolded, we watched anxiously as the mother polar bear successfully fended off the attacking polar bear and rescued her cub from the pack of wolves. Her second cub came right at us, frantic about being separated from its mother, seeking escape.

As we watched in amazement, a calm direction came from one of the guides to return to the Rhinos, the moon-rover-like vehicles that had transported us out for the viewing. Calmly, we did. Safely, we stood witness as the cub barreled past us, seeking a safe haven along the edges of the forest behind us.

Regardless of our proximity to the wildlife, or the intensity of our encounter, the tone of direction from our guides always matched the calm feeling of the wilderness surrounding us. Steadying. Reassuring. Whether they come by this naturally or through training, their demeanor allowed us draw on this steadiness to make the most of each experience we had.

The strength of their presence, awareness of their surroundings, ability to pay attention, remain calm, and adjust behaviours to direct outcomes, regardless of circumstance, was a privilege to watch. It gave us the opportunity to stand within mere feet of a wolf, and to safely allow ourselves to melt into the moment and be present. After a while I couldn’t help but notice the meditative qualities to the viewings we were enjoying.

In meditation, you are settling the mind to a single point of focus. Often, it’s the breath. If your mind wanders you, without judgement, gently guide your awareness back to that single point of focus. This practice enhances your quality of attention and concentration, invites a rest and relax response into the body that creates health-enhancing benefits, and produces a feeling of wholeness and connection to yourself.

With the group moving as though it were one, our guides seemed to be there to both protect against distraction, and direct attention, as you should when in meditation. In this space, much like in meditation, I experienced a connection not only to myself, but with what surrounded us. As a group we were gifted the opportunity to connect to, and thereby become part of, the wilderness we were surrounded by. It was unforgettable.

The rawness of this experience continues to reveal itself in reflection. The proximity to wolves and polar bears was achieved not by forcing or chasing. Awareness and an intention to see would lead us to the place where this would occur safely for both human and animal.

Sudden movement, noise, or carelessness were of no use, and would be detrimental to this experience. By aligning with the stillness of a gooseberry patch, or the subarctic terrain on the shores of the Hudson Bay, I was met with the gaze of many wolves from a distance I can only describe as intimate, my feet firmly planted on ground they shared with me.

Standing on the muddy ground I saw a sleepy polar bear wake from its nap to look our way. Sensing no threat from our presence, I watched her return to the important business of her snooze. Energy was to be conserved for more important things than us, like the seal hunt of the approaching winter.

Polar bear wanders into the silent wilderness at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge.
Polar bear wanders into the silent wilderness at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge.

When describing this experience to friends, I had one person reflect that I must have felt like I was on another planet. Another, in hearing the whole story, described it as sacred. I’ve seen tears in people’s eyes and while sharing my photos I have heard ‘wows’, and ‘whoas’. I’ve watched people become silent in reflection upon hearing of my experience. Everyone laughs when I demonstrate my posture while carrying that paddle board.

Me, I’m just glad I didn’t put that paddle board in at the lake right next to where a parked my car, when I was two hours behind schedule, on that thirty-degree day. I could have just let myself off the hook, skipped the hike and got on the water more quickly. I’m sure I would have had a perfectly good time, but the choice I made instead, to listen to myself and continue with that white-socked-hunched-back-boiling-hot hike, has provided fodder for ample reflection.

It led me to a wilderness I could have never imagined, a connectivity to nature at a proximity I’d never achieved before, and an introduction to a community of people I can only describe as kindred spirits. As it turns out, I wasn’t two hours late. I wasn’t late at all.

I was, refreshingly, right on time.

About Cheryl Hnatiuk

Cheryl enjoys being outside more than any place else in the world. She also works as an Occupational Therapist and teaches yoga. Before shifting to nature photography, she worked as a photojournalist for the Toronto Star and Montreal Gazette. For fun, Cheryl enjoys paddle boarding and, more recently, hanging out with wolves and polar bears.

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