Swooping low over the Hudson Bay, with its myriad of watery inlets, kelp tidal shores and shady pockets of stunted pine trees, I saw my first glimpse of Caribou and Polar Bears; the De Havilland Otter “bush” plane that we were flying in, rose and plummeted in the wind, whilst a patchwork of icy lakes and the Taiga landscape unfolded below me, spread out like a pioneering explorer’s map, creased and crumpled with greasy iced lakes, coastal reed beds and slippery muddy slopes, I was intrigued and excited about this totally foreign landscape that I was due to spend time exploring over the next few days. I was on my way to a remote lodge, Seal River Heritage Lodge, some 60 km north of Churchill, in Northern Manitoba, for an expedition that involved “Walking with Polar Bears in Arctic Canada” with Churchill Wild on their Polar Bear Photo Safari.
As a guest of Destination Canada, Travel Manitoba and Churchill Wild, my itinerary promised delectable food, cosy and comfortable accommodation, and the chance to view all kinds of arctic wildlife, such as ptarmigan, snow geese, arctic foxes, wolves, arctic hares and of course the iconic symbol of the arctic, polar bears, as we made twice daily hikes around the lodge and the estuary. Seal River Heritage Lodge has recently been included as one of the prestigious National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World. The lodge is located 60 km and 30 minutes north of Churchill by plane, deep in the heart of polar bear territory, and it was to be my home for the next four days. The lodge has been recently upgraded to comprise expansive picture windows and a viewing tower to maximise observation of wildlife, the coast, and the northern lights, as well as a fabulous open-plan kitchen/dining room.
The trip exceeded all my expectations, and I’d like to share my unique and life-changing experiences with you all today………I felt privileged and humbled by what I saw and experienced; to be so close to such noble beasts as the polar bear, in the wild, is a truly remarkable and memorable experience which I hope to share through my photos and “travel notes”. We, myself and six other journalists, writers and bloggers, met in Winnipeg the night before we were due to set off on our polar bear adventure. There, we had the chance to meet the owners of Churchill Wild, Mike and Jeanne Reimer, get kitted out with the necessary arctic clothing and have a pre-tour “meet and greet” dinner with fellow travellers, Travel Manitoba and Churchill Wild staff and representatives. The next day we flew to Churchill on a First Air flight operated by Calm Air, before flying to the lodge in an 8-seat Turbo Otter bush plane. My story continues below…….
….the plane was small and crowded with provisions, as well as us…..our pilot Jessie pointed out (via sign language) the wildlife below us, as we hovered and hung in the cold air; we all had noise reducing headphones on, as this is exciting, primal almost open-air flying, where you feel every foot as you drop or climb in the arctic skies on the way to Seal River. The Hudson Bay shone beneath us, glistening and sparkling, some of it was already starting to freeze, with oily, lazy waves of ice taking over the kelp lined shorelines. As we came in to land at the lodge, we could see the bulky shapes of two polar bears, one hidden in rocks, the other lounging in dried seaweed on the shoreline, then the red tiles of the lodge roof came into view and within minutes we had landed.
It was cold, but there was no snow or ice; we were met by Derek and Terry, who are both guides, and Josh who is in charge of maintainance and is an assistant guide – we then made our way to the lodge on foot. Hospitality is an integral part of tourism, in all its forms, and at Seal River Lodge we were all treated to top drawer hospitality throughout our stay. From our warm and comfortable en-suite bedrooms to locally sourced gourmet food and home-baked bread, selected wines and log fires, the lodge felt like home immediately. After a delectable and welcome lunch in the panoramic dining room, we had an “orientation talk” about how to travel and behave in polar bear country. It was then time to don our cold weather clothing, and take our first hike into the wilderness outside the door……it was time to meet the polar bears, up close (well, within the recommended 30 metres) and personal!
The hiking trails around the lodge are numerous and varied, but our first hike was a short one to the front of the lodge where a young female bear had made her “day bed”. With cameras clicking and muted whispers, we all made contact with our first bear in the wild, and it was an overwhelming, emotional and intimate experience. The beautiful young female bear was to make closer contact, over the next few days, as we observed her and followed her around the perimeters of the lodge. Derek Kyostia, our guide, made a very profound statement before our first foray out, he reminded us that we were there to “Observe and Witness and not to Distract and Disturb”, and I took that sentiment with me every time I went out. It was obvious that we must manage our behaviour, and not the bear’s, and to be respectful of the bear’s local habitat and daily routine.
As well as observing the young female, we also made contact with an older male bear, and then saw a flock of ptarmigan land nearby, just as it began to snow. Derek pointed out some fresh wolf tracks and on the way back to the lodge, we witnessed the prelude of the most amazing sunset. Back at the lodge and after a hot drink with freshly made cookies, we met for appetisers and a glass of wine before a sumptuous freshly cooked meal…..this was to be our daily pattern for the next two to three days. The log fire crackled as well all sat around reading, making notes and looking at the photos we’d taken, with nearly all of us in bed by 9 o’clock! On getting into my bed later on, I discovered a hot water bottle had been slipped between the sheets – such a small everyday gesture resonated so much, given this was a “hotel” of sorts, and I was a guest.
From the mellow yellow reeds and grasses, the next day dawned with an extreme drop in temperature, and crystalline ice appeared on the tidal shoreline along with fresh snow; after a famous Seal River Lodge breakfast of Red River Cereal, bacon, baked oven omelettes, juice, muffins, homemade jams and coffee, we set out for our morning’s hike. This hike was to prove to be very interesting, and highlights the importance of an experienced guide, as well as observing how to behave around bears; all of a sudden, the male bear that we had been watching for some time, got up, sniffed the air and decided to investigate us at MUCH closer range. Derek and Josh then went into their “Five Step Protection Procedure” and after heading straight for us, the bear then finally veered away…….suffice to say as the bear passed within 6 or 7 metres of us, the adrenaline was running high!
As if our excitement levels couldn’t get any higher, they peaked that night when Terry came in to tell us that the Northern Lights had decided to come out…..I’ve never seen them, so this was another magical moment that I will always remember; they weren’t at their most dramatic, there were just a few sheets of shimmering green lights, but they were there, and I saw them for the first time in my life…….we had also seen an elusive arctic hare earlier on that day, as well as discovering another older male bear a few kilometres away……it had been a truly remarkable day.
The Churchill Wild experience just kept on giving, as the next morning, the young female polar bear decided to visit us on the other side of the compound fence – she came RIGHT up to the fence, with her nose almost touching us, she engaged with us for at least 20 minutes before wandering off over the ice…..this was immense, emotional, humbling and it brought tears to my eyes, it was an encounter that I will never forget, and something that I feel very privileged to have witnessed and experienced.
A trip like this is special, and needs to be shared, but as well as my first-hand experiences, I want to share some facts about these special animals and the Hudson Bay area, as well as talk about Churchill Wild and how they work…..the cost, the lodges and the company in general etc. So, I’ve shared some “Fact Files” below, but I also want to let you know to look out for TWO more posts about my Churchill Wild experience – I was fortunate enough to interview Helen Webber, co-author of several cookbooks, from which most of the meals in Seal River Lodge were cooked from; and, I also interviewed Mike Stauffer, the executive chef at the lodge, so I will be sharing another food related post about the trip, including some recipes from the books, the logistics of how they manage with their provisions in such a remote place, as well as all of the menus that I enjoyed when I was there. I will also be sharing a post about Churchill, and about the infamous Polar Bear Jail, so do keep popping back!
Before I go, what are my overriding thoughts and memories about this trip to the wilds of subarctic Canada?
The lodge and people who own it and work there are unique and very special, they translate the wildlife and wilderness dream into a reality, with thoughtfulness, integrity and with sustainability. It’s not just the interaction with the polar bears and other wildlife, it’s also the guides, the staff (in the lodge and at head office), the food, the transport and the accommodation that is an integral part of the package – nothing is overlooked, nothing is left to chance, it’s all planned perfectly so you can experience something that not many people get to see in their lifetime…..it’s a very special experience that works in harmony with nature and the surroundings. It offers unique experiences to see wild animals in their natural habitat and to observe and to engage with them with no fences, no man-made boundaries…….just how many places can you visit where you can say you have done that?
With THANKS to all you who made my trip so memorable, made me so welcome, not forgetting the polar bears!
Disclaimer: I was the guest of the Churchill Wild, Travel Manitoba, Destination Canada, Keep Exploring Canada as well as other hotels and restaurants that I will mention in my individual posts: all my flights, transfers, accommodation and meals were included, as well as all trips and extra excursions. With profound thanks to all the people and organisations that looked after me and made my trip so memorable and exciting.
This trip could not have been possible without the following people, as well as others already listed above:
The Hudson Bay polar bears gather there from October to November during their “walking hibernation” period, here they wait for the bay to freeze over, so they can walk out on the ice to hunt for seals.
There are approximately 25,000 to 26,000 polar bears left in the wild, and nearly three-quarters live in Canada.
Adult males normally weigh 350 to more than 600 kilograms (775 to more than 1,300 pounds) Adult females are smaller, normally weighing 150 to 295 kilograms (330 to 650 pounds)
Polar bears are insulated by two layers of fur that help keep them warm. When in good body condition, they also have a thick fat layer. In addition, their compact ears and small tail also prevent heat loss. In fact, polar bears have more problems with overheating than they do from the cold, especially when they run.
Polar bear feet are furred and covered with small bumps called papillae to keep them from slipping on ice. Their sense of smell is powerful for detecting seals. And, their powerful claws can haul out a 40-90 kg (150-200 lb) seal from the water for dinner.
Polar bear silhouettes are distinct among bears. Their bodies are long and tapered—from their huge round posteriors to pointed, aquiline noses. Their necks are also very long, which is helpful when they swim and when they thrust their heads into holes to catch prey.
Cubs remain with their mother for between 2 to 3 years. Between the time when they leave their mother and when they are mature enough to mate, polar bears are called sub-adults.
Churchill Wild specialises in ground-level walking tours through the polar bear inhabited regions of Arctic Canada. They own and operate the only remote lodges on Canada’s Hudson Bay coast, which is home to the largest and most accessible polar bear population on the planet. They pioneered Polar Bear Walking Safaris in 1994 and have been offering up-close polar bear encounters from July through November ever since with a 100% success rate in every season, due to their wildly exclusive locations.
I went on the POLAR BEAR PHOTO SAFARI:
The Polar Bear Photo Safari takes place at either Seal River Heritage Lodge or Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge during prime polar bear season in October and November. It is considered a “must-do” photography adventure for both professional and aspiring photographers. Both Lodges are located on the shoreline of Hudson Bay and provide discerning photographers with the opportunity to experience rare ground-level polar bear photography in a pristine, untouched wilderness environment. You will explore the Arctic landscape daily on foot with professional guides, in search of polar bears, although you may not have to go far. The large picture windows showcase panoramic views of Hudson Bay, and polar bears do venture right up to both the windows and the Lodge fences.
(correct at time of going to press)
Seal River Heritage Lodge
(6 nights) $10,395 CAD
(Includes hotel accommodation for first and last nights in Winnipeg, all transport to and from Seal River Lodge via Churchill, all food and drink, accommodation, hikes with experienced guides and access to wifi at the lodge. Also includes a meal voucher and a free day in Churchill on the return journey)
A recent inclusion in the prestigious National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World, Seal River Heritage Lodge is located 60 km and 30 minutes north of Churchill by plane, deep in the heart of polar bear country.
An authentic wilderness lodge with all the comforts of home, Seal River Heritage Lodge is ideally situated on the shores of Hudson Bay near the Seal River estuary, where thousands of beluga whales gather every summer as polar bears walk the coastline.
Seal River Heritage Lodge maximises ground-level polar bear and wildlife viewing and offers spectacular coastal views of Hudson Bay via nature trails, a lodge viewing tower, and expansive picture windows.
Whether you’re hiking, dining, or relaxing at Seal River, you’ll be able to observe polar bears and other wildlife at ground level.
Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge
(7 nights) $11,395 CAD
Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge is located 250 km southeast of Churchill, Manitoba on the Hudson Bay coast near the historic York Factory. A relatively new destination offered by Churchill Wild, we are particularly proud of this Lodge due to the phenomenal wildlife access it provides.
Recent upgrades to Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge include a new lounge and dining area with panoramic views of Hudson Bay, and a cosy fireplace for added ambience. Heated private guest rooms with en-suite bathrooms are cosy, wild and perfectly comfortable.
Nanuk’s star attractions are polar bears – more than you are likely to encounter anywhere else on earth, and we have been overwhelmed by the abundance of bears and other wildlife in the area. Sightings have consistently exceeded our expectations. Additionally, Manitoba Conservation officials recently discovered a large number of denning females in the area that may be equal or great in number than those found in Wapusk National Park.
Prices are subject to applicable taxes which are 6.5% for non-residents and 9% for Canadians. Children from ages 8 to 12 qualify for the child rate.
* Single guests can sign up to share a room with another person of the same gender at the regular rate per person based on double occupancy. If a single guest prefers to have a private room option we also have a single private room rate. This rate guarantees a private room at the Lodge as well as at the hotels required within the package.
Hudson Bay – sometimes called Hudson’s Bay, is a large body of saltwater in northeastern Canada with a surface area of 1,230,000 square kilometres (470,000 sq mi). It drains a very large area, about 3,861,400 square kilometres (1,490,900 sq mi), that includes parts of Ontario, Quebec, Saskatchewan, Alberta, most of Manitoba, and southeastern Nunavut, and parts of North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, and Montana. Hudson Bay’s southern arm is called James Bay.
Images: All of the photos are mine, Karen Burns-Booth, unless otherwise indicated