Guest Post by Fiona Harper
Note: This article originally appeared in International Traveller Magazine and is reprinted here courtesy of author, travel writer and photographer Fiona Harper, who was a recent visitor to Churchill Wild’s Seal River Heritage Lodge. You can read more about Fiona at her Web site, view all of her travel photos here and see the full polar bear photo gallery from her trip here. Thanks Fiona!
It takes four exhausting days, across six tiresome flights on ever-smaller aircraft, culminating in a six-seater de Havilland Beaver floatplane, before I stand within metres of a splendid polar bear. It’s worth every weary, jet-lagged minute. I’m within a whisper of Canada’s Arctic Circle, closer still to the bear, listening to her breathe, gazing into her unblinking eyes. The only thing preventing me from being lunch is the wire fence delineating the “backyard” of the Seal River Lodge behind me. I’m tempted to walk closer, maybe press my nose against the fence, but I recall enough of lead guide Terry Elliot’s safety briefing to resist.
To be precise, Terry’s exact words were, “You’ll be ripped through the wire like spaghetti through a pasta machine.” The lodge’s location – on a remote headland in the far northeast of Manitoba – makes it a popular point for bears to congregate, “so you won’t be using the front door you just came in, either,” Terry had said. “For your own safety, we’ll be using the back door out to the fenced compound.” With half-tonne males capable of charging at 50km/h, that seems a good plan. I make a mental note to forgo my usual morning jog.
Even standing a few careful metres back from the four-metre-high electric fence, I can still see the polar bear’s nostrils quiver and teeny ears twitch before she stretches out contentedly on her belly, hind legs splayed, eyelids folding over inky-black eyes. I feel like doing the same, but there are great sloths of Nanuk – as the Inuit call polar bears – roaming the tundra and I’m keen to pull on my hiking boots and get amongst them.
Lobbing into Seal River Lodge mid-autumn on a Churchill Wild Arctic Safari, I’m here to get up close and personal with the world’s largest land carnivore. Despite their fearsome reputation, we’ll be tracking them just as Inuit have done for centuries: on foot. At this time of year, bears are virtually sleepwalking – roving around in a form of ambling hibernation. In mid-summer, once the ice melts, they lose access to seal hunting grounds, forcing them ashore.
Walking the same path, following their paw prints at ground level, seems to conflict with everything I’ve read about Ursus maritimus. Their undisputed position at the top of the local food chain commands respect.
Indeed, the Parks Canada pamphlet I picked up at Churchill Airport makes for sobering reading: “The great white bear can exhibit violent aggression toward people, but a curious bear can also be dangerous. ANY [their emphasis] encounter with a polar bear could result in serious injury or death for the person involved.” It’s a solemn message that I’m reminded of constantly throughout the next week.
“Right then, put your boots on and let’s go find us some bears,” laughs Terry wickedly, slinging a rifle over his shoulder. And so, with some apprehension, our small group of wildlife enthusiasts leaves behind the safety of the lodge to “go find bears”.
Walking single file across spongy tundra blossoming with miniature scarlet blooms, we’ve barely time to find our stride before we get the hand signal from Terry to stop. A bear is basking in the longish grass on the foreshore ahead. No doubt she heard and smelt us long before we saw her, despite the tracking skills of our two heavily armed guides.
The bear watches us. We watch the bear. Soon, she rises, advancing in a cautious sideways pattern. Bears will approach prey in this zigzag manner rather than making a direct approach. “That’s far enough,” Terry commands harshly once the bear is about 40m from our huddled group.
Blood rushes to my head as she continues her lumbering advance. A couple of tidal pools dotted with suitcase-sized boulders are all that stand between us. She pauses momentarily, nostrils twitching, our camera shutters hammering rapidly, hearts even faster.
With her head bobbing down between massive shoulders, she quite deliberately lifts a paw the size of a dinner plate and resumes her approach. At around the 30m mark, Terry lobs a small rock in front of her. It’s all that’s required to discourage her as she wheels around and retreats a few paces. Known affectionately as Blue Moon – due to her blue-stained rear from sitting in a berry patch – she throws one more petulant glance at us over her shoulder before sauntering away.
“Go on, off you go,” Terry calls to her retreating backside, just to reinforce who’s the boss. Elated at this first of many close encounters, we grin foolishly at each other. Watching Nanuk amble away, my heartbeat gradually returns to normal.
Over twice-daily hikes we see so many bears that eventually they become just one component of this fascinating land. Through the dining room windows we watch them lumbering across the landscape, swimming in the sea, sunning themselves on the beach.
As we’re sipping wine beside the fire, an inquisitive young bear ventures close to the lodge, standing up on all fours to peer inside. Though we also spot caribou, sic-sic squirrels, arctic hare, fox and great flocks of birds, the bears steal the show.
We return to the tiny town of Churchill, reluctantly, where an itinerant white bear contrasts against reddish foliage. I recall an Inuit legend about this great Arctic traveller, who will ride an ice floe until the bitter end when he is forced to swim.
Pihoqahiak, they called him – “the ever-wandering one”. Energised from a safari expedition into a land few humans ever see, let alone inhabit, it occurs to me that polar bears might just be on to something. Could travelling far and wide beyond our comfort zone be the answer to that wretched travellers curse, jetlag?
This cool polar bear photo was taken by Julie Thompson at Seal River Heritage Lodge and it was attracting all kinds of attention on the Churchill Wild Facebook Page. It was suggested that the bear smelled the Cranberry Cake with Butter Sauce, a Lodge favorite from our Blueberries and Polar Bears Cookbooks. Hmm… well… it is delicious! The bear obviously knew that
Here’s what Julie had to say:
I tell people I walked amongst the polar bears just to see the looks on their faces. Some can’t believe it’s possible. They’ve never heard of such a thing.
“How close were you to one of the greatest predators on earth?” is usually a question which follows.
“Pretty close” I say, as they peruse our photo book with awestruck faces.
Standing outside of the lodge, we cautiously watched our resident bear approach. He was an inquisitive one, determined to enter into our “home away from home.”
I think he enjoyed the attention and our company. Always peeking into windows and pacing around the compound looking for a quick entry. He was affectionately known as Snuggleputz. The previous group staying at the lodge named him. While there was much discussion surrounding renaming him, Snuggleputz is the only name which sticks in my mind.
This bear gave us fantastic photo opportunities throughout our stay. With expert wildlife photographer, Dennis Fast, leading our group, we were always learning, whether it be out on a tundra trek or during one of his early evening fireside chats. We met fantastic people from around the globe who shared in our love of photography, we ate great food and were welcomed into the lodge as if we were part of the family.
Perhaps Snuggleputz sensed this warmth, the fun and friendliness of the lodge and he just wanted a glimpse of it for himself. If only someone would hear his knock.
by Doreen Booth, Churchill Wild Adventure Specialist
This past November, I was at our Seal River Heritage Lodge for the last departure of the Polar Bear Photo Safari. While at the Lodge, I had the opportunity to visit with Clare and Andy Coleman, two guests who were up for their second trip with us. I knew they lived near London, England, so when I told them I might have a trip to London coming up, they told me to contact them should the trip go ahead.
It is a rare opportunity that I get to visit with our guests in their home country, so I jumped at the opportunity to meet up with Clare and Andy for a visit. This was primarily a work trip (of course) but, due to timing, I found myself with a free weekend.
Clare and Andy live outside of London and had not had the opportunity to be “tourists” in London for many years so they were excited to take me around to see the sights. My only requests were to get as many pictures as I could of all the sights I had been driving by all week, and to see a musical.
We met up Saturday morning and our first stop was the very long line for Wicked tickets (yes, my musical wish come true!) From there, we found “Big Bus Tours” and purchased a hop-on hop-off two day pass. This became our mode of transportation for the weekend!
Our first stop was the Tower of London – “Built to strike fear and submission into the unruly citizens of London.” There were many people who lost their heads in this tower over the years for their unruly behavior. In the White Tower we saw the armor of Henry VIII, the beautiful 11th-century Chapel of St John the Evangelist, and the Crown Jewels.
The Tower of London was also used to house exotic animals. These animals were given as royal gifts and animals were kept at the Royal Menagerie for the entertainment and curiosity of the court. There were many stone sculptures around the Tower showing the different types of exotic animals including a polar bear that was gift from the King of Norway. We spent almost five hours exploring.
Our evening was comprised of a cruise on the River Thames, more sightseeing on the Big Bus Tour, a dinner of fish and chips at a small pub in the theatre district, and Wicked the musical. I have to admit I now have a different opinion of the Wicked Witch.
Sunday brought an open sky and wonderful sunlight! We headed straight for the London Eye, as it was the perfect day to see the sights from high above. After driving around the city all week it was great to see the city from a different vantage point.
Afterwards, we walked past Big Ben to get some close-up pictures and then we headed over to Westminster Abbey. It was neat to see the buildings in person and remember them from when the royal wedding took place.
Next, we headed over to Buckingham Palace for more photo opportunities and then to the Queen’s Gallery to view an exhibit titled The Heart of the Great Alone: Scott, Shackleton & Antarctic Photography.
After viewing the wonderful display of pictures we headed to a restaurant for lunch before parting ways. There was still work for me to do before Monday.
It was wonderful to meet up with my friends in London. I appreciate the time they took to show me around the city and keep me company. I learned a lot, laughed a lot, and will remember my trip to London for many years to come.
Thank you to Andy and Clare for being great “tour leaders” on my trip!
Wow, talk about role reversal!
Special to Churchill Wild
by +George Williams
Churchill Wild begs to differ.
The 47-year-old Reeve at the Municipality of Algonguin Highlands downplayed the fact that she took some fabulous shots of polar bears, landscapes and northern lights while attending our Polar Bear Photo Safari last October at Seal River Heritage Lodge.
“I don’t take photographs to sell them,” said Moffatt. “I’m a self-taught amateur photographer with a background in journalism. If someone wanted to offer me money for a photograph I might sell one, but really, if I have a nice photo, I put it on the fridge for a month.”
Moffatt has taken more than a few marvelous photos during adventures that have taken her from backpacking in the Australian outback, to Africa, to visiting the 2010 volcanic eruption in Iceland as well as Peru, Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands, Alaska, Yukon and the Southwestern United States. You can view a selection of her photos on her Web site at http://cmoff.smugmug.com/
“The Yukon was magical,” said Moffatt, “but the Churchill Wild trip was the most interesting of all in terms of remoteness. Part of the adventure was just in getting there. The whole trip was very well organized and I’d never flown in a Twin Otter before.”
Moffatt was part of group of 14 photographers and spouses involved in a trip led by professional photographer Mike Beedell.
“There were photographers of every talent level in our group,” said Moffatt. “Everyone was very helpful. We were all united in a shared cause and it just worked.”
“We went on hikes across the tundra and saw polar bears every day, but breakfast was always a special experience. You just never knew what might be on the other side when the (polar bear protective) shutters were opened up in the morning. The bears come right up to the lodge. And an arctic fox appeared several times!”
“The food was phenomenal,” said Moffatt, impressed by being able to see desserts for later in the day being made fresh every morning in the new kitchen while they were enjoying breakfast. “And the Reimer family made fabulous hosts – ever present but never in your face.”
But what about the walking with the polar bears?
“Our guides, Andy and Tara, would scout out the polar bears in the area ahead of time and walk us out into a position where we could photograph them,” said Moffatt. “They were quite attuned to our needs as photographers. And you could definitely tell they knew the bears, the landscapes – and photographers in general. They would move us to the left and right, back and forth and they could sense when we needed something different. And it wasn’t all polar bears, there was always something different to photograph while we were wandering along — interesting landscapes, lingonberries and other plants, the shifting ice and how the sun reflected on it…”
Two items related to polar bears stood out on the trip for Moffatt. On one occasion when a polar bear got particularly close to an employee hauling water with the ATV, and another when a large male bear chased a female and her cub away from the fenced compound at the Lodge.
“It was on the final day of our trip,” said Moffatt. “A mother and her cub were just outside the compound when she sensed the presence of the big male and took off at high speed out on to the (Hudson) Bay to protect her cub. You can tell when they’re bigger than usual, and this was very large male. We also got some good close shots of the bears through the fence, but we were always very careful to keep everything out of their reach — cameras, scarves, loose clothing.”
“I’m told that Polar bears are the deadliest land animals on the planet. One of the guides said these bears can pull an 800-pound seal out of the water in one swoop. We’re the zoo animals up there with us on the inside of the compound and the animals on the outside looking at us. But I wanted a real adventure and I sure got one. The tundra buggies just wouldn’t have worked for me. The whole trip was a delight.”
She has a fridge full of photographs to prove it.
by Churchill Wild Guide Terry Elliot
Vulpes Lagopus has cyclical population numbers. More prey equals more foxes, and we were seeing lots of lemmings all summer so this was obviously good for the kits (baby foxes). We counted as many as 14 at one time this year, probably a family group with lots of infighting for position in the pecking order.
The arctic foxes have always been bold and inquisitive creatures, but especially so in this photo. Typically they will follow a polar bear out on to the ice and scavenge for the winter. During the summer their coat turns brown, they breed and eat lemmings, eggs, birds, hares, even insects and frogs.
In a prosperous year the females can have as many as 16 kits. Their dense fur enables them to withstand extreme cold temperatures and leave their red-haired cousins behind at the tree line. When sleeping, they will curl into a tight ball with their bushy tail over their nose.
My wife calls this picture “Taming the Hunter”. Unfortunately the photo I was taking here did not turn out as well as the photo of me taking it. It’s a terrible thing when the wildlife is so close to your camera that you can’t get focused. But you have to take the wonderful with the almost-wonderful.
And I did get a decent shot of his ear
Or “Rough Company at Cape Churchill”
by Ian Thorleifson
Working with wildlife is always full of surprises. One day in November, my assignment was to meet an airplane and a pilot at Thompson airport, fly to Cape Churchill (a favourite resting place for Polar bears during their on land season), land on the beach ridge, and pick up two Wildlife Service biologists. Then we were to fly along the coast of Hudson Bay, searching for radio- collared polar bears.
Sunday at ten in the morning was the agreed time to meet at the airport, and I was there in plenty of time. The only other person around the hangar was a mechanic, working on another plane. I asked him which plane we were to fly with, and he indicated a Cessna 206 parked nearby. I walked over and checked it out, and noted a couple of unique features. The 206’s I’d seen were “tail- dragger” – two wheels under the body and one more under the back of the tail. This one was on “tricycle gear” – three wheels in a triangle configuration under the front of the fuselage with the load balanced by the weight of the engine. Every other 206 I remembered had a three blade prop – each blade being about 2 and a half feet – 80 cm – long. This one had a two blade prop instead, with three foot blades to make up the difference. Besides, it was a “Trainer” – two equal sets of operating gear to allow the pilot to take control anytime from a person who was learning to fly. I mentioned all this to the mechanic, and he said “Doesn’t make any difference”, and I reckoned he was right.
“It’s quarter to eleven”, I remarked, “Where’s that pilot?”
“He’ll be here”, the mechanic reassured, and sure enough, in walked a sharply dressed young fellow with a city haircut and the meanest set of blood shot eyes I’d seen since earlier that morning. I don’t like the looks of this, I thought as I introduced myself. “Been bush flying long?” I asked. “Just arrived from Calgary yesterday,” he explained, “And they threw a heck of a welcome party for me last night.” Oh, great…. “You look pretty rough – you sure you’re ok to fly??” “For sure! They’ll fire me if I blow my first assignment!”
Against my better judgement, we loaded up and took off toward Gillam, me in the left front seat. I knew my way from Thompson to Cape Churchill “like the back of my hand”, so I reassured the pilot I could navigate for him without maps. That reassured him, and he visibly relaxed – so much so that in about fifteen minutes, his head was bobbing! “Hey, what are you doing?” I yelled. He snapped to attention, then said, “Man, I’m so tired – Can you fly a plane?” I protested vehemently, summarized my flying experiences from the passenger seat, then realized that we weren’t going anywhere with that. “It’s easy now we’re in the air” my sad specimen of a pilot reassured me – just do this and this and I’ll just have a quick nap.
He was mostly right – Weather was calm, only a few controls to manipulate. The challenge was navigating. I didn’t have the confidence to fly AND look at a map, but, no problem, I could navigate to the Cape from my own memory of the terrain. But – I had to be able to see the ground! We left Thompson with a complete overcast sky and a 3000 foot ceiling. As I flew NE, the ceiling kept dropping. So did I. By the time sad sack started stirring, we were at 300 feet and getting close to the Cape. He stretched, glanced out the window and LEAPED towards the controls! “What the … are you doing so low?!” I explained, and he settled down. I then described the terrain at the Cape – open gravel beach ridges, one that led to a tower where the researchers were. We would carefully land on the ridge, taxi to the tower, pick them up and go.
He surprised me with his very good landing! Because of our tricycle landing gear, he landed “nose up” then slowly lowered the front until all three wheels were rolling along the ridge – rolling right into a polar bear day bed! Only about eight inches deep, but just deep enough to make our extra-long blades on the propeller contact the gravel. “Praaang” was the sound, and the plane started to vibrate. We were almost right at the tower, so he quickly shut off the engine. We got out to look, and our biologist buddies came down from the tower. No question – we were not flying anywhere with those twisted and broken blades!
In keeping with the “no problems” attitude, the tower crew invited us up for a meal of spaghetti and red wine, and talk things over. Great supper, but a quick look at the tower did not reveal anywhere for two more people to sleep except in layers. Not the best way to get along. I suggested “That plane is big enough – we’ll pull out the seats and Good Luck the Pilot and I will sleep in there – Any bears around?” The biologists informed me that just before we landed, they had scanned all the way around and counted 43 big male polar bears! Pilot’s eyes got very big – but I said “No Problem – I’ve got scare pistols and heavy rifles and shotguns – They’ll never take us alive!” He was not reassured, but really had little choice.
We climbed down to the plane, removed the seats and stored them safely, laid out our sleeping bags and snuggled in with all but our outer parka and boots on. It was comfortable enough, and I was asleep quickly – but not for long. Pilot had me by the shoulder and shaking, hissing through his teeth “Ian there’s a bear at the window right beside you” and sure enough, I looked up and could see a big black nose pressed up against the Plexiglas, five feet up off the ground. No problem – I just waited until he pulled his nose back, opened the door and bumped his nose, then fired a “cracker shell” onto the ground in front of him – BOOM! FLASH! and away he ran. That happened eight times that night. They pounded on the tail of the plane, pulled the insulating engine cover off, banged on the windows. I chased them away each time, but my eyes were sore from the Flashes, my ears were dull from the Booms. I got very little sleep. Pilot got none.
In the morning, we climbed back up into the tower for coffee. The biologists had radioed to town, and soon two rescue planes appeared! Pilot just about leaped right out of the tower. We flew away with one plane and a regular pilot to do our radio collar surveys. The mechanics put another propeller on the plane, and, incredibly, they flew it to town without it falling out of the sky – but it did have a cracked crankshaft when they took it apart, and that could have come apart at any time in the air…
And, you know, I never did see or hear from that Pilot again!
by Ian Thorleifson
Caribou antlers are spectacular to look at, but the strategies behind their growth and importance to an individual caribou are even more amazing. Everyone knows that males like to show off for females – that goes without saying. Caribou bulls are no different than males from other species, and the females do respond appropriately, but the showing off and responding is much more complex than just a look.
A caribou bull weighs about 325 pounds or 160 kg. They start with a bare forehead every spring, and in less than 120 days they grow a complete set of antlers that may weigh as much as 35 pounds – 10 percent of their body weight! That kind of growth is almost magical – in fact, no other living tissue grows that quickly except mushrooms!
While the antlers are growing, they are soft, covered with skin and hair and made up of spongy cartilage. They feel like your nose and similarly also have a bone at the base. Unlike your nose however, in the last month of antler growth the cartilage calcifies and becomes hard bone.
To keep the antlers tough and resilient enough to withstand the incredible pressures of battling with other bulls, the blood flow in the antlers – super quick and of large volume while the antlers are growing – slows to just the bare minimum. This prevents the bone from becoming too hard, as to be brittle and easy to break.
Growing new appendages that weigh 10 percent of body weight in such a short period of time takes more energy and nutrients than a bull caribou can generate by eating, so he robs his own skeleton for building materials like calcium and phosphorus, to the point where his ribs would break easily if they were struck in the summer. This is why the bulls complete their antler growth at least a month before the rut. They need to gobble as much nutrition as possible to replace those borrowed building materials and get strong and fat before the rut.
Antlers are expensive, but they add up to a graphic demonstration of the bull’s health, ability to mobilize nutrients and avoid predation – a measure of his vibrancy and value as a sire of many caribou calves.
Caribou cows grow antlers as well, but their strategies are quite different. Their antlers are much smaller than the ones the bulls grow, and they don’t need them to “show off” with – they need them to fight with at feeding sites and to fend off predators.
Bulls grow their antlers earlier in the year, use them in the rut, and drop them as soon as the rut is over. Cows grow their antlers later, and carry them all winter. Amazingly, cows that are not pregnant going into the winter drop their antlers earlier as well, so by late spring and calving time, all the antler advantage in competition for nutrients or fighting wolves goes to the pregnant cows. Shortly after the calves are born in early June, newly growing plants offer a flood of nutrients. The cows drop their remaining antlers and…
nature’s elegant cycle begins anew.
Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge – What’s it really like? Photojournalist and adventure travel blogger Birgit-Cathrin Duval tells all
Writer/photographer Birgit-Cathrin Duval, who was recently nominated for a Best International Story Award 2010, was a recent visitor to Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge - and she documented the entire experience!
An adventurous type who says she would rather sleep in a tent than a 5-star hotel, Birgit-Cathrin also says she loves the challenge of getting to where she’s going, meeting great people and listening to their stories.
“I don’t want to write a story,” she says in her bio. “I want to live it and bring back those experiences to my readers.”
Whether it be mountain biking in the Rockies, snowshoeing in Banff, riding horses in ranchland or swimming with beluga whales and hiking with polar bears, Birgit-Cathrin wants to be “in” the story.
That’s exactly what happened at Nanuck, where she found “friendly” polar bears, stormy weather and spectacular aurora borealis – all of which she photographed for her blog.
Birgit-Cathrin’s entire polar bear trip is documented on her visual storytelling blog at http://www.takkiwrites.com/. The blog is written in German but if you are using the Google Chrome browser with built in Google Translate, you can also read about her trip in English. And you definitely want to check out the photos!
Thanks for visiting Birgit-Cathrin!
Churchill Wild guest Claire Wilson makes semi-finals in Wildlife Photographer of the Year Competition
by Claire Wilson
We visited Seal River Heritage Lodge on Churchill Wild’s Great Ice Bear polar bear tour at the end of October 2009. I have always had a huge fascination with polar bears and was extremely excited about visiting the Seal River area in search of polar bears. I tried not to get my expectations too high however, telling myself that we might only get a distant glimpse of a bear.
How wrong I was!
As soon as our plane touched down at Seal River, we could see several bears around us. Within an hour, there were two bears play-fighting a few feet from the front door of the lodge – amazing! I felt like I had died and gone to wildlife heaven!
We were lucky to get a mixture of conditions – the weather was dry and bright when we first arrived, but we then had plenty of snow and at one point the temperature cooled down to -27 degrees.
Our whole three days at the lodge were jam-packed with photo opportunities. Terry and Andy, our friendly and knowledgeable guides, were ready to take us out for hikes at any opportunity, and we saw plenty of bears every time we ventured outside. Everyone learned a great deal about these majestic animals and their environment, and every day we all came back with full memory cards on our cameras. My husband Pete and I took about 3000 photographs between us!
Upon returning home, I was so proud of some of my photographs that I decided to send a few into the Wildlife Photographer of The Year competition, now in its 46th year and organized by The Natural History Museum, London and BBC Wildlife Magazine. This is a huge competition which has tens of thousands of entries from all over the world every year. Last year there were over 43,000 entries, and apparently there were well in excess of this amount for 2010.
I was absolutely stunned when I recently received an e-mail advising me that three of my entries had made it into the semi finals!
One photograph entitled “High and Mighty” (Semi-Finalist in the Category Animal Behaviour: Mammals) was taken on our first full day at Seal River when we went for a long group hike. The two bears seemed to want to perform for the cameras!
I shot “On The Rocks” (Semi-Finalist for the Gerald Durrell Award for Endangered Wildlife) the next day, literally feet from the lodge. And the third photograph I submitted, “Clash of the Titans” (also a Semi-Finalist in the Category Animal Behaviour: Mammals) was taken on our last morning at Seal River Heritage Lodge just a few minutes before we had too, reluctantly, leave this wonderful location.
We had such a great time with Churchill Wild! I can’t wait to return for our next adventure!
New Yorker Betti Zucker was a recent visitor to Churchill Wild‘s Seal River Heritage Lodge. She came to see the polar bears. This is her story.
OMG! It was The Photo Trip of a Life Time, seeing the Polar Bears at Seal River Heritage Lodge! A schlep to get to, but worth every nanosecond!
Our adrenaline was pumping full speed as we stepped off the “little” 8-seat de Havilland plane – that my darlings – included the very cute pilot (sorry I forgot to take his picture). We were met by two terrific guides, Terry and Andy. They happened to be our body guards as well (armed with rocks, flares, pepper spray and the big cahoonas).
The Tundra was still in its full autumn glory. Patches of crimson, gold, rust, mushroom, shades of browns, ombre grays to black, sky blue and rainbows of greens glimmered before our eyes. Playing follow the leader, we marched like little soldiers off the tarmac (gravel airstrip) into the brush to our home for the next four days – Seal River Heritage Lodge.
Suddenly there was a scramble to find our cameras! A bear was spotted a far distance away. Of course, it took ME forever to find the butter colored “lump” that was a bear! Little did everyone know, those pictures were to be deleted later because better ones where waiting to be snapped.
Our host and hostess were the delightful and charming Mike and Jeanne Reimer. We were taught bear etiquette. GIVE THE BEARS SPACE. Not so easy when you’re looking out of a picture window and Papa Bear is checking you out as delicious dinner – or just some oddballs in a glass and wooden cage!
The next morning we awoke to a new landscape! A blanket of snow had feathered its way down to the tundra, while we were cozy, under down comforters, fast asleep.
Each day we took two hikes to view the landscape and glimpse at the bears. Sleeping, the polar bears looked angelic tucked into a cove, adorable nestled behind a bush or just darn cute curled up on a bed of rocks. And the temperature was dropping, which meant more friskiness from the mighty white bears.
The young male Titans of the Tundra (polar bears 5 to 7 years old), would liven the action up a bit and begin to spar with each other. This was their form of practicing defending themselves as adults. For the guests Churchill Wild, this was a photo opportunity! And it certainly gave new meaning to bear hugs and half nelsons!
On the way back to the warm and cozy lodge for a much anticipated delicious lunch, it began to snow! We came across two male polar bears that sniffed each other out (“bear talk” for hello) and began to spar – push, wrestle, roll, swat, bite and hug each other. We had ringside seats!
The snapping of cameras caught the attention of the wrestling polar bears and they began walking towards us! Terry and Andy both thought that 35 feet was close enough. They each shouted out a warning for Nanuk to STOP! But this was not enough! Out came the rocks. Zing! Another gold medal for our wonderful guides – with wounded pride the big bears ran away.
What a difference a day makes! On our third day we were met with very wet snow and freezing rain. Colors of the terrain changed again. Now the frozen blueberries and lingonberries were peeking from beneath the ice.
True photographers, we braved the wet and wind and came back for lunch happy and soaked to our skins. Coats, gloves, hats and boot liners were strewn everywhere in site as we recovered from the elements. Only the diehards (yes BZ, no JZ) went for the afternoon walk. We had spotted four polar bears from the indoor tower (upper loft)! Off we went to get “a little bit closer”. GOOD INTELLIGENCE ANDY and TERRY! We diverted a bear ambush!
I also learned to snap pictures and run behind the biggest men (they would be far tastier than little old me). I do not call that chicken, just very clever! Girls always want to have more fun. So Claire and I went to the “backyard”, a chain linked area with multi-observation stations, for a few more moments of picture heaven. We were rewarded not only with a polar bear on the rocks, but also a Sik Sik (arctic squirrel). What were you thinking little guy? It’s way too cold for you!
That evening, just before dinner we had a visitor at the kitchen bar window. Dinner smelled so good, one of the great ice bears came for a closer look. We all got a pre-dinner cocktail photo shoot of Mr. Bear close up and personal.
The next day was to be our last morning. NO ONE WANTED TO LEAVE! The winds were in our favor. My wishes came true! The wind chill was -5 degrees! Our bags where packed. We were ready to go. The sky began to streak from shades of grey to the most beautiful baby blue. Nevertheless, it was to our good fortune that by early afternoon we were told we had to stay another night. (Boo Hoo?)
We walked to the remnants of an old Cree ancestor camp ground, hundreds of years old. Just majestic! On the way back we were treated to a walk on the frozen water bed. Some areas were not as strong as others. Knowing that we were on shallow grounds, it was fun to see the ice crack. Trick? No. Treat!
We got to see a frozen tundra sunset! Pink shimmering ice and boulders with swooshes and swirls of windswept snow. It looked like we had landed on a magical lunar landscape! The sun setting and the moon rising simultaneously. The snow looking like lace on the ice – breathtaking!
It was October 31. We all got back inside to quickly make costumes! The range of imagination was vast! Included in the merriment was a fireplace, assorted cats, fishermen, divers, girl in pajamas with Barney in hand, a witch and a clown. Mary Queen of Scots even showed up! On the night of goblins and ghosts the guest of honor was not the polar bears, but the Aurora Borealis. Ever so faint due to the presence of an almost full moon, it made a quick appearance! Pictures were far superior to the naked eye!
So we were like a pig in her pen, satiated, as we readied ourselves to leave. Maybe, well… maybe just one more parting shot. The plane; new guests arriving; and a big white polar bear in clear view… SNAP, SNAP, SNAP…
The end of a fantastic experience with the polar bears and the beginning of some very fond memories!
Betti Zucker is the author of the blog Betti’s Beehive, where she shares her thoughts and adventures on art, music, recipes and travel with other like minds.