by Rick Kemp
Most of our Churchill Wild polar bear eco-adventures take place at Seal River Heritage Lodge. Every year we’ve added an upgrade or two and our guests rant about the service, accommodations, and the unequalled on-the-ground access to polar bears. We are the only company on the planet that operates remote fly-in polar bear eco-lodges.
Last year we added a new 1400 square foot dining room with huge picture windows overlooking Hudson Bay, to provide guests with a sea-side dining experience that makes viewing any polar bears that might walk by (and decide to peak in) an exceptional experience for both humans and bears!
This year we’re adding a kitchen fit for a celebrity chef. Construction starts next week and Jeanne is particularly excited about the concept of her new workspace.
Seal River is increasingly becoming THE destination in luxury arctic adventure travel and we’re proud to host whenever we have the opportunity. Seal is home to the popular summer adventure Birds, Bears & Belugas as well as September’s Arctic Safari and the Polar Bear Photo Safari.
But Seal River Heritage Lodge is not the only lodge in the Churchill Wild arsenal – we also operate Dymond Lake Eco-Lodge for our Great Ice Bear Adventure. And last year we started a new project – Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge – which is home to our Mothers & Cubs Adventure.
This converted old goose hunting camp is about as secluded as you can possibly get! Located approximately 150 kilometers southeast of Churchill, Nanuk is a 10 minute bush plane flight from the historic York Factory (and about an hour from Gillam). Nanuk has been around since the 1970s and the previous owner had often noted the massive number of polar bears in the area. As it turns out, Nanuk is situated right in the heart of newly discovered polar bear denning areas.
Last summer I went to Nanuk for the first time and it was a mind-blowing experience. The lodge can be best described as “rustic”. Individual cabins sleep two per room and at present the Nanuk operation can accommodate up to 12 people. Each cabin has its own bathroom and shower.
The main lodge has Wi-Fi, a kitchen, dining hall and a large common room with a fireplace and a bar. It’s all very cozy but not on the level of Seal River (yet). Plans are to bring it up to par with Seal but I must admit, the atmosphere at Nanuk lends itself well to an authentic arctic wilderness setting. The polar bears were plentiful and we also saw wolves, moose, Northern Lights and many different species of birds including eagles.
A number of media types were there with me (it was a media trip) and Michele Sponagle recounted our polar bear tale better than I could for MSN Travel in Polar Express. Angela Saurine came all the way from Australia and wrote Close Encounters with Polar Bears for News.com.au and Birgit-Cathrin Duval from Germany blogged about her experience in Guess who’s coming for dinner on her visual storytelling takkiwrites.com blog. We even had a trio from Mexico who gave us salsa dancing lessons one evening. Lucas Aykroyd and I spent our downtime talking about 1980’s hair bands and Euro heavy metal. Lucas wrote 1984: The Ultimate Van Halen Trivia Book so I knew ahead of time we would have lots to talk about.
The Mothers & Cubs Adventure at Nanuk takes place on the coast of Hudson Bay within the Cape Tatnam Wildlife Management Area, truly one of the most fascinating places on earth, with so much history I couldn’t get enough. I ended up reading three books about the area after my trip! Northern Manitoba is one of the most pristine wilderness areas left in the world – so remote that it has barely changed in thousands of years.
After a two hour flight from Winnipeg we arrived in Gillam and then took a bush plane to Nanuk. The breathtaking flight east from Gillam to Nanuk takes you over the Northern Taiga Forest and tracks the mighty Nelson River over the plains and tidal flats of Hudson Bay.
Following the same route the fur traders took for hundreds of years, you fly over York Factory, a trading post that was permanently established in 1684 by Governor George Geyer of the Hudson’s Bay Company – the beginning of Canada’s fur trade history. Some of the Nanuk staff expedition leaders are descendants of the Cree people who originally inhabited the area when the first Europeans arrived in the early 1600s.
This coastline of Hudson Bay around Nanuk and York Factory was in turmoil between 1600-1900 as the French and English played king of the hill – both looking to control the riches provided by the fur trade.
The early expeditions in search of the Northwest Passage would have followed the coast right past Nanuk. Many ships got wintered into the Bay and numerous explorers died in search of the elusive route. That in itself could be a blog post.
When you’re at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge you’ll notice all sorts of artifacts. The previous owner was an avid explorer of the area and always carried his trusty metal detector with him. Within the fenced compound you’ll find remnants of old shipwrecks such as brass railings and authentic cannons from the 1800s, possibly even earlier.
Butch and Gordie, two of the Nanuk guides, have been there for almost 30 years combined. Both are proud Canadian First Nations people who know the surrounding land through a deep spiritual connection. Gordie is one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet and Butch was born at York Factory in the 1950s, before the residents were relocated to York Landing Cree Nation. In the off season, Butch manages the York Landing airport but he loves to return to Nanuk every year.
The trip to the Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge was my first Churchill Wild Adventure. I can’t wait to go back. There’s a shipwreck that we didn’t get a chance to see.
It’s on the top of my “to do” list.
by Rick Kemp
With the launch of the Churchill Wild Arctic Safari we are excited to be featuring something we have wanted to give our guests for over a decade – a fly out to witness a stunning caribou migration and a chance to experience Canadian arctic wildlife at its finest, all while immersed in a kaleidoscope of fabulous fall colors!
Churchill Wild’s polar bear tours will never be the same!
Polar bears are always the marquee stars of any Churchill Wild adventure but equal billing for the Arctic Safari can surely go to the caribou of the Qamanirjuaq herd. The Qamanirjuaq caribou herd (ka-min-YOO-ree-ak) is estimated to be between 300,000 to 400,000 strong, and Churchill Wild has located the perfect spot on the migration route to witness this stunning spectacle.
The Qamanirjuaq continues to have strong numbers, despite population declines in other major caribou herds in Canada’s North. The total area used by the herd during their migration spans more than 500,000 square kilometers north to south along the Hudson Bay’s west coast. The winter range primarily consists of forested lands in northern Manitoba and tundra in Manitoba and Nunavut.
In Inuit mythology Tekkeitsertok is the master of caribou, one of the most important gods in the pantheon. Many Dene and Inuit historically depended on caribou for food, clothing and shelter; so much so that the Inuit of the area were given the name “Caribou Eskimo” by early European explorers.
The Inuit survived by hunting and trapping in family groups while living in what is now Nunavut and Northern Manitoba. Although apprehensive for many generations, they began trading regularly with the Europeans in the early 1900s and by the late 1950s were moving into communities. They were encouraged by government to do this so their children could attend school and have access to medical care.
Today, the Qamanirjuaq caribou continue to be very important in maintaining the culture and traditional lifestyles of Dene, Métis, and Inuit across the north by providing food, materials for traditional clothing, special tools & shelter.
One of the shelters that was traditionally constructed is called a “tupik”. Last fall an Inuit couple named Peter and Mary graciously visited to teach our guests about their culture and their way of life during the Great Ice Bear Adventure at Dymond Lake Ecolodge. Peter and Mary built the tupik to show us what they would live in while traveling and hunting during the summer months in the north. The tupik is constructed of about 20 caribou hides and long skinny timbers.
An Inuit legend about the origin of caribou goes like this:
Once upon a time there were no caribou on the earth. But then there was a man who wished for caribou, and he cut a great hole deep into the ground, and up through this hole came caribou, many caribou. The caribou came pouring out, till the earth was almost covered with them. And when the man thought there were caribou enough for mankind, he closed up the hole again. Thus the caribou came up on earth.
The numbers of caribou seem to be inconsistent but plentiful. Distribution and migration of 10 adult female Qamanirjuaq caribou have been monitored since 1993 using radio-collars and tracked by satellites. The results of this study have provided insight to the herd’s recent distribution and movement patterns. This link has a downloadable QuickTime movie that shows a typical caribou migration route.
While Churchill Wild goes to great lengths to preserve the natural habitat we encounter, there are some external threats that are concerning. Hydro transmission lines, roads to communities in northern Manitoba, mineral exploration and mines are all issues local groups have voiced concern with. These activities continue to spread to the calving and post-calving areas. Hydro-electric development could affect movement of the herd during spring and fall migration as they may need to make detours if traditional water crossing sites are impassable due to water level changes from hydro dams.
As a way of addressing these and other concerns the Beverly & Qamanirjuaq Caribou Management Board (BQCMB) was established in 1982 to coordinate management of the herds. The Board’s responsibility is to make recommendations to government and conduct projects for conservation and management of the caribou herds and their habitat.
There are times when a caribou is in the vicinity of one of our lodges and guests are always amazed with their grace. To see one as part of a herd is fascinating and a spectacle we are excited to present as part of our Polar Bear Arctic Safari.
But caribou and polar bears? Together? Polar bears are often said to be the world’s largest land predators and our experienced guides (Andy & Terry) keep the guests safe. What about the caribou?
While there have been very few documented cases of the two species interacting, some observations indicate that polar bears will stalk and chase caribou, but you would not likely witness it during your adventure with Churchill Wild.
Last summer a polar bear found its way as far south as Shamattawa, Manitoba – about 400 kilometres away from the Hudson Bay coast. These instances are extremely rare but the phenomenon could explain the “grolar” or “pizzly” bears (which we will pretty much guarantee you will NOT see!)
Churchill Wild’s Arctic Safari is easily our most ambitious adventure to date and the timing is essential. A small window in early September provides the perfect apex to see the widest variety of wildlife and brilliant displays of the Aurora Borealis.
The Arctic Safari takes you over 20,000 square kilometres of the wildest regions in the Arctic; providing the potential “Big Five” (and then some) of wolves, caribou, moose, three species of bears (polar, black and grizzly), belugas, arctic and colored fox, wolverine, beaver, pine marten, arctic birds and of course, spectacular Northern Lights.
For more information about the Arctic Safari or any of our Arctic Adventure Travel Experiences, please call our office, sign up for our newsletter or e-mail us at email@example.com. We would love to hear from you!
This week we took a break from fishing to do some polar bear watching from one of our Churchill Wild lodges on the Hudson Bay coast. The bears were most cooperative, arriving in large numbers and primping and preening and sometimes sparring just outside our enormous picture windows. On this particular afternoon, the fireplace was lit, the lodge was cozy, a delicious lunch had been enjoyed by all and frankly we’d seen so many bears we decided that a little siesta was in order.
Well, it was about that time that a couple of young polar bears chose to make their break. One polar bear was inside the airplane manning the throttle (sorry you can’t see him) while the other hand-bombed the prop (Doug Webber had wisely taken the keys for a nap as well.)
Doug’s granddaughter Allison (thank goodness teenagers never nap – they’re afraid to miss something), upon spotting the attempted hijacking, alerted her grandfather, who shook the sleep from his brain, headed outdoors and told the bears to pack their bags and get out of town – or at least to the end of the runway – and to not come back until they were ready to apologize.
Upon returning after dark that evening, the polar bear family confessed to having eaten the Barbeque that went missing in the fall and were thus given their choice of five days of counseling or five days of hard labor at the Polar Bear Jail in Churchill.
Dr. Phil, are you available?