The Bear Grounds – A Travel Writer’s View of Seal River Lodge

Polar Bear with Seal River Lodge in Background - Fiona Harper Photo

Polar bear's view of Seal River Heritage Lodge

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.

Polar Bear Outside Fence - Fiona Harper Photo

The other side of the fence

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.

Hiking in polar bear country with Churchill Wild - Fiona Harper Photo

Hiking in polar bear country

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.

Photographing Polar Bear at Seal River Lodge - Fiona Harper Photo

On the tundra with polar bears

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.

Polar bear on the rocks near Seal River Lodge - Fiona Harper photo

On the rocks...

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?

 

Churchill Wild enhances environmental stewardship programs with installation of VBINE Vertical Access Wind Turbines at northern eco-lodges

April 24, 2012 by  
Filed under Blog, From The Lodge, In The News

VBINE ENERGY Vertical Access Wind Turbine - VAWT

VBINE ENERGY Vertical Access Wind Turbine - VAWT

Churchill Wild has always been devoted to minimizing their environmental footprint at their remote northern eco-lodges.

Now they’re enhancing their environmental stewardship programs even further with the installation of Vertical Access Wind Turbines (VAWTs) manufactured by VBINE ENERGY in Winkler, Manitoba.

The combined power generated by the VAWTs and the solar panels currently in place at their eco-lodges will virtually eliminate the need to use fossil fuels at Seal River Heritage Lodge, Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge, North Knife Lake Lodge and Dymond Lake Lodge.

Generators will still be in place for backup power, but the combination of the current solar-panel system combined with VAWTs is expected to provide for almost, if not all, their power needs in the future.

“The beauty of it is that we have a battery storage system,” said Mike Reimer of Churchill Wild. “The power generated from the VAWTs and the solar panels is stored in the batteries and we draw off of them. And they’re eco-friendly and economical. There’s less noise pollution, less of a carbon footprint and we’ll be paying substantially less than the $1-$1.30 per kilowatt it costs for diesel generated power.”

The VAWTs were invented by Barry Ireland about six years ago and refined by an engineering team. Their showcase installations include the Dr. David Suzuki Public School in Windsor, Ontario, Canada and Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, but the rugged VAWTs were also designed to work in remote northern locations.

“They were originally designed to work on smokestacks and silos,” said Ireland. “We had to build them so that the center wouldn’t rotate. We also had remote communication towers in mind when we built them. Many of those towers are powered by diesel and the VAWTs cut costs by quite a bit. That also means they will be popular with many northern lodges and outfitters.”

VBINE is currently working with Canadian Solar on a combination wind/solar solution that will work for northern communities.

“VAWTs are generating a large amount of interest because of the significant cost savings that can be realized,” said Ireland. “And the fact that the big windmills won’t work in the north. They ice up, they have too much vibration and they won’t go into the permafrost. The VAWTs are the only ones that will work up north.”

VAWTs mount easily on existing buildings; they’re only two meters in width; they’re quiet and they’re suitable for grid tie-in or battery storage. And because of the vertical design, VAWTs can take wind from any direction. They start generating power at wind speeds of 1.2 meters per second and run 24/7 generating 5 kilowatts of power with a 25 mph wind. They have a permanent magnet generator with two long-life bearings, no drive shaft and no slips springs or brushes. The lifespan of the VAWTs is estimated at 30 years with very little maintenance. Their sleek design also minimizes interference with wildlife.

Hudson Bay CAT Train in Blizzard

CAT Train in a pending Hudson Bay blizzard

The first of the Churchill Wild VAWTs were hauled up to Seal River Heritage Lodge last week via CAT train (caterpillar pulling a freight sled) across the Hudson Bay sea ice, which is still about six feet thick.

Hauling tons of freight across the Hudson Bay ice in -20 degree weather is actually better than doing it at 0 degrees. The ice can get sticky and wet in warm weather, making for dangerous conditions. While there is generally no immediate danger from polar bears, which are still further out on the ice filling up on seals before the ice melts, the weather can still cause problems.

“The wind chills can get to as low as -40,” said Reimer. “And there’s always the possibility of blizzards, flooding sea ice and slush holes. CATS have actually gone through the ice on a couple of occasions.”

The trip takes about 15 hours from Dymond Lake Lodge to Seal River Heritage Lodge and Churchill Wild utilizes one of their two CAT track-type tractors, 1956 and 1972 models built by Caterpillar.  But how fast does that CAT really go?

“About two miles an hour downhill with a tailwind,”  said Reimer.

To learn more about how VBINE ENERGY VAWTs can benefit your operations and goals for a greener future, please visit http://www.VBINE.com, call their head office at (204) 325-0228 or e-mail info@vbine.com

Polar Bear Photo Safari guests perform role reversal, show me around London!

April 19, 2012 by  
Filed under Blog, Guest Posts, In The News

Clare and Andy Coleman

Clare and Andy Coleman. Thank You!

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!

The London Eye

The London Eye

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.

Doreen Booth Churchill Wild. All smiles in London, England.

I'm all smiles in London :)

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!

 

A Seal River Beluga (and Polar Bear) Experience

The following account was originally published on Ebushpilot.com back in 2006. The original story and pictures, written by John S. Goulet, can be found here.

The Seal River Heritage Lodge Pancake Breakfast

Arial view of beluga whales at Churchill Wild.

Belugas from the air!

Klaus and I have finally made it.

We are greeted to the Lodge by hosts Mike and Jennie Reimer. August is the prime of their season and they are busy guiding the guests to the various sites. The lodge is perfectly placed on a spit of sub-arctic tundra surrounded on three sides by the Arctic waters of the Hudson Bay.

As we sat down in the dining room we could view the ocean waters from any of the three large picture windows. Mike has spotting scopes and binoculars handy to help spot the numerous water and shore birds of the area, and to scout for the whales off shore as they break the surface to spout.

The main attraction is the beluga whales which you can see by the thousands as they swim in and out of the North and South mouths of the fabulous Seal River. They come in with the rising tide and leave with the ebbing tide. Mostly they congregate in the mouth of the river where you can visit them in the clear waters using the rubber rafts and small outboard motors. Like shooting fish in a barrel – except you do the shooting with a camera. Mike arranges the rubber rafts for us to leave on a guided tour early the next morning.

At day break I stand on the watch tower over the lodge scanning the bay for water spouts. The rising sun saturates the backdrop sky a gumdrop orange.

As the whales blow the saltwater, back-lit by the sun, into a sparkling diamond spray we set off across the open water. Within 20 minutes we spot whales. These are large with huge black backs and a fan spray blow as they surface. We try to get near them, but they continue to swim off. They are definitely not beluga whales. My best guess is that they are the huge majestic bow whales. Bow whales were hunted commercially until only about 20 years ago and are still considered a rare sighting in this part of the Hudson Bay. We consider ourselves very lucky to have spotted them. We quit the chase and head to the mouth of the Seal River.

Long before we ever reach the Seal River, however, we can see the blow from a distance. With a sea-spray that reaches up to 90 cm the blow is very visible. We are already in the midst of belugas.

They are heading in the same direction and swimming with a purpose. We are sailing with a purpose. They are after the shallow river protein such as worms, crustaceans, shrimp, clams, snails, crabs, and small fish. Fish such as capelin, char, sand lance, smelt, flounder, herring, and cod, are usually taken in deeper water but can be caught much easier in the restricted river mouth. The total take of 25 kgs per day is not much by whale standards, but still a lot of lunch that eventually adds up to 1500 kg of adult male whale.

The beluga can stay submerged for 15-20 minutes and travel up to 2-3 km under water on one dive. That is one of the reasons the river mouth is such a great place to get close and see the whales. The space is restricted and the whales surface more often to spy hop their way around the smaller areas. In the estuaries they usually only stay submerged for only about 2 minutes, and make 1 or 2 surfacings before the longer 1-2 minutes dive.

Before long we are surrounded by whale pods cruising by. These pods are mostly small family groups, but the larger pods can reach up to 10,000 individuals. We can see them clearly, but somehow they are still cautious and do not come too close. Some of the mothers are followed closely, almost as if they are lashed to their backs, by awkward gray calves. Breeding in May means our calves were 3-4 months old. Occasionally we can hear their squawk-like calls. Like other whales, the beluga use echo-location to find their way around and to find food.

After an exhilarating several hours of watching the whales, we decide to stop for our own lunch. Mike and Quentin, his friend and acting guide, tied the two rubber rafts together so we can all share our meal and our experiences.

As we drifted along in this peaceful inner sea and quietly chatted with our fellow rafters, we noticed that the whales were finally starting to show some interest in us. I felt that when the two rubber rafts rubbed together they produced a squeak that the whale’s natural curiosity could not resist.

As an experiment, I tried to make the rafts squeak more frequently, but it took a special combination that could not be duplicated easily. I tried rubbing my Gortex pants on the rubber raft but that was too soft a squeak. Finally, Mike caught on to what I was doing and rubbed his own rubber rain slicker pants on the rubber of the raft. That was the magic we needed.

The squeak he produced drove the whales crazy with curiosity and within minutes we were surrounded by over 50 whales in different pods jostling us for a closer look at what was making that peculiar noise. We pulled out our cameras and were snapping incessantly as they spy hopped closer and closer. Mike put his hand under water and the friendly beluga were swimming so close he could feel the flow of their wake.

beluga whales

The belugas come right up to the boat.

One particular mother and calf would not leave us alone. She came by time and time again with the little one close on her back. The little gray beluga seemed to love these frequent visits as he hopped up higher each time to look see. When we finally left hours later we had several pods follow us almost all the way home. They could not leave us alone. Nor did we want to leave them, but the day was coming to a close and we had to return to base.

Spending the day with these fellow creatures of curiosity was one the most incredible one on one, or animal family to human family, experiences I have ever had in the wild.

And at Seal River there is so much more nature to go one on one with.

From the Lodge you can take guided interpretive nature and culture walks where you can see caribou, bald eagles, Canada and Snow geese, ptarmigan, sik siks, and polar bears.

Along the interpretive walks you get to visit ancient Dene and Inuit camping sites, outlined by either the weathered tent poles the Dene used, or the tent circle of stones that the Inuit used to anchor their skin tents. The sites have been investigated by archeologist Virginia Petch and the walks have been mapped by GPS to make sure you can see the most with the least trouble. The walks are tough but worth it.

That evening Jeanne, Mike’s partner and wife, prepares us an incredible dinner of arctic char, garden peas, and homemade red river cereal bread. Dessert is a (locally picked) cranberry crumble and coffee.

After dinner the sun sets in a glorious blaze of orange to end a perfect day. I am to take an evening stroll on the runway’s high point of ground where the evening breeze will keep the bugs swept away. The night is perfectly clear and I can see the planets of Jupiter followed by Venus and a host of northern stars. The night air is cool and I fall asleep deep into the dead of the night.

The next morning the sky is blue blazon with the gold of sunrise and Jeanne serves us the most fantastic sight we have seen since leaving Nigeria 3 weeks ago. Canadian pancakes topped with butter, maple syrup, and as a special treat, blueberry compote made with fresh picked local blueberries. The ending to our trip could not have been any more special. We have flown over 10,000 miles to have breakfast in Canada. Perhaps next time you can join us.

::::

To experience what John wrote about above check out our Birds, Bears & Belugas Adventure Safari. This one of a kind summer experience takes place at the Seal River Heritage Lodge during July and August.

Churchill Wild polar bears to appear on CBC’s The Nature of Things in Polar Bears: A Summer Odyssey

March 23, 2012 by  
Filed under Blog, In The News, Polar Bear Photography

Polar bear being filmed at Seal River
Filming polar bears at Seal River. Photo Credit: Nick Garbutt

Special to Churchill Wild
by +George Williams

If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to visit the polar bears at Seal River Heritage Lodge or Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge, you’ll want to make sure to watch the world premiere of Polar Bears: A Summer Odyssey on Sunday, April 8 at 7 p.m. on CBC TV’s The Nature of Things with David Suzuki. You’ll see some of our Churchill Wild polar bears!

The wildlife documentary, much of which was filmed over a 12-month period in the vicinity of Churchill Wild’s polar bear lodges, tells the story of a young male polar bear who must survive his first summer alone on land without his mother, after the ice breaks up early on Western Hudson Bay and prevents him from hunting seals. The youngster’s struggle to survive is back-grounded and influenced by one of the most important environmental stories in history: climate change.

Directed by Adam Ravetch of Arctic Bear Productions and produced by Arcadia Content in association with CBC’s Science and Natural History Documentary Unit, Polar Bears: A Summer Odyssey features stunning images shot with eight different types of cameras including: a polar bear collar-cam; a remote control truck-cam; a mini heli-cam and several underwater cameras.

Big polar bear on tundra at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge

One. Big. Polar Bear! Nanuk.

“Filming in 3D was much more work,” said Ravetch. “But we wanted immersive images so the audience could experience what it’s really like to be up close at ground level with polar bears. It required multiple cameras operating at the same time to produce the special 3D effects and three of us including Stereographer Indy Saini and Camera Engineering Specialist Stewart Meyer to get the distances between the objects and between the lenses just right. Stewart also developed a smaller mobile camera system that could produce some very rare images.”

Churchill Wild’s Mike Reimer and polar bear guides Terry Elliot and Andy MacPherson were also essential in getting the ultimate polar bear shots.

“It’s a huge challenge to film in 3D in the arctic,” said Ravetch. “The guides have to have experience specifically with polar bears. They concentrate on safety so we can focus on camera angles and getting the shots we need. Being up close with the bears is quite spectacular for a filmmaker, but safety is paramount. The last thing we want is for a person or a bear to get hurt. You’re not in a cage or a vehicle, you’re at ground level with the polar bears. I’ve always worked at ground level, but there are very few places where you can photograph polar bears like this. Seal River and Nanuk are among the best places on the planet for this type of wildlife photography.”

Polar bear sees reflection on Hudson Bay.

Reflection of a polar bear. Hudson Bay.

Ravetch is no stranger the arctic. He and Sarah Robertson co-directed Arctic Tale for National Geographic. Ravetch also directed some amazing in-field sequences swimming with polar bears and walruses for the IMAX production To The Arctic and was cinematographer for one of the segments on the BBC series Frozen Planet, to name just a few of his many illustrious wildlife and nature film credits.

Ravetch sometimes camps out for 4-6 weeks at a time while making his films in the arctic, which makes for a very serious and sometimes dangerous adventure (see full interview here), but Churchill Wild was lucky to have him and his crew as guests at Seal River Heritage Lodge and Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge during various segments of the filming process in 2010 and 2011.

“I woke up to Jeanne’s (Reimer) omelettes every morning,” said Ravetch. “Churchill Wild offers people the very unique experience of getting up close on the ground with the polar bears. Within a day of a arriving at the Lodge people can see polar bears on the tundra. But they still have a warm safe bed at the Lodge to come back to, and of course the delicious food.”

Thanks Adam! And just to clarify for future guests, Churchill Wild doesn’t actually “own” any polar bears.

They simply get close to them.

Polar bear at sunset near Seal River Heritage Lodge.

Nature at its finest.

Dennis Fast: Chief in-house Photographer and Guide at Churchill Wild

January 29, 2012 by  
Filed under Polar Bear Photography

Dennis Fast - Chief in-house photographer and guide at Churchill Wild. Author of Wapusk: White Bear of the North

Dennis Fast - Chief Photographer & Guide at Churchill Wild. Author: Wapusk: White Bear of the North

Dennis Fast is the chief in-house photographer at Churchill Wild and one of Manitoba’s best known photographers. His photos have appeared in many calendars and books, including the award-winning bestseller Pelicans to Polar Bears, a Manitoba wildlife viewing guide.

He has had major contributions to many books since then, with Wapusk: White Bear of the North, being the first book to feature his work exclusively. The book showcases stunning images of polar bears and their Hudson Bay environs, but also addresses the threats to the bears’ traditional migration patterns and their existence in the Churchill area.

“Polar Bears are among the most magnificent predators on earth and have fascinated me since childhood,” said Fast, on the Heartland Associates Web site. “I never dreamed that someday I would actually walk in the land of Wapusk (Cree for white bear). I still remember in vivid detail my first sighting of a wild polar bear and the feeling of awe it inspired with its beauty and latent power. Since then, I have had many polar bear encounters ­ from mothers and young cubs coming out of their dens, to adult males wrestling for supremacy.”

“I have even been privileged to be in the presence of a dying mother, and to witness the struggle of her young cubs forced to learn survival skills without her. Wapusk is the story of the polar bear and the land it calls home, and the story of my passion for the North.”

Dennis’s expertise and experience photographing in extreme northern conditions have put him among the select photographers in the world with the talents for capturing the light and magical qualities of the north.

Wapusk: White Bear of the North

Wapusk: White Bear of the North

His photography has been featured in Outdoor Photography Canada and in the Michigan publication “Whisper in the Woods”. The CBC followed him on a sunset photo shoot in 2007 as part of their search for the Seven Wonders of Canada.

Dennis has been the prime photographer for seven books including The Land Where the Sky Begins which was commissioned by the Nature Conservancy of Canada featuring Manitoba’s endangered tall grass prairie.

As of 2012, many of Dennis’s polar bear images are featured in the new polar bear rehabilitation center at Winnipeg’s Assiniboine Park Zoo. His new children’s book Princess: A Special Polar Bear is slated to be released in March, to be followed by a coffee table book on Northern wildlife in early 2013.

Dennis is a frequent presenter at photo conferences and other events across Canada. His photographs and his stories are legendary!

Contact Information:

Dennis Fast
Box 151
Kleefeld, MB
R0A 0V0
Phone: (204) 377-4455
E-Mail: denroy@mts.net
Web Site: www.dennisfast.com

For the Love of Reading: Polar bear trip results in children’s books for New Jersey physician turned photographer

Polar Bear Dreams by Daniel D'Auria

Polar Bear Dreams by Daniel D'Auria

Special to Churchill Wild
by +George Williams

It’s unlikely physician Daniel D’Auria thought his photography hobby would turn him into an author, but that’s exactly what happened after his Polar Bear Photo Safari with Churchill Wild.

The 54-year-old from Tabernacle, New Jersey, has now created three children’s books about polar bears, each featuring a selection of photographs from the 17,000 he captured at Churchill Wild’s Seal River Heritage Lodge. Images from his trip can also be seen at his LifeScapes Imaging Web site.

“I never knew where wildlife photography would take me,” said Daniel. “But I had an idea for a book for preschoolers – a whimsical, rhyming book about polar bears.

“We have four children ages 8-23, and some of my fondest memories are of reading to them to when they were growing up. I wanted to create something that would get parents reading to their children and get children interested in wildlife. Parents are interested in the beautiful photos. Children are curious about the bears. And because parents are spending quality time with their children reading the books to them, it gets the children more interested in reading.”

Polar Bears Aren't White You Know by Daniel D'Auria

Polar Bears Aren't White, You Know! by Daniel D'Auria

A noble cause to be sure, and it’s been a long journey to get to the stage of published author, but Daniel has enjoyed every bit of it. He took up photography in high school and spent the last year or so photographing weekly in New Jersey before being able to participate in some of the more elite photography adventures.

Daniel’s wife probably had something to do with ramping up the photography hobby in the family. A former dental hygienist with an interest in sports, she participated in the Sports Photography Workshop at the Summit Series of Photography Workshops. Daniel tagged along and this led to him attending the Summit Landscape and Wildlife photography workshop a few years later. Unfortunately, his medical career still didn’t leave him the time he would have liked to have spent on photography — until recently.

About two years ago, Daniel hired an associate, which allowed him to free up some time for longer trips to elite photography havens that included the Richard Clarkson Photography at the Summit Workshop in the Grand Tetons of Wyoming; the J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge located on the subtropical barrier island of Sanibel in the Gulf of Mexico; the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico; and finally the Polar Bear Photo Safari at Churchill Wild’s Seal River Heritage Lodge on the West Coast of Hudson Bay in Manitoba, Canada.

I Wish I Had a Polar Bear by Daniel D'Auria

I Wish I Had a Polar Bear! by Daniel D'Auria

“The Churchill Wild experience was the trip of a lifetime,” said Daniel. “We first heard about it from Scott Fryer and his wife Paula, who he met while at the Photography at the Summit Workshop in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. We went on the trip as part of a group with Bob Smith of Elk Meadow Images, who organized a photography workshop for 14 people at Churchill Wild.

“The trip from Winnipeg to Churchill with CalmAir was wonderful. And we had a lovely flight on a small plane from Churchill to the Lodge. It was my first trip on a small plane and we had an excellent pilot. Seal River Heritage Lodge is beautifully hand constructed and extremely comfortable. The staff was unbelievably accommodating and the food was outstanding. It was just like home.

“Our guides, Andy and Terra, really made us feel like we belonged, not like we were goofy outsiders. They would scout the polar bears first to see where they were at, and then we would go on two hikes a day. The furthest we had to go was about a mile and we were able to set up for polar bears, arctic fox, ptarmigan and briefly an arctic hare.”

Being able to take on-the-ground photos of wildlife has been Daniel’s modus operandi in photography, so the daily hikes worked out perfectly for the group. This despite the fact that Daniel brought his 28 lbs. 2½ foot 600 mm lens, which it was suggested he consider leaving at home.

Polar bears playing near Churchill Wild's Seal River Heritage Lodge

Three is not a crowd! - Photo Credit: Daniel D'Auria

“I’m used to carrying my lenses in the wilderness,” said Daniel. “Whenever I’m photographing I have one smaller lens on my right shoulder, the heavier one on my left, and my backpack. So that wasn’t a problem.

“And we weren’t interested in going out in tundra buggies. I wanted to be on the ground with the polar bears. I like the freedom of the out of doors, the solitude of hiking the trails, and the beauty of observing nature. I don’t want to do it from inside a vehicle unless it is an absolute necessity. Whenever you’re out in the wild there will be certain element of danger involved. In Jackson Hole, Wyoming, I carry bear spray. In New Jersey it’s not an issue.

“Sure there is some fear of bears. But we learned there is a mutual respect between the polar bears and the people up there in Churchill. If done carefully and properly there is an acceptable risk. We never felt unsafe at any time. I think our group would uniformly say we would like to repeat our experience at Churchill Wild.”

Daniel went on to describe how much he enjoyed the spectacular landscapes, sunrises and sunsets over Hudson Bay. Flat, rugged and desolate, “it was like looking out over the surface of mars when the tide was out. You’d think you just went to another planet.

Polar bears cuddling near Seal River Heritage Lodge in Manitoba.

Cuddling on the Coast - Photo Credit: Daniel D'Auria

“But that’s the best thing about wildlife photography. You can never predict what you’ll see. Every day is a little bit of joy. And when I get back from a trip like this – my family notices the difference in me.”

Besides being a new author, Daniel also donates framed polar bear and wildlife prints to his local hospital. “I sell a few prints,” he said, “But the people at the hospital love them. They have them up on the walls and they always get nice comments from the patients and visitors.

“Wildlife photography has made me a much happier and more content person. It’s like being rich… but in different way.”


Daniel D’Auria’s polar bear books for children can be found on Amazon.com at the links below. He’s also working on two more children’s books about birds and is always interested in pursuing joint ventures that will also benefit a good cause in some way. Thank you Daniel!

 

Polar Bears in the News: The Polar Bear Club

So often news stories involving polar bears consist of experts predicting the end of our beloved polar bear. Doom & gloom is effective in an awareness campaign but never fun to hear about.

So how about some positive news from waaaay up north? Well… positive for polar bears and possibly ice caps (not to be confused with the popular Canadian “Iced Capp”).

Tim Horton’s Iced Capp – a Canadian tradition in the making.

It seems Alaska is getting a lot of the white stuff this year. According to meteorologist Shaun Baines, Sarah Palin’s home state is on track for snowiest winter on record:

About 150 miles to the southeast (of Anchorage), the Prince William Sound community of Cordova, which has already been buried under 172 inches of snow since November, could get another 7 inches today

… It has been difficult to keep up with the shovelling – and 8ft walls of snow line either side of her driveway. After snow fell off her roof she cannot see out either the front or back of her house.

… If it keeps up, Anchorage is on track to have the snowiest winter ever, surpassing the previous record of 132.8 inches in 1954-55, meteorologist Shaun Baines said.

172 inches of snow

Snowboarding anyone? All we can say is “Wow”…

Hopefully the Hudson Bay polar bears that hang out at Seal River Heritage Lodge don’t decide to relocate to Alaska. We’ll have to make sure we don’t mention this to them.

:::

Elsewhere there have been numerous news stories and YouTube videos of polar bear cubs popping up. We’ve posted a few to our Facebook page but this one was an absolute cuddly little doll! The latest comes out of the Scandinavian Wildlife Park and appeared in the Washington Post’s “Kids Post” section.

Hello Siku!

Meet Siku! Internet sensation!

This baby polar bear was born November 22 at the Scandinavian Wildlife Park in Kolind, Denmark. But because his mother couldn’t produce milk to feed the cub…

Keepers named the cub Siku, which means “sea ice.”

Well, I guess there is little extra “sea ice” this year after all. Always good news.

:::

The valiant Prince William came to Canada recently to show off his new bride Kate. There was a huge media blitz and Canadians were genuinely excited and gracious hosts.

Churchill Wild sent out the invitation but we did not make the itinerary. Maybe next time. We’re sure there are many Seal River alumni (see our Trip Advisor reviews) that would vouch for the suitability of our lodge.

During their whirlwind tour of our homeland the Premier of Northwest Territories gifted the royal couple some fabulous polar bear bling.

Some people are making a fuss about it. We think it was a nice gesture:

An good idea for Christmas 2012?

We wonder if the Churchill Wild logo would look good encrusted with diamonds. The polar bear brooch is worth around $30,000 dollars (19,000 British pounds). A Churchill Wild limited edition logo brooch? We may never know…

:::

Finally, no scan of the news for “polar bears” is ever complete without one of these:

The Polar Bear Club

Yes – every year around this time people strip down and brave the frigid waters for their local “polar bear club”. It is hilarious to watch from the warm comfort of your recliner in front of the television.

While we have to commend those brave souls who peel and dive into the cold water we find ourselves contemplating the addition of our own “polar bear challenge” during the Great Ice Bear Adventure at Dymond Lake EcoLodge.

The Polar Bear Club - Churchill Wild style.

Nahhh… wouldn’t be a big seller. That’s what Dymond Lake looks like when it starts freezing up in October/November (sans swimmer and umbrella). Floating balls of ice. Wanna jump in?

Actually, when Churchill Wild’s guests get into the water in the summer for a beluga swim the Hudson Bay waters are just as cold (or colder) than what most “polar bear clubs” would experience. Wanna try it? That’s our extremely popular Birds, Bears & Belugas Adventure which takes place during July and August at the Seal River Heritage Lodge.

Beluga whale swims at Seal River

Our guests wear heavily insulated dry suits to keep them from freezing up. This photo is courtesy of Mark Seth Lender who was up last summer for our Birds, Bears & Belugas Adventure. Mark has a series of blog posts on his site about his time at the lodge. They are accompanied by some incredible pictures. Check them out.

Mark has a syndicated column and is a frequent contributor to Living on Earth (PRI) a nationally syndicated radio program on NPR. He’s putting the final touches on his Churchill Wild segments and they will be airing in the coming months. Stay in touch with us through our newsletter, blog, Facebook and Twitter for air dates.

::::

That’s all for this time. Thanks for reading.

Hudson Bay helicopter ride a first for Churchill adventure travel specialist

by Doreen Booth, Adventure Travel Specialist, Churchill Wild

Hudson Bay Helicopter, Churchill, Manitoba

Julie, Jeff & Doreen. Ready. Set. Go! - Photo Credit: Terry Allen

This year I finally had the opportunity to join a group of our winter guests at Seal River Heritage Lodge. I was able to squeeze in on our last trip of the season – the Polar Bear Photo Safari!

I had a couple of guests, Julie and Jeff, looking to add something extra to their trip, and they had decided to charter a helicopter to the Lodge. When they found out I would be joining them on their departure, they very generously offered me the extra seat they had on their helicopter flight.

I have to admit, I’m a nervous flier, so I wasn’t sure what to say at first, but I didn’t know when an opportunity like this would come again. I accepted their offer with butterflies in my stomach and off I went!

November had come and gone quickly and before I knew it I was done organizing our winter season. My dinner presentations were complete and our final guests were on their way to the Lodge, so I headed up to Churchill for my “partial” holiday. When you’re part of the family, your work is never done.

I met up with Julie and Jeff in Churchill and we headed out to collect their winter gear before making our way to Hudson Bay Helicopters. I was feeling pretty good – a little nervous maybe – but totally excited! I didn’t want anyone to know how I was really feeling. Our pilot took our bags and gave us a rundown on the safety guidelines for the chopper, we buckled in, put on our headsets, and it was time to take flight!

The take off was surprisingly smooth. The winds were calm that day so we were in for a good 30-minute ride. We flew over the town of Churchill and headed up the coastline of Hudson Bay. It was amazing to see the sprawling tundra with a fresh coat of snow. I had forgotten how flat the land is up there.

Half way through the trip we flew over our Dymond Lake Lodge and noticed that some of the staff had ventured outside to wave to us. How nice! A short time later our pilot came on the headset and asked me where we should land at the polar bear lodge.

Doreen Booth, Adventure Travel Specialist, Churchill Wild

I wasn’t sure, so I told him to pick the best place he could find. He thought that would be right outside the front door of the Lodge! Needless to say, the staff didn’t have to bring out the luggage buggy to meet us. And the polar bears kept their distance!

A few months have gone by now and I’ve had time to think about that wonderful trip and the emotions I experienced while flying in a helicopter for the first time. I have to say it was an amazing experience and I would love to do it again.

Thanks again to my friends Julie and Jeff, for helping me check another item off my life’s to do list!

 

Exceptional guides critical to success of ground-level polar bear photography workshops on Hudson Bay coast

December 16, 2011 by  
Filed under Blog, Polar Bear Photography, Polar Bear Tours

Churchill polar bear walks towards photographer at Churchill Wild's Seal River Heritage Lodge.

I'm getting closer...

You just can’t take spectacular photos of polar bears without having excellent guides to watch your back.

That’s according to professional photographer Bob Smith of Elk Meadow Images, who organized a photography workshop for 14 people this fall at Seal River Heritage Lodge. Smith’s group were taking part in Churchill Wild’s annual Polar Bear Photo Safari and were there to snap ground-level shots of polar bears in their natural environment on the coast of Hudson Bay in Manitoba, Canada.

“The guides are so important,” said Smith. “They’re the real key to getting great ground-level shots of polar bears while at the same time making as little impact as possible. We respect the bears and don’t want them to feel threatened. We don’t want to disturb them when they’re feeding and if they’re resting we want them to rest.”

“The guides know the bears and they can get us set up in the best position possible to use our equipment,” continued Smith. “If we have to move to get a better angle, we depend on the guides to help us do it in a safe and efficient manner. And they also make sure there are no bears approaching from behind.”

Polar bear photography Churchill Wild style. Photo Credit: Gary Potts

Smith has been organizing photography workshops for over 20 years and says he likes to search out locations that are “off the beaten path.”  The 55-year-old from Denver, Colorado has held photography workshops in Antarctica, Alaska, the high Arctic and Africa.

“We do two or three workshops a year,” said Smith. “Our locations attract an elite clientele and we make it easy for them – we do the advance planning, make the arrangements, set up the itinerary and plan the on-location daily schedules.”

Smith’s photography workshops include instruction on both photography and computer skills.

“Wildlife photography is combination of art and a science, “said Smith. “Effectively capturing wildlife in its natural environment requires knowledge of animal behavior as well as an understanding of how and where to take a photo that will best portray different elements such as strength, size, motion, behavior, interactions within the species etc. There are also different methods of using natural light to enhance photos.”

Computer skills featured in Smith’s workshops include those needed for processing and sharing images, creating photo albums and more.

Smith has three workshops planned for 2012 that include photographing grizzly bears in Alaska; large mammals in Botswana, South Africa and endangered whooping cranes in southern Texas with Popular Photography Magazine.  For more information on Smith’s upcoming photography workshops please visit his Web site at: www.ElkMeadowImages.com or e-mail him directly at: bsmith@elkmeadowimages.com

Smith is currently working on a new book of his photography that will include grizzly bears, eagles and narwhals in Alaska; walrus, bearded seals, ice and polar bears in Svalbard, Norway; and the polar bears at Seal River Heritage Lodge.

The Polar Bear Photo Safari at Seal River Heritage Lodge takes place in the heart of polar bear country on the rugged and wild coast of Hudson Bay. It caters to dedicated wildlife photographers who are willing to spend the hours required to get up close and personal with polar bears and other arctic wildlife. Polar bears can be photographed on the ground in their natural environment of ice and snow along the Hudson Bay shoreline amidst a background of dramatic seascapes and landscapes. More examples of the type of polar bear photos that can be taken at Seal River can be seen in Churchill Wild’s 2010 Photo Contest Gallery.

“Photographing polar bears in Churchill doesn’t give you the same experiences as the ground-level photo opportunities available at Seal River Heritage Lodge,” said Smith. “The workshop participants were enamored with the polar bears and the unique access to them. Many of them told me it was the best trip they’ve ever been on.”

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