by Andy MacPherson with notes from Terry Elliot – Seal River Lodge Polar Bear Guides
with photos by Paul McAteer
I’m sure everyone woke up a sometime during the night to the sounds of the howling wind. I know I did. And we weren’t disappointed in the morning. High winds and blowing snow were busy creating a new landscape for those of us brave enough to explore it.
With the temperature hovering between -5 and -11, taking into account the wind chill, our first excursion was more of an exercise hike in white out conditions. Off we went to Swan Lake to look at the ice and five-foot snow drifts piling up on the lee side of the willow, birch and alder trees on the shore of the lake.
We left fresh signs of our lakeshore visit by creating numerous snow angels in the drifts to confuse and tempt any furry four-legged carnivores that might venture this way later. We saw flocks of ptarmigan and finally spotted two polar bears sparring on Two Bear Point at the end of our brisk jaunt, but decided to take an early lunch and join them later.
After a hearty meal we headed north up the coast towards the point where we’d seen the bears sparring earlier. They were nowhere to be seen as we approached and made our way down the spine of the ridge towards the tip. Finally two white heads popped out of the thick willows, one chewing on the others ear, before disappearing out of sight. The polar bears were still here and still scrapping, but we could barely see them!
We moved the group in order to get a better vantage point, but when the bears noticed us they halted their play fighting and began to take more of an interest in us than in their game. They came closer, moving out into the open and laying down together in a comfy knot on a snow drift, one burying its head in the snow like an ostrich. Again we moved and waited patiently hoping they would find the energy to spar again.
Ten minutes later one of the bears had recuperated enough to start a fight – bite a foot, chew an ear – and they were at it again! Stand up, double shove to the chest, hay maker to the side of the head; take down, head lock, roll-out and jump four feet in the air pin wheeling; rear foot kick to the head – a stylized dance that they really seemed to enjoy – or maybe a cross between Greco Roman wrestling and Brazilian Jujitsu. They didn’t stop until a huge bear that had been bedded down just to the north of us caught wind of the sparring partners and decided he wanted in on the action.
But this bear was too big. He was also sporting a jail-house tattoo from the Churchill detention centre. A big green spot, meaning he’d been a participant in the Polar Bear Alert Program Churchill – a bear with a record. The two buddies gave him a wide berth before moving in as a pair to challenge the big bear, pushing him away and over the ridge where he finally bedded down.
The original two bears checked out his trail, scenting carefully, before splitting up. One followed him over the hill and out of sight while the second walked to the edge and posed for us, front feet perched on a rock, looking first for the big bear and then back at us, silhouetted against a dark grey sky. Beautiful! We left the bears at this point, making our way back to the lodge for wine and appetizers while watching the sun set in a clearing sky.
John Grady, a previous fishing trip guest at Webber’s Lodges’ North Knife Lake Lodge, was on the walk today, accompanied by his wife and two daughters. It was their first polar bear tour at Seal River Lodge. He turned and shook guide Terry Elliot’s hand, thanking him for a rare and special walk with polar bears.
“My whole life could be described as a series of long walks,” said Grady. “Today’s experience was and is one of the most important and memorable walks of my life. I first met this amazing family at North Knife Lake Lodge five years ago. What started out as a single fishing trip with Webber’s Lodges turned into a number of fishing trips, culminating with this exotic trip to the land of the polar bears with my whole family and some dear friends. I never thought I would see this country in the winter, when it is such a playground for these amazing bears.”
“I thought you could only see this on TV,” continued Grady. ”When I asked my family if they wanted to go on this trip, they thought I was kidding. They couldn’t imagine that you could really do this. That’s the point. The staff and owners of Churchill Wild and Webber’s Lodges make all of this an absolute reality. I hope my kids learn to never let life pass you by. Thank you.”
The wind and snow of the past few days was abating, hinting at an evening of shimmering northern lights. Could there be a better ending to a perfect day… and a walk to remember.
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.