Air Canada didn’t go out on strike so my flight to Winnipeg left Pearson International Airport in Toronto, on time. It is late October and my destination is sixty miles north of Churchill, Manitoba.
Like Churchill itself, the Seal River area has become a “wait for it” destination for polar bears. They congregate on the shores of Hudson’s Bay waiting for the ice to form so they can spend the winter in what I call “walking meditation” all over the polar region.
Seal River Heritage Lodge is the destination for myself and a hardy group of friends who have travelled to remote places throughout the world and who call themselves the “Bear Clan”. After a sleepless night in Winnipeg, I am ready for an early flight to Churchill. As I squish into my seat, I realize that the stewardess on the Calm Air Saab B+ isn’t kidding, my carry on WILL fit under my seat! I peer out the window into an elongated orange glow and watch as the early morning traffic builds towards what I imagine to be a Tim Horton’s.
As we head north, the patchwork quilt that is the nation’s bread-basket spreads out below me. It is bathed in a warm pink. Churchill, Manitoba is about two hours north but my attention is drawn to my second breakfast of the day and the next time I look the fields are wearing a dusting of snow.
Before long, we dip out of the clouds to a snow covered runway and a terminal that says we have arrived at Churchill. Unfortunately some of the luggage is still in Winnipeg.
In the area where the small planes are tethered, Captain Mike prepares us and the twin otter that will ferry us to Seal River Lodge. Flying in the north is as much about being prepared for any eventuality as it is about getting to your destination. I am snuggled into a jump seat that must have been used previously by a child and I struggle with the seat belts and melt by the heater as I have decked myself out in my heavier gear.
Cleared for takeoff, we cross the mouth of the Churchill River and head more or less northwest over Fort Prince of Wales that is situated on desolate Eskimo Point. This fort was built in 1731, by the Hudson’s Bay Company to protect and control its interests in the fur trade. From the look of the scaffolding, Parks Canada is still trying to finish the construction job! I watch the shallows of Hudson’s Bay stream by and ready myself for circling the gravel runway when we reach our destination. Landing requires giving the bears time to clear out.
Seal River Lodge, eight kilometers by boat from the actual Seal River, is located on the western shore of Hudson’s Bay and is one of three world class wilderness lodges operated by Churchill Wild and the Webber family. The area is known for its polar bears and belugas but is also the home to arctic and red foxes, arctic hare, and many shorebirds, geese, songbirds, and arctic terns.
Like ships passing in the night, our group disembarks and last week’s contingent lines up to take the plane back to Churchill. Kevin, the jack–of-all-trades at the lodge, revs up the four-wheel drive and heads off to the lodge with several of our group and boxes of strawberries! After the plane takes off in a cloud of swirling snow, the rest of us begin the walk across the tundra to the lodge. I haven’t gone far, when I have to stop to watch willow ptarmigan rise up in white clouds. Everyone is scanning the whiteness for bears.
Mike and Jeanne Reimer, the daughter and son in law of the Webbers, greet us warmly as we enter the lodge through the front-door. This is worthy of note because it isn’t until we leave that we exit through this portal again. We are to learn that one never knows when a polar bear will be waiting, perhaps disguised as a snow bank. Safe exit and entry from the lodge are best achieved through the compound gates. (More about that later.)
I am assigned a lower bunk in a triple. The Sic–Sic Room, named after arctic ground squirrels, is first on the left in the dorm wing. After getting rid of my heavy gear and making my bunk feel like home, I join the others in the great room. It is heated by an airtight stove and feels very cozy. The leather couches gobble me and my cup of tea up as I sat and thumb through coffee table books filled with iconic images of the bears I had come to experience up close and personal. At the beginning and the end of each day this room will become the gathering place where we will learn about each other, share our observations, make notes, download images and enjoy our favorite elixir with the most amazing pre-dinner treats. Large windows allow a view to the horizon, across to the airstrip and down to the sea. Later when night began to close in, shutters were placed across the panes to prevent unwanted intruders. During the day, plywood boards spiked through with nails, lay on the ground outside the windows to discourage close up looks and unwanted entry into the lounge.
The sounds of the propeller of the twelve passenger twin otter reverberated through the lodge as it circled in preparation for landing with the second contingent of our group. No sooner had they arrived than our first polar bear ambled along the front of the building all the way to the dining room and laid down for a snooze in clear view. Who could eat lunch!
It is hard to describe the impact of seeing these massive bears walking peacefully, quietly and with assurance along the rocky shoreline. The tide is out and there is a sea of isolated boulders standing sentinel-like on the mud flats. The bear lumbers past. He slowly, majestically, turns his head toward us and then just as nonchalantly turns it back to the sea. He sits, stands, walks, sits some more, lays down, and looks at us again. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of interest in us. He poses. And then he sleeps, his back to us, his mammoth white head facing the sea.
Meanwhile back in the circular dining room, which affords a good view of the fence line of the compound as well as the shores of Hudson’s Bay and the point where Bear is sleeping, we await lunch. As the week progresses, I will find myself rushing in and out from this dining area to the compound in search of the quintessential shot as bears walk the perimeter of the enclosure sticking their noses and paws through the mesh. There will be times that I am truly up close and personal. No one on this trip will forget those teeth that clung to the fencing. Nor will the cuddly nature of the largest land based carnivore on earth be forgotten.
But this is day one and we are newbies at bear watching and snoozing is part of the show. We have a lot to learn about bears but first we have to eat– fresh cheese biscuits, chicken noodle soup or bean something, topped off with coffee or tea and cranberry cookies. All good and all just enough!
A short “briefing” re the lodge follows lunch. We are told that the water we are probably wasting is carted from Swan Lake two kilometers away. Conserve, conserve, is to be our mantra. In the summer there is a water line that services the lodge, but it is already frozen. Now Kevin makes the trek on a four-wheel drive vehicle over the tundra road, pumps the holding tank full and returns to empty it into the lodge’s tank. Over and over he does this. I’m reminded of the bus drivers at LAX who drive round and round taking people from terminal to terminal. But in my opinion, Kevin wins. At least he is outside in an amazing place, in an amazing country.
Mike Reimer explains that the power supply for the lodge is both solar and diesel driven. The message is clear…practicing good energy conservation would be a good thing too! The lodge has a 110 service and therefore there will be no problem recharging batteries, cell phones, laptops and iPads. I did it too, but I do have to ponder why one brings all this stuff to the wilderness!
With lunch behind us, Mike Reimer is anxious to introduce us to the bears so we find ourselves standing in the fenced compound that encloses the viewing stands and tower to the waterside of the lodge. This is the first test of our afternoon selection of multiple layers that we have emancipated from our luggage. How many layers are enough and what amounts to too many layers? A trial and error method of deciding is adopted by all those who actually have luggage. Those who don’t are loaned everything from gloves to long underwear. Marion looks great in my penguin hat! The extinct Great Auks, that at one time populated the northern hemisphere, would be proud of her for carrying on their tradition.
Of all the things that Mike and Andy, one our field guides, tell us, the most important is “ Pay attention to your guide”. Andy points out that while we are walking on the tundra as a group, he will do the talking for us and he will use deterrents with the bears, when and if required, to keep us safe. He quietly points out that there are a range of options that he will use as needed — speaking softly, lopping stones, (he always has stones in his pockets) using a starter’s pistol to startle the bear and lastly and if absolutely necessary, his rifle.
There is a lot to learn but in short order we are off on our first walk on the wild side. We head out on the road that brought us from the airstrip. We hear Kevin heading towards us from the lodge on his way to the lake for water. Behind him, and between us and the lodge, a big bear comes up over the mud flats from the bay. Kevin, with rifle at hand, stops the four-wheeler and waits on the bear to come up from the ditch. The bear advances, sits, lays down, gets up, advances. Over and over. It is a game. Kevin, rifle close at hand, takes time to photograph him from very close quarters. The bear appears to pose. We photograph Kevin and the bear. This is a beautiful, healthy white bear. He may be the one we saw earlier through the dining room windows. I am not sure. He advances towards us and eventually Kevin starts off on his water run leaving us lined up in awe as this creature shares his world. He lays down again. More posing. The tundra stretches behind him through the brown willows to the sea. We follow and disperse and line up as requested in order to get close to a bear in as safe a way as possible. It’s hard to say how close we got but it felt really close… maybe a hundred to a hundred and fifty feet. As the bear is moving so do we…. sometimes backing up and sometimes moving in, till he sits or sleeps or moves in anyway..then the Gatling gun sound of power drives returns. It was an amazing encounter. I cannot believe I am experiencing this.
Supper is preceded by drinks and yummy snacks. Obviously, we are going to have to buy the cookbooks they use to prepare our food. Apparently they were written by Mike’s mother in-law and have intriguing names l like ” Blueberries and Polar Bears”, “Black Currants and Caribou”, “Cranberries and Canada Geese”, “Icebergs and Belugas”. Sounds like four trips to me!
Supper includes more wine, snow geese stir fry and coconut rice, and is finished off with strawberry shortcake. Amazing!
The group, or maybe it is only me, is fading but I try to pull it together for just a few more interesting minutes when Mike Reimer shows us pictures of the building of the lodge. Nothing is easy. Everything had to be brought in on the sea ice and with extreme caution. A huge sled is loaded in Churchill and placed on a long tether behind a caterpillar. The sled with its 40,000 pounds of goods on board could easily end up going through the ice and the tether decreases the risk to the caterpillar and its driver. Before I fall asleep before Mike’s very eyes I get a quick look at the building of the dining room and the summer infestation of beluga whales. Nine men and five weeks with no safety inspectors to distract them and the dining room was erected!
I crash on my bunk and before I know it, visions of polar bears are dancing in my head. Beluga whales…did he say beluga whales!