My mind was blown wide open the first time I saw a polar bear up close in the wild. Previous encounters had been in zoos where I had felt sorry that they had no space to roam, or worse, stuffed in museums with ferocious taxidermically altered mouths. Yes, the polar bear is the largest carnivore on the planet, but the bears I encountered in the north were gentle, tolerant souls doing their best to survive their “hibernation” in the warm and buggy summer.
I flew into Winnipeg, Canada (a two hour flight from Chicago), which is just over the Minnesota border in the province of Manitoba. I then took a Calm Air jet to fly 2 ½ hours to Churchill, in northern Manitoba, on the western side of Hudson Bay. It was late July, and the temperature had dropped from 99 in Chicago to the low 60′s (or actually 14 degrees Celsius since I was now in Canada).
Churchill has an incredible history as a wilderness outpost. Danish explorers “discovered” it in the 1600′s, but most did not survive the frigid north. The Hudson Bay Company started a fur trading post in 1717 there and founded the town named after the first Duke of Marlborough, an ancestor of Sir Winston (Churchill). It has an intriguing Eskimo Museum with Inuit carvings started by Catholic missionaries in the 1940′s. In Churchill’s post office you can have your passport unofficially stamped with a polar bear. The town is made up of half non-native people and half Aboriginal people (Cree, Chippewa and Inuit). I saw an Inuit woman on the plane with her toddler son on her back in a type of leather papoose.
After a wander around the fascinating town and dinner at The Seaport Hotel, one of the five restaurants in town, I went to bed at The Aurora Inn where I spent one night before I went to Seal River Lodge. The Aurora Inn has a sleeping loft, living room, and kitchenette. If you were staying in Churchill for any length of time, it is probably the best place to stay. I was not; I was off to take a short plane ride to Seal River Lodge, part of the adventure lodges of Churchillwild.com.
The next morning I had breakfast at the local hangout Gypsy’s, where there is a table that says “reserved” on it at all times, just for the locals! Their slogan is “the place to be in Churchill” and since they bake everything on the premises and are open from 6 am til 10pm daily, I have to agree with them. I was then picked up by Rose, the expeditor for Churchill Wild, to take me, along with 3 others who would be joining me on the thrilling ride north, to Seal River Lodge for a week long journey that would change my life.
My first exciting activity (there would be many that week!) was just getting to the lodge. We flew in a Canadian WW2 Beaver plane piloted by a beautiful adventure pilot named Ursula – quite appropriate for a person who was taking us to be with the bears!
The plane ride was exhilarating! I sat behind Ursula and had a window seat. The Beaver is small, and all luggage has to be in a small, soft duffel. I wore a noise canceling headset. The person sitting next to the pilot was able to communicate with her through a microphone. The company she works for is Wings Over Kississing and does day tours. From a low altitude, I was astonished to see hundreds of white Beluga whales, similar to dolphins, only much bigger. They were swimming in the Seal River, many with young, light grey babies. Their annual migration happens because of the capelin, a fish that is similar to herring. I was told 3000 Belugas come into the river when it opens, meaning the ice has melted. It was mid July and it had just opened!
I was astounded at the landscape, like nothing I had ever seen. It turns out I was looking at tundra – treeless plains similar to a desert, next to the taiga, or boreal forest consisting of small coniferous trees. Because of the extreme cold and wind, the trees do not grow very tall, but they are very old.
Ursula pointed out several lone polar bears and three moose. She circled back for us to get a better look. There were four passengers on board – an Australian couple, a Texan cameraman, and myself. The plane actually holds 6 passengers. After a quick and breathtaking half hour, we landed in a small lake. Did I mention the Beaver is a float plane?!!
We were met on the dock by guides Andy and Terry, who were quickly getting us, our gear, and our provisions for the week out of the plane, while loading the passengers that were leaving the lodge. Smooth operation!
These guys were the real McCoy wilderness guides, rough and rugged, yet also warm and friendly. Kind of like a combination of Crocodile Dundee and Yogi Bear! For the next 6 days, they would impart their vast knowledge of polar bears, birds (there are over 250 species!), Beluga whales, arctic wild flowers, pioneer history, and just about everything to do with the sub-arctic region I was exploring.
The first thing I noticed was that they were wearing netted jackets, bandanas, and hats and were pretty much covered from head to toe. After my first mosquito bite, I realized pretty quickly that I was not! Luckily the ATV buggy (no pun intended!) moved swiftly and the bugs could not land. In front of the lodge was a garden with magenta fireweed and shed Caribou antlers. I entered the front door and would not pass through that portal again, until I reluctantly left a week later. The only way outside after that was through two double doors, designed to keep mosquitoes out, that led to a maximum security compound, designed to keep bears out! This was guarded by a fearless border collie named Sam. The warmth of the lodge, along with hosts Jeanne and Mike Reimer, is apparent from the moment you step through the front door. Jeanne is a native of Churchill; her grandparents came from Iceland as trappers. Her mother, Helen Webber, writes cookbooks especially for hunters and fishermen that feature “All Canadian Cooking” and her father, Doug, started Webber’s lodges in the seventies. Helen’s cookbook website is BlueberriesAndPolarBears.com. Jeanne and Mike greeted us with tea, coffee, and soft drinks and urged us to have homemade coffee cake, the first of many delectable treats to come (many from Helen’s cookbooks)! I loved the huge panoramic windows and warm wood interior. I nestled into one of the four huge leather sofas and got ready for Polar Bear Country Orientation 101. Although I was traveling alone in a strange land in the middle of nowhere, I felt completely at home, right from the start!
In the middle of orientation, guide Andy said he had spotted a bear and that we were to get prepared to go outside in 10 minutes. Getting prepared meant covering exposed areas of skin with bug repellant and/or bug jackets and netting for hats. We went outside to the compound, a large pen for humans, keeping us safe and bears out. From there you can climb up the tower to view the bear or observe it from one of the two viewing platforms. I would’ve been content with that, but Andy and Terry informed us we were going out of the gate to see the bear up close and personal! I was thrilled and a bit nervous to tell you the truth. Although I have always been an animal lover, I had never been so close to such a large animal in the wild (unless you count my husband –Cam!).
That week there were only nine guests (the lodge experience is always intimate with a maximum of 16), and together we left through the large fenced gate. We walked in single file to minimize our profile – this way the bears don’t feel threatened. Together the group meanders as one at the pace of the slowest person in the group. We walked about 500 yards out on the mudflats as it was low tide. The large bear, approx. 1000 pounds, was another 500 yards farther out on a point of rocks. I was astounded at how close we were. He put his nose up in the air and got a whiff of our scent. Their sense of smell is incredible and their eyesight and hearing are keen as well. He sensed that we were not a threat or food, and continued to relax on his spot of sand and rocks, aware of us, but tolerant.
This was the most incredible thing for me! I realized that he was just doing the best he could to endure in the wild and that he was not a threat to us either. The temperatures were abnormally warm in the high 80′s and the bugs were attacking his nose and eyes. I was hot under my protective gear and couldn’t imagine how he felt under all that dense fur. At the Eskimo Museum I was able to touch that fur and I knew how thick it was! I was so lucky to have witnessed many bears that week; most of the time sleeping, or keeping cool blowing bubbles in the water or, of course, trying to keep those annoying bugs off.
Summer is a kind of hibernation for them; they don’t eat much at all, and are waiting for the ice to return to resume their seal hunting and mating. By the way, the whole time I was there, I saw only one seal on a rock sunning itself! In Churchill, the town I flew to before boarding the float plane, they have a massive structure call the polar bear jail. Occasionally, nuisance adolescent bears are caught and kept for the summer and given only water. At the end of the summer, they are hauled up in a sling and brought out on the ice with a loud warning.
On our way back to the lodge, guide Terry noticed another bear sleeping in the grass. We may have walked right past him! Once he became aware of us, we gave him a wide berth and continued our slow trek back to “home”. The guides are always at either end of the group and each has several weapons on them. Throwing rocks or using a loud noisemaker is their first choice. Thank heavens they have never had to use the 12 gauge shot gun they also carry!
Polar bear attacks on humans are rare in Churchill and since 1984 it has been illegal to hunt them worldwide. However, Inuit people are given several hunting permits each year, and sadly, some are sold to wealthy jerks to trophy hunt. The Inuit people make a substantial amount from this, but it would hardly be a challenge to shoot one of the bears we got so close to. I hope world consciousness is changing towards treasuring our wild animals in their environment, and the barbaric thinking of our past is behind us. The bears have a hard enough time just surviving. PolarBearInternational.org, WWF.org.
The pictures I have included in the article are all taken with a Panasonic Lumix 10x zoom, not an expensive camera with a long lens. So you can see I was very close to them!