Walking With Giants: Journey Through Polar Bear Country
“Back up! Back up! Back up!” whispers our guide Tara, who for the first time this whole week places one hand on the 12-gauge shotgun slung over her left shoulder. Our group scampers back – tripods and all – without delay. Bob, the gentle giant who we’ve come to know and love ambles by and without hesitation we give him the wide berth that his 1000-pound frame demands and deserves.
Andy, our other guide, speaks in a calm, monotone voice meant to prevent a dangerous situation from arising. “Heeeeeeeyyyyyy good lookin’. Whatchya doin’? We’re not gonna bother you.”
Cameras click rapid fire trying to capture each paw placement, gesture, and hair on this mighty beast’s body. Bob ambles by 20 feet away, looks over, raises his massive and adorable square muzzle for a sniff and then continues lumbering across the ice. Clearly, he’s not the least bit concerned with us. Why would he be when he outweighs each of us by at least 800 pounds?
So goes another magical day on safari at the Seal River Heritage Lodge.
It’s mid-November and we’ve journeyed to this remote chalet on the banks of the Hudson Bay in Canada’s Manitoba Province to see the largest land carnivores on Earth. Since July, polar bears have been roaming the coastline living largely off fat reserves and waiting for the bay to freeze so they can return to hunting seals. Freeze up will happen any day now sending these majestic beasts back out onto the ice to resume their ceaseless quest for food.
GETTING HERE ISN’T EASY
You can’t drive, walk or take a train here; the only way in is a 40 minute journey through the sky on a small bush plane from Churchill. My sister, Helen has never been on a plane like this; she smiles and grips the seat in front of her as we bounce, bounce, bounce and finally come to a halt on the snowy tundra.
We step out of the tiny aircraft and breathe in. The clear, frigid air burns our lungs. Within seconds I can’t feel my fingers or toes, but I quickly forget my discomfort when a stunning woman in an over-sized red parka greets us with, “Bears. Over there.” And then I see them: two huge cream-colored furry beasts wander through willow bushes over the next rise. A tiny gasp of wonder escapes the gap in my frozen lips. I fumble for my camera and snap a few lame pictures. The bears are far away, I’m using the wrong lens, the light is flat, and my fingers aren’t working, but this might be it—our only chance to see bears all week—so I feel compelled to capture it. I will look back at these blurry photos of white dots and laugh.
After a few shots, I grab my sister – and best friend — in a weird, parka-filled, sideways hug and we awkwardly jump up and down like buffoons. “I can’t believe this! Five minutes and we’ve already seen them. They’re so awesome,” she says in a whisper – or what passes for one in our boisterous and loving family. She’s shivering, her eyelashes have icicles on them and her lips can barely move, but she’s smiling and that’s all that matters to me.
I try to be there for her, too, but she’s so damn solid and unflappable, that – as the youngest and least together of the 5 kids – I’ve never felt like I had much to give. Then, years ago, she mentioned that seeing polar bears was a lifelong dream, but she’d never go alone. I was in, but we were all talk until life intervened with a tornado of crap in the form of death, illness, betrayal and generally hard times; these not-so-subtle kicks in the ass pushed us to stop talking and start planning.
We weren’t under any illusions that a week in the Arctic would heal wounds or eradicate troubles. We knew they’d still be there after our adventure, but we hoped that from the far north they’d look just a little bit different.
VISITORS IN THEIR HOME
Churchill draws thousands of tourists who know that at certain times of year, you’re almost guaranteed to see the ‘Lords of the Canadian Arctic’ roaming the tundra and coast. Most of these sightings occur either from a great distance or a tundra buggy – an huge bus-like vehicle made to plow over snow.
Helen and I wanted something more authentic and wild. We wanted to intimately appreciate these mighty creatures and not from behind a pane of glass or within a vehicle.
At first, it seemed that a buggy tour might be the only safe way to see these critters, but then we found Churchill Wild, a family company owned and run by Jeannie and Mike Reimer for the past 20 years. Their lodge-based tours seemed totally unique; we’d be in a small group—only 16 people allowed—and actually get to walk with polar bears and wander through their territory, exploring it just as they do.
We signed up in January, but then had to spend 11 months waiting in anticipation. I found myself overcome with excitement, but also with worry—lying awake at night with questions that could only be answered by going. What if we don’t see a thing? What if the bears are just tiny dots on the horizon? What if Helen is disappointed? We were lured to Seal River Lodge by promises that we’d get to experience bears close-up and on their own terms, but as the day drew nearer, doubt crept in.
Upon arrival, my worries vanished on the piercing wind. Within minutes we walk with bears, watch arctic fox frolic in snow banks, and meet Jeannie, Mike, and their lovable staff. We retreat to the lodge—which the Reimers themselves hand-built in a sustainable manner—for a delicious tundra-to-table meal. Once I’m cozy inside the beautiful circular dining room dipping fresh baked bread in steaming hot squash soup while watching a polar bear wander ten feet from the window, I chuckle about those sleepless nights.
“We strive to provide the kind of experience we’d want to have on an adventure vacation,” explains Mike, owner and guide. “We want to give people something edgy but extremely comfortable that allows them to experience these remarkable animals while also forcing them get away from the busy-ness of the world out there.”
And, that’s exactly what a stay at Seal River does. No cell service and a slower-than-molasses internet connection forces visitors to truly enjoy each moment and to reconnect with themselves and others.
Each day after enjoying a scrumptious breakfast featuring local fare like moose sausage or muffins with cranberries picked on-site in summer, we head on a walkabout to soak in the natural beauty and grandeur of the Hudson Bay coastline. Without fail, Andy and Tara locate bears and other wildlife for us to enjoy. We mosey along the frozen shore with resident bears Bob and Grubby. We watch them snuggle and nap together and spend hours entertained as they wrestle and throw colossal-pawed punches. They’re only play fighting now—no females to impress this time of year—but their intense power and strength is evident. They huff, grunt, and pass out in a pile, exhausted from such great exertion.
After filling ourselves once again at lunch—this time with caribou stew or northern pike caught in a nearby waterway—we venture out again until dark, which comes quickly this far north. We go where the critters are, keeping our distance until they show us it’s okay to get closer. Sometimes we get near enough to hear them chomp on snow or to see bits of spit dripping off their chins. Even Goliath, a new much bigger bear who appears on the scene late in the week, isn’t shy or disturbed by our presence.
A few times, they approach the fence with no fear, and Helen and I look directly into their sweet, soulful eyes. In just a few days, we bond with these beautiful giants and the land that feeds them.
Getting so close may sound nuts given that polar bears are known for their ferocious predatory instincts. But, the folks at Churchill Wild know what they’re doing. “We are the only lodge-based, walking-with-polar-bear tours in the world. We are first to do it, but we don’t take it lightly,” says Mike. “We know it only works because we have the best-trained guides and on-the-ground knowledge to make it safe. Plus, it can only work in an isolated spot like this where there are no outside influences and we can control the entire situation.”
No matter how close the bears come, we never disturb them. If we did, Tara and Andy would lead us away. But, they sleep, play, and wander, knowing we are there but without a hint of concern. And it’s important to keep it that way. We are, after all, visitors in their home, not the other way around—a point evident from the thought put into the lodge and the caring, conscious ethic and behavior demonstrated by each person (guide, owner, handyman, chef) who works to make Seal River tick.
At night, we relax around the wood burning stove, share photos and stories, and get to know the other members of our group. Being thrown into a situation like this with complete strangers could be awkward. But, Jeannie and Mike, Tara and Andy, and the other staff eat meals with us, share living quarters, and make us feel like family. This warmth percolates through to the rest of the group and we gel. It basically feels like we’re visiting friends in an unbelievably stunning and awe-inspiring spot perched on the edge of the earth.
One night, while curled up in our beds and going over the highlights of the day, Helen sums it up: “It’s awesome to be able to see such a mighty animal in its natural habitat, but it’s equally as impressive to see how much the people who work here care. I mean, the lengths they go to so we don’t disturb Bob and Grubby. They care so much about the space and all the wildlife that inhabit that space…. It makes me care even more.”
I drift off to dream land with a huge grin on my face.
WAKE UP CALL
“Northern lights! Northern lights!” Tara sings as she knocks gently on each door. We fumble to pull on our layers in the dark and head out to the fenced-in compound behind the lodge. Swirls of green dance overhead—lengthening and contracting, changing shape, and shifting to include splashes of pink, purple, and red. The moon lights up the bay.
We’re half awake and freezing, but once again, I grab Helen and we do a little dance to celebrate this unbelievable gift.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
In the morning, we wake to watch yet another magical sunrise over this mystical landscape dappled with ice chunks, snowdrifts, and frigid water. With each new day, comes a new surprise. A windstorm forces the bears to hunker down so we hike miles over untracked tundra to reach a ridge hiding a herd of majestic caribou. We watch a tiny arctic fox taunt bears. A snowy owl swoops down to make his presence known. A least weasel darts between willows, and a battle-scarred cub, probably separated from her mom, wanders by the lodge.
Together, Helen and I witness countless miraculous moments, and each time we see a new bear, we fall in love with his unique personality, surprisingly playful antics, and gentle nature.
On our last morning at Seal River Lodge, Bob and Grubby return for one more look at us. They stroll along the fence line and then start playing. My heart fills with joy, but as I watch these incredible bears roll around in the snow, I can’t shake the thought that part of our motivation for visiting them now is the sense of urgency we feel.
Polar bears were listed as a threatened species in 2008 under the Endangered Species Act due to rapid demise of sea ice habitat. They were the first animals listed as threatened for climate-change related reasons. In November 2010, officials designated 120 million acres of coastal areas, sea ice, and barrier islands as critical habitat for polar bears. Research reveals a wide range of opinions. Some say populations are increasing while others say that without action, two-thirds of the world’s polar bears could be gone by 2050 and the rest wiped out by the end of the century. Some believe we have insufficient data. These varying opinions make it difficult to know how polar bears are actually faring worldwide, but it’s clear that the future for Arctic marine mammals is uncertain since loss of sea ice and warming temperatures are changing unique and fragile Arctic ecosystems.
Helen and I worried that if we didn’t get here soon, we’d miss our chance to see polar bears in the wild.
Mike and Jeannie don’t deny the impact of climate change, but they remain hopeful. “We’ve been living in polar bear habitat for decades and the populations we see right here are thriving. I’m confident that my grandkids and great grandkids will be out here working with these remarkable creatures,” says Mike. The Reimers understand, however, that what they are doing – protecting habitat, teaching people to care, and creating a place where people can come to appreciate wildlife while having a minimal impact – is critical.
When our time at Seal River unfortunately comes to an end, we wait on the runway—really just a tiny open space in the willows—for our plane to arrive. I edge up to Helen who’s watching Bob and Grubby frolic in the distance. “I’m so grateful for this, Sis,” she says. “It sounds silly, but this has changed my life. I’m reminded that there is so much else out here in the world that we should appreciate instead of worrying about the minutiae, the small stuff. I’m sad to leave, but glad to return with a new perspective on the things waiting at home.”
It’s snowing lightly. Our plane lifts off, and we begin the long journey south. The vast tundra spreads out below us, looking harsh, frigid, and beautiful. The pilot points out a couple moose and then an enormous bear, who is already retreating to the ice for a winter of hunting. We don’t want to leave because there’s never enough time in a place like this, but we journey home stronger and, just like the bear below, ready to face winter—no matter what it may bring.
To see more photos from Chris’s adventure, click here.
For more on Churchill Wild safaris visit: http://www.churchillwild.com/
For more info about polar bears visit: http://phys.org/news/2015-03-global-status-future-arctic-marine.html and http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/species/mammals/polar_bear/index.html