Guest post by Iain Campbell of Tropical Birding. A note of caution: bears are dangerous animals. Be careful, treat them with respect and don’t let any guide allow your group to harass the bears for a quick buck. As Iain points out, the best guides will not interfere with or disturb the bears and will keep you safe while giving you an experience of a lifetime.
I had heard about the bears of Churchill for years, and always thought that watching the animals from the comfort of a tundra buggy seemed interesting but somewhat detached. When a guide from Seal River Heritage Lodge approached me and told me about walking with polar bears, I was intrigued but extremely skeptical.
Well, I joined the trip, and I can say point blank that it was the best photographic and wildlife adventure that I have ever experienced. After five days with bears, I wanted to stay for another week and was excited when our flight out was delayed by four hours. That gave time for one more walk…
Flying north from Churchill, you fly over the last of the Taiga forest and onto the tundra. The landscape is not classically beautiful, but glorious in its starkness. After half an hour or so of scanning for bears you reach Seal River Lodge. If you want plush with all the bells and whistles, satellite television and a spa, this is not your place. It is much better than that, with very comfortable with ensuite bathrooms, an extremely cozy lounge to hang out and chat, and best of all, an amazingly helpful staff that does everything to make sure that you have a brilliant experience.
MEETING THE GUIDES, AND THE BEARS
After we were given a detailed introduction to dealing with bears we went on the walks. The guides talked about all aspects of Arctic biology, history, and culture. We found ourselves talking about Inuit and the First Nations lifestyle while being watched by another local. The general protocol was to not let new bears get too close, about 100 yards, before the guides made noise to keep them away. When it was a bear that the guides knew well, and whose behavior set off no alarms, they let it come within a safe distance. There was one bear that followed us a lot, and would walk to within 30 yards, then usually lie down and watch us before dozing off.
At times my adrenalin skyrocketed, but at no time did the local guides lose their composure. They were always in control of the situation. It is all about not interfering with or disturbing the bears and keeping you safe while giving you an experience of a lifetime.
Sometimes you did not need to head out of the lodge compound to have a close encounter. Bears walk up and down the coastline of Hudson Bay, so every few hours or so one may walk past the lodge. As the bears pass the time waiting for ice to form, which can take weeks (or sadly, months), they seem to enjoy having people to interact with. A few times, when I went out to the perimeter of the lodge compound, a bear would approach the fence. I spent about 20 minutes with the one in the photo above, but had to leave before I rudely arrived late for lunch (rule #1 of boutique lodges: never piss off the kitchen staff). I went in, had lunch, and watched the bear play in the snow.
I will definitely be going back. Click here for a complete trip report of this great Polar Bear Walking Safari (with many more photos).