Churchill on the southwest shore of Hudson Bay is a pretty laid back place. Most northern communities are – except when it comes to wildlife, that is – and the danger that carelessness can represent.
As laid back about conformity, time, cultural differences and life in general as northerners are, they make it clear that you just don’t mess with Mother Nature. Disrespect for the elements and the “Lords of the North” can translate into a very quick loss of life — my own, I am told! So with this mantra planted firmly in my mind, I board the lodge helicopter as I go in search of the great white polar bear.
Such was the beginning of my five-day adventure at Polar Bear Lodge on Dymond Lake, a remote camp just a short ‘copter ride from the Arctic community of Churchill, Manitoba, the undisputed “Polar Bear Capital of the World.” The property is part of the Webber family of lodges that includes Seal River Heritage Lodge, an eco-tourism property run by Mike and Jeanne Reimer.
In July and August, the Reimers host visitors at the Seal River location, providing the opportunity for close encounters with beluga whales and other northern creatures. In October and November, the Reimers invite guests to Polar Bear Lodge to meet the big white guys – but not too close, considering polar bears are the world’s largest bear, not to mention the largest land-roving carnivore. And yes, we do qualify as food when the bears are hungrily waiting around for a seal of a meal – their preferred menu.
Rule Number One
Arriving at Dymond Lake, we are greeted by Dennis Fast, a professional photographer and our guide for the next few days. We are given a brief orientation, then he cuts right to the point:
“Rule number one is that I go first whenever we step outside the door of the lodge,” warns Dennis. “That’s because I need a clear shot in case a bear charges.” And he didn’t mean a clear shot with his camera! No, Dennis was referring to the rifle he carries everywhere with him, as you never know when a polar bear might step out from behind a willow bush, or wake up around the next rock when you’re out hiking. This is reality out on the tundra.
The sleeping quarters at the lodge are in a separate building from the dining room, so each meal we troop to the dining building, with Dennis and his gun at the lead. “I can’t believe I need an armed guard to go from our lodging to the dining room!” remarked one of my fellow guests. The lodge is comprised of several separate buildings, and you just never know when a bear might show up in the yard.
A Taste of the Northern Lifestyle
The lodge has large picture windows, ideal for viewing the bears as they saunter past. As well, there are telescopes and binoculars mounted inside to make the bears appear larger than life, while keeping us safely on the right side of the glass. Contrary to our excitement at seeing them, the bears hardly noticed us at all.
Binoculars and telescopes in the lounge mean visitors can spot approaching bears in comfort and safety. Doreen Pendgracs
One evening as we sat down to dinner, Jeff, our friendly chef, called out in frustration as he grabbed his rifle and ran out. Cheeky, a curious male polar bear well known to the locals, had decided to take possession of some caribou skins that formed the wall of the lodge teepee. Jeff wasn’t about to let him get away with it! I longed for a video camera to record Jeff running across the ice, chasing the bear and shaking his rifle like a stick! Cheeky dropped the skin, Jeff returned safely, and the story had a happy ending.
Caribou skin teepee ravished by a passing bear with Polar Bear Lodge behind. Doreen Pendgracs
Jeanne’s mother, Helen Webber, is a gourmet chef who has published a series of northern cookbooks. Our chef, Jeff, is Helen’s nephew, and he has been well taught in carrying on the tradition of serving up a fantastic assortment of local fare with flair. We had snow goose fillets, roast rack of caribou, northern pike fish chowder, hearty homemade breads and cinnamon buns, and my personal favorite – banana stuffed French toast.
“Food is the easiest thing to control,” said our host, Mike Reimer. “You can’t control the wildlife or the weather, but if you feed your guests well and make them comfortable, it creates a memorable experience.” And comfortable we were. The food was delicious and ample, our cabin was kept toasty with a wood-burning stove, and our bunks were covered with cozy down-filled comforters that made sure our toes stayed warm through the night.
Out on the Tundra
Each day we took a different hike to learn about the uniqueness of the tundra. We stopped to build a fire so that we could make hot chocolate and roast some bannock – the biscuit-type bread dough we put on the tip of sticks and browned over the open fire like toasting a marshmallow. It was satisfying and tasty, and gave us a welcome break after trekking a couple of hours along the snow-covered rocky terrain. Fortunately, no bears dropped by to share our snack.
A bannock break during a tundra wildlife hike. Doreen Pendgracs
A power nap is good any time of day!
The most exciting moment for me came late one afternoon, when we’d returned from a hike and were summoned by Mike who said a bear was resting along the shore of the lake. We moved slowly onto the ice-covered lake and saw the bear, dozing along the shore, comfortably protected from the bitter wind. He was watching us with one eye open. The polar bear didn’t seem to mind us getting as close as about 150 feet from him, but our fearless armed guards, Jeff and Dennis, warned us not to get any closer. We obeyed … remembering the number one rule. It was one of those me-and-nature moments I shall never forget.
Follow Up Facts
To book your own memorable northern vacation at Seal River Heritage Lodge or Polar Bear Lodge, contact Churchill Wild: www.churchillwild.com.
Churchill is not accessible by road, so your transportation choices to this frontier area are plane or train. Two and a half hour flights are available from Winnipeg on Calm Air, Air Canada’s northern partner, www.aircanada.ca. Via Rail provides train service from Winnipeg with a 36-hour ride, www.viarail.ca.
Expect snow and bitter cold winds in this region anytime between September and June. The best time to view the aurora borealis (northern lights) is March. Summers can be hot, so if you come to see the beluga whales in July or August, be sure to bring your shorts and some bug repellent. October and November are peak bear watching season when it is particularly necessary to book your trip well in advance, with a one-year lead time for in-town accommodations, or for an overnight sleeper on the train.
Complement your lodge stay with a night or two in Churchill and ride the tundra buggy, a unique mode of transportation out to the tundra where curious bears will certainly check you out. Visit International Wildlife Adventures, www.wildlifeadventures.com, for this and other unique options.
Contact Travel Manitoba, www.travelmanitoba.com, for information about travel options throughout this interesting Canadian province.
Tundra Buggy. Doreen Pendgracs
Doreen Pendgracs is a photojournalist and editor living in Manitoba, Canada. Specializing in travel and lifestyle topics, her work has appeared in dozens of North American publications. She and her husband, Reg, travel at every opportunity, preferring destinations off the beaten path. You may read more of Doreen’s writing on her website: www.wizardofwords.net.
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