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Polar bear mom standing with cub. Seal River Heritage Lodge. Anjali Singh photo.

Polar bear observing people at Seal River Heritage Lodge. Anjali Singh photo.

Churchill Wild lodge managers Ben Lawrence and Nicole Spinks spent the 2020 season lodge-sitting and doing maintenance at our polar bear lodges, mostly alone, with the polar bears. Writer Ingrid Brunner interviewed Ben and Nicole in mid-November, as the polar bears readied to move out onto the Hudson Bay sea ice at Seal River Heritage Lodge. The interview is reprinted here courtesy of the German publication Süddeutsche Zeitung, where it originally appeared

by Ingrid Brunner

On Canada’s Hudson Bay coast there is a remote lodge with a special view of wild animals. Seal River Heritage Lodge managers Nicole Spinks and Ben Lawrence have been alone at the lodge for a large part of the 2020 season, making sure that the polar bears don’t become burglars.

In the fall, Manitoba’s polar bears migrate from their summer quarters in the hinterland to the coast of Hudson Bay, waiting for the sea to freeze over. Then their seal hunt begins. The migration of animals in normal years attracts visitors from all over the world to Seal River Heritage Lodge — a kind of high-security wing in the wilderness — because polar bears can rarely be observed from such a short distance at ground level, as they are here. This year there are no guests due to COVID-19. Only lodge managers Nicole Spinks, 31, and her partner Ben Lawrence, 33, were at the lodge when I interviewed them.

Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ): I assume you don’t get a lot of visitors at your outpost?

Ben Lawrence (Ben): Visitors right now are really extremely rare. Manitoba Conservation officers from Churchill stopped by. Whenever we hear an airplane or a helicopter, we leave everything and try to guess who is above us.

SZ: Did you volunteer for this job?

Nicole Spinks (Nicole): Yes, we couldn’t wait to relieve Terry (guide Terry Elliott).

Ben Lawrence and Nicole Spinks at Seal River Heritage Lodge this fall.

Ben Lawrence and Nicole Spinks at Seal River Heritage Lodge this fall.

SZ: Terry Elliott held the position here alone for two months. He was called the most isolated man in Canada. Are you Canada’s most isolated couple now?

Nicole: Yes and no. There is no one here but us, the nearest town Churchill is a 30-minute flight away. But there are two of us and we actually have a lot to do.

SZ: How do you spend the time?

Ben: Well, we keep an eye on the polar bears and also on the other wild animals. We also have to chop wood and there is maintenance work to be done on the lodge so that the lines and the generator can get through the winter.

Nicole: And we’re going out to pick berries.

SZ: Are you allowed to leave the lodge?

Nicole: Yes, but only when accompanied. Fortunately, Ben is an experienced polar bear guide and is trained on all the bear deterrents, and I am trained to chase the animals away with noise. That makes it possible for us to go on forays. Because if I don’t get out of the lodge for a few days, I get a cabin fever. And there are so many cranberries this year. There are enough for us and the bears.

Polar bear approaching Seal River Heritage Lodge. Ian Johnson photo.

Polar bear approaching Seal River Heritage Lodge. Ian Johnson photo.

SZ: Isn’t that still dangerous?

Nicole: Whether it’s collecting wood, pumping water or picking berries, this is only possible with bear safety deterrents. Even if you are only a few steps away from the lodge, you have to keep an eye out for the animals.

SZ: And inside: don’t you fear that the hungry animals might break into the lodge in search of food?

Ben: As good as it may smell from the lodge when Nicole bakes cakes, from the point of view of the polar bears, that’s nothing compared to a beluga or a seal, which are at the top of their menu. And the noise we humans make also scares the bears away.

SZ: But there have been incidents?

Ben: In the 27 years since the lodge has existed, there have been a few break-ins (when people weren’t here). Not just by polar bears, but also by other animals. Fortunately, the only burglar we’ve both caught so far was a cheeky pine marten.

SZ: Do you sometimes feel a little like you’re in the zoo — but the roles are reversed?

Nicole: Yes, absolutely, I feel like the animal in the zoo. The bears, foxes, wolves and rabbits out there come and go when they want.

SZ: How many polar bears are there right now sitting on the shores of Hudson Bay waiting for the ice?

Nicole: So far we have a mother with two young cubs and a very large male. We estimate that 20 to 30 polar bears will come by the lodge, one by one.

SZ: Can you tell the animals apart?

Nicole: I find it quite difficult to tell the females apart, some actually have rounder hips than others. The males can often be recognized by their old scars — from turf wars. Like Scarface, for example, a huge bear with obvious scars on his head. When you see them, you have to wonder what the other guy looked like after the fight.

SZ: Is Hudson Bay freezing over yet?

Nicole: So far we only have pancake ice, round ice formations floating on the water. It takes time for a solid ice cover to form.

SZ: How much longer do you have to guard the lodge?

Ben: We have been here since mid-September and will be staying until the end of November. By then, a solid ice cover will have formed, and the polar bears will go out onto the ice. That eliminates the reason for our lodge-sitting and we’ll close everything down until it reopens.

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