What better way to celebrate Canada’s 150th Birthday in 2017 than by immersing yourself in the rich history of the Canadian fur trade while walking with polar bears.
And when you’re not being mesmerized by polar bears, black bears, wolves, moose, or even the odd grizzly bear at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge, you can let your mind wander back 400 years to a time when the first explorers arrived in Canada. You might even see a ship captained by one of those brave souls.
“Imagine early explorers mapping the area, without the benefit of modern technology,” said renowned Canadian explorer George Kourounis, who led the Arctic Discovery trip to Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge in 2016 as an Ambassador for the Royal Canadian Geographical Society.
“All in the search for furs which brought with them the promise of fortune. These were rugged people, doing a dangerous job in often horrendous weather. Every step you take at Nanuk may have been used by fur traders seeking pelts to send back to Europe. The shoreline is also lined with old shipwrecks and other artifacts from that era.”
Located on the southwestern shores of Hudson Bay, Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge is 250 km south of Churchill and a short flight or a very long walk through polar bear country from York Factory, where the history of the fur trade began in Canada in the 1600s. Many early Northwest Passage explorers would have sailed by Nanuk on their way to their later established strongholds of York Factory and the Prince of Wales Fort in Churchill.
The Prince of Wales Fort was originally constructed as a log fort on the banks of the Churchill River in 1717, by James Knight of the Hudson Bay Company. York Factory was established even earlier, in 1684, by Governor George Geyer of the Hudson Bay Company, and changed ownership numerous times as the French and English fought over control of Canada’s lucrative fur trading routes.
Many of the early explorers didn’t make it to York Factory or Churchill, which is why we still find remnants from old shipwrecks on the windswept coastal flats at Nanuk. You just never know what might emerge from the depths of land or sea in this area, but make sure to take notice of the ship cannons and other artifacts at the lodge that are hundreds of years old.
“The Hudson Bay region has such a deep history,” said Kourounis. “From pre-Columbian aboriginal settlements through the massive fur trade that dominated the area via the Hudson Bay Company, just being there and standing in their footsteps made me imagine what it must have been like for these men and women who risked it all in such an unforgiving land. Now, we have the benefit of facilities and technology that make it easy to experience the same place, and do it comfortably. Oh how times have changed.”
Guests on the 2017 Arctic Discovery will kayak the historic Churchill River while surrounded by curious beluga whales, and begin to understand what it must have been like for the Cree and Chipewyan 500 years ago, or for Danish explorer Jens Munk, who wintered at the mouth of the Churchill River in 1619 while searching for the Northwest Passage prior to the arrival of the original Hudson Bay Company explorers.
“Kayaking with belugas in Churchill was an incredible experience,” said Kourounis. “They are so curious! Several times I had belugas come right up to my kayak and actually nibble on my paddle. I’m convinced they are almost as interested in us as we were in them.”
Guests will also gain a glimpse into the history of Churchill, the First Nations peoples, and the lives of the early explorers, with visits to the Prince of Wales Fort, the Parks Canada Museum and the award-winning Itsantiq Museum in Churchill. Just imagine being in a York Boat 400 years ago on the Churchill River or Hayes River, transporting furs and men into the great unknown.
“Churchill is a fascinating town,” said Kourounis. “The ‘Polar Bear Capital of the World’ certainly lives up to its name. We saw male bears sparring with each other in the water near town, and then enjoyed a nice lunch at one of the friendly local restaurants. Many people have heard of the town, but actually visiting it is more than just a bucket list item to check off, it can be a life-changing experience.
“I highly recommend walking around Churchill. It was the gateway for the fur trade and was the only northern town in the region that developed a port and railway station. It was strategically important, and the signs of that era can still be found there. Churchill may not be the bustling centre of commerce that it used to be, but it is charming, with a long history. Be careful when walking around though, bears sometimes wander into town! Encounters with humans are not very common, but they do happen, so take whatever advice the locals give you, they know best.”
Before flying to Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge, guests on the Arctic Discovery will be treated to a gourmet dinner hosted at the home of longtime Churchill resident Helen Webber, co-author of the bestselling Blueberries and Polar Bears cookbook series along with Marie Woolsey. Helen has a multi-generational connection with Churchill that extends back to the fur trade, and her culinary talents are legendary. Guests will take home a cookbook from Helen and Marie’s series, and based on past comments it will become one of the most used books in their home.
Once settled into the heart of polar bear country at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge, guests will have an excellent chance of seeing polar bears, black bears, wolves, moose and an abundance of bird species, but they will be forever changed by their first face-to-face encounter with a polar bear, the king of the Artic.
“Of course, there are polar bears (lots of them),” said Kourournis. “But we also witnessed a lot of other wildlife there. We saw black bears, lots of migratory birds, and we even had the rare privilege of watching wolves in the wild at close range. One big black wolf was even interacting with a huge polar bear. They both seemed interested in the same patch of berries. The polar bear was quick to let the wolf know who was in charge, but after a very brief scuffle, the two went about their business. What a treat it was to witness that.”
And while there’s a good chance guests will see polar bears every day on their excursions outside the lodge compound, it’s also not uncommon to see both black bears and polar bears at the lodge fence, just not at the same time. Black bears generally keep a safe distance from polar bears, although a few guests have captured rare shots of them together in the same photo. And on clear nights, guests may be treated to the greatest lightshow on earth, the Aurora Borealis.
“Because Nanuk is so remote, it’s easy to just sit back and enjoy the sights and sounds of nature,” said Kourounis. “After dinner you can sit out and listen to the birds and other animals, or (my favourite) stay up late to watch the incredible displays of northern lights that are some of the best I’ve ever seen. If you are lucky, the sky can put on quite the show.”
“Just because the lodge is remote, and in the middle of nowhere, that doesn’t mean that you have to compromise quality when it comes to food,” said Kourounis. “Quite the opposite in fact! Every meal was expertly prepared and presented, family style, frequently with local fresh ingredients like local game, fish or berries.”
“Nanuk is a special place, ” said Kourounis. “Remote, beautiful, luxurious. And the fact that it sits along a polar bear migration route makes it THE perfect spot to have a trip that combines the best of comfort, adventure and wildlife viewing that is second to none. I keep returning because it is simply one of the best places in the world to get up close, and on the ground with polar bears. If you are at all interested in the idea of visiting polar bears in their domain, this is the place.
“What better way to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday than to do one of the most Canadian things possible. Traveling up north to witness Canada’s most iconic animal in the wild.”
Exploring the ancient lands of Nanuk, hundreds of miles from civilization, is a soul-soothing experience. You can’t help but drift back in time as you traverse the vast Hudson Bay coastline searching for polar bears. And whether you believe in ghosts or not, you’ll definitely feel the presence of something greater than yourself in this wild place. A deep sense of peace and satisfaction is carried on the winds here. It envelops you…
And makes a home in your heart.