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Churchill Wild founders Mike and Jeanne Reimer at Seal River in the early days.

Churchill Wild founders Mike and Jeanne Reimer at Seal River in the early days.

The first guests have arrived at Seal River Heritage Lodge for Birds, Bears and Belugas and Churchill Wild’s 25th Anniversary season is officially underway!

It’s been quite the adventure to get here!

Twenty-five years ago, Churchill Wild co-founders Mike and Jeanne Reimer bought an abandoned whale research station just north of the Seal River on Canada’s Hudson Bay coast. Backed by Jeanne’s parents, Doug and Helen Webber, their dream was to develop an ecotourism business starring polar bears and beluga whales, with a supporting cast of wolves, caribou, moose, wolverine, Arctic hare and fox, a myriad of birds and the beautiful flora of the subarctic.

They had one paying guest in 1994.

Today, Churchill Wild is recognized world-wide as the pioneer of the planet’s only true polar bear walking safaris. Over 4,000 guests have experienced the life-changing adventure of meeting a polar bear face-to-face at ground level at one of Churchill Wild’s three luxury ecolodges on the Hudson Bay coast, and two of the lodges, Seal River Heritage Lodge and Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge, have been welcomed into the prestigious National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World community.

Lounge at Seal River Heritage Lodge in 2018.

Lounge at Seal River Heritage Lodge, 2018.

Churchill Wild has gone on to win numerous national and international tourism awards for excellence, Mike and Jeanne Reimer have been elected to the Royal Canadian Geographical Society’s College of Fellows, and guests have become loyal evangelists for Churchill Wild’s unique brand of ecotourism.

And all from such humble beginnings.

Dennis Fast, who would go on to become Churchill Wild’s first official guide and photographer, recalls flying into see the Reimer’s new “Lodge” at Seal River shortly after they purchased the property in 1993.

Seal River Heritage Lodge in the fog, 1993. Lots of work to do!

Seal River Heritage Lodge in the fog, 1993. Lots of work to do!

“Mike said he was going to turn it into a beluga whale watching place for tourists,” said Fast. “We landed on a runway that hadn’t been attended to for who knows how long. There were rocks all over the place. The pilot had to clear a path just so we could take off properly. The place itself looked like an old shack. Dirt everywhere. Everything had been trashed by bears and wolves and foxes. I remember saying to Mike in disbelief, ‘Does Jeanne know you bought this?’”

Of course, Jeanne knew, but Mike admitted that at the time things looked a little rough. The building was in his words, “a crooked falling-down, rotting-timbered mess. The windows and doors were all knocked out. There were bird’s nests in all the light fixtures and bear poop in the bedroom. It was basically a wide-open building shell.”

The first few seasons were interesting to say the least, but with Jeanne’s parents Doug and Helen Webber backing the program with years of experience in the northern tourism business, the Reimer’s dug in and went to work.

The first summer in 1993 was spent cleaning up the site and making the existing building habitable. It had been used previously as a whale research station and goose hunting camp but had sat abandoned for many years.

“With much elbow grease, lots of paint, new beds, plumbing, electrical, roofing and some new doors and windows, we eventually had a place to call home,” said Mike. “Of course, just to remind us of whose turf we were on, a curious polar bear smashed out one of the new windows in the first week before we had a chance to get some bars up.”

Seal River Heritage Lodge. Michael Poliza photo.

Seal River Heritage Lodge today. Host lodge for our Arctic Safari. Michael Poliza photo.

That first season was not a real money maker, with only one client, but the adventure level was very high. And there was an endless supply of new routes and trails to explore and establish!

Like most small businesses when they are just starting up, Mike and Jeanne ran the whole show for a few seasons while they got their feet underneath them. Jeanne was chef/housekeeper/bear guard/hostess/expeditor/berry picker (with their kids as helpers) while Mike did everything that needed to be done outside, including guiding the guests and making sure all the lodge systems were working.

“I do remember our first bedroom,” said Mike. “It eventually became the laundry room. It was five feet wide by 14 feet long with Jeanne and I at one end and our girls — Rebecca, Karli and Allison — stacked three deep like cordwood at the other end. When our son Adam came along he slept on a shelf above our bed! All very cozy, the kids loved it and thought it was all one big adventure.”

Bedroom at Seal River Lodge in 2018. What a difference 25 years makes!

Bedroom at Seal River Lodge in 2018. Now cozy enough for our fall Polar Bear Photo Safari! What a difference 25 years makes!

Much to their delight, the Reimers discovered that Seal River had an incredible array of flora and fauna. It was going to be a spectacular choice for an ecolodge. The mechanics of building and operating the lodge came naturally (mostly) as both Mike and Jeanne had already gained a wealth of valuable experience working with Doug and Helen at their lodges.

“None of this would have happened without them,” said Mike. “They’re the reason we are where we are today. This has really been a team effort. And we couldn’t have done any of this without our guests. A big thank you goes out to all of them, for spending their hard-earned dollars and time with us. We have thoroughly enjoyed their company and made many lifelong friends.

“Thank you for making our dream a reality.”

Stay tuned for the full Churchill Wild history story. Coming soon to a polar bear blog near you!

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