by George Williams with photos by Courtney Horwood
How many 25-year-olds can say they’ve stomped (or walked softly on) the tundra with wild polar bears?
Courtney Horwood can.
She did it this summer at Seal River Heritage Lodge, while also plunging into the depths of Hudson Bay to swim with beluga whales. Her friends can’t match either adventure, but Courtney has a bit of an edge, which is not to be confused with her personality traits. She’s part of our team here.
If you’ve called the Churchill Wild office, you may have already spoken with Courtney. She works in Sales and Administration. We try to have all of our team members experience what it’s truly like to come face-to-face with polar bears and beluga whales.
“I spent many summers growing up on Lake Winnipeg,” said Courtney. “So I wasn’t afraid of wildlife. And I’d seen black bears, but going to see polar bears for the first time was exciting.”
“We saw three polar bears on the flight in,” said Courtney. “I picked cloudberries on my first day there while the guests went on a hike, but that night I saw my first polar bear. He came right up to the compound fence. It was perfect light and it was almost like he was posing for us.
“It was amazing. You don’t realize how big they are until you’re 15 feet away from them. He was so peaceful. He didn’t seem to care that we were there. But it was a big deal for us. The guests saw a lot of polar bears that day on their hike, but that was my first one.”
Early the next morning Courtney joined the guests on their first trip to swim with beluga whales in Hudson Bay. The water was choppy, but the weather was good, so off they went in the Zodiacs.
“It was a bit of a wild ride,” said Courtney. “But it was worth it. We were surrounded by belugas. Everywhere you looked there were beluga backs and you could hear them. There were eight of us in the boat and five of us went in. I had to. It was a once in a lifetime chance to swim with belugas in the wild. Not everyone gets that opportunity. No one I know has ever done anything like this.”
So into the water she went, protected by a dry suit and ready to sing (hum), which attracts the belugas. She hummed “O Canada” and the whales patriotically came rolling in.
“When they came close I stopped humming,” said Courtney. “I didn’t want them to come any closer. In my GoPro videos you can hear me stop. You get nervous when they come so close, but they’re really gentle giants. They won’t hurt you. They reminded me of dolphins, friendly and curious. You have to be a little bit brave, and you should know how to snorkel, because you have to breathe and hum at the same time.”
Guide Quent Plett turned on the underwater microphone so the guests could hear the belugas singing and talking to each other. He also showed Courtney an attraction trick so she could get some underwater footage from inside the boat. Rubbing a finger a certain way on the side of the Zodiac made a squeaky sound that brought more belugas in close. On the way back to the Lodge it started to rain, but that didn’t put a damper on anyone’s spirits.
“We were all smiling and laughing,” said Courtney. “The guests were super happy. They were amazed by how many belugas there were and how close we could get.”
When the seafarers arrived back at the lodge, a mother and cubs were out front waiting for them.
“The cubs were more curious than Mom,” said Courtney. “She just let them do their thing. They had a nap right outside the dining room window and we went outside to see them.”
There were more well-received polar bear interruptions at breakfast and dinner time, but a few moments of the trip especially stood out for Courtney.
“We went out on a trek with soup and sandwiches,” she said. “It was cool to set up tables in the middle of nowhere. There was a big sleepy polar bear and a wolf walked right in front of him. A sik-sik did the same thing. We saw three to four bears a day minimum. The last day at the lodge we were just surrounded by them. There was one sleeping close to the lodge and I went out to see him with my GoPro on.
“There was also a funny bear that came right up to the viewing deck. He’d eaten a baby beluga that had washed up on shore and he decided to sleep it off there. Another bear we saw was a little nervous, because we were downwind of her and she couldn’t smell us, so she zig-zagged and once she could smell us she calmed down.”
Churchill Wild polar bear tours are not like the others. We like to get out into the wild and walk the hallowed ground where the kings roam.
“Not many people get to see polar bears like this,” said Courtney.
Courtney’s group on the trip included couples from England, Austria and Wisconsin, a woman from California, a grandmother and her grandchildren from Ottawa, and the Tucker family of six from England, who captured some fabulous photos of the northern lights.
Polar bear guides Quent, Terry and Mike gave presentations to the group during the evenings, on topics that included the life cycle of a polar bear, the history of the lodge and polar bear behavior. On the final evening the group made s’mores and had drinks around a bonfire, forever warmed by shared memories of a rare adventure, on the Canadian tundra.
“It’s a once in a lifetime experience,” said Courtney.