Sometimes you just get lucky.
Missy Mandel hasn’t been to Seal River Heritage Lodge in eight years, but she remembers the trip with her daughter Kailee like it was yesterday. We managed to get the 54-year-old retired schoolteacher out of the woods at her Ontario cottage just long enough to coax a few memories from her last week, and they were all special.
The mother-daughter trip was surprisingly accidental, as Mandel was originally invited to travel to Dymond Lake Ecolodge for the Great Ice Bear Adventure by a friend who was the wife of a travel agent, but her friend was forced to cancel.
“Her father became ill and she couldn’t go,” said Mandel. “So I took my daughter Kailee with me. We were also able to switch over to the Polar Bear Photo Safari at Seal River, which I really wanted to do a as a photographer.”
Like many of Mandel’s photographs, her trip to Seal River was filled with emotion. It brought her and her daughter closer together.
“That was the first photography trip my daughter and I took together,” said Mandel. “We said from that trip onwards we were going to try and do it once a year. That closeness, and the remote location, it left such a lasting impression. Since then, we’ve done one or two photography trips a year. Just the two of us.
“It was just an amazing trip. Forget about the food. Forget about the people. Forget about how damn cold it was, it was just so magical to be there, and to be there together and walking. I still remember those walks, where we just looked at each other and said, ‘I can’t believe where we are together, in the middle of nowhere.”
Many people look at a map after they’ve walked in the remote areas around the Churchill Wild polar bear lodges, just to remember that, ‘I walked with polar bears, here.’ And there are still areas around the lodges where no human has ever set foot.
“I look at it like that sometimes,” said Mandel. “It’s pretty cool when you look on the map and say, ‘Wow, we were walking here, on Hudson Bay.’ I will always remember that trip and thinking, ‘Oh, my gosh. I can’t believe I’m in the middle of nowhere and experiencing this.’ That trip was vastly different. We had the best food and camaraderie, it was amazing. It was as Five Star a trip as I can describe. I mean, who could go there and not say that?”
Mandel fondly recalled their long walks on the tundra and described the atmosphere behind the photo of her and her daughter at the top of this post.
“It was at the end of the day, when everyone was dispersing and going back to the lodge,” said Mandel. “I think it was taken by Jolie Busch, who was from California. I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, we walked five kilometres carrying this gear and it didn’t matter.’ When I walk a half a kilometre here (at the cottage) and I’m carrying a camera like that, I just want to go back home. But up there we walked and walked and it was kind of like holding a lottery ticket. Every moment that you’re out there you’re thinking you’re going to hit the lottery and see a polar bear.
“We were so distracted, and I guess overwhelmed, by the time we got back to the lodge after walking with all the equipment. But by then the sun was out and it was warm and it was just a moment, it was just so beautiful to be there.”
One of the most popular photos ever to appear on the Churchill Wild website is Mandel’s peaceful shot above, a polar bear playing with a willow branch while patiently waiting for the ice to form on Hudson Bay.
“When I took that shot, the guides were telling us that the polar bears were just biding their time until they could get out onto the ice,” said Mandel. “It made me sad to think that they were just sitting there not even eating, just waiting, looking for something to do. As cold as it was, all I could wish for the next day was that the ice would come for the bears.”
Mandel’s photo captured the mood beautifully, and there were more ground-level encounters she attributed to polar bear guides Andy MacPherson and Terry Elliott.
“We had great guides, believe me,” said Mandel. “One at the front and one at the back. They were super, super cautious. We saw a lot of bears, and there were times when we got quite close, when young bears would approach us. The guides would anticipate what the bears were going to do.
“If I were in a safari bus or a tundra buggy, I’d be sitting down having a glass of wine and waiting for the next sighting. This was different. I didn’t anticipate seeing any polar bears, so every day was a pleasant surprise.”
Mandel started doing high-level photography trips when her kids were “kind of self sufficient” but she has enjoyed photography as a hobby for most of her adult life. She has never really had a desire to become a professional photographer and she doesn’t sell her photos.
“I donate them to all kinds of different organizations,” said Mandel. “I never wanted to do this for money. That makes it harder, and there would be too much pressure.”
Photography trips have taken Mandel to Africa for lions, Kaktovik for polar bears, British Columbia for grizzly bears, Minnesota for black bears and Friday Harbor on San Juan Island for red foxes, among other far away places.
“Friday Harbor was an amazing place,” said Mandel. “A little island with so many rabbits, and the foxes live door-to-door with the rabbits. And seeing grizzly bears is quite different than seeing polar bears. They’re fishing for salmon, and there are so many of them. At Seal River we had to walk and work to find the polar bears, but that’s what made it so exhilarating.”
Mandel also described the differences between wildlife safaris in Africa and polar bear safaris in Canada.
“You can spend the same money and go to Africa,” said Mandel. “And sit in a car all day while the driver says, ‘What is it you would like to see? Would you like to see a lion? Hold on a second, let me get on the phone and call and see what they’re doing right now.’ So that’s different than going on a polar bear safari. And as a wildlife photographer, I’m used to sitting in a blind possibly all day long and seeing nothing, so being out on the tundra at Seal River was just incredible.
“We were on foot, carrying the gear, going for kilometres and kilometres, with the possibility of seeing nothing. And you’re waking up to minus 40 degree winds. I don’t have to tell you what it’s like for two city girls going out there. You’ve got to work for your pictures. That’s what it was like, because you don’t know, but all day the adrenaline is rushing, which pushes you to keep walking, to keep looking. And then you see a polar bear and you’re like, ‘Oh my God.’”
Mandel’s knack for capturing emotion in her photos is not only planned, it also allows her to enjoy the moment. She’ll wait for a week to get just the right photo, and she won’t take 5,000 photos hoping to get the perfect shot.
“You can always anticipate,” said Mandel. “If you’re sitting by a fox den and the vixen comes and she’s just sitting there, I don’t even click because I know when she comes back with food or when she comes back from not being there for two or three hours, they’re going to kiss her right on her mouth. I mean, I just know that from observing them for so many years. Sometimes I’ll wait all day for that one shot and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. I’d rather enjoy it, because when I’m behind the camera I can’t really do that.”
Mandel’s trip to Seal River ranks highly on her list for a number of reasons including the family atmosphere, the pristine wide-open spaces, the anticipation of meeting a polar bear face-to-face at ground level, and the work required to do so. The trip also nudged her daughter towards into a career as a professional photographer.
“I think that trip in particular pushed her towards becoming a photographer,” said Mandel. “And one of her pictures from that trip made it into a National Geographic calendar. After that she just excelled at it.”
Kailee Mandel now makes her living as a professional commercial photographer, but she inherited a love of nature from her mother and still enjoys their yearly wildlife trips together. Like Mom, she will never forget her trip to Seal River.
“Seal River Heritage Lodge ranks at the top of any places I’ve ever been,” said Mandel. “Whether it’s for leisure or wildlife, definitely at the top. They were the most accommodating lodge I’ve been to, but the best part about it was just being with the family. The chef was the daughter of the owner, her fiancé was helping her in the kitchen, and everyone was connected. It was amazing. I can’t even describe it.”
And of course, there were the close encounters with polar bears. Mandel likened her trip to Seal River to holding a lottery ticket, with a chance to see a polar bear and win every day she was there.
“There was a fenced-in back area at the lodge,” said Mandel. “And I sat there while a polar bear got so close to the fence that I could smell him. I wasn’t so close that I was in danger, but I couldn’t help myself. We shared a breath. It was magic.”
Like winning the lottery.
See more photos from Missy and Kailee Mandel using the links below.
Missy Mandel Website: missymandel.ca
Missy Mandel on Instagram: @missymandel_photography
Kailee Mandel Website: kaileemandel.com
Kailee Mandel on Instagram: @kaileemandelphotography