Polar Bear Blog

My favourite memories of Churchill’s wild polar bears

First bear. Dennis Fast photo.
First bear. Dennis Fast photo.

by Vanessa Desorcy

Last year around this time I was writing a post about what we were looking forward to in 2020. It was so full of hope and plans for the coming year! And then all those plans went awry.

This year, in the face of continuing uncertainty, I have no plans, but I do have one simple wish: to be back up north with polar bears.

The Hudson Bay coast is the most restorative place I’ve ever been, and after the year we’ve all had, it’s exactly where I want to be. It’s where the wind blows away all the cobwebs that clutter my mind to make way for new ideas. Our ecolodges are places where I can be connected by technology if I want to be, but I never feel like I have to be. They’re where I get to meet people from all over the world and hear about experiences to add to my travel wish list.

We’re hoping for a polar bear filled year and another great season, but until I make it back to Churchill to walk with polar bears, I’ll keep revisiting some of these memorable encounters.

My First Bear

The very first time I saw a wild polar bear was at Seal River Heritage Lodge in July of 2010. I’d never been to one of our lodges and I had no idea what to expect.

My groupmates and I, along with our polar bear guides, were trekking along the coast on a day trip when one of our guides spotted a bear in the willows ahead of us. We were a few hundred feet away and he was somewhat obscured by the foliage, but when he stood up on his hind legs to check us out –wow. I was utterly blown away by his sheer size. I immediately understood the respect and awe people feel towards polar bears.

Fenced-In

Fenced in at Seal River. Andy Morley photo.
Fenced in at Seal River. Andy Morley photo.

Our lodges have these great, fenced compounds around them that allow for close encounters should a bear be curious enough to approach. During my second trip to Seal River, I was lucky enough to have one such encounter.

I was hosting a group of travel writers and we were having lunch in between excursions when someone spotted a bear meandering along the coast towards the lodge.

Despite the adrenaline that immediately started coursing through us, we quickly — and as calmly as possible so as not to spook the bear — gathered our cameras and headed outside.

The bear came right up to the fence and did a casual test of its strength by clamping his massive jaw around one of the wires. A few words of discouragement from our guide Terry Elliott, handed out in a stern voice, quickly curtailed that behaviour.

We got some great photos before the bear headed off to do some more exploring, and we headed back inside to fuel up with a hearty meal ahead of our anticipated next encounter.

Double Vision

Double Vision at Nanuk. Robert Postma photo.
Double vision at Nanuk. Robert Postma photo.

On another media trip, this one to Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge, I had my first encounter with a female polar bear and her cub.It was a rainy afternoon when we headed off along the coast in our open-air tundra vehicles. We didn’t see much of anything at first, but sometimes that’s how things go.

While we were stopped to warm up with some hot chocolate and freshly baked cookies, one of our guides spotted movement off in the distance. Up went the binoculars and telephoto lenses as we all tried to get a closer look. It was a mom and her yearling cub.

They ambled towards us, the cub much more curious than its guardian. Mom clearly wanted to finish the nap that had been interrupted, but her offspring wouldn’t be deterred from checking us out. We watched in wonder as they got closer.

After some mutual observation and a lot of photos, we boarded the vehicles again and headed back to the lodge, watching over our shoulders as they continued on their way, crossing the very path we’d been standing in moments earlier.

Warm Welcome at Seal River

Warm welcome. Ruth Elwell-Steck photo.
Warm welcome. Ruth Elwell-Steck photo.

Maybe because it’s freshest in my mind, but my trip to Seal River Heritage Lodge in the fall of 2019 was one of my most memorable for polar bear encounters.

Shortly after our arrival, a young female bear approached the lodge, seemingly to welcome us. Not wanting to spook her, we stayed inside rather than heading out into the compound, but it was special all the same. She was gorgeous and majestic and a wonderful start to the trip.

Dinner Guests

Dinner guests. Steve Levi photo.
Dinner guests. Steve Levi photo.

On our last night at the lodge during that same trip, we were enjoying another delicious, tundra-inspired meal when Jody, one of our guides, casually announced that a mom and her two (two!) cubs were nearing the lodge.

What a treat. The two COYs (cubs-of-the-year) were skittish and stayed close to mom, who oh so casually walked right up to the windows of our lounge. Her head was up and her nose was working overtime to try and figure out what all the delicious smells coming from our kitchen were.

Our visitors didn’t stick around for long, but it was long enough to leave a lasting imprint on all of us.

A Bear-y Good Sendoff

A bear-y good sendoff. Vanessa Desorcy photo.
A bear-y good sendoff. Vanessa Desorcy photo.

As if the mom and cubs the night before weren’t enough to round out our trip, we had one last visit just a few short hours before we left the lodge. Another beautiful female and her cub came by shortly after sunrise, as if to say goodbye.

Although temperatures had plummeted to minus 20°C during our time at the lodge, I rushed to get outside, hastily throwing on my boots and parka, not even bothering to zip it up.

I walked across the compound, the snow crunching beneath my feet. After a nod from a guide giving me the a-okay to get close to the fence, I did so and stuck my lens through the wires. The light was gorgeous and though I’m a novice photographer, I’m happy with the pictures I came away with, and even happier with the memory.


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