Story and photos by Andy Skillen
Wolves are almost mythical creatures. Elusive beyond belief, these shadows of the forest and tundra are the epitome of true wilderness. Bears may be the beating heart of the Hudson Bay ecosystem, but wolves are undoubtedly its soul.
There is really nowhere in the world where the canine King is seen with any real frequency. Most of the world’s wolf-watching fraternity is in fact happy in the knowledge that the packs are just, well, “out there” doing their thing. A far-off view of a loping shape; an anonymous, distant howl that cuts through the night air and grabs your very being; these are usually more than enough to keep people happy.
Unless, that is, you can get to Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge.
Perfectly situated on the southern shores of Hudson Bay in Manitoba, Canada, with the region’s wildlife-packed boreal forest as its backyard, this is arguably the jewel in Churchill Wild’s crown. This was my first visit to the recently expanded and improved Lodge, and from touchdown to take-off on the private airstrip that separates the buildings from the open expanses of the Bay itself, it excelled.
The middle of winter is not a normal time to be flying into places such as this, and it was the first time that Churchill Wild had offered the opportunity. I certainly hope it won’t be the last.
The trip was exploratory in many ways, not only to test the logistics of having the Lodge open at that time of year, but also to view some of the rarest spectacles on the wildlife calendar: active wolf packs and denning polar bears. It is difficult to imagine any place else on earth that could offer the possibility of such a double encounter.
Of course, when you set out to view such activity, there is always a chance you might draw a blank. I have to admit that although I knew Nanuk’s potential as a wildlife viewing destination was almost unsurpassed in the region in the autumn, the winter was unproven.
Discussions with Parks Canada and investigative forays into the area south of the Lodge had shown signs of polar bear denning with a potential to be even denser than the more traditionally known denning areas further up the coast. That and the fact that wolf packs are known to actively hunt along the coastal strip, were the reasons we flew into Nanuk.
The next nine days were filled with snowmobile-based exploration along the coast, and treks up and down the various river valleys that at this time of year were snow-filled superhighways for wildlife movement.
Wolverine, moose, otter, mink and a great gray owl were among the exciting sightings, all of which were topped off in true Churchill Wild style each evening with trouser-stretching dinners! The polar bears however, remained elusive, despite two spotter planes and the sighting of tracks in some of the main draws. The bears had clearly decided to move much later this year.
A late Hudson Bay freeze at the end of 2015 had put everything behind schedule, and although we were in the prime location to see bears and their cubs emerging on to the sea ice after a long winter, the timing was just a bit too early. In most other places, that would have been that. Nanuk however, excels in the out-of-the ordinary, and along with the species already mentioned, close encounters with Arctic, red and cross foxes on an almost daily basis made for great photographic opportunities.
The stars of the show however, were the wolves.
Having twice sighted a pack moving along the sea ice from a distance early in the week, we were all in celebratory mood. These were not reintroduced collared wolves stuck on a hillside in a national park, but free-roaming icons of the wilderness, and we had a privileged view of their secretive existence.
It didn’t stop there.
One pair — probably getting ready to head off and den at some point in the near future, bringing a new generation into the region just a few months later — decided to stay out on the sea ice, in full view of the Lodge. Although distant, we could watch their daily antics through binoculars and scopes, and every morning we would wake to the exhilarating sight of fresh tracks all round the lodge. Normally, this would be more than enough, but, as I said, this was Nanuk.
On our penultimate day, after a few closer encounters, our patience was truly rewarded. As we stood, barely able to move or breathe, fingers poised over shutter buttons on the deck of the Lodge, the courting couple ventured ever closer. Pausing every so often to gaze in our direction, they continued their advance, sniffing every metre of ground on the way, until they were no more than 80 metres away.
There, filling our viewfinders, with the enormity of the Bay stretching out behind them, were wild, uninhibited wolves. No tags or collars, no artificial settings, just two pairs of amber eyes burning right through us with every glance.
As cameras fired on muffled settings, the enormity of such an encounter started to hit home, and when the pair finally left our company and chased each other down the coast, there was an ecstatic silence among the few of us who had been privileged to witness such a spectacle.
Nanuk in the winter, is a very special place indeed.