Churchill Wild was on the trail again last week in search of new adventures and we found more than one, although the second may only be suitable for hardcore wildlife photographers.
North Knife Lake Wilderness Lodge was opened for a small group of guests from March 20-24 for an exclusive northern lights viewing trip that also included dogsledding, ice fishing and snowmobiling, and from all reports the adventure went swimmingly, even with two feet of ice on the lake.
“The guests were mesmerized,” said Churchill Wild co-owner Mike Reimer. “Many of them had traveled the world and they said they had never seen anything like it. North Knife Lake Wilderness Lodge could be the world’s premier Northern Lights Lodge.”
Chris Paetkau and Trevor Gill of Build Films were also in attendance for the special early spring adventure, to take photographs and video for the guests, and for Churchill Wild. Expect more photos and videos to emerge as this exclusive new northern lights holiday for discerning world travelers makes its way into the mainstream of Churchill Wild Adventures.
The northern lights weren’t the only thing on last week’s agenda. We also went looking for polar bear dens south and southeast of Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge with idea of creating a 2016 Polar Bear Den Emergence Tour in March and April to observe mothers and cubs as they join our world for the first time.
“This will be for hardcore wildlife photographers,” said Reimer. “It’s not for the faint of heart.”
The area south of Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge and east of York Factory along the Hudson Bay coast has long been suspected of being a major polar bear denning area by Manitoba Conservation officials and we’re now setting out to confirm that fact.
While the majority of the polar bear population heads back out on to the sea ice to hunt seals in October and November, pregnant females remain inland to give birth in November or December. Mom and cubs begin to emerge from their dens in February and March and head out on to the ice to end a fast that can be as long as eight months.
Photographers on this trip would have the luxury of a warm and comfortable home base at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge, and would skidoo out daily to view polar bear denning areas, but the weather conditions can at times be harsh.
Churchill Wild polar bear guides Albert “Butch” Saunders, Andy McPherson, and Emery Canvin were accompanied by Darcy Wastesicoot as they broke trail from Gillam to Nanuk via snowmobile to further investigate the possibilities. The group encountered some extreme conditions along the way, including a complete whiteout and wind chills of up to minus 60°C.
Saunders, who has a strong knowledge of the local landscape gained from over 30 years as a guide in the Nanuk area, was quick to give credit to Wastesicoot.
“Darcy marks trail for Manitoba Hydro,” he said. “He knows the bush and is good with a GPS and first aid. You’ve got to know what to look for. Pressure ridges on the ice, dead falls etc. he broke the trail for us.”
The first part of the trip took the group from Gillam to a cabin near York Factory owned by the York Factory First Nations Band. From there they traveled light into Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. And then it was on to exploring the tree line south of Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge as well as making a 45-minute trip east to check out the Mistikokan River area.
The group spotted dens south of Nanuk and also found polar bear tracks and depressions which indicated a mother walking with her cub. They also found wolf tracks in the same area.
“This is a dangerous time for cubs,” said Saunders. “Wolves will try to harass the mother enough to get her away from the cubs and then they’ll grab them. I’ve seen them do it. And they also have to deal with male polar bears back on the ice. A mother will fight to the death for her cubs.”
Now retired after 30 years of working as the Airport Manager at York Landing, Saunders has noticed quite a few changes in the area of Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge over the past three decades.
“When I first started guiding at Nanuk in the late ’70s, we might have been lucky to see one polar bear,” said Saunders, a Cree whose father and grandfather both worked at York Factory. “Now we see them all the time. I’ve seen as many as 14 polar bears gathered together at once, mothers and cubs.”
While 14 polar bears in a group is not a common occurrence, a similar grouping was seen at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge last year. These gatherings in themselves indicate a healthy population of mothers and cubs in the area, and rarely do you see a tagged “Churchill” bear around Nanuk. This is a separate population of polar bears that live and breed on the southern coast of Hudson Bay.
The fact that Manitoba Conservation officials identified over 30 polar bear family units on the south coast last spring only serves to back up our assumption that we’ve got a major polar bear denning area in our own backyard at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge.
We’re looking forward to this!