Churchill Wild hosted a specially designed Hudson Bay Odyssey this summer in partnership with The Royal Canadian Geographical Society (RCGS) and it proved to be a huge success.
The Royal Canadian Geographical Society is dedicated to imparting a broader knowledge and deeper appreciation of Canada, and that objective strongly resonated with Churchill Wild’s mission to share the natural beauty and grandeur of the Hudson Bay coastline with people from around the world, thus a collaboration to further similar goals was born in the form of a specialized polar bear safari.
“The trip greatly exceeded all expectations,” said Préfontaine, who hosted 14 guests on the safari from Australia, Switzerland and UAE, as well as from San Francisco, Pittsburgh and New York.
In September 2014 Préfontaine and the RCGS were part of the partnership that were involved the 2014 Victoria Strait Expedition that resulted in the historic discovery of the HMS Erebus, one of the shipwrecks of Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated 1845-48 British Arctic Expedition. Partners in the historic discovery included Parks Canada, The Royal Canadian Geographical Society, the Arctic Research Foundation, the Canadian Coast Guard, the Royal Canadian Navy and the Government of Nunavut.
“That was the most important unfound historical site in Canada,” said Préfontaine “People have been looking for the ships from the lost Franklin Expedition ships for 170 years. It was very exciting. There was a great sense of elation when the ship was found.”
Préfontaine regaled fascinated safari guests on the Hudson Bay Odyssey with his presentation about the famous Franklin ship discovery, while guests also enjoyed slideshow talks from the polar bear guides in the evenings. The days were spent taking part in Churchill Wild’s signature walks with polar bears and beluga whale swims.
The safari took place amidst the two very different landscapes that surround Seal River Lodge and Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge, and was designed to immerse guests in the great eco-systems of Hudson Bay and the immense coastline that the polar bears wander during their summer migration while awaiting the return of the sea ice.
The Seal River Lodge area, 60 km north of Churchill on the Hudson Bay coast, is characterized by rocky coastlines and stunning tundra landscapes, and plays host to healthy populations of polar bears, beluga whales, and many other Arctic mammals in addition to a wide variety of birds who nest on the tundra and related shorelines and ponds.
Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge, located 250 km south of Churchill near the epicenter of the historic fur trade and York Factory, provides a dramatically different view of Hudson Bay, with immense tidal flats and beach ridges, as well as vast areas of wilderness on the northern edge of the boreal forest. The crossroad of biomes in this area supports an astonishing array of Canada’s most iconic creatures including moose, wolves, black bears, and of course, polar bears. A grizzly bear was also seen at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge in 2015.
When asked if he had a favourite among the two lodges Préfontaine said he loved them both as if they were children.
“You can’t choose one over the other,” he said. “You just love them both, because they’re different. Visiting one or the other is fantastic, doing both is irresistible. We were at Seal River Lodge for three minutes and a polar bear walked by the window. And at Nanuk we were feet away from black bears, a polar bear and a moose. Both lodges had Northern Lights. The participants were full of praise.”
The Hudson Bay Odyssey guests ranged in age from 20 to 70, with photography skills ranging from novice to expert. They spent the afternoon in Churchill before flying to Seal River Lodge and really bonded well before their Arctic safari began.
“We were a community of adventurers that just came together with nature,” said Préfontaine. “And the guides were extremely knowledgeable. You were able to get closer to these incredible animals than you could ever imagine. It really struck me that the guides could speak to the bears. The bears tell you whether you can move closer or not. The communication between the guides and the bears made it possible to get close to these powerful predators. I had a huge adoration for how they could read the bears. You see them, you get closer. That’s counter-intuitive. It really takes you outside your comfort zone.”
Swimming with belugas also took Préfontaine outside his comfort zone.
“Hudson Bay is part the Arctic Ocean,” said Préfontaine. “Murky. Not a place to go to the beach. But you put on a dry suit and face down into the water you go, towed by your feet, and the belugas approach you. It’s an unbelievable surreal life experience. I never would have imagined I could have done that.”
Sometimes people don’t look for this type of adventure, but they discover it and stretch their boundaries. Then they want to do it again. When you get outside your comfort zone, that’s when you have the spectacular life experiences.”
It’s a very unique trip, from the bush plane to discoveries at the maximum level, outside the comfort zone, like walking with polar bears and jumping into the Arctic ocean. The place is teaming with wildlife and adventure. Polar bears, belugas, stars, northern lights, and a huge supporting cast of wildlife and birds, we were always discovering something. It’s a photographer’s paradise. And here they have 10-foot fences to keep the bears OUT.”
And because we were in the North we might have expected a menu of canned food. On the contrary, we ate like kings. The kitchen knows there stuff. It was like being at a fancy restaurant”
There was also a rare bit of history that took place at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge during the Hudson Bay Odyssey. Whenever the RCGS participates in an adventure, or a discovery, they place flags at the site, one representing Canadian Geographic and the other representing the RCGS. Normally these are new flags brought from the RCGS office, but in this case, the only flags available were those that were also used to mark the historic Franklin ship discovery.
Both flags were placed at Seal River Lodge and Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge and photographed, but in the case of Nanuk, the history goes a little deeper. St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Churchill has a stained glass window that was donated by Lady Franklin in memory of her husband, during the early years of the search for him. The stained glass window was originally installed in 1858 in The Church of St. John of York Factory, which is only about 40 km from Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge.
“We have to express our gratitude,” said Préfontaine. “We’re happy to be associated with (lodge owners) Mike and Jeanne Reimer. They were absolutely wonderful. They made you feel right at home.”
“It will take a long time before we find something to match this trip.”