by George Williams with photos courtesy of Jill Bankey
This story begins with a Tweet from February 19, 2015, but it actually found its roots on Google in 2007, in a mind filled with polar bears.
“I was searching on Google one night because I really love polar bears and I thought someday I’m going to go see them,” said Detroit attorney Jill Bankey. “I found Seal River Lodge, I compared it to sleeping on a train on the tundra, and I just picked Seal River Lodge and said I’m going to do that. I sent Churchill Wild an email and that’s how it all got started.
“It turned into one of the coolest weeks of my life.”
We hadn’t heard from Jill for quite a while. Her trip to Seal River Lodge had taken place in the fall of 2008, and while we do keep in touch with guests over the years, everyone gets busy and well… even the best of us lose touch occasionally.
So we were pleasantly surprised to wake up to a Tweet in our Twitter feed last week that read:
The Tweet was accompanied by a link to a story that appeared in the MailOnline entitled, Knock knock, who’s bear? Inquisitive polar bear invites himself to dinner after smelling food inside photographer’s wooden cabin
“I like to search the MailOnline for celebrity news,” said Jill. “I saw the story about the polar bears trying to get into a lodge and thought it looked like where I was on my trip. It was, and it took me back. I saw the nails in the boards on the window, the polar bears outside the door, and I could smell the bacon. It made it so easy to remember.
“Some days I just close my eyes and go back there. It was such a great trip.”
Jill was traveling solo in 2008, and admitted she hadn’t done her homework as well as she could have before the trip, but that the surprises that resulted were worth it.
“I was really busy at work,” she said. “And I never really did my research as well as I could have. I’d never traveled alone before, and there were certainly moments of anxiety. I didn’t know anyone in Churchill when we got there, but there were a number of us with the common goal of going to see the polar bears at Seal River Lodge. We were at the café for lunch and I remember asking someone, ‘Do you mind if I sit with you?’ It felt like being back in high school again.”
And then, the unexpected plane ride.
“I’d never been on a plane that small before,” said Jill. “I was petrified. The pilot reassured me that we would be flying low and slow. I thought the only reason we had to take a plane to the Lodge was to get there faster. I had no idea there were no roads in and out of Seal River Lodge. We saw moose and caribou below us during the flight and when we got there, there was a polar bear on the runway!”
Once inside the Lodge, the traditional orientation confirmed Jill’s worst fears. There were no roads in and out of Seal River Lodge. And there was no diet Coke.
“I was naïve, very naive” said Jill. “But that turned out to be a blessing in disguise. At the team meeting they told us all the rules. This is where we stay. There are no roads. You can’t go outside the fenced compound without an armed guide. I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, there’s no diet Coke. And I can’t get out of here.’
“But it turned out to be great. There was no TV. No news. No cell phones. It was a much welcomed break from technology. It allowed me time to write. I was journaling every day. And you actually sat and talked to people. We had a fabulous group. And I really liked my roommate, Justine, a fellow solo traveler from Melbourne, Australia.”
Jill’s group included six women on a bucket list trip, a couple from Canada celebrating their anniversary, and a couple from Adelaide, Australia. Professional photographer Dennis Fast was the photo leader and there was also a professional photographer from Africa in the mix.
But what about the polar bears?
“We saw a ton of polar bears,” said Jill. “It started with the one on the runway. What an image that was! And it just continued from there.”
The group went on the signature Churchill Wild hikes and saw polar bears every day. They also happened across a herd of caribou in the vicinity of the Lodge at the time they were there.
“It was around -22, so we had to dress warm,” said Jill. “The guides, Andy and Terry, knew a lot about polar bears and I liked the fact that they were so caring about the environment. We learned a lot about polar bear behavior, and we always felt safe when we were watching the bears. We saw caribou on one of the hikes and put branches on our head and danced around and the caribou danced with us. And there were different landscapes every day, because the bay would freeze and then the tide would move in and the ice would thaw.
“We also enjoyed the evening lectures and movies, where we learned more about the bears and about the natives and their culture. We also learned a lot about ourselves, and that was much appreciated.”
While the group found polar bears on a daily basis, Jill said that the best moments of the trip came inside the compound one evening. It’s a tradition at the Churchill Wild lodges to ask the guests if they would like to be woken up late at night to see the northern lights. Rarely does anyone turn down the opportunity to see the aurora borealis, and Jill was no exception.
“I get a knock on the door in the middle of the night,” said Jill. “So we’re out there watching the northern lights and a little Arctic fox starts scurrying between our legs. I just wanted to pet the little thing. I think about that all the time now. And then, a mother polar bear comes to the fence with her baby, and I thought, ‘It just doesn’t get any better than this. This is like Disney World for adults.'”
Polar bears around the Lodge at night are not uncommon, which requires a night watchman, who in this case was Churchill Wild veteran George Dyck.
“We’d lie in our room at night and hear George patrolling around outside the Lodge checking for bears,” said Jill. “For some reason it reminded me of Christmas Eve when we were kids. My sister Lisa and I shared a room together and we’d stay awake for Santa, but we knew he wouldn’t come if we didn’t go to sleep, but we still couldn’t go to sleep.
“There were a couple of times when the polar bears were playing in front of the Lodge in the dark, one was humongous, and the guides called us out to snap photos. The big dilemma was always, do I enjoy the moment or do I take the photograph. That will be the biggest conflict for anyone who goes there. I also took lots of flip phone videos of the bears. They would come around the Lodge during the day, especially if someone was cooking bacon. They’d get so close that you’d just want to pet them, but I knew I couldn’t.
Jill had a single regret, along with some advice for future Churchill Wild guests.
“My only regret is that I didn’t buy one of their cookbooks when I was there,” she said. “The food was delicious. And I really enjoyed the happy tone at mealtime and cocktail hour.
“Pack light and dress warm, but don’t plan everything. This family has it down pat. You’re in really good hands. I think it was actually better that I was a little naïve. No single traveler should worry about going there. It’s a good place to come out of your comfort zone.
“It’s a life-changing experience, humbling. You realize how good you’ve got it at home with all the amenities and what it really takes to run a remote facility. And they were very eco-friendly. I’m always conscious of that now. I think about saving the polar bears. I recycle more. I cut up my plastic. I used to have my TV on all the time before that trip. I rarely turn it on now. It’s a big world out there and these are huge majestic animals. A solo traveler might be overcome at first. Life is hard. Tune out the noise and you’ll find a lot of peace and beauty.”
Jill said her group was delayed getting out of Seal River Lodge due to weather, and the crew was forced to wait even longer, but that co-owner Jeanne Reimer whipped up a delicious stew and made sure everyone had lots to eat and all the comforts at home. The crew’s delayed departure apparently resulted in an additional fabulous polar bear encounter. Somehow things have a way of working themselves out in these situations.
“Thank God for Jeanne Reimer and her family,” said Jill “If there were problems behind the scenes you would never have known it. If you’re going to be delayed (up north) it’s better to spend your time at the Lodge than anywhere else.
“This brought back some great memories for me which I still have to this day. At the end of your life all you have is love, relationships, and memories, so you better make them. Save up your money and go.”
Thank you Google. Thank you Twitter. And thank YOU, Jill.
Your kind words mean the world to us.