I’m the last to board the Otter and no one has snagged the coveted front seat, so I find myself riding shotgun next to Josh, our pilot. I watch him prepare for takeoff and get more and more excited with each button he pushes and lever he pulls.
Within minutes we’re airborne, flying over Churchill and heading north towards Seal River Heritage Lodge. I’m on high alert for polar bears and other wildlife, but it’s the unexpected beauty of the barren landscape that holds my attention. The snow-covered tundra is peppered with spruce trees and the small lakes that look like puddles from the air are starting to freeze over.
Suddenly, Josh dips his left wing and points to the trees below — he’s spotted some moose. I whip my head around to the window and see a couple on my side as well. Things are off to a good start!
We’re greeted by a quartet of Arctic foxes when we arrive at the lodge. They remind me of dogs, the way they dig at the snowbank before circling a handful of times and finally curling up to sleep.
We enjoy our first tundra-inspired meal before receiving an orientation from head guide Andy MacPherson about safety in polar bear country. He also tells us that on the way back to Churchill, our pilot spotted a polar bear near the Seal River that appears to be headed right for the Lodge. It’s not long before another of our guides, Norm, finds her through the scope and she’s definitely coming our way.
We all gather excitedly around the windows in the lounge, anxious for a glimpse of our first bear. I’m with a great group of guests representing Australia, the UK, Israel and the US. We’re also joined by photo leader George Turner and Canadian travel writer Suzanne Morphet.
As the bear gets closer and Andy notices that it’s a young female, he decides it’s best for us to stay inside the lodge and let her have some space to explore. Unfortunately, it seems there isn’t anything enticing enough about us or the Lodge, and after sniffing around for a bit, she continues her journey up the coast.
The temperatures have been milder than usual for this time of year, and this combined with a recent multi-day storm have resulted in few bear sightings. It looks like the mercury will drop over the next few days, which Andy thinks will get them moving up the coast towards us.
Before the sun sets, we see another bear making his way north, a red fox, and a very special treat — a cross fox, a melanistic colour variant of a red fox.
On day two we wake up to fresh polar bear tracks just outside the lodge and after breakfast we head out to see if we can find their owner. A refreshing trek up the coastline proves fruitless, but we do spot a wolverine a few hundred metres away. He quickly crosses the flats before disappearing into a patch of willows.
Andy delivers an evening presentation on (what else?!) polar bears and even after all my years with the Churchill Wild, I still learn a few things. For instance, did you know that male polar bears are generally twice the size of females? Or that two thirds of polar bear pregnancies produce twins? I go to sleep and dream of baby polar bears — hopefully this is a sign of things to come.
We wake up to a nearly cloudless sky and a beautiful sunrise on our third day at the Lodge. Our foxy friends are still playing nearby, digging for the last of the berries and burrowing into snowbanks. Our morning hike takes us up the coastline again, searching for the bears that have been migrating past the Lodge, but it seems they’re on a mission to get somewhere and we luck out.
After a hearty lunch to refuel, we head off in search of Arctic hares and stumble across a trio of them, camouflaged perfectly against the snow. If not for their black-tipped ears, we may have walked right past. They’re quite unbothered by us and after a lengthy photo-session we head back to the lodge just as the sun is starting to drop down to meet the horizon.
After another restful night I awake to find out that I slept through a wake-up call for northern lights! Thankfully, the other guests heard guide Jody rousing them and braved the cold to watch and photograph nature’s lightshow.
Each day has brought slightly colder temperatures and a renewed hope that we’ll come face-to-face with one of the bears that keeps eluding us. Once more, we bundle up in layers (upon layers upon layers) of gear for our hike and Andy breaks the news that he’s spotted a mom and cub bedded down about a kilometre north of the lodge. Yay!
As we approach the sleepy duo, we stop every few minutes so Andy can assess their behaviour. Mama bear is aware of our presence, but is relaxed, not sensing any danger. We form a line through the boulders dotting the frozen tidal flats and settle in to observe and photograph.
I take off my gloves to snap photos and the wind tears through my glove liners, but it’s worth it. The hardier group members stay with the mom and cub while half of us head back to the Lodge to warm our hands around mugs of hot chocolate.
As we sit enjoying dessert after our last meal together at the Lodge someone announces, “There’s a mom and two cubs walking towards us!”
Dessert is forgotten, cameras are grabbed, positions are taken at the lodge’s many windows. It’s too dark to get any decent photos, but that doesn’t make the moment any less special. These are COYs (cubs-of-the-year), so small, so fluffy. It’s almost too adorable.
Our last morning starts with another stunning sunrise. I’m only on my first cup of coffee so it takes a moment to register when someone exclaims that the mom and cub we watched yesterday are meandering down the coastline towards us. I quickly and quietly gear up, grab my camera and head out into the compound.
Our guides are outside watching the bears and I get permission to approach the fence and get a bit closer. The mom and cub are sniffing around in the willows just a few metres from the fence and I start snapping.
I didn’t take the time to put on all my layers, so the air nips at my cheeks and ears, but there’s no wind. The beauty of the Arctic sunrise and the furry white visitors are enough to make me forget the cold, at least for a few minutes.
They start to wander away and my attention turns to the aromas coming from the kitchen. I say a silent goodbye to the bears and head inside for breakfast. Polar bears, foxes, Arctic hare, ptarmigan, northern lights and a wolverine.
The Hudson Bay coast did not disappoint.
Read Part 1 of Vanessa’s Polar Bear Adventure here: Jenga Blocks hold steady in Churchill and beyond on Polar Bear Photo Safari