Seal River Heritage Lodge rests on the edge of the Hudson Bay, on an esker pointing the way to beluga whales dancing in the Bay’s waves. With one of the largest changes in tide next to the Bay of Fundy, I like to think of it as the land of the disappearing sea.
The change in depth is around 12 feet, but the water can recede up to 11 km in some areas of the coast. One meal you can be enjoying a rich tomato bisque with focaccia watching the waves lap over the rocks, and the next you can be staring out at a sea of rocks as a polar bear wanders up to the lodge, tempted to walk closer by the smell of decadent pork loin with black currant glaze.
A cozy cove lies just below the dining room windows, a favourite napping place for polar bears. There they can snuggle into a sandy bed and play with the kelp and seaweed, until the water comes up to cool them off. I once watched a lazy polar bear try to avoid moving out of the way from the rising tide. His sleepy head kept bobbing forward into the waves and he would get a snout-full of saltwater. He must have heard our giggles because he eventually lifted his furry butt and wandered off.
This cove at Seal River Heritage Lodge serves a dual purpose. It’s a napping area for polar bears and a launching spot for the Zodiacs we take guests out in to view beluga whales. From the sky, the belugas appear as if someone dumped a cup of rice into a pot of water. Over 50,000 of these friendly white whales come to the Churchill area each summer, traveling in pods of about 25 whales each. The Bay serves as a sanctuary for the birth of their babies and is rich in nutritious capelin. Beluga whales are opportunists, so they will also eat crab, shrimp, snails and some octopi.
I’ve seen the cove at Seal River used as a sanctuary by beluga whales when at high tide (lucky for them) a pod of orcas came through. The belugas used the shallow water close to shore to protect themselves from the orcas. The water just outside the lodge was teeming with beluga whales and looked like a pot of boiling rice as the frenzied whales constantly flipped their tails.
Seal River is where it all started for my parents. Branching off from working with my mom’s parents, Doug and Helen Webber, they struck out into the unknown world of polar bear tourism. There were a few tours operating in the town of Churchill at the time, using repurposed school buses or other vehicles to view polar bears. In 1994, Seal River Heritage Lodge became the first and only place where guests could walk with polar bears.
The first season consisted of one guest in a two-bedroom beluga whale research cabin that my dad bought before my mom could see it. It grew from there and the remoteness and uniqueness of walking with polar bears slowly reached across the globe. The beginnings of Churchill Wild were humble. My sisters, brother and I all slept in the same room that my parents slept in while at Seal River, using laundry room shelves as bunk beds. Not to worry, my father built the shelves, so they were sturdy enough to hold a full-grown man.
We lived the wild life as children at Seal River, hand feeding sik-siks and with only each other as friends, we got quite creative in our games. Somehow, despite incidents like a polar bear sticking its head through our bedroom window and my dad scaring it off, we slept like babies. We’ve since learned that with the help of fencing and raising the building, the polar bears can no longer stick their heads through windows. They still sometimes try to look inside, pressing their noses against the glass and leaving smudges behind, which I’ve then had to wash off.
I started working at Seal River as a dishwasher at the age of 12, also helping in the kitchen wherever I could. My siblings and I joke that we were, unpaid, underage employees (please note that no children were harmed in the making of Churchill Wild). In retrospect, working at the lodge was a great way for us to pitch in and learn responsibility.
Watching the transformation of the company and being a part of it was a special privilege we had growing up. The lodge is as much a part of me as I am of it. I’ve put up walls, painted floors, cleaned up floods, acted as a bear guard, cooked, served and looked after guests. I’ve been in every nook and cranny at the lodge doing something.
Seal River Heritage Lodge also happens to be surrounded by prime berry-picking real estate, especially for cloudberries. These pillowy, orangey-red berries are designed solely for the sunset coloured jelly we spread on our toast in the morning, and they are hard earned in polar bear country.
One of my favourite things to do, day or night, is to go up on the viewing tower and watch for polar bears, enjoy a sunset, or just get lost in the stars and the swaying aurora borealis. You can even watch belugas dipping beneath the surface on a calm day. You can see for miles thanks to the flat terrain and, save for the guests and staff inside the lodge, the remoteness of the lodge means there’s absolutely no one else around.
The solitude of the lodge is incredibly restorative. I would often escape to the viewing tower with a cup of hot chocolate, my journal and a sleeping bag, to stay cozy during a break. With a stunning view of the horizon in every direction and the hum of a happy lodge underneath, what more could a person want?
You just never know what you’re going to wake up to at Seal River Heritage Lodge. We once had a lost cow bird as a pet for a week, hopping shoulder to shoulder hoping to be hand fed bugs. Wolverines, a black-phase Arctic fox, a barren land grizzly bear, orcas, and a temperature shocked humming bird are some of the other unique creatures that have come our way.
Seal River has a wide range of residents and is a birders paradise in the summer with sightings of gyre falcon, sandhill cranes, a plethora of shore birds and if you’re lucky, snowy owls. There are Arctic foxes and occasionally red foxes crawling underfoot in search of lemmings, ptarmigan, sik-siks and Arctic hare in the willows. Sometimes I feel like Snow White with all the little (and big!) animals running around.
In addition to the wildlife, the Seal River area has a rich history dating back many millennia. Named for the harbour seals that inhabit it, Seal River was designated a Canadian Heritage River in 1992, due in part to the fact that, historically, it was a busy hub for Indigenous peoples who travelled, hunted and fished here.
Archaeologists are fascinated with the Seal River area, where prehistoric artifacts dating back to the Paleo-Indian peoples of 7,000 years ago have been uncovered. The Seal River also played a role in exploration of the area for the Hudson’s Bay Company, one of the world’s oldest trading companies, back in the late 18th century when English explorer Samuel Hearne was tasked with finding the Northwest Passage.
Since 1994, Seal River Heritage Lodge has become a member of the National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World collection and has hosted hundreds of guests from around the world, many of whom have left as dear friends. They’ve made lifelong memories and have given us the same.
From watching a polar bear frolic in a colourful carpet of summer flowers to witnessing a sparring match between giants in the grass. From meeting a big bear right outside the lodge door at dinner time to observing another from a distance as its warm breath smokes through nature’s quiet and into the icy Arctic air. We’ve all found some very special moments at Seal River Heritage Lodge, and we look forward to creating many more we can share, with you.
In the land of the disappearing sea.
About Allison Francoeur (Reimer)
Allison is the daughter of Churchill Wild co-founders Mike and Jeanne Reimer. One of their four adventure-loving children, Allison grew up in the Arctic watching and helping her parents build Churchill Wild from the ground-up. Allison brings an authentic voice to our blog and we’re excited to have her join us as a contributing writer.