Conservationist Tara Lal, travel writer Geetika Jain and SUJÁN Luxury wildlife lodge owner Anjali Singh turned their shared passion for wildlife into the ultimate girls trip when they flew to Canada from England and India in the fall of 2017 to visit Seal River Heritage Lodge and Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Normally visiting these two Churchill Wild lodges — both members of the National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World — would only happen on the Fall Dual Lodge Safari or Summer Dual Lodge Safari, but this adventurous trio wanted the full-on experience of seeing polar bears in the wild at ground level in two very different ecosystems.
They are now among the rare few people in the world who have walked with polar bears.
“The thrill of seeing animals in their natural habitat, and exploring remote regions of the world with the knowledge that they may not exist tomorrow, makes going on safari a wonderful addiction,” writes Lal in The Great Escape, which appeared in the January 2018 issue of Elle India. “I find that reading books and watching nature documentaries, although illuminating, can never replace the magic and personal connection of experiencing a polar bear 20 metres from my nose.
“Watching a polar bear from the window is special, but actually walking with one is spiritual. On one occasion, we came across a polar bear that had hunkered down in a snow swamp not far from the lodge. We walked over in single file so as to not disturb it, taking slow and deliberate steps over the calf-high powdery snow.
“On top of the bulky gear, I was carrying a tripod over one arm and a camera slung across my body. Just then, my furry cap slipped down over my eyes, making it almost impossible to see where I was going. All I was aware of was the blurry form of the person ahead of me. Then we stopped, and I looked up to see the rotund, pristine white shape of the bear we later nicknamed ‘Sumo’, sitting right in front of me.”
Geetika Jain also felt a spiritual connection with the bears, and similarly described her experience in Face to face with the polar bear, which appeared in the January 6, 2018 issue of the Hindustan Times.
“The sun is hovering low, and the scene unfolding in front of us is aglow with a warm amber tinge,” writes Jain. “We’re aware that any one of these bears is capable of striking a death blow to a beluga whale, flipping a walrus calf in the air, and felling us instantly. Yet, we’re unafraid, as their body language is not predatory.
“Standing in their midst and watching them interact, spar, wrestle playfully, befriend and chase each other away is a rare privilege, and we’re thrilled to our frozen cores. While they’re feared, misunderstood and shot in many other circumpolar locations, this subset of bears on this stretch of Hudson Bay is unusually trusting of humans – they haven’t been hunted or disturbed here as long as they can remember. At this remote lodge, we observe them up close from the enormous windows, and come face-to-face with them on our outdoor walks.”
Jain also wrote an article entitled Walking with Polar Bears for Sanctuary Asia, India’s leading nature and conservation portal. Sanctuary Asia aims to communicate to readers the rationale for wildlife conservation and environment protection with a focus on the Indian subcontinent, but requested the special out-of-country article from Jain.
“Clearly the world is getting smaller and hotter, and climate change issues are best exemplified by the fate of the Arctic and Antarctic,” said the preface of the article. “This is why we requested author Geetika Jain to send us this piece, to remind us of the beauty and the fragility of the only planet capable of hosting life as we know it. Getting up close and personal with the world’s largest carnivores warmed Geetika Jain’s heart in the freezing north of Hudson Bay, Canada.”
Jain’s in-depth piece described what it was like to meet polar bears in the wild at two different lodges.
First, at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge.
“A snow-dune with black eyes and nose lifts its head to whiff at us, a line-up of humans a hundred metres away,” writes Jain. “Tripods are lowered, cameras are set, and rapid-fire volley of clicks ensue each time the huge mass of white moves. Our bear rests his massive head gently on his folded paws and closes his eyes. Derrick (guide) waves us in closer each time his head is down. Now we’re within 50 meters of him, and we wait patiently, observing him. The bear they recognize from his battle-scars as ‘Sumo’ yawns, then languidly rolls on his back, slow-paddles with his arms and legs, stretches, turns and slides on his chest before standing up and starting to walk towards us.”
Then, at Seal River Heritage Lodge.
“This time we’re in a different biome, the treeless tundra,” writes Jain. “From the enormous windows of the lodge, located on a peninsula right beside Hudson Bay, we see a series of polar bears come and go through the buckled ice over a handful of days. They often walk along the periphery of the lodge, relishing the scent from the kitchen, even standing straight up to take a good look inside. Nimble-footed Arctic foxes zig-zag through the mounds of snow-coated rocks and wave-pounded pressure-ridges of ice.
“In some of the other places I’ve visited, such as Svalbard, Iceland and Greenland, people are ready to shoot polar bears if they come ashore. The idea of polar bear tourism, other than from the safety of cruise ships, hasn’t taken hold. The polar bears of Hudson Bay remind me of other anomalies; grey whales that crave human contact in the San Ignacio Lagoon in Baja, California, yet completely avoid people in boats once they leave it, and the leopards of Jawai, Rajasthan, that have peacefully co-existed alongside the villagers for centuries (although without engaging with them).”
While polar bears were the main attraction for Jain, Lal and Singh, they also saw Arctic fox, Arctic hare, moose, northern lights and wolves. The image of a large pack of wolves trotting towards the trio over the sea ice was “forever burnt in my mind,” writes Lal.
“Drinks roll into yet another spectacular dinner in the cozy warmth of the lodge as we mill, swap stories and photos of the day. An image of an Arctic hare shaking off the snow in bloom of light remains with me, and before long I’m curled up with a hot water bottle, asleep. I’m in a haze as I hear the knock. Has one of the bears come visiting, or the wolverine we waited for?”
The northern lights had arrived.