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There’s a polar bear on the runway. Now what?

By April 2, 2015May 21st, 2021No Comments
Polar bear gets ready to start plane at Seal River Lodge.

Polar bear gets ready to start plane at Seal River Lodge.

When you land at one of Churchill Wild’s remote Arctic lodges, there’s always a chance you’ll be met by more than just your bear guides. Your real hosts, the polar bears might just be there to greet you too. It’s not uncommon to see them on or near the runway while you’re at the Lodges.

You’re in their house now. Your education and introduction to the complex nature of polar bear behavior and social interaction has just begun.

Photographing polar bears at ground level.

Photographing polar bears at ground level. Photo courtesy of Dennis Fast.

We recently had one of our guests tell us that they had no idea they would be staying at a remote Lodge far from the town of Churchill, deep in the heart of polar bear country on the Hudson Bay coast. They were under the impression that the only reason they were flying out from Churchill to the Lodge was because it was a quicker method of getting there. Not true.

There are no roads in or out. The only way of getting to the Lodges is by plane or helicopter. Unless you’re visiting during the winter, in which case you could get there via dogsled, snowmobile, or as a guest on our annual spring Cat Train to haul in supplies.

Churchill Wild is the only safari operator on the planet to offer exciting on-the-ground polar bear viewing experiences from remote lodges on the Hudson Bay coast — true Arctic Safaris. This is not your traditional Churchill tundra vehicle style of polar bear watching.

Photographing polar bears sparring at Seal River Lodge.

Polar bears sparring at Seal River Lodge. Photo courtesy of Bill Lyne.

If you’re looking for that extraordinary once-in-a-lifetime experience — a memory you’ll NEVER forget — standing face-to-face with a polar bear will give it you. This requires an understanding of bear behavior and safety, which we provide from the moment you arrive. Churchill Wild has over 50 years of combined training and experience interacting with polar bears.

Understanding the social complexity of bears is something we’ve had the opportunity to do through years of interaction and association with polar bears and thousands of hours of patient observation both in the field and from inside the Lodges and the fenced compounds. And we love to share our knowledge with our guests!

After being escorted by our guides from the runway to the Lodge and settling into your rooms, everyone is required to attend an orientation meeting in which we discuss Lodge operations, dining and outing scheduling, Lodge safety and most importantly – bear safety. Before heading out on a walk from the Lodge, we again discuss how we want to approach bears or how we’ll react if a bear is approaching us.

Polar bear in one of the many rivers near Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge.

Polar bear in one of the many rivers near Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge.

We always conduct our polar bear viewing from a safe distance. We will go over different situations which could occur and inform guests on what to expect from the guides, how we’ll react or possibly not react. We’ll explain the polar bear deterrents we carry and describe the situations in which we might use them. The best and most effective of these deterrents is our knowledge of bear behavior. We then discuss and exercise what we want you to do as a guest while viewing the bears.

A meeting between humans and a bear is a memorable experience for both. Each bear experiences, learns and responds in its own way and survives by using a toolbox of learned knowledge and skills. Each time we encounter and interact with a bear we have the opportunity to add either positive or negative experiences to the bear’s toolbox. Our actions influence how the bears will interact with people in the future, so it’s important to strictly follow our guiding protocols, allowing for predictable behavior from us.

A conversation with a polar bear is not something you forget. Photo courtesy of Doreen Booth.

A conversation with a polar bear is not something you forget. Photo courtesy of Doreen Booth.

Polar bears are not very vocal mammals. They tend to transmit their intentions through body language or posturing which, when correctly interpreted, enables us to avoid potential confrontations. Each bear has a unique personality as a result of its varied life experiences, but all bears have the same basic nature. They are also very intelligent (thus curious and playful) and tolerant of us in their environment and we are incredibly privileged to view them in their natural habitat, on the ground and at eye level.

Due to our remote, exclusive operational area and very small group sizes (16 + guides) we are able to strictly control each and every bear encounter without concern for any outside interference from another group or vehicle altering the bear’s decision making process. “Our” bears have a much more natural reaction to humans, as they are far from human habitation and general tourism operations. They always respond to us with a good mix of curiosity and caution, reacting quickly to the first sign of deterrent from us.

Our knowledgeable, professional guides, have decades of experience with polar bears at ground level and have additional years of experience working in close quarters with grizzly bears and black bears. With this increased general knowledge of bear behavior, a walking safari in polar bear country can be done in a manner that is safe for both bears and people.

Safe distance. Good company. Photo courtesy of Doreen Booth.

Safe distance. Good company. Photo courtesy of Doreen Booth.

We have a strict set of rules that we adhere to on our walking safaris and while inside the fenced compounds that surround our Lodges, both occasions on which you can find yourself face-to-face with polar bears. Rules are required for the safety of the bears and the safety of the guests, but walking safaris are the ultimate non-invasive way of observing polar bears in their own environment.

The most intimate polar bear experience on the planet, where rare and cherished lifetime memories become…


Something special.

Quiet time. Photo courtesy of Doreen Booth.

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