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Polar bear close-up in the long grass. Seal River Heritage Lodge. Birds, Bears & Belugas safari. July 2023. (Kathryn Cehrs photo)

Polar bear close-up. Seal River Heritage Lodge. (Kathryn Cehrs photo)

by George Williams

Kathryn Cehrs rekindled some fond family travel memories with her mother at Seal River Heritage Lodge last summer, and their intimate encounters with polar bears and beluga whales made it a trip they’ll never forget.

“My mom loves animals,” said Cehrs. “And several years ago she read about polar bears going into the town of Churchill and how it was the polar bear capital of the world. She wanted to go with my dad, but unfortunately, he passed from cancer last year.  My parents had travelled together for 35 years, so I told her after that, I would travel with her.”

Veterinarian Kathryn Cehrs and her mother Anne at Seal River Heritage Lodge. Polar bear in the background. Birds, Bears & Belugas. July 2023.

Veterinarian Kathryn Cehrs with her mother Anne at Seal River Heritage Lodge. Note the visitor in the background.

The 34-year-old medium/large animal veterinarian from California has been exploring the world since she was a child. Her parents met while travelling and took her on her first international trip when she was just two and half years old. Cehrs started traveling independently at 21, visiting Nepal during a college break, and has travelled solo over the past 13 years to 18 different countries.

An experienced wildlife traveller, Cehrs has seen chimpanzees in Gombe, gorillas in Rwanda, and orangutans in Borneo, among other exotic species, but she had never seen polar bears in the wild. She chose Churchill Wild and Seal river Heritage Lodge first and foremost for the opportunity to observe the bears up close on guided walking tours on the tundra.

“I searched for polar bears, Churchill and companies, and Churchill Wild was the one that came up repeatedly in the walking safaris,” said Cehrs. “So I sent out the inquiries and booked the trip for both of us. I had no idea what to expect. I just knew I was going to go out and walk with polar bears.”

Cehrs decided on the July Birds, Bears & Belugas safari at Seal River Heritage Lodge while doing her research, and was thrilled when the Churchill Wild website descriptions and photos sprang to life right in front of her.


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A post shared by Kathryn Cehrs (@kathryncehrs)

“There were just so many bears,” said Cehrs. “I hoped we would see the polar bears up close, but we saw way more polar bears than even the staff expected. I was also somewhat afraid they were going to be really skinny bears, so it was nice to see them all being so big and healthy.”

An experienced photographer, Cehrs uses a Canon EOS 90D, and her polar bear photos on this trip were taken with a 100 x 400 lens. She used a macro lens for the flower and the lichen photos, and a wide angle 18 x 200 lens for her photos of the northern lights.

Cehrs saw bears wandering just outside the lodge compound fence, and was also able to get close to the bears on the guided walks on the tundra.


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A post shared by Kathryn Cehrs (@kathryncehrs)

“The close-up photos were all taken at the lodge,” said Cehrs. “Including the ‘fat’ bear photos. There were bears around the lodge constantly for the first two days. The cub photos, those were all on foot and we were pretty close to them. We could see them really well. The bear with the feather in his mouth was very close to us as well.”

One surprising sight for Cehrs was a three-legged polar bear that the guides identified from previous years. Theories were that he had sustained a crush injury from shifting ice, or from a boulder falling at high tide while out walking in the rocks.


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“It was pretty awesome that he was able to survive like that,” said Cehrs. “And he was doing well. He was a healthy weight. I never would have thought he’d be able to hunt seals in the winter and compete for food. Another thing I wasn’t expecting on the trip was the archaeological sites. Those were really cool to go to. I had no idea those were even in the area.”

A three-legged polar bear that has survived and thrived at Seal River Heritage Lodge. Kathryn Cehrs photo.

A three-legged polar bear that has survived and thrived at Seal River Heritage Lodge. (Kathryn Cehrs photo)

In addition to meeting polar bears at ground level, Cehrs said she had some memorable encounters with beluga whales. “I really enjoyed the belugas. Our guide said that the belugas seemed to respond well to good energy and music. She asked us if we wanted her to try, drove a little way from the other boat so we wouldn’t disturb them, played the music, and the belugas were totally hanging out with us full time.

“They were coming up to the boat really close. They’d look at us as they swam by, and then they’d do this thing where they’d get right next to the boat and then blow bubbles. I had no idea they that did that. It was a really good time. We had a lot of fun that day.”

Cehrs had hoped to get close-up photos of the bears, and her choice of safari didn’t disappoint, as she was able to capture numerous shots at close range.  She appreciated Churchill Wild’s proven record of hosting polar bear walking safaris, and the remote setting of the lodge, which provides front-row seats to the wildlife action. Seal River Heritage Lodge is located directly on the bears’ natural route up and down the Hudson Bay coast during the summer, and knowledgeable guides made Cehrs’ time observing the bears both safe and informative.

“It always felt like the guides had everything under control,” said Cehrs.” I always felt safe with them. And they were also really interesting, nice people to talk to in the evening in the lodge. I’m a veterinarian and I had several conversations with one of the guides about polar bear physiology. Another guide and I found out we liked a lot of similar music, so we talked about music, and another was a scuba diver, and I’m a diver, so we talked about diving.”


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A post shared by Kathryn Cehrs (@kathryncehrs)

Cehrs said her group also got along famously. “There were 12 Americans and two Brits in our group, and a number of them were in the medical profession. We got along really well and hung out together. And the food was really good too. We had everything there. I really liked the desserts, and there were a lot of them. We had cranberry blondies on the very first day and some of the cookies and snacks were really good too.”

When asked how she would rate the experience among all her travels, Cehrs said that “Getting that close to the bears was pretty awesome. And the belugas were great. They were really engaging, looking at us and hanging out with us. I guess I have a hard time comparing, because every trip I go on seems really great, but this was awesome and amazing. It was incredible.”

Polar bear eyes sik sik at Seal River Heritage Lodge. Birds, Bears & Belugas. July 2023. Kathryn Cehrs photo.

Polar bear eyes sik sik at Seal River Heritage Lodge. (Kathryn Cehrs photo)

Cehrs said that several people had already asked her about visiting Churchill after seeing the photos from her trip on her Instagram profile. @kathryncehrs. “Seeing my pictures has sort of moved Churchill and Churchill Wild up on their list of places to go,” said Cehrs. “I would definitely recommend it.”

Cehrs’ experience with Churchill Wild left an indelible mark on her. It was her first non-solo trip in 13 years, and it not only deepened her love for wildlife, but also strengthened her bond with her mother, Anne. “She’s a big wildlife fan,” said Cehrs. “She’s 72 years old, and that was the first time she’d seen a polar bear.

“She loved it.”

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