Polar Bear Blog

What’s a day in the life of a Churchill Wild polar bear guide like?

Andy MacPherson. On guard. Jad Davenport photo.
Andy MacPherson. On guard. Jad Davenport photo.

by Allison Reimer

At Churchill Wild the job description for a guide can be, well, a little wild. The average person might think that leading 16 people across the tundra seeking out and observing one of the world’s fiercest predators is intimidating, but while it’s not for the faint of heart, it’s just a regular day in the life of our guides.

The daily guide schedule resembles something like this:

6:00 AM: Wake up and check for polar bears.

7:00 AM: Get gear ready for the day, rehearse polar bear facts, check for polar bears.

8:00 AM: Eat breakfast with the guests while watching for polar bears.

9:00 AM: Take guests on walk with polar bears. Talk about polar bears.

10:30 AM: Talk to a polar bear.

11:30 AM: Return to lodge with all guests accounted for and make a polar bear joke.

And so it goes!

Polar bear guides Albert Saunders and Steve Schellenberg see something they like! Egle Hansen photo.
Polar bear guides Albert Saunders and Steve Schellenberg see something they like! Egle Hansen photo.

One of the most amazing things about our Churchill Wild guides is that they never get tired of seeing polar bears! Although, one should assume that the adrenaline of being at eye level with such an animal hardly allows for boredom.

Aside from the excitement and adrenaline factors, I asked our long-time guide Andy MacPherson what keeps him loving his job.

“Each and every bear has its own personality,” said Andy. “Just like people. So, while meeting people from all over the world is interesting, it’s truly a privilege to walk into the space of a thousand-pound animal and see the world through its eyes.”

Certainly there are dangers to interacting with such an animal? Well, we affectionately know Andy as the Polar Bear Whisperer, so I asked him about that too.

“Polar bears deserve a lot of respect,” he said. “We give them space and we always let them approach us. Of course, if they start to look like they’re coming for a cuddle, we send them on their way with a stern word or the clang of a couple rocks.”

Due to the wildly remote locations of our lodges, there’s a very good chance that we’re the only humans the polar bears have ever encountered, so when our guides use steady, stern voices with them, it gives the polar bear something to focus on and makes them cautious. This is very important, as part of our commitment at Churchill Wild is to promote sustainable tourism practices and conduct low-impact interactions.

All Churchill Wild guides have extensive knowledge of polar bears, “beary” good power point presentations and a few bad bear puns. Okay, maybe I have the bad puns. And occasionally our guides become chefs and servers out on the land when our guests are enjoying tundra picnics.

Guide & chef Andy MacPherson. Robert Postma photo.
Guide & chef Andy MacPherson. Robert Postma photo.

When it comes to guiding with polar bears, you can’t always be sure who’s guiding who. Yes, our guides are out on the tundra interacting with wildlife, but walking with polar bears isn’t the same as checking out animals at the zoo, it’s incredibly better! But of course, it requires some additional parameters.

“There has to be a mutual respect between animals and people, as well as between guests and guides,” said Terry Elliot, another seasoned Churchill Wild guide. “When you step out that door you are in polar bear country. We rely on our guests to listen to our safety orientation and follow our instructions while out in the field. Letting the wildlife come to us, in their comfort zone, on their time, is very important. When in the viewing compound at the lodge it’s very important to walk slowly and keep voices down. We adapt to the animal.”

Being a polar bear guide at Churchill Wild isn’t just about polar bears. There is so much more to see in northern Manitoba! On our Birds, Bears, and Belugas adventure, guests can swim with Beluga whales and on our Hudson Bay Odyssey there are often viewing opportunities for wolves, moose and black bear as well. In many of our tours there are also chances to see Arctic foxes, red foxes and occasionally caribou.

Teachable moment from guide Derek Kyostia. Christine Hayden photo.
Teachable moment from guide Derek Kyostia. Christine Hayden photo.

Our remote locations in northern Canada also means frequent northern lights appearances. Come fall, when we run our Polar Bear Photo Safaris at Seal River Heritage Lodge and Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge, guides will be on rotating shifts, getting up in the middle of the night to check for the Aurora Borealis. There are nights where the guides shuffle on back to bed because of cloud cover, but often it’s a flurry of waking guests up and running outside before the lights escape. Some of our guides will be out there with cameras as well, soaking up the view and giving advice to guests when they can. The dancing northern lights are a phenomenon of the north that no one ever gets tired of watching.

There are also the slightly less glamorous tasks, like being knee deep in mud getting ATV trailers unstuck, loading and unloading airplanes, and yes, even helping with the dishes occasionally.

Guides Quent Plett and Terry Elliot enjoying the moment! Allison Reimer photo.
Guides Quent Plett and Terry Elliot enjoying the moment! Allison Reimer photo.

The tundra can be an unforgiving and remote landscape but its beauty and wildlife offerings offset all the exhaustion our guides and staff might feel at the end of the day. And let’s not forget, they’re nourished by Arctic gourmet cuisine three times a day!

Think you have what it takes to live like a polar bear guide?

Take a walk on the wild side!

2 comments:

  1. We had the pleasure of being guided by Andy and Terry in 2008. Through their skill, knowledge and enthusiasm we had an unforgettable experience of bears, landscape, culture and harsh climate. Thinking back I would add “guest wrangling” (stopping overenthusiastic guests from overstepping the mark), “polargoogle” (oh boy are they asked a lot of questions) and “wardrobe advisors” (kept us at a comfortable temperature) – although less sure in the sartorial side – tight thermals are just not a good look – to their job description.

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