A tale of wellbeing, wonder and walking with polar bears
Story and photos by Cheryl Hnatiuk
What is going on here? I thought to myself, my brow lightly furrowed, my face a mixture of disbelief and surprise. For years, I’d been hoping to see what I was now looking at, up close and personal. I’d almost given up, but now, through my camera, and tear-filled eyes, I watched a wolf move inquisitively and steadily around a group of people I had met only the night before.
Here, on the shores of Hudson Bay, against the backdrop of the boreal forest, is where I had one of the most powerful wildlife viewing experiences of my life. And that was after seeing my first polar bear earlier in the day.
This was the beginning of an incredible experience that began with a decided feeling to grab my paddleboard and return to the lake I had discovered while biking earlier in the spring. The lake wasn’t remote, and the trail to it had occasional traffic, but not enough to be distracting. My paddle board was new, and the lake was pristine, calm and well sheltered.
I find spending time in spaces like this to be restoring and re-calibrating. Excursions to places of solitude in nature have been part of my weekly rhythm for many years, most of the time with my camera in tow. In the silence, restlessness gives way to steadiness, discomfort to ease, and agitation to calm. The calmness found in nature is where wellbeing resides, and as I relax into it, inspiration starts to wash over me. That’s when I pull out my camera.
A 2017 study published by the Journal of Environmental Research, written by Caoimhe Twohig-Bennett and Andy Jones, provides support for my hypothesis that wellbeing is found in nature. This study, made up of more than 290 million people, reviewed 103 observational and 40 interventional studies investigating around 100 health outcomes when exposed to green space.
Green space was defined as “open undeveloped land with natural vegetation.” Simply put, exposure to wilderness and wild spaces is associated with statistically significant, wide-ranging health benefits. This study provided definitive proof that being outside not only feels good, it is also good for you.
I wasn’t exactly the picture of serenity when I embarked on my hike. For one, I was annoyed at myself for arriving nearly two hours later than planned. My inflatable paddle board was a lot heavier and more cumbersome to carry on my back than I had anticipated, plus it was 30 degrees Celsius and I was quickly becoming a sweaty mess. Wearing white socks, turquoise runners, a giant yellow backpack with a fluorescent green pump attached to it, and a paddle board that swayed with each step like an elephant’s trunk, I set out.
Along the way, I met a staff member of a nearby resort who seemed completely unfazed by my turquoise-runner-white-sock-fluorescent-backpack-unruly-pump-sweaty-faced presentation. He simply said a friendly “Hello” and we enjoyed a lovely conversation about being outside, the beauty of nature, and the restorative silence. As our conversation unfolded under a blazing hot sun, it somehow turned to polar bears.
Turns out, the fellow I was talking to had worked as a wildlife guide in northern Manitoba, for Churchill Wild. He explained their style of wildlife viewing to me — unobtrusive, controlled, respectful. My curiosity piqued, I couldn’t help but ask if they ever needed professional wildlife photographers. Just as he was providing the contact information, the owner of the resort came by, took one look at me in my all-colourful glory, told me to throw my paddleboard into his 4×4 buggy and gave me a ride to the lake.
A few days later I took the plunge and reached out to Churchill Wild. After a few rounds of emails and phone calls, and one face-to-face meeting, I signed a contract and was officially Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge bound.
My question of What is going on here? was answered by one of our expert guides, after intimate, back-to-back encounters with a polar bear and a timber wolf. “This is untouched wilderness.”
It was a centering response to hear. We were guests in this wild land, with nothing else around for hundreds of miles. Apart from the few hundred guests who pass through Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge during a season, the wildlife that call this section of the Hudson Bay coastline home have no human interactions. And they have no reason to be afraid, due to the respectful and controlled way in which encounters are conducted. We were guests in their home, witnesses to the wild.
My day had started abruptly and somewhat harried, with a 4:00 a.m. wake-up call to catch my flight. It had concluded with deep feelings of wellbeing and serenity after multiple encounters with polar bears and wolves. The next four days would be spent exploring the rugged wilderness around our cozy ecolodge oasis and connecting to its wildlife.
I couldn’t wait.