by Jad Davenport, National Geographic photographer
Dawn is still an hour off, but Sue Chadwick is up beside the roaring spruce fire in the great room of Churchill Wild’s Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. She has a fresh cup of coffee in one hand and binoculars in the other. “I’m ready for the wolverine when he comes back.”
Together with seven other guests, Sue is five days into the two-week Polar Bear Den Emergence Quest, a chance to track and hopefully observe mother bears and three-month-old cubs making the perilous trek between their forest dens and the sea ice off Manitoba’s wild Kaska Coast. The wilderness around Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge, a proposed provincial park to protect denning polar bears, is 10 times the size of Yellowstone National Park in the U.S. The guests and team running the lodge are the only humans here.
“The chance to see mother polar bears and newborn cubs was the main draw,” Sue says when I ask why she has come to one of Canada’s wildest corners in the heart of the Arctic winter. “But I honestly didn’t expect the full range of the experiences we have been having. I thought if we were lucky enough to see wildlife, they would be streaks in the distance and a guide would say, ‘that was a wolf,’ and we would have to be satisfied to take their word for it.”
The reality is very different. “I was by the fire one morning and Butch (Churchill Wild guide and bear tracker Albert Saunders) said, ‘wolves are coming.’ I thought I heard him wrong. Suddenly, there were four wolves right outside the window here,” she says, pointing to a snowdrift just two meters beyond the glass of the picture window. “The wolves came right up beside the window. They weren’t galloping past, they were walking slowly. They gathered right on the snowdrift and looked inside at us. It was unreal. I wanted to cry, it was such an emotional moment to see them so close.”
Sue, who has gone gorilla trekking in Africa, walked the penguin-filled beaches of the Falkland Islands and searched for orangutans in Borneo, is no stranger to the challenge of remote and wild areas. She grew up on the natural history films by David Attenborough. Her love of wildlife and wild places has led her around the globe. She’s trekked with gorillas in Rwanda, tracked orangutans in Borneo and watched the king penguin colonies of the Falkland Islands.
“At Nanuk, I feel like I’m in a David Attenborough film. Every experience we’ve had with wildlife has been so intimate and personal. What this holiday makes me realize is that this wilderness belongs to the animals. We are not in charge up here, we are their guests. And that’s exactly how it should be.”
A chalkboard beside the lodge bar keeps a running tally of the guest sightings. Mammals: wolverine, moose, fisher, wolves, red fox, cross fox, arctic fox. Birds: willow ptarmigan, sharp-tailed grouse, snowy owls, gray jays. Tracks: marten. Natural phenomenon: Northern Lights, Sun Dogs. Before the quest is over, we hope to add one more to the list – the polar bear. Every day we are out on snow machines searching the forests and coastline for signs of bears.
Still, Sue isn’t concerned. “Even if I don’t see a polar bear, I won’t be disappointed,” she says. “There are so many more components to the Den Emergence Quest than just the chance to see bears. We have the wolves and moose and owls. The other night we snowmobiled out to the sea ice and you felt like you were on the edge of the world. And then Jody (Jody Mae, lodge hostess) and Ben (Ben Lawrence, lodge manager) surprised us with hot, mulled wine.”
The first hint of color is rising in the east over the sea ice. Sue smiles and says goodbye to Butch and Churchill Wild owner Mike Reimer. The two spend each day crisscrossing nearly 200 kilometers of trackless wilderness searching for bear tracks and signs of dens. They won’t be back until after dark. Sue will be back after sunset, too, taking up her spot between the roaring fire and window on the wild, watching for wolves or wolverines or foxes.