Walking with Arctic giants in Churchill, Manitoba
When you think about going on a wildlife safari, you probably conjure up pictures of people sitting in safari vehicles watching lions on the Serengeti. Well, there’s another king of the wild out there, but this one is king of the tundra, and the safari we recently took to see them was unlike anything we ever expected.
The safari was In Manitoba, Canada, where we had the opportunity to walk among polar bears. We followed the skilled and experienced guides at Nanuk Lodge on the shores of Hudson Bay, and we got as close as possible to the white giants and watch them with wonder in their natural habitat. Yes, we gook safari vehicles. But we also got out of the vehicles and approached the bears ON FOOT.
To have this incredible experience, we flew into Churchill, Manitoba, from Winnipeg on a small cargo plane filled with other intrepid adventurers yearning to see the wild Canadian Arctic. Our destination is famous for its polar bear population (and its beluga whales, too). The migration path of the polar bear goes right through town and locals have learned to live with them. There are signs all over town warning residents and tourists to keep an eye out for polar bears. We were told doors and vehicles around town are never locked, just in case someone has to duck into a house for safety.
I always thought you only could see polar bears in the wild during winter from behind the glass of a large tundra vehicle. As I learned on this adventure, polar bears are quite active on the Hudson Bay coast in the summer months, too, and if you align with the right tour operators, you can see them on foot.
Viewfinder Tip: Make sure to pack warm and waterproof outer layers in your gear. Even in the summer northern Canada is cold.
Companies such as Churchill Wild bring small groups out to view mothers and cubs going about their daily business. Nanuk Lodge is located an hour outside of Churchill on a remote strip of barren land along the Hudson Bay coast, and this lodge served as our home base for our adventure. To get from Churchill to the lodge, we took a twin otter flight (another small plane) to the lodge’s private airstrip, where we met our hosts and promptly were escorted into the fenced-in compound. Ironically, we were the ones behind the fences, and the polar bears, black bears, moose, and wolves were the local residents looking in to see what the fuss was all about.
Polar bears are incredibly dangerous in the wild, and at Nanuk, there was no venturing out on your own. Staff even warned us about getting to go too close to the fence. Twice daily we went out on safari in large metal tundra vehicles that traveled across the barren Arctic in search of polar bears. When our guides spotted the bears in the distance, we’d drive steadily toward the creatures until we came within a half-mile or so. At that point, if the guide felt the bears were in a good location and seemed comfortable, the guide would order us out of the vehicle to start hiking.
Once we disembarked from the vehicles, we had strict rules and guidelines about walking with polar bears. We had to walk behind our guide in single file, and were followed by another guide at the back of the line. Both of our guides were armed and ready for anything, but they both told us that in all their years of guiding they never have had to resort to using their firearms. Instead, the guides said they keep their distance and keep a close eye on the mood and behavior of the bears. The guides told us that if bears do charge, they use noisemakers or something called a “banger” that shoots a colorful trail of smoke toward the bear to scare it off. They said the last thing anyone wants is a confrontation.
Thankfully we had none of those. The first time we hit the ground, we walked for about a half-hour in silence behind our guide, Andy. The walking was slow and methodical. Eventually we came with 100 yards of a bear, and watched in silence as the bear slept. The bear definitely knew we were there, but it didn’t seem bothered by us at all. While we watched, the bear rolled over, yawned, and stretched as we snapped our photos and videos with excitement. Seeing a polar bear in the wild was one of the most amazing moments we’ve ever had on our travels.
During our four days at the lodge, we saw many other polar bears walking in the distance. From the air (en route), we flew over at least a dozen. But these close encounters on foot were the parts of the experience that took our breath away. On other excursions from the lodge, two different mother polar bears with their cubs and one lone male allowed us to watch them from a short distance away. Like that first animal, these went about their business, swimming, scratching, and playing while we stood in awe of their power and beauty. They glanced over at us every once in awhile, but most of the time, they simply ignored us and went about their lives.
We’ve been on safari in Asia, Africa, and Antarctica, but it was our experience in the Canadian tundra that marveled us the most. It was a dream of ours to see polar bears in the wild. I can only hope that these endangered animals will be around for years to come.
Where was your greatest animal encounter?
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