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Polar bears have long been known as Emperors of the North. But unless one plans to visit the Arctic, chances for a regular person to encounter this regal being in its natural environment is very rare.
Luckily, Canada’s all-inclusive safari company, Churchill Wild, charters guests on a private plane to one of its remote lodges in northern Manitoba. There, humans spend a week walking among polar bears on an authentic and private safari. In fact, Northern Canada is home to two-thirds of the entire world’s polar bear population.
In the summer, when the ice melts, these bears go ashore. They wander the coastlines to buy time until November when the ice freezes. Then, they go back to sea and hunt seals. It is during these in-between months that Churchill Wild operates its safaris, giving visitors an opportunity to visit these majestic creatures on their turf.
My five-day journey began in August with a flight to Winnipeg in Manitoba and, from there, a ride on a smaller plane to the town of Churchill. Once I landed at the Churchill Airport, a private twin otter plane promptly flew me to the Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge, located about 155 miles southeast along the coast of the Hudson Bay.
The lodge has only eight double-occupancy rooms, keeping the safari experience intimate. A common area with couches and a fireplace connects the rooms, along with a kitchen where meals are freshly prepared.
There is no human life for approximately 100 miles from the lodge — meaning, no gigantic diesel-fueled tourist buses with people pressing up against windows, jockeying for photos. It was just giant stretches of water, land and polar bears.
Within minutes of arriving at Nanuk, I was already heading out on my first excursion in a small roofless all-terrain vehicle in the direction of where my bear guide, Andy MacPherson, spotted bears with his binoculars earlier that day.
His instincts were correct because, there, nestled on a sand dune, was a gigantic polar bear, relaxing. At this time of year, polar bears live primarily off their fat reserves. They don’t hibernate; they’re just lazy. This dialed-down energy puts them in what Andy says is a “walking hibernation.” Activity is minimized to conserve energy.
We stopped about a half-mile from our bear and turned off the engine. Before we set off on foot, McPherson had important information about bear etiquette and bear misconceptions.
“Bears don’t like confrontation,” McPherson said. “If given the choice, most of the time they simply get up and move off.”
Still, to be on the safe side, McPherson leads groups armed with bear-deterring tools such as bear spray, bangers and a 12-gauge shotgun. So far, he’s never used them here.
We walked toward the bear in a single file line to minimize our profile, so as not to appear imposing to the bear. A spread-out formation could be mistaken by the animal as a threat. We also walked in a zigzag or circling fashion, which mimics the way bears approach each other in the wild. A direct path could be interpreted as aggressive.
Churchill Wild, an all-inclusive safari company in Canada, enables visitors to catch close-up glimpses of polar bears. // © 2016 Robert Postma
Churchill Wild’s Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge is only accessible by private plane. // © 2016 Zorianna Kit
The Northern Lights are often visible across the sky. // © 2016 Chas Glatzer
The Rhino is a custom-built terrain vehicle for the lodge. // © 2016 Zorianna Kit
Visitors observe a mama bear and her cub wandering along the coastline of the Hudson Bay. // © 2016 Zorianna Kit
A polar bear spends a lazy afternoon on a sand dune. // © 2016 Zorianna Kit
Tracks reveal some of the other animals that can be found at the lodge, such as moose. // © 2016 Zorianna Kit
A black bear searches for berries. // © 2016 Zorianna Kit
Wood frogs are known for having freeze tolerance. // © 2016 Zorianna Kit
A black wolf pauses in his tracks to check out human visitors. // © 2016 Churchill Wild
After a day of polar bear viewing, guests head back to the lodge on The Rhino. // © 2016 Zorianna Kit
When the polar bear perked up and looked in our direction, we stopped and simply observed. He stared at us and then put his head back down, closing his eyes. This implied he felt no threat or fear from our approaching group — good news because it meant we could slowly move in closer.
If he felt uncomfortable, the bear could have stood up to let us know how big he was, showing what we would be in for if we ventured too near. In this case, our friendly giant didn’t seem to care much, although his swiveling ears and occasional head raises let us know he was aware of our presence.
It was incredible to be so close. Polar bears are on the top of the food chain. They have no animal predators, yet with proper etiquette thanks to MacPherson, they let me share their habitat. It felt exhilarating, and never once did I feel I was in any danger.
Over the course of my stay at Nanuk, I walked among and photographed numerous bears, including a mother and her cub. I observed bears greeting each other, playing with driftwood and going into the bay for a swim.
There is no better way to get to know polar bears, to appreciate and respect them, than by visiting their environment like I was doing. I felt the same cool wind they felt, got drenched by the same rain and even ate the same wild strawberries. Churchill Wild created a full sensory experience that connected me to a species I had never otherwise been able to do.
- Churchill Wild tours start at $7,200 per person plus taxes.
- There are multiple lodges with multiple itineraries. Packages include two nights in Winnipeg, four nights at the lodge and roundtrip airfare between Winnipeg, Churchill and the lodge.
- For more information, contact [email protected]