I’m face to face with a polar bear, and I’m resisting the temptation to give the world’s largest land-based predator a pat. On the opposite side of the fence the bear sits on his haunches like an overgrown Labrador puppy; his black tongue sticking out, panting from the heat.
I know I can’t touch him. I’m acutely aware he hasn’t eaten in months and that he wouldn’t think twice about having me for dinner. But I kind of feel sorry for Mork, the bear who’s been hanging around Seal River Heritage Lodge for the past few days. A teenager by polar bear standards, he’s just bored and desperate for something (or, possibly, someone) to play with.
“We have a comfort zone, they have a comfort zone,” my guide Terry had told me during my orientation briefing. “It’s different with every bear.” Mork seems determined to test mine. He gently licks, then nuzzles, the safety fence around our compound with his teeth, pushing his enormous snout through the gap.
“Don’t do that, bear,” Terry says calmly. Mork looks him up and down, before clamping his jaw on the wire and raising a paw to push against it. It’s a little bit of teenage rebellion — and Terry’s not having any of it. “No, bear!” Terry says firmly. Reprimanded, the bear pulls back, snagging a tooth on the wire and noisily clattering the fence. Looking sheepish, he skulks off to the beach like he’s been sent to the doghouse.
Seal River Heritage Lodge is built on a peninsula 37 miles from Churchill in Manitoba, central Canada. Reached only by private plane in summer and autumn, it’s one of the only places in the world where you can walk with polar bears. Although September-November is the peak season, we’ve come in August, with the wildflowers fading and the bay free of ice, it means I can swim with the beluga whales frolicking and feeding at the mouth of Seal River.
On the week we arrive, however, the weather isn’t cooperating. Through the plane window, the tundra is a rain-soaked inkblot, a soup of green and grey punctuated by rocky outcrops, dotted with the white bottoms of napping polar bears. From the moment I touch down on the gravel airstrip in the pouring rain, safety is paramount. Terry lays down the rules before I can even head to my room: the front door will remain closed until I depart. No one leaves the compound without a guide. If a bear is at the fence, stay back. Don’t reach through the fence. Don’t lean over the fence…
Halfway through the briefing, Terry stops. We have our first visitor. A few metres away, a white hulk lumbers towards the building, following a dirt track carved by hundreds of pacing paws. Moving slowly, I press against the glass windows for my first look at a polar bear — and his first look at me. An older bear, he stops to take us in, peering through the glass, his head hung low, his eyes pinched in concentration as he checks us out. Somehow, it feels like it’s the way it’s meant to be: with me locked away in my human enclosure, the polar bears free to take or leave the humans on display.
This bear decides to stick around, plonking himself outside the dining room on a grassy nest pre-flattened by a previous polar bear bottom.
The next morning, I take my first walking safari with the bears. While I wait in the yard with enough camera gear to make an entire David Attenborough crew proud, Terry climbs into the crow’s nest built in the centre of the compound to see where the bears are.
Despite having a distinctive polar pedigree, the lodge is well south of the Arctic Circle. And three miles north of where the tree line ends. However, the scraggy willow bushes and tall green grass surrounding the compound make for excellent napping spots, so each time we leave the compound, Terry calls out good morning to any potential bears, so we both don’t end up giving each other a fright. Although he carries a flare gun filled with scare cartridges and a loaded rifle, the most effective weapon for warning off bears that don’t mind their manners are two rocks, which when bashed together make a frightening sound.
We cross to where two adolescent males have moved overnight. Their heads pop up from a grassy knoll as we approach from the tidal flats. Although they appear sluggish, we halt as they begin to wrestle, propping our gear and ourselves on boulders that hours before had been engulfed by the waters of the bay. The bears spar playfully on their hind legs, offset by a violet-coloured sky and a wall of tall green grass. Any illusion of their docile nature is shattered: these are big creatures, and they are powerful and fast. It’s a half-hour show, but suddenly, like naughty kids who realise they’ve been caught, they stop and collapse into the grass again, exhausted.
While they nap, we explore further. Underfoot, the tundra feels like an arctic trampoline: spongy and light and scattered with boulders and rocks pushed onto the land by the winter ice.
Terry stops to show me a tundra polygon — a small hollow in the tundra where the ice has pushed the soil apart. He beckons us to roll up our sleeves, lie on our fronts and plunge our arms into the murk. Not everyone in my group is game, but I give it a go.
“Just look out for the tundra monsters,” Terry jokes. “Tundra monsters?” I reply, raising a sceptical eyebrow.
“The polar bears.”
With my cheek pressed against the cold ground, I slip my hand through a layer of slop and scraggy roots until my fingertips reach a solid, smooth floor of ice. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting permafrost to feel like, but the sensation is unexpected and reassuring, as if there’s order to the chaos below our feet.
It’s amazing how the land, which seems desolate, provides so much. Using his knife, Terry occasionally stoops to pick mushrooms, and dotted around are patches of blueberries, lingonberries, raspberries and cloudberries, which we pick as dessert for the dinner prepared for us by the lodge’s owner, Jeanne Rimers.
Jeanne runs Seal River with husband Mike. Over the years, they’ve turned it into one of the world’s most unique wildlife experiences. Despite its remote location, it’s incredibly comfortable. Jeanne and her daughter Karli prepare dinner in the kitchen, while Mike cradles his newborn grandchild in one hand and tops up your wine with the other, sharing stories of raising kids among polar bears. Carving out a life here is a lesson in logistics; most of the furniture, equipment and supplies are brought in during the early spring, first by train from Winnipeg, then by tractor-drawn sleigh across the ice of Hudson Bay, an arduous 37-mile journey that can take upwards of 36 hours.
One year, Mike arrived with his crew to discover there’d been a break in over the winter. A bear had torn the plywood covering off the windows, smashed through the glass, destroyed most of the furniture and left a 12ft snowdrift in the centre of the living room. The intruder had eaten everything in the house that could be consumed — from the fishing trophies on the walls to the tupperware and tinned food in the kitchen. The only item left untouched? A single jar of honey. Today, the only sign of destruction is a two-inch stitch down the arm of one sofa, compliments of a slashing claw.
While the summer is a time of feast for most species, for bears it’s a time of famine. Part of the reason we’re able to walk safely alongside them is that their instinct to hunt diminishes during the summer, when they need to conserve their energy. Seals make up 90% of a polar bear’s diet, but they can only gorge on them in winter and spring, when there’s plentiful ice and the seal pups are denning. The squirrel-like sik-siks running around the lodge are occasionally referred to as tundra burritos. Dug up from their hibernation dens by the bears, they make the perfect pre-winter snack.
At present, polar bears are not listed as endangered, but they face an uncertain future as climate change critically impacts their environment. The ice is freezing later and melting earlier, denying them their natural food source. And hungry bears follow their nose into populated areas.
In Churchill, problem bears are dealt with in a curious way — they’re locked up in jail. With bad weather delaying our flight into Seal River, our driver had driven us to see the Polar Bear Holding Centre, near the airport in Churchill. Inside, bears who repeatedly venture into town scavenging for food, or are considered too aggressive, are held captive until the sea ice refreezes and they again have sufficient land on which to hunt. First though, each newly captured bear is weighed, tattooed with an identification number and — to add insult to injury — sprayed with a bright pink patch.
Human and bear encounters can’t always be managed, however. Before I’d flown north, I’d visited Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg, the location of the International Polar Bear Conservation Centre and the brilliant new Journey to Churchill enclosure. The zoo is home to six polar bears, including one ‘second-chance bear’ that was orphaned after her mother was shot by officials in Churchill.
We discuss polar bear conservation at length during our stay, but ultimately Mike has the final word on polar bears: “There’s a place for them in the world, and the world would not be the same without them.”
On our last day at the lodge, the weather changes. The wind drops, the sun shines, and Mike is determined to get us out onto Hudson Bay to swim with the belugas — only possible for Seal River guests between July and August.
After donning thick drysuits to protect from the cold, we head out on the rigid-inflatables; Mork swims towards us, but we have an appointment elsewhere.
Just a few miles away there’s quite a party waiting at the mouth of Seal River to greet us. Thousands of beluga whales have gathered here, surfacing and splashing all around us. Floating facedown in the water and wearing a snorkel, I hear them before I see them, their clicks and whistles carrying through the water. The first group appear; glowing white shapes with wide smiles craning and bending their heads, rolling on their side to take me in.
Dragged backwards behind the boat by a cord attached to my feet, I once again feel like I’m on display for the animals here, as each pod takes a turn to swim up and inspect me, as if I’m some curious, moving exhibit. Terry encourages me to sing to attract their attention, so I hum a tune underwater. It’s freezing cold and absolutely absurd — I’m in the water serenading beluga whales with a medley of Beatles tunes.
That evening back at the lodge, I’m tired, thrilled and overwhelmed at having experienced these amazing creatures up close. But when a new bear arrives at sunset, I scurry out to photograph the ferocious beast doing what looks like a Pilates routine, his fur illuminated by dusky pink light. As we turn back to the lodge, another bear cuts a perfect silhouette against the sun on the horizon, and I simply have to put my camera down and embrace it with my eyes.
That night, I finish packing my bags, exhausted and satisfied. But as I switch my lights out, I spot something outside the window: the faint wispy glow of the aurora borealis.
The Northern Lights begin to swirl across the sky, strengthening in colour and moving with a rapid pace — tendrils of emerald green curling through the sky like a Van Gogh painting. Wrapped in a fleece, I stand out there for hours in the freezing cold with the other guests, until the last member of the group calls it a night.
I’m wrecked, but I just can’t go in yet. I began my day walking with polar bears, I spent my afternoon swimming with beluga whales and my evening watching the aurora borealis sweep the sky. Not every day is like this. Not every day can be as good as this, and I’m not ready for it to end. So I stand in the cold, safely behind the fence, and don’t take my eyes off the spectacular sky.
Churchill is 620 miles north of Winnipeg, accessible via train (4h) or air (2h). Although small, polar bears pass through the town, so it’s best to travel by vehicle. In the Northern Region of Manitoba, Seal River is only reached by private plane from Churchill. Calm Air connects Winnipeg with Churchill.
When to go
From June to August, visitors can swim with beluga whales. September-November is peak polar bear and tourist season. Weather in Manitoba’s Northern Region can be unpredictable and extreme.
Need to know
Visas: From 15 March 2016, British visitors to Canada will need to apply online for a C$7 (£3.50) eTA (Electronic Travel Authorization) prior to travelling.
Currency: Canadian dollar (C$). £1 = C$1.89.
International dial code: 00 1.
Time: GMT -5.
How to do it
Churchill Wild offers the Birds, Bears and Belugas safari, with five nights at Seal River Heritage Lodge, two in Winnipeg, return flights from Winnipeg to Churchill, and a private flight to Seal River from $9,695 per person (£5,055 excluding 6.5% non-residents tax).
Published in the November 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)