Category Archives: Churchill Wild

Seal River polar bears are curious, social and playful

Ok, so I’m not a naturalist (closest I get to an “ist” is generalist), but watching and photographing the bears at Seal River Heritage Lodge I’m struck by how different their behaviour is to that portrayed in the wildlife documentaries I’ve seen on TV.

One of my colleagues recently responded to my polar bear photos (below), proudly displayed on my office wall, of a beautiful young female and two male buddies  along the lines of “such vicious animals, I wouldn’t want to be outside with them!”.

(click on the photos if you want to make them full screen)

Can't a girl get some sleep?
Beauty
Lets go
Two buddies

I protested that “vicious” is not my experience of polar bears, and I had been within metres of polar bears, on foot. To me “vicious” is a value ladened term, that suggest evil or ill intent. “But” she said “you wouldn’t go up and pat one” – well, no I wouldn’t, I agreed,  but that does not make them “vicious”, it just makes them a wild animal – a very big carnivore that from time to time will consider us food.

For those who haven’t read my blogs, in early August 2014 my husband and I visited the Churchill Wild run remote Seal River Heritage Lodge on Hudson Bay, near Churchill, Manitoba.

 

Aerial view from my husband's copter
Aerial view of the lodge from my husband’s quad-copter
Spot the polar bear - aerial shot from my husband's quadcopter
Spot the polar bear (look in the seaweed line – click the picture to enlarge)- aerial shot from my husband’s quadcopter

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What we experienced at Seal River Heritage Lodge was a long way from TV shows with skinny male bears hunting bear cubs and mothers having to defend them, desperate starving mothers with cubs, males fighting over females or bears trying to eat the presenter in a perspex cage.

Even our mothers with cubs were pretty laid back.

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The exception to the “polar bear as predator” shows are the videos of the Churchill bears and sled dogs playing together. Bears playing together serves at least the purpose of practicing skills they will need in winter – but what purpose does cross-species play serve?

Polar bears at play reminded me very much of our Alaskan Malamutes (a registered breed in Australia, not just a wolf like sled dog). Over the course of 20 years I’ve watched a lot of malamute wrestling and there are many similarities. I’ve also watched  our cat (6kg) and the youngest of our dogs (40kg) , who grew up together, wrestle, with usually the cat winning.

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Cross species buddies

That is not to say that what we see on the TV is incorrect, but it does illustrate the danger of stereotyping any complex animal.

We were told at the Lodge that the bears go into “walking hibernation” when there is no ice, slowing down the metabolism and eating very little.  “Hibernation” suggests inactivity and not eating, but as you will see below, the bears may sleep a lot but they also play, swim and sight-see (by visiting the reverse zoo that is the Lodge compound) – they also eat, whether its berries or Beluga.

Being where the bears are fat, happy, social and hanging out waiting for the ice to form on Hudson Bay is a world away from the images and video on TV of the Svalbards and the high Arctic.

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Before someone suggests my glasses may be rose (fireweed?) coloured – I do accept that bears are dangerous, and unlike many species they are not particularly overawed by humans, so its hard to deter them.

I am grateful to the knowledge of our guides that helped manage the relationship between us and the bears, so we could have the privilege of walking with polar bears.

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Stalking sleeping polar bears

So what did I observe? Firstly, if the conditions are right – polar bears seem to be genuinely curious about us, new things in their environment and each other. Curiosity can be a good trait for a hunter and I guess hanging out on the tundra must be a bit tedious without some entertainment?

DOB is curious about the new boat
DOB is curious about the new boat and heads on out to check it out

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A bear came a calling (photo by CW)A bear came a calling (photo taken by my husband)

The degree to which a bear was curious about us varied – only one of the two buddies in the photo below was as interested in us as we were in him.

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This bear led his (reluctant) friend purposefully over to the compound to check us out

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Reverse zoo – looking at the humans on display in the Lodge compound

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Secondly, while some of the bears we saw were solitary, many of the males were quite social.  This, we were told, changes when the ice arrives and there is competition for females.

Thirdly, not only are they social, they actively seek out companionship.  One early morning at the Lodge we watched as a a male searched for and found his friend.

Looking for companions
Looking for  a companion – bear 1
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Bear 1 sniffing out a friend
Out in the inter-tidal zone another bear is headed this way
Out in the inter-tidal zone another bear is headed this way
Bear 1 heading out toward bear 2
Bear 1 heading out toward bear 2

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Bear 1 and 2 meet and greet.
Bear 1 and 2 meet and greet

They then headed back over the rocks of the intertidal and into the grass.

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Lets go play

IMG_0693 Satisfied they have reached a comfortable place the wrestle, the play begins.

Waltzing Polar bears
Waltzing Polar bears

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IMG_0858 They wrestled for some time, until too hot to play, the pair headed for a drink, still together.

All that fur and blubber, its amazing that the bears are motivated to play, even if it helps them practice for the real deal, judge each others capabilities and keeps them fit. IMG_0871

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Initially we only saw two or three males together.

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I began to wonder if some of the pairings might be siblings, but at Hubbard Point we counted 13 very large male bears sleeping and socialising (see the Hubbard Point blog for more pictures).

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Hubbard Point Bears

Even in the large group pair bonding  seemed to be common (see greeting behaviour top right in the picture above, similar to that in some of the photos above) and when the group got up and moved over the hill – away from us pesky tourists, one bear stayed and went over to his sleeping comrade , and lay down with him while the alert bear kept one careful eye on the zodiac. IMG_1849

So, in conclusion, polar bears are complex, intelligent animals that are curious, social and playful as well as all those other things we see on TV. Let us hope they never organise, like us apes and the wolves, otherwise the bears will inherit the earth.

 

Seal River Lodge Day Six: Last day

Sad to say, it is our last morning at the lodge.

Early morning on out last day, and the sky delivers another stunning sunrise
Early morning on out last day, and the sky delivers another stunning sunrise

This morning’s bear is headed away from us.

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Time to pack, vacate our rooms so the Lodge team can ready them for the next group,  and to wait for the plane.

My bed - with Churchill Wild Bears
My bed – with Churchill Wild Bear
Our room - Copter case in the middle
Our room – Copter case in the middle, camera gear everywhere
Bathroom - small but functional (bigger than the one in our cabin on the Endeavour)
Bathroom – small but functional (bigger than the one in our cabin on the Endeavour)
Charlie's bed
Charlie’s bed (note the ever present video camera)
View of the entry door and storage (note the house rules on bear safety)
View of the entry door and storage (note the house rules on bear safety)

Except the plane doesn’t come. Instead of a plane we are to get a helicopter ride back to Churchill – an exciting end to a magical week. To this point I had flown in  a lot of light aircraft,  my father had a private pilots licence and I’ve worked in remote areas in Australia, but no helicopters. Looking back at other people’s blogs, this has happened before and been met with the same sense of excitement. The luggage is to go by float plane.

Breakfast is special this morning – its dessert for breakfast, in the form of brioche warm from the oven. I’m so sad my tummy just wouldn’t take any more!

Before the helicopter rides begin, we go for our obligatory a stroll. No bush bashing and scrambling today – a dry walk in deference to us being dressed for travel.

This jewel like lichen forms where it has a good source of nitrogen (i.e. bird droppings).
This jewel like lichen forms where it has a good source of nitrogen (i.e. bird droppings).
Almost the first thing that struck me when we landed at Seal River were these lichen covered rocks.
Almost the first thing that struck me when we landed at Seal River were these lichen covered rocks.

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Ptarmigan
Ptarmigan by the airstrip
Ptarmigan - so fast!
Ptarmigan – so fast!

Its a windy day - Charlie had me take this to show why no Copter flight on our last day

Its a windy day – Charlie had me take this picture of the windsock to show why no Copter flight on our last day

Tides out at Seal River Lodge
Tides out at Seal River Lodge
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For once, not so camouflaged.

 

Returning from our last hike
Returning from our last hike

Now comes the wait for the helicopter.

The day is really warm, even with a strong breeze. In an attempt to find cool spots there is a fair bit of wandering around the Lodge.  I spend some of my waiting out on the front viewing platform, contemplating the landscape and some of its inhabitants one last time.

While I sit on the forward platform I'm joined by a Sic-sic
While I sit on the forward platform I’m joined by a Sic-sic

While I knew it got warm in the sub-arctic, experiencing it is another matter – the water, even at ten degrees celsius and with the potential for bears, looks really inviting. I don’t have the fortitude to follow through on mien hosts suggest “you fill your boots girl” on the swim thing – it would have been a sub-attic plunge.

Space limits the numbers that can travel in the helicopter, which means multiple trips and we are in the next to last group to fly out. This means we are “forced” to eat another delicious lunch at Seal River.

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Greeting the new guests

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Big smile of anticipation
Leaving, but with big smiles of anticipation for the flight ahead

 

As the helicopter takes off I race up the tower to document its departure.

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On my way up the tower I pass one of the new guests. He has a big cannon camera (1D) with a F series 100 to 400 lens and is eager not to waste a moment. I point out to him the Chinese guests out for a hike away in the distance and just in front of them Mamma bear and her two cubs in the water. It takes him a moment to locate the bears as he wasn’t expecting them to be in the water. I leave him enthusiastically snapping away.

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Helicopter taking off towards Seal River and Churchill across the intertidal zone

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While we wait, the tide rises – there is about an hour between the photos below.

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Tools of the guide trade - briefings for the new group begin ahead of their first hike
Tools of the guide trade – briefings for the new group begin ahead of their first hike

 

 

 

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Dining room

Finally and somewhat sadly, it is our turn to fly.

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Over the pilots shoulder
Aerial shot of the intertidal
Aerial shot of the intertidal as we take off

 

On the way to Churchill we fly over terrain that we had driven over in the six wheelers. Our tracks and those of other groups visible from the air and likely to be there until the snow comes.

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Seal river?

The bay is still full of Beluga whales, some of the clusters are quite large. Charlie gets some good shots with his Sony Camera (I’m on the wrong side of the Helicopter).

Beluga whales in the bay
Beluga whales in the bay

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As we cross the pilot spots a bear in the water.  The bear has a Beluga whale by the tail.

One of these white dots is not like the others
One of these white dots is not like the others

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If you look very closely the bear has a tail clasped in his arms
If you look very closely at this photo taken by Charle the bear has a tail clasped in his arms

Unfortunately, the helicopter seems to have spooked the bear and by the time the helicopter turns to my side the bear no longer has its prize. While it may be good for the Beluga to have got away, I feel sorry for the bear and that the helicopter disturbed him – all that effort and no lunch.

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Bear duck diving – looking for his lost catch?

We fly on, following the coast and then crossing over Hudson Bay toward Churchill.

Crossing the coast on Hudson Bay
Crossing the coast on Hudson Bay (Sony pic)
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Sony picture
On approach to Churchill
On approach to Churchill
On approach to Churchill
On approach to Churchill
Churchill
Churchill

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At Churchill the enthusiastic and helpful Stacey meets us, she takes us on a quick run around town, then out to the airport to check that we will be able to get the Copter case on the flight (given the issues we had on the way up). Turns out not to be a problem as the flight isn’t totally full and no freight to be accommodated. Stacey drops us in town to look around and have a bite to eat before our 8pm flight (this is essential, as no food on the flight).

Churchill wild storage
Churchill wild storage

We’ve seen surprisingly few “northern” breed dogs on our trip so far, and it was a treat to meet this cute pup outside the Trading post.

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Fortunately, Charlie howls malamute enough to get our young friends attention.

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Churchill is not much to look at, but friendly and  the food and beer is good.  Even this far north, fairies or ballerinas are still in vogue.

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Little girl, complete with ballerina/fairy skirt

Then there is the ute with its own power cord – we assume for the heater unit to keep it warm enough to start in the winter.

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note the power cord

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Through a truck window
Through a truck window

Finally, Stacey comes to pick us all up and drop us at the airport.

The flight back to Winnipeg is uneventful. Some of us are still together as we check into the airport Sheraton, and vow to meet for breakfast. Our group of thrown together guests has been an amazing good humoured and cohesive group, never short on a helping hand or someone to chat to (or a bad joke).

Our Churchill Wild adventure is over, time to start the journey home and the planning for the next adventure – maybe in the fall (Autumn) to get photos of bears in the snow? As well as bears in the snow, I still have wolves to see and those little arctic foxes.

 

Seal River Lodge Day Five: Mamma bear plus two and Hubbard Point

If you have read my other posts you will have worked out that the pattern of our days involves a hike after breakfast and some sort of major outing. The plan for day five is to take the Zodiacs to Hubbard Point, an hour or more north. This area has archaeological significance, as well as being a haven for many bird species.

A group of Chinese guests had been camping out at Hubbard Point on Fire Weed Island photographing the birds (plus Polar Bears of course and even a little arctic fox).

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Big Cannon on one of the forward viewing platforms

The group’s pictures and camera gear is amazing, as is their intense focus on taking pictures.

Until the tide comes in, we go out for a hike. Bears have been spotted on one bear point, the next point over from the lodge – Andy (Guide) thinks it may be a mother with a cub or maybe two. The best way to approach without spooking them is through the rocks, mud flats and pools of the intertidal zone.

Looking back toward the lodge from the intertidal zone
Looking back toward the lodge from the intertidal zone

Entering the intertidal zone puts us below the line of sight of anything lying in the grass or rocks. It also provides cover in the form of people high rocks, which lowers our profile, hopefully reducing the threat to the bears as we approach them. Going head on to a bear is a challenge, so the technique is to move in obliquely.  With such a large group we lower our profile by walking in single file.

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When we do bunch up, the aim is to have rocks or something in front to obscure our size (you only want size if the bear decides to approach).

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Our slow, quiet approach (very hard keeping this group quiet, but the prospect of bear cubs is an incentive) pays off. While the two babies notice us, and keep bobbing up and down, mamma bear seems unconcerned.

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Mamma bear knows we are here
Mamma bear knows we are here

Raising cubs is exhausting and mamma bear puts here head back down,  no reason to waste energy if there is no immediate threat.

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We take the opportunity of mamma bears unconcern to move closer (although we keep a respectful distance given the babies). The youngsters decide that its time for a feed, which includes squabbling – apart from some hissing to warn each other off, this is the first time we’ve heard much noise  from any of the polar bears.

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Note mum’s purple tongue
Time for a feed
Squabbling
Mamma bear inserts herself between the squabbling pair
Mamma bear inserts herself between the squabbling pair

While we watch, mamma bear settles down to feed her voracious pair, turning her back to us and staring out to sea.

Mamma bear turns her back on us and begins to feed the cubs
Mamma bear turns her back on us and begins to feed the cubs

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Dinner over, time for a nap
Dinner over, time for a sleep

Once dinner is over, mamma settles down for another nap.  We move quietly off toward the lodge, delighted with our encounter and ready for our outing.

The wind has come up and the sea is choppy, making for a bone jarring trip to Hubbard Point that takes longer than expected. I’m suddenly grateful for the core exercises I was doing daily for a couple of months before the trip, as my back copes surprisingly well. One of my companions suggests its like riding a horse.

Aches and pains are suddenly forgotten when we see a dozen or more bears on the beach in front of us. By the time the cameras are out a number of bears have already hightailed it over the hill.

Several bears can’t be bothered to go far at any speed.

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There is a fair bit of milling around and some nose touching before more bears leave.

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This group of male bears peacefully sharing a beach challenges the stereotype of polar bears as aggressive loners. Yes, I can understand that once the ice forms all bets are off, but here is the evidence that bears can get along (heaven help us if they ever decide to hunt cooperatively – the bears may inherit the earth).

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One big old bear sleeps through the exodus of bears. His buddy seems to be standing guard over him.IMG_1845

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Finally the big old bear awakens, surprised to find a mob of tourists with cameras pointed at him and lopes off (sorry, missed the shot, but imagine a very large bear making a very quick but lumbering exit over the hill, followed more slowly by his puzzled guard bear, pictured below).

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The waters are much calmer close into the shore, and we head into a beach around the next point, hopefully away from the large number of departing bears.

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There are large numbers of Beluga whales here, and a two people on the point with a professional movie camera trying to capture them.

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Beluga off Hubbard Pt

The beach we pull into is full of birds. Even if you get very close and they take flight,  they return quickly.

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Bears and birds are not the main reason for visiting Hubbard Point. A large Thule (who pre-date the Inuit) whaling site was re-discovered recently at Hubbard Point. This consists of at least 67 huge stone features, including tent rings, caches, kayak rests and graves— all estimated to be about 1,000 years old. On top of the stone tent rings wood or whale bone structures would be built and covered by hide.

 

Stone tent circles
Stone tent circles

Archaeologists suggest the settlement may have been permanentThe Thule first settled in Alaska before moving eastward into Arctic Canada and Greenland about 1,000 years ago.

After travelling for an hour and a half north from Seal River where the lodge’s people are the only humans around you would expect we would be very alone – except for the film crew being stalked by  a curious polar bear and

IMG_1900then there is the other mob of tourist away in the distance.

While we explore the stone circles we are observed.

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But found not to be a threat.

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After a short time we have to head back to the lodge so we don’t miss the tide.IMG_1950

It is our final night, sadly. After another lovely meal it is time for a slideshow of photos taken over the week. This includes photos from the Chinese guests who have been camping out at Hubbard point. While communicating is difficult because we speak no Chinese and they speak little English – images transcend language and their work is amazing, particularly the bird photos.

 

Seal River Lodge Day Four: Road trip & a bear under the dining room window

We rise again at 6am so Charlie can fly the Copter. The early morning sun shining through the haze, possibly smoke from fires down south (something that you don’t immediately think of in a Country that seems so green and wet), reflects off the water and the mud flats exposed by the low tide.

Early morning light
Early morning light
Early morning sun through the haze
Early morning sun through the haze
Early morning cranes
Early morning cranes

The bear from the previous evening is still bedded down next to the compound. Charlie gives the Copter another go, and while the bear doesn’t seem too concerned it does wake her up and the copter flight is short-lived.

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Today’s activity involves a trip in a six wheeler to the mouth of the Seal River. The “road” is a track made by previous expeditions, which at some points involves getting off and walking so the six wheeler can get through the mud.

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Mr and Mrs Death on safari
On safari

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Along the way we stop to examine the footprints left in the mud – bears, wolves and bird prints are everywhere. Sadly, while the signs of lots of wolves are there, no wolves to be seen. A wolf pack ranges over many kilometres and in the heat of the day are probably camped somewhere cool and away from human disturbance.

Wolf prints
Wolf prints
Bear tracks
Bear tracks

Once at Seal River, after a picnic of sandwiches, “chilli” and chocolate and wild cranberry brownies (adventure is a hungry game) we go looking for bears.  We find wildflowers, birds and beluga – but no bears.

Wild flowers

Canadian Geese
Canadian Geese
Beluga whales off the mouth of the Seal River
Beluga whales off the mouth of the Seal River

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Searching for bears
Searching for bears

We inspect Jack’s shack at the mouth of the river . The shack provides a refuge for Kayakers coming down the Seal River who may, depending on weather, need to wait for days to be picked up .

Hut at Seal Point
Jack’s shack at Seal Point
Barred and shuttered
Barred and shuttered against bears
Bear unwelcome mat (NB: does not stop bears if they decide to enter through the  walls).
Bear unwelcome mat (NB: does not stop bears if they decide to enter through the walls).

Unfortunately the bears that abounded here in the last few days seem to have moved on – possibly due to the sight-seeing helicopter that had buzzed the area earlier. Many bears are not fond of the helicopters, as they are used to track and tranquilize them so they can be tagged and health checked.

While the six wheeler trip has been very interesting, everyone including the Guides are a little disappointed by the absence of bears. Only two days before I took the following picture of a bear sleeping soundly in front of Jack’s shack.

Bear sleeping in front of Jack's shack
Bear sleeping in front of Jack’s shack

So we head back to the lodge, and find a bear in front of the lodge.

Sleeping Beauty in front of the workshop
Sleeping Beauty in front of the workshop  - double click for a  bigger image – she’s the white dot in the green just above the mud flat.
Can't a girl get some sleep?
Can’t a girl get some sleep?

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While the two six wheelers full of people wakes her up, Beauty doesn’t go ver far and settles down for a nap out of the wind near the front of the compound.

Asleep out of the wind
Beauty asleep out of the wind

After a while she decides the sand is not as comfortable as rocks and grass, and head for the rocks under the dining room window.

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A paw for a pillow

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Watching people’s response is as interesting as Beauty’s indifference to the mob taking pictures, including selfies, with the bear (Charlie has video).

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The evening entertainment is not over yet – DOB shows up again, and to it’s owner’s delight goes to inspect his new boat – he wants a photo of a bear in his boat (specially built to be bear proof – or should that be bear resistant?).

I smell bear

I smell bear

Fortunately, while alert, beauty does not seem to be alarmed enough to move.

Who is that I see?
Who is that I see?
What's is DOB doing?
What’s is DOB doing?

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We are all crossing our fingers that DOB will get in the boat.

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A bear needs to conserve his energy for more important things than climbing into boats that have no food to offer. After sniffing the boat all over DOB ambles off into the rocks.

DOB ambles off to find somewhere quieter to sleep
DOB ambles off to find somewhere quieter to sleep
Reflective DOB
Reflective DOB

Excitement over, Beauty settles down to sleep in under the Dining room window, while we settle in for another excellent repast.

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After dinner and a Q&A/presentation from one of our guides we retire early to bed. I can’t stay awake until sunset this time (around 9.40pm), so, sorry, no photo.

Seal River Day Three: Early morning copters and bears

So Its time to try the Copter out. It had one test since we arrived in Canada, near Lake Louise. The agreement with the Lodge is it is ok to fly, so long as we don’t annoy the bears.

Charlie in his enthusiasm wants to be up at 5:30. I protest and negotiate 6am. Kinder to us and the rest of the Lodge. Also, if people want to go into the compound around the Lodge they need to tell someone. The Kitchen staff are up and working by 6am, so this seems a more reasonable time to rise.

The flight is a technical success (ie it flies and lands) but it disturbs a  bear that had bedded down near the lodge, and so the first flight is short.

Sleepy bear in the long grass, the picture is sharp, its the bugs that make the paws fuzzy
Sleepy bear in the long grass, if you double click for a bigger image please note that the picture is sharp, its the bugs that make the paws fuzzy
Ready to go
Ready to go

Getting up that early is rewarded by bears playing in the morning light, photographer heaven.

Lets play?
Lets play?

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Once they are tired of play, the bears decide to pay us a visit.

Curious bear
Curious bear

One is brave and comes and checks us out at the fence, while his buddy sits back and watches,

Watching from a distance
Cautious bear

Bear in touching distance

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The curious bear seems to be the leader, once he has sniffed us over, he wanders back to his friend relaxing in the background and nudges and nips him into action.

Lets go
Time to go

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Charlie gets another short flight in before breakfast.

 

Copter returns to compound
Copter returns to compound

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Whats that noise?
Whats that noise?
The tiny dot at the top of the screen is the Copter and the tiny white dot a bear
The tiny dot at the top of the screen is the Copter and the tiny white dot a bear
Charlie with Copter in the Lodge compound
Charlie successfully lands Copter in the Lodge compound
Maybe I'll go back to sleep, now the buzzing has stopped?
Maybe I’ll go back to sleep, now the buzzing has stopped?

Another outing in the boats is planned, and while we await the tide we go for our morning hike. The adventure we are on is called “Bears, Birds and Belugas”, we have had the first and last of these in spades. There are a range of birds around, and we were lucky enough to get close to a pair of sandhill cranes.

About to take flight
About to take flight

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Well camouflaged
Cranes in flight
Sandhill Cranes in flight

As well as the ever present and cute Sic-sic,

Little sic-sic
Little sic-sic

there are also hares around the compound. There are no rabbits in the region, only hares

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Charlie and I choose, with a number of others, to try our luck with the Beluga. Another group goes out on the other boat to bear spot at Seal River. While I don’t regret being Beluga bait again, the other party get to see a mother bear and cub playing in the water. I’m just a little jealous.

Hoods up, its going to be a rough ride

Hoods up, its going to be a rough ride

The water is very choppy, this makes for a rough bone shaking ride. Its also harder to see the Beluga underwater, but to breath they seem to be rising higher above the surface of the water compared to the previous day.

Beluga whales waiting for their mornings entertainment

Charlie is first in the water and already attracting a crowd
Charlie is first in the water and already attracting a crowd
The Beluga follow Charlie back to the boat
Note the stirred up water behind his shoulder – this is Beluga following Charlie back to the boat

After returning to the lodge, our pre-dinner wander is short (a dry hike that does not involve clambering over rocks and across the inter-tidal zone – a welcome break) but fruitful as we meet a very beautiful girl.

Beautiful girl
Beauty makes an appearance
Just can't shake off the bugs!
Just can’t shake off the bugs!
Beauty strides across the airstrip with the lodge in the background
Beauty strides across the airstrip with the lodge in the background

DOB arrives, and frightens off the new girl.

DOB arrives
DOB arrives
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Walking with DOB

DOB’s arrival makes returning to the lodge an interesting task, as the Guides need to navigate us around both DOB and a now unseen Beauty.

After dinner a small bear settles in for the night where the big boys had been sleeping earlier in the day.

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Bear settling in for the night, next to the grass beds made by the boys the previous night
Bear settling in for the night, next to the grass beds made by the boys the previous night

 

Another but very different sunset
Sunset day three

Seal River Lodge Day Two: Swimming with Beluga Whales

Swimming with the Beluga whales is on the menu today, but we need to wait for the tide to rise enough to get the boats out.

Low tide
Low tide

While we wait for the tide, its time for another hike. The last bear of the previous day DOB (Dirty Old Bear – he seems to have slept in something that has permanently stained his coat), is the bear du jour.  DOB had bedded down overnight just near the workshop. The lodge managers sleep in a loft over the workshop, outside the compound. To get to the lodge they had to tip toe quietly around DOB, leaving him undisturbed until we set out for the hike.

DOB settles down for a sleep in the woodpile
Stalking DOB
DOB cools down in the mud
DOB cools down in the mud

We leave DOB settled down by the wood pile.

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Later, while we wait for the tide, the warmth of the morning wakes DOB and he wanders off into the water for a cooling swim (this makes no difference to his colour).

DOB cools off
DOB cools off

DOB swims away

We will see DOB a number of times over the next few days – a very mellow bear.

Finally, the tide is in and we embark the Zodiacs for a ride down to the mouth of the Seal River, where the Beluga come to feed on spawning fish and give birth in the warmer water from the river. Water temperature is about 10 degrees Celsius.

Leaving Seal River Lodge by boat.
Leaving Seal River Lodge by boat.
A perfect morning for a Zodiac trip
A perfect morning for a Zodiac trip

The day is bright and clear, the sky intensely blue. There are birds everywhere fishing alongside the Beluga. Unfortunately, too far away to get images that give more than just the impression.

Arctic turn
Arctic turn
Flock of duck, with predators overhead
Flock of ducks, with predators overhead
Juvenile Bald Eagle - they don't get a white head until they mature
Juvenile Bald Eagle – they don’t get a white head until they mature

On our way down to the Seal River, the Beluga surround us, they are everywhere you look – but very hard to photograph because they are quick and unpredictable.

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Waiting for us at Seal River is another bear, swimming in the water. He sees us too. He may be there to cool off, but the Guides speculate he may also be there to try his chances of catching a sick or young whale.

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Polar Bears systematically hunting Belugas is not scientifically documented, but twice in the week at Seal River we see evidence that they can catch them, and at least in one case the bear got to keep its booty. Bears get very little to eat over the summer, and spend most of their time conserving energy by sleeping, but sometimes they get lucky.

Swimming with the Belugas at Seal River is not strictly swimming. It’s more like trawling for Belugas with human bait.

Belugas coming in for a sticky beak
Belugas coming in for a sticky beak
Trawling for beluga
Trawling for beluga

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First one puts on a mask and snorkel and dry suit over clothes. Then you climb into the water, suddenly almost too buoyant to stay upright thanks to the dry suit.

Charlie entering Beluga infested waters
Charlie entering Beluga infested waters

Next you flip over, face in the water and a rope is tied around your feet. The boat starts to motor slowly along and you are pulled along in its wake.

Flipping over
Flipping over

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The process creates much amusement for those left on board and bad humour along the lines of “does my backside look big in this suit” abounds (maybe it’s the company we are keeping). I believe there was some speculation as to whether it was worth it to Charlie to pull me in or leave me.

Once in the water the instructions are to sing and make other noises to attract the whales. Singing through a snorkel means throwing dignity to the winds (noting it has already gone once your suit hits the water) but it is well worth it. I found Somewhere over the rainbow, clicks and the occasional silence worked best for me.

Our first volunteer goes in, and has some success. When Charlie goes in with his underwater camera he is mobbed. Either he sang the right songs or the Beluga just wanted to be in the movies (or eat the Camera). As a number of people on our boat don’t want to play and we are all having lunch, Charlie gets 30 mins in the water, rather than 15-20.

Charlie about to be mobbed

The following underwater images are from Charlie’s video, shot on his Sony NEX 5N in an underwater housing. The water is tinted with organic matter from the river water mixing with the sea water, these nutrients are probably what makes this an ideal spawning ground for fish.

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My turn comes around, I’m in for 38 mins. It is the most incredible, up close and personal wildlife experience I have ever had. As the Beluga swim up to you, because they can turn their head (due to extra vertebrae other whales don’t have), the interaction is very animated.

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Screen shot from Charlie’s camera – the high quality video made lugging the underwater housing across Canada worth while.

Whole family groups look us over. Mothers bring their grey calves (see in the background above the two adults in the photo below) for a look at the funny human, and then just as quickly turn their bodies to shield them.

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Other whales nibble at the toggles on the suit, or slip  directly under us blowing bubbles as they go.

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Unlike Charlie’s Camera, no one tries to mouth the GoPro I’m running – but it seems they would very much like to and a couple of times I pull it back.

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Finally its time to go so we can beat the tide, but the fun is not yet over. On our approach to the lodge we spot a bear swimming (not DOB). The Guides quietly pull the bear spray, flares and remove shot guns from their waterproof covers – a reminder that this is an animal that can move very fast in water, and the water is shallow enough for them to stand on their back legs. The bear is concerned about the outboard motor noise and moves off without challenging us.

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Once back at the lodge its time for drinks and nibbles, followed by another excellent dinner. The chef/cook seem to have the view that we are all going to waste away from exertion and seconds are offered and then dessert. Bed time comes early to a happily tired and well fed group.

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Churchill Wild Experience – Seal River Heritage Lodge – first night and day

The day before flying to Churchill, after overnighting in Calgary, we hop a morning flight to Winnipeg (staying at the Airport Sheraton) – this is the easy part.

That night we meet up with the Winnipeg base team from Churchill Wild and our fellow travellers for dinner and orientation. For a group of people just met, there is a surprising amount of chatter (apart from one seriously jetlagged couple). Where we are from, why we are here and where people have been prove an instant icebreaker. The bad jokes, which will feature throughout the trip, begin. The group includes two other Australians, an American couple, and the rest are British (two from Guernsey) – a very different mix from our Uncruise shipmates, who were mainly American.

Doreen from Churchill Wildlife gives us the run down on travel to the lodge and what to expect. She re-enforces how strict Calm Air will be with checked baggage and carry on, and that they will weigh carry on. She also suggests we could have problems getting all of our bags on the same flight, which might mean something doesn’t make it to the lodge (we learn much later that the freight on the Churchill bound flight limits the baggage that can go on each flight, but on our return there are no such problems).

While we had come prepared to repack into duffles and store the leftovers, we hadn’t bargained on the strict carry on requirements. Even with the help of the Churchill Wild team baggage turns into a complex mathematical exercise given the baggage limits and the camera, tripods and copter gear – these are part of the reason for going to Seal River, so no Camera gear can be left behind.

The airline don’t weigh people or ladies handbags, so my handbag gets the batteries, and our pockets get all sorts of small heavy things (I now know my EOS M fits in a coat pocket). Next trip on Calm Air I’m wearing a photographers vest!

Unfortunately, our waterproof zodiac boots are sacrificed. The Lodge provides wellington style boots – but had we known that for 99 percent of outings we needed waterproof boots, we would have worn them on the plane just to get them there! If you ever go to Seal River take waterproof boots if you have your own comfy ones or inner soles (my smart husband pulled his inner soles out of another pair of shoes and put them into his boots).

We later heard a story about a local police officer travelling off duty who’s carryon was rejected. After an attempt at reason, his response was to put on all of his work kit, which lightened his bag, and to quietly ask whether anything had actually been achieved?

We’ve had some early starts on this trip – but a meet time of 5.10 am is ungodly (with a 4am wake up and the bags not coming with us handed into storage by 5.10). Even that early, some of our irrepressible companions (you know who you are) are bright and chatty.

Fortunately, Doreen from Churchill Wild is there in the morning when we check our bags in.  To ensure none of our bags are bumped to another flight we are polite (I hope, given the hour of the morning), but persistent, explaining if the bags don’t all make it, they won’t get to the remote lodge at all – the Calm Air staff member finally gives in (it is very early morning) and marks all our bags as priority.

The rest of the process goes well, and soon we are on the small jet headed for Churchill. Once at Churchill, we are split into small groups as only six can fit in the light aircraft. We are in the last group to go, which means a few hours wait, so the thoughtful Churchill Wild helper (thanks Stacey) carts us into town for a coffee at Gypsy’s  Bakery. The bakery has a stereotypical country diner look with really good baked goods, they have an expresso machine and do better coffee than most of the hotels we’ve stayed at in Canada.

At last, it’s our turn to fly.

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The flight takes us aross the bay over thousands of Beluga Whales.

Beluga  Whales in Hudson Bay
Beluga Whales in Hudson Bay

Once at Seal River, after our guides unload, they walk us to the lodge, through the Cloud berry patch that is used to make local jam.

The first creature that greets us is a “sic-sic”, an Arctic Ground Squirrel – they are extremely cute, full of calories (for example, if you are a wolf) and everywhere.

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Sic-Sic stands guard
Sic-Sic tag
Sic-Sic tag
Unafraid
Unafraid

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After rooms, waterproof boot fittings and collection of our float coats (these are really great, so much better than wearing lifejackets) for water activities we are taken straight out for a hike. This was both orientation (how not to get eaten by a bear and how not to spook them so they run away) and our first chance to see polar bears.  Our guides, Andy and Terry, expertly herd (very chatty) cats while stalking polar bear.

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To our delight, we see our first bears – who become known to us as the “three amigos”. When we first arrive there are only two males in sight, sleeping.

Sleepy bears
Sleepy bears

The wind is blowing our sent and noise away, so while they eventually become aware of us they don’t seem too concerned.

After a short time, a third male ambles into sight.

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The new bear moves in slowly, and greets the closest of the two. It is a surprisingly touching moment to watch, given polar bears are so often portrayed as an aggressive loner. Males during the summer, as they wait for the ice, form social groups. The groups break up once the ice appears, due to competition for food and females.

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A bear kiss

The third bear hightails it to the ridge above, not comfortable with the new bear, or maybe us, even though he is a big, healthy bear, bigger than the new arrival.

Bear on watch
Bear on watch

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As we watch, we creep a little closer. The bears seem ok with us for the moment, and go about their business almost as if we aren’t there.

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This includes a good old back scratch and other grooming.

Doh
Doh

Eventually the top bear moves off, when the other two decide to go up the hill to take a nap.

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So ends our first bear encounter. Now its back to the lodge for six o’clock drinks and nibbles and then a sumptuous dinner.

Everyone is tired after dinner, and head for bed very early. However, I can’t avoid the temptation of my most northerly sunset and head up the tower with my camera – I’m not disappointed. Charlie finally drags me down from the tower, and so to bed.

Moon over seal river
Moon over seal river
Sunset from the lodge tower
Sunset from the lodge tower
Night falls over the tundra
Night falls over the tundra

 

So here we are at Seal River Heritage Lodge, Churchill, Manitoba

So here I sit, huddled near the satellite wifi with others contacting the outside world and contemplating the tide coming in so we can hit the water and do another swim with the Beluga whales.  If you have ever been to Broome, the tide goes out almost that far, but its fairly shallow.  My view right now are the boulders left over from a glacier a long long long time ago. In an hour they should be completely covered except for the very big ones.

Yesterday’s swim with the Beluga has to be considered my best and up close and personal wildlife experience ever. Belugas don’t look much on the surface, so while I will post some shots,  the video will speak most for the experience.

Unfortunately, the wifi won’t handle uploading pictures so this will have to wait until we are back in Winnipeg on Wed (its Sunday now, and Monday in Australia) – but just lets say, the polar bear pictures will be amazing, and my problem is choosing which ones to post. The Polar bear experience offered by Churchill wild is everything that is advertised and more.

Charlie has flown his copter – but the bear was a fair way away.

People interesting, staff and guides kind and try to fulfil every reasonable wim, food great, beds comfy, learning to like dripolater coffee.