From Banff to Lake Louise we decided to take the Bow Valley Parkway rather than the main highway. This takes a little longer but is more scenic and gives you the option of side trips to see landmarks like water falls and wildlife. Most of the side trips require hiking for a fair way, and as we weren’t really prepared we only stopped at lookouts and the like on the main road.
The Parkway follows the river, much like the railway – we came through this area on the Rocky mountaineer
The scenery was, as we had come to expect, spectacular.
While we may want to see bear (from the car) and wolves (who frequent the area), we have to settle for squirrel. Given we don’t have squirrel’s in Australia – a squirrel is still pretty cool.
With the help of Chalie’s iPad GPS app we find the Lake Louise Fairmont Hotel and check in. We have a lake view room and the view is breathtaking!
Once we settle in, we head out for a walk along the lake towards the glacier.
The Fairmont is modelled on a chateau – fun, but not as grand as the Banff Springs Hotel which is styled on a Scottish Baronial Castle. It is the lake and the surrounding mountains that make the place.
The lake was known by the local Indigenous community as “lake of little fish” and as we walk around the lake we see what they mean.
There are lots of people out on the lake in canoes.
Chateau Lake Louise from the lake side walkway, to the left the lines on the mountain are the ski runs of Mt Whitehorn.
At the end of the valley are mud flats, where the melt water from the glacier run out into Lake Louise, lots of kids have been playing.
At the end of the valley the climbers are scaling the steep cliffs.
The trail winds around the steep cliffs at the end of the valley, revealing new sights and seeming to get tantalisingly close to the glacier – but not really. Its around 6pm and there are lots of people returning from hiking.
We go as far as the trail will take us, without getting wet feet!
While you can walk to the Glacier from this point, daunted by wet feet and a long hike in the wrong shoes, we turn back from going further toward the Glacier. On our way back we cross paths with another variety of squirrel and a woodpecker, who is nesting near the trail.
Woollen hats with pom-poms seem to be the go for the climbers.
Even though it is early evening, lots of people are still out enjoying the lake, both off and on it.
I’m not sure I would have braved the glacier melt waters of Lake Louise, however warm the evening. On the other hand, retrievers are made for just such waters and the dog in the photos below very happily paddled about.
Before heading back into the hotel, we walk back past the hotel and around to the boat house to check out the arrangements for hiring canoes (which turn out to be first come first served).
The long days mean we settle into dinner around 8pm and its still light until around 9.30. We decide to sit outside and the staff light the gas heaters for us to take the edge of the highland chill.
And so to bed with plans to get up early and make the Lake Louise Gondola before the crowds (having learnt our lesson at Banff).
We arrived early evening on the Rocky Mountaineer into Banff Railway station. After negotiating the crowd we picked up a hire car – a somewhat noisy, pushy and fraught process, but we made it in the end. Time to brave driving on the other side of the road (Australians drive on the left hand side) and drive to the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. With the package from Rocky Mountaineer came a Gypsy Guide – a system that tells you where you are and provides commentary on what you are seeing. All very where but the drawback is – it does not tell you how to get somewhere! So not only am I driving on the wrong side of the road for the first time in my life, we are zen navigating to the hotel! After some wrong turns we find the hotel and its a Castle!
Banff springs hotel was the brainchild of William Cornelius Van Horne, general manager of Canadian Pacific Railway, who maintained tourism was an intricate ingredient in getting people to ride railway ‘Since we can’t export the scenery,’ he said, ‘ we’ll have to import the tourists.’ To enhance traffic on the railway, Van Horne envisioned a succession of lavish resort hotels along the railway line through the Rocky and Selkirk Mountains. One of those was Banff, although the bones of the current building are the result of rebuilding after a fire in 1926 and a series of renovations and add ons. The building was styled on a Scottish castle. Check-in was easy, we seemed to be between rushes and the staff were really helpful. We chose to valet our car (paying the extra was just so much less stressful, really worth it). Our room was nice, not big, but comfortable with a good view.
Once we deposited the gear and inspected our room we headed out for food. Rundle Lounge is open late, the price of the food is ok for a Fairmont and on the first night the food and service was great (not so good the second night when they were busy and our section waiter not so attentive). Beer was pretty good as well
The Rundle Lounge offers an all day dining menu and is open daily from 11:00am to 1:00 am (subject to change). The food was good and the menu interesting (much better than its equivalent at the Lake Louise Fairmont).
In front of Rundle Lounge is a balcony area that overlooks the river and mountains – an amazing vista!
Canada is wonderful about its attitude to dogs – here we are in the poshest hotel around and dogs are welcome! On our way back to our room there is a bowl and dog bed waiting outside one of the rooms.
The decor in the hall ways is dark and a little reminiscent of the hotel in Dr Who with the minator.
Our room is much nicer than the halls would lead you to think.
After a good night sleep and breakfast (expensive, but the coffee was great because of the waiter), we headed out for a walk and to photograph the local Bow Falls (well, more like rapids, but scenic nevertheless).
The other tourists were as interesting as the scenery. While we watched a group of boats set out from the beach to try their luck in the river.
The walk from the basin area near the rapids is very steep, but smooths out after a while. We spot a squirrel while we walk – while I’m sure this is passé to the locals, squirrels are as exciting to us as someone meeting their first Kangaroo (I drive to work each day past paddocks with horses, sheep and kangaroos). We manage to find our way back to the hotel and in the afternoon decide to walk into town and see what Banff has to offer. The scary thing about Banff in summer is that there are more people per metre than in Vancouver, and this is in stark context to the incredible mountain scenery. The shops were fun, and we picked up some maps at tourist information (given the Gypsy guide doesn’t tell you how to get anywhere – Charlie ultimately bought a GPS app for his iPad) but once the tourist numbers build up its time to hide and have a late lunch.
After lunch-dinner in town, at a little below street bar, its back to the hotel for beer and a snack in the lounge and bed. Bridge over Bow River
Sunset is late evening in summer, and amazing over the mountains. While we have our drinks, I dart out every few minutes to shoot the next stage of the spectacular.
Its time to pack up and move on to Lake Louise. Banff is a lovely place, and I would visit again (when there is snow and maybe not in high season), but the large number of visitors can detract from the experience. I’ve travelled extensively for work, and stayed in hundreds of hotels – the only time at a hotel I have every been told I had to wait 30 minutes for breakfast is in the Banff Springs Hotel. In addition, you can’t book for breakfast! As we wanted to be out and about sooner rather than later we went back upstairs and packed, while I pleaded with Guest services for someone to reserve us a table – which they did in the end, which was great.
The next lesson of the day was – get to the Banff Gondala before the tourist buses – a 30 minute wait to be allowed to join the line, and then a 25 minute wait to get on the Gondala was not our idea of good use of time. We wandered around the carpark area and up to the Banff Springs for a look, then hit the road.
Few pools would have something as spectacular as the view from the Banff Springs pools (although I did expect something a bit more rustic).
So we say goodbye to spectacular Banff and head for Lake Louise.
Time to pack, vacate our rooms so the Lodge team can ready them for the next group, and to wait for the plane.
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.
Its a windy day – Charlie had me take this picture of the windsock to show why no Copter flight on our last day
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 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.
As the helicopter takes off I race up the tower to document its departure.
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.
While we wait, the tide rises – there is about an hour between the photos below.
Finally and somewhat sadly, it is our turn to fly.
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.
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).
As we cross the pilot spots a bear in the water. The bear has a Beluga whale by the tail.
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.
We fly on, following the coast and then crossing over Hudson Bay toward Churchill.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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).
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.
Raising cubs is exhausting and mamma bear puts here head back down, no reason to waste energy if there is no immediate threat.
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.
While we watch, mamma bear settles down to feed her voracious pair, turning her back to us and staring out to sea.
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.
There is a fair bit of milling around and some nose touching before more bears leave.
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).
One big old bear sleeps through the exodus of bears. His buddy seems to be standing guard over him.
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).
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.
There are large numbers of Beluga whales here, and a two people on the point with a professional movie camera trying to capture them.
The beach we pull into is full of birds. Even if you get very close and they take flight, they return quickly.
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.
Archaeologists suggest the settlement may have been permanent. The 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
then there is the other mob of tourist away in the distance.
While we explore the stone circles we are observed.
But found not to be a threat.
After a short time we have to head back to the lodge so we don’t miss the tide.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 .
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.
So we head back to the lodge, and find a bear in front of the lodge.
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.
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.
Watching people’s response is as interesting as Beauty’s indifference to the mob taking pictures, including selfies, with the bear (Charlie has video).
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
Fortunately, while alert, beauty does not seem to be alarmed enough to move.
We are all crossing our fingers that DOB will get in the boat.
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.
Excitement over, Beauty settles down to sleep in under the Dining room window, while we settle in for another excellent repast.
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.
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.
Getting up that early is rewarded by bears playing in the morning light, photographer heaven.
Once they are tired of play, the bears decide to pay us a visit.
One is brave and comes and checks us out at the fence, while his buddy sits back and watches,
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.
Charlie gets another short flight in before breakfast.
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.
As well as the ever present and cute Sic-sic,
there are also hares around the compound. There are no rabbits in the region, only hares
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
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.
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.
DOB arrives, and frightens off the new girl.
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.
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.
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.
We leave DOB settled down by the wood pile.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Other whales nibble at the toggles on the suit, or slip directly under us blowing bubbles as they go.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The flight takes us aross the bay over thousands of Beluga Whales.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This includes a good old back scratch and other grooming.
Eventually the top bear moves off, when the other two decide to go up the hill to take a nap.
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.
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.
Between loads of washing we sampled the great food that Vancouver has to offer, walked a lot, shopped (neither of us should be allowed out with a credit card unsupervised, and did you know camera gear is cheaper here than in Australia), watched the people and dogs of Vancouver, actually ate breakfast in, visited the aquarium, and went to Grouse mountain (in the rain – our weather luck finally ran out).
Dogs are everywhere in Canada, small and medium size ones even get to start in hotels, and are welcome in most places. All Very civilised.
Who is watching who here?
I found the Vancouver aquarium made me a little sad. The staff and volunteers are enthusiastic and caring, the marine mammals are rescues that cannot be released back into the wild, and the beluga whale and dolphin shows keep them from boredom. That said – it seemed too small for these big marine mammals.
Pacific Dolphins, very pretty and quite different to our locals.
Pair of seals at play
Grouse mountain looms high over Vancouver, you can see it from the Airport on the other side of town. After perfect weather for the first part of the trip (ignoring Juneau), the day we set aside to go up Grouse mountain the clouds settled in, and by the time we got up the mountain on the cable car, the rain settled in and visibility had gone to virtually zero.
View looking up the mountain at the cable cars
View from about a third of the way up Grouse Mountain from the cable car.
Chainsaw wood carvings.
Finally, we got to see bears up close – in the rain and fog. The mountain reserve host two rescue bears, Coola and Grinder, orphaned and hand raised and not able to be released to the wild. Unlike the aquarium, they have a huge range and lots of enrichment. They stood and munched grass, unconcerned about us, within a few meters. But for the electric fence, we could have reached out and touched them.
Normally they run a Birds in Motion demo, with raptors of various sorts flying over head. Instead they offered the small group of us who braved the rain a show and tell session. The owl pictured below was most put out at not being allowed to fly. The young eagle just looked around, disdainful of the rain and the small huddle of bedraggled people. The poor vulture, from dry southern climes, was miserable and was quickly returned to his nice dry roost.
Horned Barn Owl
Juvenile Golden Eagle
Our penultimate day in Vancouver we relocated from Timessquare apartments to the Sheraton Wall Centre, so we can join the Rockymountaineer tour at an indecent hour the next morning, and have our bags transferred by the tour company. The Timessquare apartment was great, with a kitchen, washer, dryer, separate sitting room and bedroom. The windows could be opened, so we could turn off the air-conditioning and breath real air. Restaurants on the doorstep and lots of adventures in walking distance. Overall an ideal spot for our 4 day Vancouver interlude.