Canada

The Thrill of Canada’s only Polar Bear Walking Photo Safari

(To pause the slideshow, place your mouse on the image). 


She’s coming straight at us.

Her long, powerful strides putting her well within the 50 meter (164-foot) safety range. Even if I could run, what’s the point?  She could outpace me in seconds.

I look down the line of fellow photographers to where Andy McPhearson and Rob Watson, two of our three Churchill Wild guides, stand between us and the approaching polar bear, and I’m trying to decide if I should panic.

As if on cue, the old joke about not having to be faster than the bear, just faster than everyone else, pops into my head.

“Where are you going?” Andy says in a low, calm voice that sounds more like he’s questioning a beloved pet than the world’s largest land carnivore. His goal is to distract her, but he doesn’t. She keeps coming.

We’ve seen this female before. She’s young, two or three-year’s old, maybe 350 pounds. In polar bear terms she’s small—males can easily weigh 1200 pounds and measure 11 feet from end to end.

But to this city girl, she’s plenty big.

Polar bear at sunrise | Canada’s Walking Polar Bear Photo Safari -Seal River Heritage Lodge-Manitoba-006205

Radio Bear staring at the water in hopes of spotting a seal

The guides call her Radio Bear, after the tiny research antenna that flops in the breeze above her right ear. Yesterday, we photographed her from over 300 feet away in front of a pink and lavender sunrise.

Today, she’s much closer. Much.

“Don’t Kneel!”

Our third guide, Bella Waterton, is making sure we don’t do anything stupid. Preemptively, she reminds us not to kneel to take photos. Photographers love to shoot wildlife from low angles, but with the bear so close and everyone else standing, it’s a move that screams, “Hey polar bear, look at me!”

It’s not a good idea.

Maria, another guest, mishears Bella and drops to her knees. My stomach bottoms out and I look at the bear wondering if she’s going to launch an assault. “DON’T kneel down!” Bella says emphatically. Maria stands so quickly she’s a veritable yo-yo.

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Arctic Fox

I’m at Seal River Heritage Lodge in northern Manitoba (part of the Churchill Wild collection, and one of National Geographic’s “Unique Lodges of the World”), a half-hour bush plane flight north of Churchill, to take part in Canada’s only polar bear walking photo safari.

The lodge sits along the western shore of Hudson Bay where the bears migrate. Typically, they roam the coastline from July until late November in a state of walking hibernation without food , living off their fat until the ice forms and they can hunt for seals. This year, however, the freeze came early, and though it’s only mid-November, most of the bears have already gone onto the ice. Radio Bear is one of a few stragglers that’s still close to shore.

Each day, we hike the prairie for hours amidst the ice and snow in search of wildlife. In addition to the bears, we’ve seen dozens of arctic foxes and hares, caribou, flocks of ptarmigans, and a pack of wolves howling as if auditioning for a Dracula revival.

It’s thrilling to photograph the animals on their own turf at eye level, without the confines of a vehicle. I can’t help but feel a greater connection to my surroundings, and walking reduces the impact on the environment—no giant tundra buggies to churn up the landscape.

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Arctic hare

When we’re not outside, we’re in the lounge, a two-tiered sanctuary with vaulted ceilings, plump leather couches, a large stone fireplace and huge picture windows overlooking the bay. It’s where we spend most of our time, chatting, sharing the day’s adventures or editing photos.

Scattered with trophies, the room pays tribute to the tundra: On a side table sits a polar bear skull, a moose head hangs on a wall. A stuffed arctic owl, wings spread wide, dangles from the ceiling, its talons poised as if ready to pluck the nearest guest off their feet. 

Our group of 15 is a good one, with photographers from all over the world: The United Kingdom, Australia, China, the United States. You never know with tours, finding the right blend of personalities can be a crap shoot but, to my delight, everyone gets along.

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Radio Bear

This is my first arctic adventure, and if all goes well in the next few minutes, it won’t be my last.

So far it’s delivered beyond my expectations, though it’s been more difficult than I anticipated. I love the animals, the vast expanse, the wonder of the Northern Lights, and the tangle of white ice on the bay.

But the -30F temperatures, not so much.

Hiking on Hudson Bay | Canada’s Walking Polar Bear Photo Safari -Seal River Heritage Lodge-Manitoba-863541

Hiking on Hudson Bay

It takes me 20 minutes to don four layers and 15 pounds of cold-weather gear, plus another 12 pounds of camera equipment. At times, my getup becomes claustrophobic and I have to pull down my balaclava to breathe. Trying to photograph is even more difficult. I feel awkward and clunky, but I embrace the challenge. I just need more practice.

But first, there’s Radio Bear.

Polar Bear | Canada’s Walking Polar Bear Photo Safari -Seal River Heritage Lodge-Manitoba

Radio Bear on Hudson Bay

Andy pulls two rocks from his coat. Except for the roar of the wind or the occasional wolves, Manitoba’s northern tundra is a silent landscape. Unexpected sounds like a human’s voice or stones knocking together are a useful deterrent. If unsuccessful, they’ll proceed to bangers—firecracker-like noise makers—then pepper spray. Last, and only if necessary, they’ll use the shotguns slung across their backs. Even then, bullets will be shot into the air or the ground before it’s aimed at a bear.

“There’s less paperwork if I shoot you,” Andy joked before our first hike.

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Arctic Fox bedding down

Radio Bear’s large black nose twitches toward the sky, sniffing the arctic air. She’s 50-feet in front of us now, her massive square paws breaking through the frozen snow with a crunch. She’s walks with a lumbering, wide-legged waddle as if she just pooped her pants, yet somehow manages to look majestic.

Another 10 feet and she stops. Again, with the nose, tasting the air. She peers around us to the bushes that line the shore. Earlier, we tracked her footprints onto the ice, and it hits me, she’s wants to return the way she came.

We’re blocking her path.

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Remnants of a caribou most likely eaten by wolves

She moves forward another few feet, then out of the blue, pushes down on the ice with her paws as if she’s giving it CPR, and I hear a crack. This is how polar bears hunt seals, using their great strength to crash through the birthing lairs within an ice floe. But Radio Bear doesn’t realize her prey would never come this close to shore. She’s still learning.

She’s 30 feet from us now, and I figure if we were in trouble, the guides would do something so I do what I came for, I take pictures and remind myself not to kneel.

With a final twitch of her nose, she veers right and walks away giving us a wide berth. You’d think I’d be relieved, but I’m flooded with disappointment.  I want more.

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The gang watching the sunset on Hudson Bay

At a curve in the Bay, she stands on her hind legs to look for a path through a patch of dense willows, and I feel a surge of adrenaline. How magnificent she is. She hesitates, then breaks through the brush, lingering over the broken stalks to enjoy a good belly scratch, then disappears.

We look at each other in stunned silence, dazzled by the encounter, then burst into rounds of, “Oh my God’s,” and “That was amazing’s!”

Nothing we say quite does the experience justice. No one feeling quite captures it. I just take the moment for what it is – precious, finite, there, and then gone.


How you can walk with the polar bears on a photo tour with Churchill Wild

Churchill Wild owns and operates three lodges in northern Manitoba that offer polar bear walking safaris: Seal River Heritage Lodge, Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. and Diamond Lake Lodge. Seal River and Nanuk, however, are the only two that offer tours with a focus on photography. Which means, for professional or enthusiasts, these safaris offer guests the flexibility to spend more time outdoors, or with a specific subject, to capture great images.

Season:  Late June – November.  Photo safaris are held in October – November.

Photo Safari:  7 Days, 6 nights. 5 nights at the lodge. First and last night are in Winnipeg. (See below).

The Lodge: The lodge has 8 double rooms for a maximum of 16 guests. There’s a large lounge where guests congregate when not outdoors, as well as big dining room. Both have huge picture windows that overlook the bay. Outside, the compound is fenced in, though guests are not allowed to go outside without a guide present. Foxes are small enough to get into the compound, and run about all the time. They’re adorable and as abundant as squirrels. They will come close but are not aggressive. There are two viewing decks and one viewing tower for sight-seeing and photography.

All meals are included in your stay along with wine and soda.

Room Amenities: Toiletries and a hairdryer.

Note: there is no laundry service. If you get cold at night, be sure to ask for extra blankets and/or a hot water bottle.

Gift Shop: There’s a gift shop where you can buy the souvenir T-shirts, or cold weather gear. I found the prices to be high. Visa and Mastercard are accepted.

Gratuities: You can opt in for a pre-paid gratuity during the booking process or a cash gratuity on site. Churchill Wild recommends $500 per person for every safari. This money is pooled and split among the guides and staff.


Daily Schedule:

Variations occur depending on the weather and wildlife opportunities.

Tea and hot coco in the lounge at 6:30am.

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A visit from a young female on our first day. View is from the dining room window.

Breakfast: 7:00am.

Morning walk begins: 8:30am for 2-3 hours.

Lunch: around 12:00on with a short break before returning to the tundra at 1:30-2:00pm.

Afternoon walks: 1:30pm – 2pm until just after sunset.

Cocktails and hors-d’oeuvres: 5:30pm

Dinner: 6:30pm.

After dinner, on a couple of nights, the staff gave talks about polar bears and other topics. I was usually in bed by 9:30pm or 10pm.


Aurora Borealis (a.k.a the Northern Lights)

For guests interested in seeing / photographing the Aurora Borealis, you can leave word with the staff and they’ll wake you. The first time I saw them during my trip they appeared at 2:39 a.m.. The second time, they were merciful materialized just before 10pm. You can read about seeing the lights here.


Flights and timing

Guests are responsible for their flights to Winnipeg, however once there, your hotel stays (2 nights bookending your tour), the flight to Churchill, and the bush-plane to your lodge are included in the tour rate.  On the first night, there’s a welcome dinner and fittings for people renting outwear.

On your last day, you’ll leave your lodge in the morning and spend the rest of the day exploring Churchill before flying to Winnipeg on an evening flight. It’s a very long day and the departure time isn’t ideal, but the flight schedule is out of Churchill Wild’s hands.

Flight durations:

Winnipeg to Churchill: 2 hours

Flight from Churchill to:

  • Seal River Heritage Lodge: ½ hour
  • Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge: 1 hour
  • Dymond Lake Lodge: 15 minutes

Clothing

Unless you already own the appropriate outerwear—a parka, thermal pants, boots and mittens rated at least -50F, then I highly recommend you invest in renting from Churchill Wild. It will be more cost effective than purchasing everything new, and you can be sure you won’t get cold. Don’t get cocky. I heard stories about guests who thought their clothing would suffice and they were miserable.

If you’re interested in learning how I prepared for this trip, what I wore, and what camera gear I brought, you can check out the post here.


Some advice:

Consider staying a day or two in Winnipeg after your tour. The weather in northern Manitoba is volatile and delays are not uncommon. On my trip, we had to stay an extra day at Seal River because of a snowstorm and low visibility. All the other guests missed their connecting flights, paid flight-change fees, and missed a day of work, except me, because I was staying in Winnipeg for two days after the tour.


Polar Bear Fun Facts

  • Polar bears have black skin – researchers believe it’s to absorb heat from the sun.
  • They can run up to 18 miles per hour.
  • Polar bears have up to 5 inches of fat under their skin.
  • Cubs weigh 3 – 3.25 pounds at birth.
  • On average, mature male polar bears weighs 990 pounds.
  • 60 percent of the worlds polar bears live in Canada.

I was hosted by Travel Manitoba for this trip, which neither reviewed or approved this story. 

I want to thank Canon Professional Services for their help with this story. 


The Thrill of Canada’s only Polar Bear Walking Photo #Tour _ #safari _ #Photography _ #Travel _ #Wildlife _ #WildlifePhotography _ #TravelPhotography (1)

88 replies »

  1. I was on the edge of my seat reading this. I can just imagine the adrenaline and nerves followed by euphoria at what you witnesses. Your pictures are breathtaking. Thanks for adding something else to my bucket list!!!

  2. WOW! All I can say, your pictures are absolutely stunning! I am headed to Svalbard in a month and hope to see some of the animals you managed to see in Canada. I was reading a book about Svalbard, The Woman in the Polar Night, about a German woman living in Svalbard, and she mentioned nearly all of these in here book, ptarmigan, arctic foxes, and, of course, the bears! I keep my fingers crossed to be able to see these animals with my own eyes in Norway and next I DEFINITELY need to plan Canada!

    • Thank you! And have a spectacular time in Svalbard. What an exciting trip that is! I’m sure you’ll see a whole bunch of animals.

  3. Your photos are absolutely stunning! This experience sounds unforgettable too. It’s so sad that there are so few polar bears left, but how amazing you did get to see them in real life in their natural habitat. A zoo doesnt count!

    • Thank you! I feel very lucky to have seen the bears in their natural habitat. It seems so much wildlife now is endangered.

  4. What a fantastic experience- seeing polar bears in Canada is one of my bucket list experiences. I am not sure I would have been as calm as you – I would be a little worried that I would panic! What an amazing opportunity though- very envious! Ps love your writing style

    • I wasn’t sure how I would react either. That said, I came trust our guides very quickly and their judgement. Plus, Radio Bear just didn’t behave aggressively. I have no idea what I would have done if she had. 🙂

  5. This is magic!!! Reminds me of work by Michio Hoshino. Feel so blessed to have seen this today. Earth is truly amazing. Thanks so much for sharing!!

  6. What an incredible experience. I’ve loved my skiiing holidays in Canada and I need to go back and see more of the country – and it’s amazing wildlife 🙂

    • Sorry for the delay Amorina, I’ve been in Peru on the Amazon River and the internet has been spotty at best. Thank you for your kind words. I truly appreciate it. 🙂

  7. Susan, what a wonderful story and journey. Your images are, as usual, wonderful. I love that little arctic fox like crazy. I also really enjoy your “prep” article and one tip I have never thought of–take out your memory cards before going inside so you won’t be tempted to open the plastic bag before the condensation issue is behind you. What a great tip! I’m heading to Antartica next season and will head back to your “getting ready” info before the trip. You are a wonderful photographer and an excellent writer. Keep it coming!

    • Patricia – Sorry for the delay in responding to your very kind comment. I have been in Peru (still am but heading back home and am at the airport), on an Amazon River cruise and access to any signal has been dicey at best. Thank you so much for checking out the article and I’m thrilled you found the prep piece valuable as well. Truly appreciate your continued support. :)))) xo

  8. Fantastic images and storytelling, Susan! I loved the cliffhangers with Radio Bear and particularly enjoyed the image of her with the beautiful sunset. Thanks for bringing this wonderful place to life with your gorgeous captures and writing. We are SO excited to experience this for ourselves in the next couple of years. Arctic fox, hare, wolves and Northern Lights are also high on our wish list!

    • Thank you so so much Marielena. I’m glad you found it entertaining and inspiring. I know when you go you’ll have a spectacular time.

  9. Hi Susan, love your photos, however I wanted to point out the title of your post is inaccurate. I own a private guiding photography tour company based out of Churchill, MB called Discover Churchill. I have been offering ground level photo tours for the last two years. If you’re ever back in the area, I’d be happy to take you out on tour.

    Cheers,

    Alex

  10. If there’s a better wildlife photographer than you out there, I’ve yet to run across her. Another stunning bunch of images. You’re just killing it, as usual.

  11. What an absolutely incredible experience. Wow. It must have been breathtaking to be in such close proximity to these massive and endangered animals. Your photos are all stunning and I thank you for sharing them because I feel fairly confident that I shall never undertake such a trip to see these sights for myself.

    • Hi Laura – Thank you very very much. It was amazing to see them, and I’m glad before they’re all gone. Which is the direction I’m afraid we’re heading in.

  12. Amazing! Just amazing! I am afraid that I would have for sure pooped in my pants if a polar bear had gotten to within 30 feet of me! You are gutsy!!!! Love this blog!

    • Hahaha! I think you’d be just fine. If I hadn’t had faith in our guides or I was all alone, it would have been a different story, but I felt very safe with them. 🙂

      So glad you love the blog. Thank you for letting me know. 🙂

  13. Really have to tell you this Susan! These images are incredible, ….honestly meaning this ……not only the polar bear ones but also the landscape and people shots are standing out in quality, colour, sharpness and composition in my opinion. Great job.

    • Fred, you are so so kind. Thank you. I can’t tell you how much that means to me coming from such a fabulous photographer. Thank you!!

  14. I shared the experience you describe above, and it was just as you wrote. And I couldn’t agree with you more: “You’d think I’d be relieved, but I’m flooded with disappointment. I want more.” Would do it again in a heartbeat…just just a touch more mercury. Glad we enjoyed the week in Seal River.

    • Ross!! I am so glad we had the opportunity to meet and share the experience. I had a great time with you and Sarah and the rest of the gang. What a pleasure. Thank you for checking out the piece. xo

  15. Amazing pics and a great story again! This adventure definitely is on my list of “What to do if I ever win the lottery”! 🙂 Until then, I just keep on following your blog! Thanks for sharing, Susanne

  16. Oh my friend its so interesting and beautiful article. Not just for polar bear but also the images of other arctic mammals. Cant resist to share this. And thank you for sharing with us.

  17. What an incredible adventure. Such beautiful photos. I don’t research Polar Bear, but since you brought it up in your quick facts that 60% of Polar Bear live in Canada – did anyone say anything about populations of the bear due to climate change? Did you see or did anyone say anything about starving bear like we see pictures of in the media? I’m just curious. Loved this post – thanks for sharing.

    • It truly was!

      We didn’t get into the climate change discussion. The polar bear you’re referencing was on Baffin Island much farther north where I think the effects of climate change are much more noticeable. As I mentioned in the piece, for the area we were in, the ice formed early and most of the bears had already gone out onto the ice. Hopefully, they’re finding plenty of seals to keep them fed. The weather is very volatile there.

    • Thank you for taking time out of your busy day, to check out my work. It’s most appreciated. As are your comments. 🙂

    • LOL…not too fast at all. Especially when we were shin deep in snow. I definitely would have been dinner if Radio Bear was so inclined. Thankfully, she was just curious and once her curiosity was sated, I think we bored her.

  18. Enjoyed your article. We visited Dymond Lake in October. Awesome Experience. Highly recommend the walking tours. I’m not a professional but I took some of my favorite photos of all time.

    • Thank you so much! I heard great things about Dymond Lake.

      Not surprised you loved your photos. It’s so interesting and special up there it’s hard to take a bad one. 🙂

      Did you see a lot of bears?

  19. Hi Susan- a great informative blog with wonderful images. I envy your stamina since I’m having trouble dealing with the 10 degree weather we’re having in CT. currently.

  20. Great information, Susan and a some wonderful photography. Thanks for sharing your experiences. This is definitely a bucket list trip for me, and as I like to do bucket list trips the information you have shared is certainly going to make its way in to my plan. You’ve got a bear a wolf and the Aurora in one trip. Three extraordinary encounters in one magnificent trip. Excellent blog!

    • It was pretty spectacular. As you mentioned, polar bear, aurora and fox… it was pretty amazing. So glad you feel the post is helpful and that you liked the photography. 🙂

    • Thank you, Sheri for such a kind and thoughtful comment. I am thrilled you liked the post. Happy New Year to you too!

    • Thanks a million, Mark! It was a little on the heart pumping side for a few moments. But she was a good girl. Mainly curious I think. Polar bears are super curious. 🙂

    • It was! That’s why I really liked that this trip was a walking polar bear safari. All the others are in tundra vehicles that force you to look down on the animals. Also, they really churn up the landscape.

    • The Arctic foxes were everywhere. Almost as abundant as squirrels and SO cute! I’m really glad you liked the post. Thank you for letting me know. 🙂

    • I won’t pretend the cold didn’t effect me, it did. Not that I was chilly, more that I had so many heavy layers on a felt like an awkward astronaut trying to photograph the wildlife. That said, it was totally worth it in the end. 🙂

    • That’s a great way to put it. It was definitely mind-blowing. I’m glad you liked it. Thanks for letting me know. 🙂

    • It was amazing to be so close and within their habitat. Which is why I really liked being able to walk instead of being confined to a vehicle.

    • Isn’t she though?! I thought the same thing. So potentially dangerous, and I kept thinking that she was cuddly. When she was bedded down all curled up like a cat, I thought my heart would burst she was so cute.

    • I felt blessed to be able to see the polar bears in person. At least in the area I was in, they are doing alright for the moment, but it’s a small area compared to the world population. Thank you for the kind words!

I would love to hear from you!

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