She’s walking straight at us.
Her long, powerful strides putting her well within the 50 meters (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-years-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.
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.
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 photograph 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.
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. This week, the polar bear tour is catering to photographers.
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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 churning up the landscape.
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 photography workshops and tours, finding the right blend of personalities can be a crapshoot but, to my delight, everyone gets along.
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.
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.
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 noisemakers—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 prior to our first hike.
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 walks with a lumbering, wide-legged waddle as if she just pooped her pants, yet somehow she 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 wants to return the way she came.
We’re blocking her path.
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.
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.
Walking with Polar Bears
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.
Polar Bear Tours 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 a 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 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.
Variations occur depending on the weather and wildlife opportunities.
Tea and hot cocoa in the lounge at 6:30 am.
Morning walk begins at 8:30 am for 2-3 hours.
Lunch: around 12:00on with a short break before returning to the tundra at 1:30-2: 00 pm.
Afternoon walks at 1:30 pm – 2 pm until just after sunset.
Cocktails and hors-d’oeuvres: 5:30pm
After dinner, on a couple of nights, the staff gave talks about polar bears and other topics. I was usually in bed by 9:30 pm or 10 pm.
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 am. The second time, they were merciful materialized just before 10 pm. 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.
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
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.
For more info: Winter Packing List for Cold Weather Adventures
Give Yourself A Couple Bad Weather Days
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.