Back in the 1990’s I was lucky enough to have been involved in photographing the black bear research that was undertaken on the  Bruce Peninsula allowing me close up encounters with both cubs and female bears. But I wasn’t prepared for the magic and mystical experience of being eye-to-eye with the world’s largest bear and Arctic’s top wildlife predator, during a journey to Churchill Wild’s Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge, Manitoba this November (see map below).

Our daughter, Bella, is a manager and her partner Paul is a polar bear guide at this eco-lodge, on the shore of Hudson Bay. When a last minute cancellation offered us the chance to be guests of Churchill Wild owners Mike and Jeanne Reimer, we jumped at the opportunity. 

Within three days we were being outfitted in arctic parkas, overalls and Snowpacs at the Grand Hotel next to the Winnipeg airport, where we attended a welcome/orientation dinner before hitting the sack early (well for some, as we were locked out of our room for  over three hours after a card lock failure). The 4:30 am wakeup came way too soon as we headed to the gates for a 7am commercial flight on a Calm Air Boeing 737 to Churchill.

Guides briefing before Polar bear outing at Nanuk lodge

Landing at the airport, we piled on our Arctic kit expecting to transfer to a Cessna Caravan and de Havilland Otter for the hour and half flight to Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. The sub Arctic weather had other ideas for the seventeen of us. High winds and a low ceiling made flying unsafe, so we headed out to explore on a Churchill Wild branded mini bus hoping a “weather window” would allow a flight later in the day. First stop was the Polar Bear Jail close to the airport where wayward polar bears are kept until the ice forms on Hudson Bay allowing the the bears to head seaward to hunt ringed seals. 

Nelson River viewed though a frosty Cessna Caravan window.
View of Churchill residential street
Mural on side  of Polar bear “jail” near Churchill airport

This is a good time to explain why Churchill and area is a mecca for polar Bears. Since several large rivers empty into Hudson Bay, the outflow of fresh water into the salt water freezes faster than the rest of Hudson Bay. Polar bears have learned this is the earliest place to get back out onto the ice to hunt seals and make the trek along the shore each spring, summer and fall to take advantage of early ice.

The world polar bear population is estimated to be 25-30,000. Canada has a population of approximately 15,000, and roughly 1,000 reside on Western Hudson Bay. While the effect of climate change is debated, recent studies indicate polar bears are in decline making them a species of “special concern” in Canada.

Polar bear east of Churchill. Photo taken from Tundra Buggy

It wasn’t long on the 7km ride to the town of Churchill before sharp-eyed Kat from England, spied a polar bear barely visible lying in the snow about 20 metres from the road. The sound of cameras filled the bus as many took their first pictures of the revered animal. We needn’t have worried as before the seven day trip was over we had between 25 and 30 encounters with polar bears. 

With the weather deteriorating, arrangements were made for us to billet in Churchill for the night. This was the height of polar bear tour season (up to 10,000 tourists arrive each season for the bears) and no rooms were available at any regular hotels, motels or inns. Three of us spent the night with a Russian and Swampy Cree couple at their small but very comfortable B&B while the rest of the group was divided between Churchill Wild family homes. After a group dinner, we all headed to bed hoping we would fly to the lodge first thing after breakfast. But with weather unsafe for small aircraft, Churchill Wild arranged for us to have a private Tundra Buggy tour looking for polar bears east of Churchill. Within 15 minutes of boarding, we were viewing bears left and right. For Audrey and I, this was an added bonus – experiencing how the vast majority of tourists view polar bears, looking down from the safety of the buggies.

Just as we started on a packed lunch of chicken salad sandwiches (topped with cranberries picked from the tundra), a radio call came though that we had a “weather window” allowing flights to the lodge. We bounced and swayed along old military tracks crossing the tundra, hurrying to the buggy depot and then the airport. 

Tundra buggies Churchill
Flying to Nanuk Lodge on a Cessna Caravan

Bundled into winter parkas for “safety reasons” (forced landing in winter weather), we crammed aboard two bush planes along with supplies for the lodge, heading in the late afternoon light across the the snow covered shoreline and a rapidly freezing Hudson Bay towards Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Guess I forgot to mention that by now the temp had dropped with wind chill to minus 30. With a low ceiling we flew between 80 and 150 metres above the ground for the 230 km flight allowing a rare view of a polar bear eating the remains of another polar bear. After climbing to 600+ metres to cross the several kilometres wide Nelson River we soon were on the final approach to Nanuk‘s beach ridge gravel runway, flushing a Polar bear from the willows bordering the landing strip.

Runway bear in willows at Nanuk Lodge

 After orientation and safety talks by the three shotgun toting guides (in 25 years of “walking with polar bears” Churchill Wild has never shot a bear), we headed out to find the runway Polar Bear. Walking single file to minimize our profile we approached as a snow squall blew in off Hudson Bay. Stopping at about 100 metres we slowly moved into a chevron under direction of the guides to allow the group unobstructed views of the polar bear that was keeping an eye on us as it appeared to doze in the willows.

Evening talk at Nanuk lodge

With the group chilled we returned to the lodge for hot drinks and a gourmet dinner. It should be pointed out that this is the only company in the world that bills its product, “take a walk on the wild side deep in the heart of polar bear country! Meet polar bears face-to-face, all the while enjoying world-class service, accommodations and cuisine from the comfort of the only fly-in Polar Bear Eco-Lodges on the planet.”  One of 55 National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World, the price per couple for the seven day trip would buy you a nicely outfitted compact car. Needless to say, the accommodations, service and cuisine offered by the staff of eleven at Nanuk is amazing, especially when you consider everything has to be flown in from Churchill or Winnipeg. 

Polar bear rolling on Hudson Bay ice  at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge
Bear rubbing chin on willows Nanuk Lodge
Polar bear at fence Nanuk lodge

Over the next three days we ventured out across the frozen shore in custom built all terrain vehicles called rhinos, to  search for polar bears. Not only did we see bears but also willow ptarmigan, snow buntings, ravens, snowshoe hares, and moose. On two of the days at the lodge, polar bears came right up to the perimeter fence. It was during one of these fence encounters, ten feet from an estimated seven year old 350kg male bear that I locked eyes with the world’s largest land carnivore. Far from being scared I could only marvel at the beauty of this mammal and wonder what was going through this curious bear’s mind, did it see me purely as prey?

With the time at the lodge already shortened by poor weather, we soon were winging our way back to Churchill and then onto Winnipeg and finally back to Toronto. The mystery, beauty and wilderness encapsulated in the Polar bear’s intense brown eyes captures for me, our home, Canada.

Words and photos by Willy Waterton

The writer/photographer was a guest of Churchill Wild, who didn’t review or approve this story.