Seeing wild polar bears and witnessing the Northern Lights have always been special dreams for me. In particular, chasing the aurora has been a favourite travelling pastime, which until a recent visit to Manitoba, Canada had been an unsuccessful pursuit.
“Manitoba, delivers in spades”
The problem with dreams is that they are finicky, often failing to live up to the hype. We produce bucket lists, building up destinations and activities in our minds, for days, weeks and even months. The anticipation climbs to a level of excitement which is almost feverish. This intensity of anticipation may result in an anti-climax, the experience often not living up to the dream.
Fortunately Manitoba, delivers in spades, every single moment of the trip was memorable, and when the time to leave finally arrived, it was an even more bittersweet feeling than usual.
The experience at the Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge, based on the shores of Hudson Bay in Manitoba is unique. The ChurchillWild guides walk their guests close to the bears, not merely viewing them from a tundra buggy. The difference is easy to see, the images produced are at ground level, eye to eye with the world’s largest land predator and not looking down on them from a high vantage point.
The landscape appears desolate, a barren wilderness, with miles of swamp-like tidal grasslands, low bushland growing to the edge of an ancient high tideline, kept in check by the constant wind. Small inlets punctuate the coastline, fed by thin ribbon-like brackish streams snaking their way across thick, mud beaches; it’s hauntingly beautiful.
I’m especially fond of the deserted, desiccated tree trunks, which are found everywhere. Their twisted shapes seem to emphasise the barren nature of the environment. Even towards the end of summer there is plenty of colour. The hues of autumn are just beginning to appear, and the golden glow of a low evening sun brings some warmth to the scenery.
Our guides chauffeured around is in a specifically built all terrain vehicle, and Albert, our Swampy Cree guide regularly hopped off his quad bike to check tracks, always vigilant for tracks, and signs of bears, wolves or moose.
Once within a few hundred metres of the bears however, we would dismount and make our way single file to within range of a short lens. The experienced guides usually keeping around 50 metres between us and the animals. These are wild creatures however, and haven’t read that script, on one occasion a mother bear, with cub decided she needed a better look at us.
“Our ‘bear whisperer’ remained calm”
Our guide Andy, took up a position between us and the curious bear and calmly ‘persuaded’ her to keep her distance. She remained persistent however, less than 30 metres away. He needed to resort to throwing a few branches in her direction as a further deterrent. Our ‘bear whisperer’ remained calm throughout, and this allowed us to relax and enjoy the encounter, continuing to take photos. I didn’t feel at all threatened, or uneasy, confident he would deal with any potential situation.
The bears also regularly came to visit the compound, often ‘ghosting’ in from the undergrowth to dawdle around the fence and check-out the strange beings enclosed within. It’s a curious role reversal, the bears roaming free, the people confined by a wire fence. One bear in particular seemed to enjoy visiting the people’s zoo; he often visited, and seemed genuinely curious about us.
“an aurora virgin like me”
It’s not just about the bears however, we another treat was a brief display of dancing lights on our first evening. The sky wasn’t completely clear, there were plenty of clouds, which diffused the full effect of the night lights. It was still spectacular however, especially for an aurora virgin like me. A mesmerising display of dancing light, filling the sky with an eerie green glow, which left me transfixed for over an hour. Fortunately I did manage to get a few images as well.
I enjoyed every experience, riding the all terrain vehicles, fording the tidal brooks, disturbing huge flocks of geese causing them to take flight, taking to the sky, often in their hundreds, but like a single entity. The encounters with bears are unforgettable, and witnessing the greatest free show on earth, nature’s pyrotechnics in the sky is hopefully a once in a lifetime experience, which will be repeatable.
This post may seem gushing hyperbole but, it’s a dream realised. The memories of this wilderness will long outshine any words on this page.
I was a grateful guest of ChurchillWild and Manitoba Tourism, but all opinions were formed with a huge grin on my face.