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Walking to Polar Bears - Nanuk Lodge, Northern Manitoba


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We were 300m out on the ice freezing on the edge of Hudson Bay when the male bear turned and walked towards us.

At that point it is hard not to be aware that we can hardly move on the ice without slipping while the approaching bear (who is undoubtedly hungry) can cover the ground between us in 30 seconds if he tries.

Such an encounter brings a humbling perspective on our vulnerablity in so many situations. 

We had several such meetings with polar bears during 5 days at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge run by Churchill Wild and I will describe our stay in this report.

Edited by pomkiwi
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Wow, what an experience that must have been. Looking forward to more. 

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Background - and why Nanuk?


In July 2018 I went to Lake Clark in Alaska photographing Brown Bears.

 On the way home I flew over the Canadian tundra and started wondering about the possibilities of repeating the exercise with polar bears somewhere down there:



While at Lake Clark I had met a photographer who had some excellent photos of polar bears taken whilst hiking rather than from a large vehicle. I contacted her and she replied that the only place she knew of to do this easily was at Churchill, Manitoba through a company called Churchill Wild.


Churchill Wild run 3 lodges, 2 are fairly close to Churchill and the other, Nanuk is approximately 150km south east. The reason for the popularity of Churchill (self styled "Polar Bear Capital of the World" ) for polar bear photography is due to particular features in the climate and sea conditions.


Male polar bears and  females without cubs will spend the winter on the ice hunting seals, seal pups especially are a major food source in the early spring. They are extremely difficult to find and staying out on the ice is not feasible for a casual wildlife photographer like me.  Once the ice is melted however the bears come ashore but will find little or nothing to eat - a situation sometime referred to as walking hibernation. They tend to stay close to the coast and provide opportunities for photography amongst vegetation and fireweed in the summer!


Churchill sits about half way down the west coast of Hudson Bay. Despite being relatively far south ice starts to form around Cape Churchill earlier than elsewhere in the bay, the reason for this is the flow of fresh water from the Churchill and surrounding rivers which reduces the salt content of the water allowing freezing at warmer temperatures. Nanuk is further south just below Cape Tatnum where freezing starts at least as early as at Churchill due to fresh water inflow from the Hayes and Nelson Rivers:




While at Nanuk we were also told that the last sea ice to disappear is further south again on the west coast of the bay due to the prevailing currents and winds pushing the sea ice down the bay and against this shoreline. This provides another benefit for the lodge as bears tend to come ashore to the south and then make their way north past the lodge to be in position for the return of the ice in late October or early November. The best chance to see good numbers of bears is as the ice is beginning to freeze but before it has got thick enough for the bears to head out over it for the winter. This is what my daughter and I hoped to be there for although it is increasingly difficult to predict when the ice will appear given that the past two years freeze up was over by the start of November but the year before it was mid-November before it really started. 


It  is completely impossible to predict 15 months out when reservations need to be made :)


We got lucky (although it didn't always feel like that) as we arrived with temperatures around freezing, gale force winds and a mix of rain, sleet and snow. Over the week the temperature fell to as low as minus 10 and the winds swung to the north. A combination of rapid ice formation and snowfall gave a suitably wintery background for bear photography.



Edited by pomkiwi
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You've been "bitten" by the bears!  Exciting intro!

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Looking forward to this since the Churchhill Wild lodges have been on my radar for a while.

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Churchill Wild offer a range of options spread over 3 lodges, Nanuk, Seal River and Dymond Lake. We chose a polar bear photo safari at Nanuk which gave us 5 nights in the lodge (most trips are for 4 nights) as well as the assistance of a professional wildlife photographer for our stay. It also fell at the time when hopefully snow and ice would provide a backdrop. At Nanuk the bears are approached using an all terrain vehicle (details to come) followed by a hike towards the bear, whereas at Seal River I understand that all of the activity is on foot.


Churchill Wild trips are not cheap. Partly this reflects their unique nature and market forces but also the fact that the package starts at Winnipeg with a night in an airport hotel, scheduled flight to Churchill, small plane flight to the lodge and ends with the reverse trip to Winnipeg and a final night in the airport hotel. The rate includes all meals in Winnipeg, Churchill and the lodge with beer and wine in the lodge in the evenings.  We arranged an extra night in Winnipeg before and after the trip to allow for travel delays in either direction - Winnipeg suffered severe disruption from an early snowstorm in mid-October this year.


I booked about 15 months in advance and got the last room available for the autumn season in Nanuk, the staff were telling me that 2020 is full and 2021 is close. We booked flights from London to Winnipeg via Toronto with Air Canada again providing some protection in the event of travel problems. Churchill Wild provides a lot of guidance on what to pack as well as encouraging you to rent parkas, pants and insulated boots. I found their prices steep and was able to save money by using my well insulated ski pants (with merino long-johns underneath) and buying a Russian made down parka and Arctic rated boots from Columbia in sales in the UK. Churchill Wild do have gloves, mitts, hats etc for sale in the lodge as well as hand warmers so all is not lost if you do underestimate the conditions.


Camera Gear: The baggage allowance is reasonable - 30 kg in total with the ability to manage 15kg in a mix of carry on and valet (checked and returned at the aircraft door) bags. You wear all of your heavy arctic gear (a requirement in case the light plane has to make a forced landing in the tundra) and so it is reasonably easy to pack camera gear in terms of weight. Northern Lights are a possibility so a tripod is necessary (some will use these photographing bears on the ice but I find they just get in the way in a mobile situation). I took a Nikon D850 (full frame) and Nikon D500 (crop sensor) with my 200-500, 80-400 and 16-80 lenses. My daughter took a crop sensor with a 70-300mm lens which lacked enough reach so I lent her my 80-400. I ended up using my D850 with the 200-500 most of the time and ended up cropping most images (not an issue with a 45MP sensor) - I preferred this to using the D500 in case the bears came close - which in the event didn't happen.


Our trip to Winnipeg went smoothly and after a good sleep we headed out to Assiniboine Park for breakfast in the cafe and then walked to the Assiniboine Forest which is the last remnant of native forest left. It isn't big - probably the equivalent of a few city blocks but we covered 10km or so and took a few atmospheric photos:





After a taxi ride into town and a museum visit we headed back to the airport, a gear check and dinner with our fellow travellers.


We had a very early start and airport check-in which was very well handled by the Churchill Wild team. I wasn't especially impressed with the flight to Churchill and we had be quite assertive to stop our valet bags being taken into the terminal with all the checked bags on arrival - pointing out  that the combined vale of the bags was tens of thousands of dollars got a response though!


Our small plane left soon after arrival into Churchill despite some doubts about the weather at Nanuk. We flew over the edge of Hudson Bay which already looked cold:




The plane landed in front of the lodge (this is actually the plane landing to take us back at the end of the stay):



We were then escorted into our home for the next few days by armed guides. The lodge comprises of two wings of 4 bedrooms and a large central lounge / dining area. Each wing has a corridor running the full length with large windows looking to the sea and comfortable chairs. The three main areas are connected by open decking allowing for bear viewing and there is a small viewing tower (just visible beside the green building in the photo below):



After a short time to unpack we had lunch a briefing before heading out for our first wildlife search.

Edited by pomkiwi
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Thank you for sharing. I’m considering booking a trip for my wife for 2022 so this is super useful! 

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@lmSA84 Hopefully this report will help - please send me a message if you want any other information / views that I don't include.

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"I booked about 15 months in advance and got the last room available for the autumn season in Nanuk, the staff were telling me that 2020 is full and 2021 is close."

That was true for me too on a less adventurous polar bear viewing trip at that time of year a few years back.  I think I booked 2 years in advance.  Gotta plan ahead for the polar bears!


Yesterday we got our own early snowstorm.  Seems to be the trend this year.  Looking forward to more bears.


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Getting Started


The sun rises around 8am and sets around 5.30pm at Nanuk at the end of October. There is no desire to be out with polar bears after dark and the daily routine started with coffee in the lounge from 7am, breakfast at 8am with outline of the morning plans. Head out at around 9am, back for lunch by 12.30, out again around 2pm and back by dark.


When we arrived the temperature was just above freezing and the landscape lacked any snow altough there were areas of thin ice everywhere.



It was windy and damp and as such felt colder than it would later in the week when the temperasture dropped well below freezing but so did the wind.


We were able to move around freely within the lodge, on the decking and on to the observation tower. If we wanted to go into the yard (generally when a bear was around the fence) we needed to go with a guide - the reasons became clear the next day.


When we went out it was either on foot from the lodge or in one of the purpose built vehicles known as rhinos (nobody seems to know why this name was chosen) in which we would get within a few hundred meters of our destination and then approach on foot:




On the first afternoon we headed out full of anticipation although no bears had been seen by the guides. No bears were seen but in the distance we spotted a white flash in the willows:




Fortunately the cause came out into the open and we got a good (if distant) view of a large bull moose:




Nothing else was seen other than a few muddy ducks making the most of feeding opportunities before everything froze and they werr forced south. We headed back to a warm fire and an alarming weather forecast...



Edited by pomkiwi
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Our First Full Day - and Our First Bear


The weather forecast for Sunday was very poor (and at this point for the next couple of days as well) with very strong winds (50km/h gusting to 80km/h), temperature around freezing and a mix of rain, sleet and wet snow. After discussion and despite no bears sighted from the tower some of the group decided to head out on the vehicles. We borrowed insulated gumboots from the lodge in place of our snow boots and lighter rainjackets in place of our down parkas (which would become useless if they got soaked).


Once dressed we headed out west into the wind for an hour or so. It was truly misearble with rain and snow blowing into our faces and no wildlife to be seen. We had a short walk around to restore circulation to frozen feet and hands and returned with the wind at our backs. Again nothing to be seen - but it was still our first ful day so we weren't downhearted. After lunch the majority of those of us on the morning trip declined the kind offer of an afternoon walk in the wind and sleet. We sat in the lodge by the fire whilst the explorers went out and came back very wet - no bears.


We did have a visitor to the lodge - a snowshoe hare still in summer coat:



Just as it was getting dark one of the staff from the kitchen came in to the sitting room - 'if anyone is interested there is a bear at the fence behind the yard'.  There was no pretence of bred indifference :D A scramble followed for coats, boots and cameras and we crept out as sudden movements and loud noises would probably scare the bear (well most bears).  A good sized bear was exploring the gate (taken from the tower):



As you can see he is not that much shorter than the fence and indeed the fence is not designed to be bear proof. It is a boundary marker and deterrent but a determind bear could push through. This is the reason we were not allowed out in the yard without an escort. We were also instructed to remain at least a meter from the fence unless specifically told otherwise.


The bear, a fairly scrawny male, backed away when we emerged  into the yard





He then settled down for a doze;



A few minutes later he was up and pacing along the fence.In this photo you can see the long guard hairs that are at the back of his limbs. These are one easy way of dedifferentiating males from females and leave very distinct tracks in the snow:



He approached head on and this point the guides called us back from the fence into a tight group (this increases our apparent 'size' to the bear and prevents any individuals being seen as a lone target (read meal). The bear still seemed interested and four of the guides lined up. Initially they talked to him but he was unmoved, shouts followed with no effect, finally a couple of well aimed rocks surprised him into a retreat (this does not hurt a bear with 10cm of blubber below the skin but does startle them as they are not hit by anything very often!):



He didn't go far and circled most of the lodge:



Eventually he went off into the woods with the guides saying how unusual and persistent his interest had been. 

It would not be the last we would see of this particular bear....




A quick note on the images here - they may appear a little soft but it was getting pretty dark and most were shot at ISO 8000 on my D500 with some necessary noise reduction applied later.

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Wow, that must have been pretty thrilling and certainly made that cold and wet morning walk worth it.  I love that shot where he is staring right at you.


The D500 shots at ISO 8000 look really good.  I never push mine past 3200.  Maybe I need to push the envelope a bit more :).



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Fantastic experience and photos.


He DOES look thin and you can well understand how you might be viewed as a decent meal.

Very interesting about the long hairs distinguishing male from female

Edited by wilddog
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wow! That's close!


Also impressed with ISO 8000. I shot a lot in Madagascar ISO 5000 but wasn't that pleased on a D850.


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@wilddog He was hungry our guides felt. He appeared very interested in the lodge (or rather what it contained) as will become clear over the next few days.

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@Atdahl, @janzin I think the subject and background both help with the high ISO. I certainly realised early on that it is better to try and manage noise than a picture blurred with too slow a shutter speed! As my longer lenses are all around f/5.6 I have had to get better at post processing noisy images. I’ve not used my D850 as much yet so time will tell....

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Fantastic photos of the Polar Bear, really impressive!

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Meeting a Bear in his Space


Monday dawned colder with a strong wind but much more ice and a dusting of snow on the ground. It certainly appeared as though things were freezing quickly:



We headed out in the vehicle for quite a long drive to the west but didn't spot very much. Driving back into the teeth of the wind was unpleasant particularly with some blowing snow. We thawed off and as we finished lunch were told that the bear from the previous night was close to the lodge. This time the plan was to walk out to approach him - on foot without the protection of a fence. Safety is paramount and Churchill Wild have never had a significant incident. Three guides accompany the guests and all are armed with a shotgun and other deterrents. Two guides are there to concentrate on the bears and one to keep a close eye on guests ensuring that we all follow any instructions given. Essentially approaches are made slowly and in single file to avoid scaring the bear manynof whom may never have met humans before.

If a bear does approach we were instructed to stand and move together to present a large profile (lying on the ground is a bad idea here as it may remind the bear of a seal....). The guides will firstly engage the bear in conversation - as they live in a generally silent world this is usually enough to startle them off, if not then shouting will be added following by the sharp sound of knocking rocks together. If all of this does not work some well aimed rocks will usually do the trick (as last night). The guides then have athletic starter pistols that can be loaded with various types of bangers to scare the bear. If all of this fails the shotgun will be fired over the head of the bear or finally at the animal. The guides have never used a shotgun with a bear.


Initially our bear (now called Captain Cantankerous)  was dozing on the ground:



He quickly got up and appeared to move away with some of the grimacing that indicates anxiety (as with brown bears).



It appeared as though he was headed into the scrub:



He didn't go far though and we stood still for about 20 minutes waiting (this is where down jackets and good gloves and boots become vey important). Some snow geese (both white and dark morphs) flew past:



We also had the company of some willow ptarmigans:



Just as we were beginning to think about moving the bear came back in the other direction past us and into the bushes opposite watching us all the way.



He disappeared (but would be back). We went back to the lodge and climbed into the vehicles as there was another bear on the ice just across the river close by.

Edited by pomkiwi
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A Bear on the Ice


Nanuk Lodge sits between two rerasonably sized rivers flowing into Hudson Bay. Most of the time the safari vehicles can cross the rivers providing the depth is not much more than 1 metre. Two issues had a impact on our mobility during our stay. Firstly we had very high tides which combined with a lot of recent rainfall meant that the rivers rose to a depth greater than the vehicles could manage. Secondly the ice coming down the rivers and freezing later in the week caused another issue that I will get to later on. We were able to get to the side of the river and saw a  head peering at us over the willows on the other side:



He headed along the other side of the water parallel to the sea;



We followed down on foot bit were unable to get over the river due to its depth which left us a bit too far away for good photos in the fading light.



At times he broke through the relatively thin ice:_MH13398.jpg.daec077bd606453f5431f6e26f3e1ba0.jpg



When he pulled himself out he took the opportunity to roll around in the ice and snow - cooling down and trying to clean his fur:




We followed as long as the light would let us and then he turned out towards the sea and piles of ice on the edge of the bay:





A spectacular sunset welcomed us back to the lodge:



After dinner an old 'friend' came to the lodge:



It was Captain Cantankerous again. He lay in front of the main windows and apeared to be watching us moving around inside. He then stood up and walked away only to turn up lying at the fence at the back of the yard looking in. The guides went to try and scare him off and he disappeared into the night.


He would be back....

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Fascinating reading!  And wonderful photos!



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What a great report. Superb photos of the bears and I am really enjoying you writing.

I can feel the cold sitting here!

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A Bear Crosses the River


 We woke to a very cold morning with more snow on the ground. As we assembled in the lounge for coffee our old friend Captain Cantankerous turned up. We briefly considered the use of extreme deterrent measures:



He eventually moved off of his own accord but only after showing signs of anxiety with a lot of grimmacing and yawning. The guides found it unusual that he kept returning when he seemed to find it stressful. He had not finished with us yet......



After breakfast we headed east again but the tide was going to be even higher and so crossing was again impossible.


It was definitely getting colder:



Slabs of ice were flowing down the river and adding to the accumulation at the tide line:



It was still several degrees below freezing and going to remain that way for the rest of our stay. Possibly time for a diversion into the practicalities of keeping warm and photography when its very cold.

We dressed in layers. Wool long-johns and insulated ski-pants, thin wool socks, thick skiing socks and arctic boots; wool t-shirt, long sleeved t-shirt, thin wool jumper, thin down jacket and a big down parka; balaclava, wool hat, scarf for any exposed skin and the parka hood. On my hands I found that a pair of thin gloves (allowing me to operate the camera) and a pair of down mittens worked well once the risk of wetting the down had passed.

Nobody had any issues wth cameras or lenses despite being well below the advertized minimum operatng temperature (zero degrees C for Nikon). I kept spare batteries in an inside pocket but they seemed to behave very well despite the cold. The main risk is of warm humid air condensing on and inside the camera and lens when you go inside from very cold and dry air. To avoid this we left cameras outside when we went for lunch, just removing battery and memory card. At the end of the day we would put the camera and lens into a large plastic bag which was sealed and brought inside. Any condensation was on the surface of the bag rather than the contents and when the camera had warmed up it could be removed with no issue.


There was a large male bear on the other side of the river but we couldn't get to him....



He was in no hurry but eventually he stood up  _MH13774.jpg.816382c8634bc5d1cf504cf7a9c2f916.jpg


He moved along the opposite bank and took brief interrest in a passing crow:




He rolled around in some willows and then got up to check us out:



Eventually he crossed the river upstream of us just as we were having to get back to the vehicles to avoid geting wet feet with the rising tide:



He headed past the lodge and we went back for lunch:



He tucked hmself in for a sleep and we went out on foot after lunch to find him. It wasn't that easy with periods of heavy bowing snow:



We made slow progress across the ice towards him, stopping every time he raised his head:



Canada geese were headed away for better feeding now the ice was set in:



Finally he sat up had a look around and disappeared back towards the ice on the bay:



Two long episodes of hoping to get close to him that were not really realised but interesting to spend time in that extreme environment and to be able to spend so long watching him even if at some distance.

Edited by pomkiwi
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On the Ice with the Captain


When morning came it was cold - around minus 12 Celsius. Fortunately there was no wind and we were treated to a spectacular dawn and sunrise.




It was interesting to see how rapidly the ice had formed on the edge of the bay:



The tide was very high and we went to the east to see what could be seen. No bears but a spectacular view over the river with ice crystals surrounding the sun,



Ice was forming on the smaller streams and creeks but was causing problems for the vehicles as it was not thick enough to support their weight but was thick enough to pile up in plates that made it difficult to climb out from the water:


Added to the fact that the water would freeze in the brakes this meant a morning of slow progess and frequent stops.


It was beautiful though and we saw polar bear tracks:

_MH14148.jpg.c0ddf329fea0707702f0248594f3eb62.jpgThe zig-zag pattern is from the guard hairs and indicates that this was a male bear.

I also got to see my first snowy owl!



As we made our way west we found an old friend:



It was the bear we'd called Captain Cantankerous who came to take a closer look at us:


He set out onto the ice and we followed on foot finding ourselves 300m out from the shore - it was slippery but despite some creaks and groans held firm. The bear paced in front of us continuing to yawn and grimace:



He fell through the ice and climbed out shaking himself like a dog:




Then the sun came out although there were still ice crystals coming and going. It provided  lots of photo oportunities and he statred to come towards us:





At one point he loked as though he would come all the way in and I was certainly concious of how much more able he was in this environment than us but then he changed his mind and continued to move in a wide circle around us:



He then headed towards the vehicles and the guides became animated trying to get close enough to warn him off before he could investigate and become habituated to the human smells. In the main part the safety of humans around polar bears is assured by the fact that we are a completely novel experience for them and provoke a cautious response. There was increasing concern that this bear, although appearing uncomfortable around humans was continuing to investigate us over several days and a worry that he might become more confident and aggressive at some point. He was scared off and walked away:



He was however walking back in the direction that he had come the previous night - back towards the lodge......

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