Polar extremes

Stuart Forster enjoys a guided walk on the tundra, in subarctic Manitoba, photographing wildlife such as Arctic hares, willow ptarmigan and – the big one – polar bears

October and November are prime months for viewing polar bears in northern Manitoba. The bears are waiting for the Hudson Bay to freeze over, so that they can head out onto the ice to hunt seals. It’s also when Churchill Wild operates Polar Bear Photo Safaris, which are popular with photographers of all levels as well as wildlife enthusiasts.

The idea of joining a guided walking tour in a treeless landscape where hungry polar bears outnumber humans may seem foolhardy. As we sat by the fireside in Seal River Heritage Lodge, one of Churchill Wild’s expert guides (Derek) explained that the region’s bears had not eaten for months and were capable of running at speeds of up to 25 miles per hour. He emphasized the importance of following his instructions when out on the tundra and that, for safety, our dozen strong group must stay together.

We’d already spotted moose and several polar bears along the shoreline during the 40-mile flight by light aircraft from Churchill — the only way of reaching the remote property. Our initial briefing in the lodge was interrupted by a bear outside, prompting people to grab phones and cameras to record the scene from the window.

Dressed for the occasion

Polar dressed

Walking outdoors in windy, sub-zero temperatures requires specialist clothing. Along with most of the other guests, rather than buying kit I’d rarely use again I rented a heavy parka, windproof trousers and insulated boots from Churchill Wild.

We had fittings at the airport hotel in Winnipeg, which is a two-hour flight south of Churchill. I was very glad to have the warm clothing, as the wind chill factor meant temperatures dipped to -16˚C out on the tundra by Seal River.

We went on two walking tours each day. During one we visited a centuries- old campsite used by the Thule people, the ancestors of modern Innuit. Remarkably, circles of stones that once held shelters and the campfire were still clearly visible.

We spotted an Arctic hare dashing between the stones and wandered to within just a few feet of a flock of willow ptarmigan, which are grouse-like birds.

Seeing the lights

Polar lights

Mealtimes proved a highlight of staying at the lodge. The hearty, homestyle cooking was served for us to share at tables in the dining room. Beers and a fine selection of Canadian wines were available. After dinners we had the option of attending lectures and slideshows presented by the lodge’s guides. I found them a fascinating way of learning about bear behaviour and nature in the Hudson Bay. The lecture on our final night ended abruptly due to Northern Lights activity. We flung on our coats and headed outside to watch green aurora dancing in the sky.

Walk on the wild side

The walks provided opportunities to observe polar bears resting on the shoreline of the bay. At one point we huddled together as an 800lb male bear sauntered in our direction. The thrilling, close encounter provided some outstanding photos and plenty for us to talk about back in the comfort of the lodge.

Book It!

A seven-night Birds, Bears and Belugas tour in 2024 is priced from C$15,695pp (around £9,130) including five nights at Seal River Lodge with full-board, activities and excursions, two nights in Winnipeg, flights to and within Canada. An excursion in a tundra vehicle and three nights at Dymond Lake Lodge, with guided activities and meals. The ‘safari’ takes place during the Arctic summer when the bears are pristinely white after coming off the ice, the belugas are plentiful, and the weather is balmy windowsonthewild.com