In November, the Hudson Bay polar bears are eagerly waiting for the bay to freeze over, because that is where they find their favorite food during winter: seals. But not all bears spend the winter on sea ice. During this time, the mother bears search for a sheltered cave onshore where they can give birth to their offspring in December or January. Temperatures of -40°C prevail during this time, and that would be much too cold for the little bears. That is why the young bear family spends the first few months in the snow cave. Only when the temperatures rise to about -20°C do the mother bears dare to leave their caves, the so-called “dens.” A strenuous march towards Hudson Bay begins, because for the female bears, the last proper seal meal was nearly 10 months ago. It was at this time that we took a journey to the wild Kaska Coast of the Hudson Bay in the hope of possibly observing such a young bear family as they leave their cave.
We were already familiarized with the climatic conditions of Hudson Bay during our stay in November. But November is fall, whereas March is winter. As such we had to get ready for dealing with significantly colder temperatures. That’s why we picked up ample hand and foot warmers and various layers of clothing. Once again we had to keep an eye on the baggage weight limit of 20 kg, because in this isolated region you don’t simply pay for exceeding the limit: you have to leave your baggage behind, because the small planes aren’t made for much additional load.
49°53‘N | 97°12‘W ● CANADA
While it was already quite spring-like in Switzerland, when we landed in Toronto it was snowing and -4°C. But only our next flight to Winnipeg finally gave us winter: -28°C! Even bright sunshine didn’t really help in that case. But we enjoyed the day in the capital of Manitoba despite the cold weather. We visited the Museum for Human Rights which was very much worth seeing in terms of both architecture and content, and supplied ourselves at the former goods depot “The Forks.” It was time to go to the fitting room before we met the remaining trip participants for dinner. Because of the expected temperatures of -40°C, only the best equipment is worth considering – and it was provided to us on loan by the organizer Churchill Wild. So we tried on padded ski pants and warm down parkas in a well heated hotel room. We could have even loaned some shoes, but there was no need for that since were very well-equipped with our -70°C Sorel boots. By the time we had dinner together we had already realized that the next 10 days with Jad, Sylvia, Sue, Coco, Annabelle, Liz and Peter would surely be very entertaining! Because we got along very well right away. Jad Davenport, National Geographic photographer and our “Photo Leader” increased our anticipation even more with a brief outlook regarding the coming days.
57°7‘N | 91°40‘W ● NANUK POLAR BEAR LODGE | CANADA
Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge is operated by Churchill Wild and is usually open between July and November. However, because of the Den Emergence Quest it is also open in March for 10 days. This means more than a week of preparation, because we were expecting a very comfortable lodge with all kinds of amenities. It is certainly not self-evident that you can easily take warm showers and have excellent meals in the middle of the Canadian winter. The path to the lodge at the wild Kaska Coast turned out be quite cumbersome, however. From Winnipeg, we first flew with a Calm Air propeller aircraft to the city of Thompson which has 13,000 inhabitants. Then we continued to Gillam with a small Cessna Caravan, and after a fuel stop we eventually arrived directly at the lodge on the Hudson Bay coast. Upon arrival we could already see how isolated this place was. The area around the lodge is about ten times as large as Yellowstone National Park, and for the next 10 days there would be just 19 people (lodge guests and employees) staying in this area. By the first afternoon we had already gone for a brief drive with the snowmobiles and the attached wood sledges, also called Komatiks. These were previously used by the Inuit in a slightly different form. The advantage that they have is that you are protected somewhat from the wind. However, the disadvantage is that these wood constructions have no suspension whatsoever. Even a minor unevenness in the snow or ice shakes you up a lot. But despite this – or because of it – we had lots of fun. As such we should’ve been tired enough to fall asleep quickly. But before we could even think about doing that, there was a knock on our door: Northern Lights! And at their finest! What a remarkable first day “in the middle of nowhere!”
Ptarmigans, also known as snow grouses, look quite cool with their feet fully covered in feathers. That’s why we were very happy when we discovered many of these animals after only a short trip with the Komatiks. With sunshine we even forgot – well, nearly – that it felt like -32°C. But we quickly realized how cold it actually was when we did a quick break and were supplied with hot chocolate and very frozen cereal bars. And for the first time, we could also have the experience of learning how to dig a snowmobile-Komatik tandem out of the deep snow. Over the next days, this getting stuck and getting unstuck would happen to us frequently and become a veritable race… We arrived back at the lodge in time for lunch and savored the tasty meal and the warm open fire. Despite having arrived here just the previous day, we already felt totally at home! The drive out in the afternoon was a little less appealing, though. This is because we made three rookie mistakes. First, we didn’t change our (apparently slightly wet) socks during lunchtime. Second, we relied on the time specifications on our hand and foot warmers. And third, we assumed that stylish, Central European ski goggles would be suitable for the climatic conditions up here. With cold hands and feet and fogging, then quickly freezing ski goggles, this drive was rather mediocre… But we learned our lesson(s) and immediately bought new ski goggles at the lodge.
Shortly after sunrise, a so-called sun dog formed around the sun. This phenomenon occurs when the backlight is split into spectral colors due to fine snow crystals. Apparently there were enough of these snow crystals in the air on this cold (-20°C) and blustery (50km/h) morning. That’s why we only planned a brief drive on this morning. This time, we enjoyed our hot chocolate around a warming campfire. The cold was quite tolerable this way. During the break, we suddenly noticed a moose on the other end of a large clearing. He obviously saw us too, or smelled us, because he stared at us for what was undoubtedly 10 minutes while remaining motionless. Then he disappeared and we also headed back after this beautiful encounter. Right after lunch, two foxes appeared directly in front of the lodge! We would have loved to keep watching them – but they seemed to have other plans and disappeared soon after. Contrary to the weather forecast, the wind didn’t lessen in the afternoon – in fact, it became much more intense. Despite this, we decided to do another drive. Thanks to fresh socks and fresh hand and foot warmers, we overcame this windy drive without any problems. In fact, it was so very pretty that we only returned to the lodge at nightfall.
We were quite surprised when we spotted five wolves directly in front of the lodge’s windows. They were so close to the lodge that our telephoto lenses were too strong. Which is obviously a first world problem, and ultimately led to gorgeous close up shots. Since the wolves kept appearing again and again around the lodge throughout the day, we did without a drive and just enjoyed the wild nature around the lodge.
Contrary to the weather forecast, it was milder and more sunny today compared to the previous days. We made use of this good weather for an extensive trip from which we returned after 3 pm. Closer to the lodge we were able to see “our” wolves again. The scenery at the coast is characterized by rivers, plains and small forests. The rivers run towards the sea, more or less, and the plains run parallel to the coast. And since everything was frozen in winter, you can easily use these paths as driving routes. A few kilometers from the lodge, we spotted a snowy owl on a treetop. Even up here, these animals are rare and that’s why deemed ourselves very lucky to be able to see two of these animals in flight and to take pictures of them. On the way back, we encountered a fox and an moose, although neither of them were really interested in us…
Where there is a sort of mudflat landscape in summer everything was now frozen. And that’s how we were able to explore the shipwreck of the Mooswah in picturesque snow and ice landsacpe because otherwise it would be in a swamp. After so many impressions we arrived hungry at the lodge. Since the afternoon was practically over already, our guides decided to take a trip on the ice at sunset. So we drove straight to the ice of the Hudson Bay, directly from Manitoba to Nunavut. The play of colors at sunset was indescribably beautiful. You can really only experience such colors in the Arctic! At nightfall we drove back to the lodge. What a day!
With a temperature around -20°C and snowfall beginning, we did another short trip with the snowmobiles and Komatiks once again. But even the animals were put off by the nasty weather today, because we didn’t spot any animals during the morning. Since the weather seemed to be getting even worse, we were enthusiastic about the alternative afternoon program: building an igloo. With our combined forces and the know-how of our guide Emri, we managed to build a truly attractive first igloo within roughly three hours. The fact that it was illuminated by the aurora borealis later in the evening rounded off the day perfectly. Churchill Wild patrons Mike Reimer and Albert „Butch“ Saunders were a little less lucky today. They set out on two snowmobiles in order to locate polar bear tracks. They got stuck and broke through the ice several times, however, which turned this journey of discovery into a strenuous 14-hour day. In the end, however, everyone arrived back at the lodge safely.
MORE SNOWY OWLS
The rivers in this region have sonorous names which were given to them by indigenous people, the Cree. In the morning at what felt like -38° C we drove east to the Mistikokan River and then further towards the Mistasini River. In the afternoon, we drove in the opposite direction – first, along the Opoyastin Creek, and then towards the Menahook River. Once again, we discovered snowy owls, both in the morning and afternoon. But the remaining fauna remained invisible apart from tracks and other “legacies.” After returning, we were greeted in the lodge with an downright barbecue and drinks in ice cups. What a nice surprise!
SUNRISE WITH THE WOLVES
Our wolves returned once again. Even before sunrise we could see them sleeping some distance from the lodge. It is quite impressive how resistant these animals are when it comes to the cold. Because today’s morning was once again a cold -38° C, including wind chill. We spent more than an hour outside and observed how the wolves slowly got active. They even got as close as 50 meters to us! The warm morning light created a wonderful atmosphere and turned the photography session into a very special treat. We were truly frozen, but another treat was awaiting us: the sumptuous breakfast at the lodge. We spent the remaining morning with sorting and editing our photos – amounting to several thousand by now. Jad’s expert tips were very welcome in this matter, of course. In the afternoon, the wind picked up to roughly 60 km/h, but in turn the temperature rose a bit. That’s why the drive out in an actual snow storm, made of stirred up snow, was quite bearable and truly fascinating – because the snow flurry created a very special mood.
All of these wolves, snowy owls, foxes and mooses almost made us forget the original reason we came here. We suddenly became aware of this again when we found tracks of a polar bear mom and a cub on the way to York Factory. Although York Factory – basically the cradle of modern Canada – would have surely been worth a visit, everyone agreed that the bears were priority No. 1. Indeed we knew that the discovered tracks were already a few days old. We also noticed, however, more tracks in the area. So we had to just wait and hope. This wasn’t a problem at all due to sunshine and a mild -6°C. Churchill Wild makes it clear that you shouldn’t follow bears and you shouldn’t startle them. You just have to wait and hope that the bears come by. Although this does reduce the chance of a bear sighting, it is the right thing to do. This is because the mother bears and their cubs have already gone through a very challenging march and still have to face many dangers. It would be unacceptable to stress these animals even more. Unfortunately, we didn’t get more than the tracks. But since we had already been out and about for the entire day, Jad had a good idea: on the way back, we drove to the sea ice once again. By now two wolves had settled down there. They looked like silhouettes against the golden sky. It was just unbelievably gorgeous! We made another stop with the Komatiks directly at the lodge since the remaining wolf pack was very close. Suddenly, one of the wolves began to howl – and one after another, the others joined. Wolves continuously modulate the pitch of their howling so that it actually sounded like a song. We barely dared to breathe and were just so fascinated and touched! The howling or rather singing ended as quickly as it started. But one of the wolves, the female alpha, stood up and walked right towards our Komatik. She stopped about 5 meters in front of us and looked us directly in the eyes. These are the moments you’ll never forget! Then she turned around and ambled off.
Even before sunrise, we were on our way to the same place as the day before, because there was still the chance of seeing bears there. So we once again made ourselves comfortable with a campfire, and waited. But after noon, our guides got bad news for us. They discovered a so-called daybed – a female bear’s resting spot – which was already showing a thin ice layer again. This was a clear sign that the bear family had already reached the Hudson Bay ice the previous day. On the other hand, this was also good news for us since not every bear family manages to get to the sea ice safely. Knowing that they made it is more valuable than just a pretty photo. On the way back, we spotted a few more moose. With their long legs and peculiar heads, they always somehow look wrongly assembled…
Today would have been the last chance to see polar bears. It soon became clear, however, that this was most likely not going to happen. In any case, the animals weren’t as active today for some reason. Except for a few small birds at long distance, we didn’t see any animals at all. Because of that we again learned something new. Because there was a dead lemming on the wayside. This small, arctic mouse is kind of like the krill of the local food chain. That’s because basically all larger animals feed on lemmings. But our discovery had apparently been lost by a predator – perhaps a snowy owl – and was now just laying there frozen next to our track. Furthermore, we examined the droppings of a variety of local animals. Moose dung looks like little eggs made of sawdust, because moose eat only sprouts and branches during the winter. The wolf’s dung looks just like a dog’s, but that’s no problem since it’s frozen. The snowy owl regurgitates the non-digestible lemming parts which results in a rather unappetizing ball of fur, bone pieces and teeth. Yes, you can truly learn a lot here 🙂 After noon, we were eventually allowed to take control of a snowmobile. It’s a lot of fun but not as easy as it looks! As soon as we returned to the lodge, we were able to clearly see that it was already being prepared for hibernation again. Various windows had already been secured again, and lots of things had been rewrapped. This is because after the crew as well leaves this place in one or two days, the next guests will only arrive in July. One last cozy evening complemented this fantastic stay.
On the last morning, the wolves appeared once again directly at the lodge. It really felt like they wanted to say goodbye to us. We were happy about that, but it also made us feel quite wistful. But the decision had already been made to repeat this trip at some point in the future, which made it easier for us say farewell to the wild Kaska Coast.
49°53‘N | 97°12‘W ● CANADA
First, we flew to Gillam, and then we swtiched to an airliner from Calm Air. Thus we arrived back in civilization on time and without any issues. That evening, there was yet one more scheduled dinner with our fellow travellers. One could tell that everyone was sad about this “trip of a lifetime” coming to an end. We had planned a spare day in Winnipeg since you can never truly be sure if flights in the Arctic will actually take place. This way we had some buffer which we were able to use instead for some sightseeing and a visit to “The Forks.” And that’s how our trip came to an end, a trip the likes of which we had never experienced before. It was without a doubt the most moving and probably the most beautiful trip we had ever made.