It was our third trip to Churchill, Manitoba – The Polar Bear Capital of the World. It was late October when we flew into Winnipeg the night before setting off on a polar bear safari to our remote lodge on Hudson Bay. The last time we visited Seal River Lodge with Churchill Wild, it was freezing, this time around, it was a balmy zero degrees Celcius (32F) in Winnipeg. The weather outlook for Churchill was around minus 10 degrees. Perfect weather for polar bear tours. This was going to be a good week.
Polar Bear Tours Churchill Wild
We thought we were the cool people taking our third trip to see the polar bears with Churchill Wild. That is until we met another couple from Switzerland who had been nine times a man from China who was visiting for the sixth time. Polar Bear tours are addictive. Once you’ve seen a polar bear in the wild, the experience stays with you and you want to go back again and again.
We had visited Churchill once in the summer and another time in the winter. Churchill Wild has added many polar bear tours to their arsenal with polar bear safaris such as their Den Emergence Tour to see female polar bears and their newborn cubs, the Cloud Wolves of Katai, and the summertime trips to see Birds, Bears, and Belugas. See all of Churchill Wild’s Polar Bear Tours
Polar Bears in Summer
Summertime tours are quite different from the winter but just as spectacular. Seeing polar bears with the green tundra landscape contrasting their white coats is a sight to behold. You can read all about that experience in these articles: Walking with Polar Bears – The Greatest Arctic Safari / Read more: Kayaking with Beluga Whales in Churchill
Arctic Gear Provided
After landing in Winnipeg on our flight from Toronto, we picked up our luggage and walked across the street to The Grand Winnipeg Airport Hotel where Churchill Wild safari guests spend the night before flying out the next morning.
Everyone who books a polar bear tour with Churchill Wild is given a parka, snow pants, and winter boots to help brave the Northern Canadian cold. Weather can be unpredictable and it can easily go down to minus 40 Celcius with the windchill. When visiting Churchill for polar bear safaris, it’s important to layer and be prepared for anything.
Make sure to pack, mittens, balaclava, hats, warm socks, and thermal layers of merino wool. We also packed hand warmers and toe warmers which are a lifesaver. We have an entire post about layering for cold weather and you can watch our video from the last time we were in Churchill with -45 degree weather. Read our full article: 5 Winter Layering Tips to Dress for Extreme Cold Weather
Orientation in Winnipeg
We went up to the top floor of the Grand Winnipeg Airport Hotel for our fitting, grabbed our gear, and spent the rest of the afternoon repacking and organizing our bags for the Greatest Arctic Safari you will ever have.
After a quick orientation about what to expect on a polar bear trip to Seal River Lodge, our group of 9 people enjoyed a meal together while getting to know one another. It was a short meal though, as flights to Churchill with Calm Air leave early in the morning. Our wake-up call was for 4 am.
Flights to Churchill, Manitoba
Morning came early, but we were so excited we didn’t feel tired. We all walked as a group to the airport wrapped in our matching parkas causing more than a few people to take notice. Our Churchill Wild escorts did all the work for us making check-in a breeze. They were even allowed to come through security with us to make sure we all got on the plane. Now that is service!
Calm Air is the airline that is the gateway to the North. The flight to Churchill from Winnipeg is 2 1/2 hours and it is the coolest experience. Everyone walks out onto the runway where our flight attendants greet us while wearing Canada Goose parkas. No photographs are allowed on the runway, but that’s okay, this is the perfect time to just enjoy the experience. We are heading to the Great White North.
Arrival in Churchill
The travel day isn’t over once you land in Churchill, there is still one more flight to go. We gathered our luggage from the belt and put on our snow pants and warm weather gear to get into a small twin-engine plane that took each Churchill Wild group to their respective lodges.
We took a short tour while we waited for our flight to the polar bear holding facility nearby. This is where polar bears who have wandered too close to town and won’t leave are put in holding while waiting to be relocated far away from the city. You can read all about it here: Best Things to Do in Churchill Manitoba
Churchill Wild Eco Lodges – Sustainability & Responsibility
Churchill Wild has three lodges on Hudson Bay – Dymond Lake Eco Lodge, Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge, and our accommodation for the next 5 days, Seal River Heritage Heritage Lodge.
The flight is about 20 minutes to cover the 60 km journey north from Churchill. It was a beautiful scenic flight where we saw the icy shores of Hudson Bay and some moose running on the land below.
Seal River Heritage Lodge
Seal River Lodge has its own airstrip, and as the lodge came into view through our window, I could feel the anticipation pick up. Will we come face to face with a polar bear soon?
Our hosts and guides were waiting by the airstrip with the last group of polar bear watchers, and as we disembarked, they bid farewell. It was then on to the ATVs to make our way to the cozy lodge for an introduction, some hot coffee, and low and behold our first polar bear sighting!
This heritage lodge is a luxury eco-lodge located on the shores of Hudson Bay. At high tide, the waters come right up to the property. The quiet cove was once a goose hunting lodge and a beluga whale research station which made it a prime stop for the polar bear migration to the Hudson Bay. It was transformed into a polar bear lodge 30 years ago by Mike and Jeanne Reimer. Since then, Churchill Wild has become the leading polar bear tour operator in Churchill and the only one of its kind that walks with polar bears.
The lodges follow a minimalist approach to its luxury safaris. Electricity is solar-powered and each lodge was built using local and recycled lumber with a design to allow as much sunlight as possible to minimize the use of energy. Trust me, it can get downright hot in there when the sun is shining, even when it is below zero. Water from the lodges comes from nearby lakes that are triple triple-filtered.
Most importantly, most of Churchill Wild’s polar bear tours are conducted on foot to minimize their use of motorized vehicles. The lodges are located in prime wildlife hangouts, so we don’t have to go far to see wildlife. By walking up to see polar bears, we barely impact their everyday lives.
Once the polar bears take notice of us, they decide if they will allow our group to stay or not. If they are okay, we get to stand and watch them for a little bit before moving on. Our guides never overstayed their welcome, no matter how good the photo opportunities were.
The Reverse Zoo – Polar Bears Watching Humans
The lodge has beautiful bay windows facing in all directions. There are scopes and binoculars set up to view polar bears in the distance, but they are often simply hanging around the lodge. This lodge is located right on a quiet cove on the Hudson Bay where polar bears frequently enter the ice flows once it freezes.
Its prime location makes it the perfect spot to watch polar bears. If you didn’t want to leave the compound, you didn’t have to. One woman skipped the morning walks to simply enjoy the views by herself from the warm fire inside. She saw polar bears galore from the windows.
Walking with Polar Bears
Unlike other polar bear tours in Churchill, a trip to Seal River Lodge gets you out from behind the glass of a tundra buggy and out walking on the Tundra with polar bears. We went outside the gates twice daily for two to three hours on each walk. On average, we were about 100 meters from polar bears but they often walked closer with curiosity and sometimes we were about 20 meters from the bears.
Safety Training for Guests Walking with Polar Bears
The walking polar bear tours are conducted in small groups to ensure that the guides can monitor the safety of all guests and minimize the impact on the bears and their natural habitat. We had a group of nine guests with three guides (Boomer, Jess, and Dave) ensuring our safety. Before embarking on any walks, guests receive thorough briefings on safety procedures and we were all educated about how to behave when in the vicinity of polar bears.
Before leaving the compound, our guides Boomer and Jess showed us how to walk in a single file, how to move in a pinwheel, and how to stand once we stopped and they deemed it safe. Each person had to line up in a “V” shoulder behind shoulder so we could spy on the bears while spanning the shortest distance possible. If bears see a long line, they could look at that as a threat. When we walk single file they are not concerned.
We then stopped once we were within a safe distance from the bear and can spread out into a tight diagonal line. It is only after the bear has seen us, feels comfortable with us, and lets us stick around that we are allowed to fan out in a line to take our photos and videos. It is a well-organized and proven system that has allowed Churchill Wild to run these tours for decades without incident.
But you must obey your guides. When they say cameras down, there is no hesitation, cameras must go down. When they say, to start turning the pinwheel, you need to follow directions. The movements are not only for our safety but for the comfort of the polar bear. If they don’t feel threatened, they will allow visitors into their domain. In fact, I think they like the company.
We spent 5 days walking with polar bears twice a day. And each encounter was more magical than the last.
Boomer made sure that everyone had good views and always made sure that everyone could see. They were very conscious about making sure that everyone could photograph and see the bears when we stopped, while making sure the group and the bears were safe.
The Polar Bear Safari
Before each walk, we had a meeting to discuss the rules of walking with polar bears and what to expect once we emerged from behind the high fences. After our meetings, we all went to our cozy rooms to get ready.
After gearing up in our thermal layers, parkas, and hand, and foot warmers, we went into the breezeway to put on our parkas and boots and then met outside in the fenced-in yard to either look at polar bears from the observation platforms or to open the gates and head outside.
The walks provide unparalleled opportunities to observe polar bears in the wild. Unlike more common tundra vehicle tours around Churchill, walking gives you a more intimate and ground-level perspective. You might see bears roaming the coastline, foraging, or even play-fighting. We saw them all!
There is also a chance to observe other Arctic wildlife, such as Arctic foxes, red foxes, arctic hares, and ptarmigan.
Is walking with Polar Bears Safe?
Whenever we mention that we’ve walked with polar bears, people always tell us, “That’s not safe!” We used to think that as well. I used to think that people could never get close to polar bears. That is until I did it. Check out: Adorable Tundra Animals – The Canadian Arctic Comes to Life
I would never go out in the wild in search of polar bears alone. It’s important to hire expert guides that understand polar bears and know their behavior. Churchill Wild has established a set of safety protocols and procedures to ensure the well-being of both the guests and the polar bears. We have always felt safe and comfortable on our polar bear safaris and believe me, we have been just mere feet away from polar bears in the wild without a barrier.
Experienced Guides at Churchill Wild
Churchill Wild employs highly experienced and trained guides who understand polar bear behavior and are equipped to handle close encounters with wildlife. Our guides are also trained in emergency response and carry safety equipment at all times.
We had the utmost confidence in our guides. They carry rifles but have never used them. As Boomer said, “It would be irresponsible for us to go out into the wilderness without a rifle.” But a rifle is the last resort. The deterrents that guides use first are voice and sound like banging rocks together and then body language like stepping toward the bear. It is amazing to see how a little sound or movement can make a bear stop in its tracks.
Guides also carry noise makers, but they rarely (if ever) use them as well.
Churchill Wild guides are skilled at interpreting polar bear behavior and maintaining a respectful distance from the animals. Should a bear approach, the guides know how to cautiously manage the situation and use their training to keep everyone safe.
A Day in the Life at Seal River Lodge with Churchill Wild Polar Bear Safaris
The day at Seal River Heritage Lodge begins at 7:00 am with a fresh pot of coffee and a warm fire. We normally relaxed, went through photos, or chatted with our fellow polar bear enthusiasts until breakfast at 8 a.m.
At 8 a.m., it was time to go through the breezeway to the breakfast room where we were fed a hearty meal each morning. The chef can accommodate all dietary needs from vegetarian to gluten-free.
After breakfast, our guides Boomer or Jess tell us the plan for the day. While we’ve been eating and enjoying coffee, the staff have been outside on the crow’s nest or looking through the scopes to see where the polar bears are. From their they make a plan on what direction we will walk that morning.
It’s then back to our rooms to get suited up, pick up our camera gear, and put on our coats and boots in the cool breezeway. Once outside, we all leave the gates together in a single file in search of polar bears.
Polar Bears Sightings
During other polar bear tours, we spent a lot of time walking and searching for polar bears, but on this last visit to Seal River Lodge, we barely had to leave the compound. We lost count of how many polar bear encounters we had. But I do know that we saw at least half a dozen different polar bears during our safari.
Many mornings saw polar bears sitting outside waiting for us. It’s like they were excited to see us. Boomer said that these polar bears are bored. They’ve been patiently waiting for the ice to freeze on Hudson Bay and we are their entertainment. Instead of going out the gates, we walked to the viewing platforms to see the bears go about their day. And most of the time, they decided to watch us as well.
Seal River Lodge is situated on Hudson Bay directly on the path that polar bears take to go out onto the ice flow. In the months of October and November, bears are patiently waiting for the ice to freeze, while conserving their energy. There isn’t a lot to eat besides seaweed and grass at this point, so they are trying to keep as much fat on their bodies so that they can get out on the ice to start hunting seals.
With the lodge being right on the shore, we saw bears walking around the fence and peering inside, sleeping in front of our bay windows, and sitting down to watch the weird beings in a zoo along their path to the water. They truly were the most curious creatures.
Usually, we spent about 30 minutes looking at the bears from the various platforms before the bears lost interest and moved on. Once they were safely away, we could open the gates and start our walk.
Polar Bear Encounters Canada’s Best Adventure
We never spent too long with one bear. We always spent just long enough that they were okay with us watching, but we never wore out our welcome. The number one concern for the Churchill Wild guides is to make sure that the bears are comfortable and stress-free. Once they started walking toward us for a closer look or if they showed any signs of interest in what we were doing, our group moved on and left the bear to go about its business rummaging for seaweed or grass to graze upon.
During our five days (4 nights) at Seal River Heritage Lodge, we lost count of how many polar bear encounters we had between the 5 or 6 different polar bears we saw. There was a big male polar bear that hung out every day at the lodge. He would walk up to the fence to say hello and then lay down to look in at us for hours on end. He slept outside the bay windows all night to shelter from the wind and chased off smaller polar bears regularly.
We saw the cutest mom and cub when we took the ATVs out to cross the lake. This was truly our most magical afternoon. The day before our guides spotted the mom and cub in the distance, but we didn’t make it out there to see them. The next morning, they decided to load us onto carts and take us close so we could walk out onto the lake for a better view.
The cub was thrilled to see us and it seemed as though it wanted to play. It kept picking up a rock and dropping it like it wanted us to play fetch. The mom seemed happy to be able to rest while the cub was preoccupied with us. Mom kept one eye on her precious cub while laying down for a rest as the cub chewed on branches, played with rocks, and kept looking at us.
Boomer suggested that the cub probably had a sibling that didn’t make it since most polar bears give birth to two cubs. It’s instinct is to play, so it looked at us as a play companion. However, these are wild animals, so as cute as it was, Boomer and Jess kept us a safe distance back and whenever the cub came too close, they would say “Hey Bear.”
Polar bears live in silence with very little noise except for wind. So the best deterrent for polar bears is sound. When they hear a voice, it startles them and they back away. As Boomer and Jess explained to us, our voices and movements are our best deterrents.
It is truly a magical experience to be allowed to peer into the lives of polar bears. We watched polar bears posture for position on the bay with the old larger male winning out. Small polar bears would walk through the area and we would see their demeanor instantly change the moment they sensed the larger male.
We watched some polar bears try to take a stand and approach the larger male while others cowered away. We saw some have a standoff slowly chasing one and then switching positions while the other chased them back. We saw mom and cub crossing the ice and we saw a young bear trying to figure out how it was possibly going to survive the winter.
It was a glimpse into the animal world that few ever get to see and it was a privilege. We came away with a deeper understanding and respect for polar bears. Like many animals, they are curious, innocent, and beautiful. But you must have a healthy respect for wildlife. They may be cute and cuddly on the outside, but if provoked, frightened, hungry, or agitated, they can turn wild in a heartbeat.
The Lodge Experience
It wasn’t all business and polar bears during our time up at Seal River Lodge. Evenings were a lot of fun as we exchanged stories with guides and guests and discussed the amazing days we had. We enjoyed 5-star meals with wine pairings and then retired to the lodge to watch presentations about polar bears, and life in the Arctic or to get tips from resident photographer and guide Boomer.
Churchill Wild truly thinks of everything. Our rooms are chic and comfortable with en suite bathrooms, hot water, and heat with a comfy duvet. We slept like babies. That is until we were awoken by one of the guides to see the northern lights.
Each night guides keep a lookout for northern lights and if you want them to wake you up, they will knock on your door. Boomer even helped people set their camera settings ahead of time so they could run out and snap great photos. We have encountered northern lights each visit to Churchill. With the possibility of seeing them 300 days of the year, everyone has a great chance. Read more: Best Places To See the Northern Lights in Canada In 2024
FAQs about Polar Bear Tours
Are there Polar Bears in Canada?
Yes, Canada has many polar bears. In fact, Canada is home to two-thirds of the estimated polar bear population which is around 23,000 polar bears.
Is it dangerous to walk with Polar Bears?
It is important to remember that polar bears are wild and unpredictable animals, and there is always an element of risk when in close proximity to them. However, the risks are managed carefully by the safari operators to create a safe environment for an unforgettable experience.
As participants on these safaris, we followed all guidelines provided by guides and remained aware of our surroundings. We were part of the safari. The priority of operators like Churchill Wild is to ensure the safety of their guests while preserving the natural behavior and habitat of the polar bears. And as people who have walked with polar bears three times, we can attest, they do care deeply about the well-being of polar bears.
Polar Bear Tours in A Nutshell
Wrapping up your days at Seal River Lodge feels like leaving behind a piece of your wild heart. This isn’t your average trip; it’s a polar bear walking safari that invites you into the world of these noble giants at a pace that lets you soak it all in. Churchill Wild has this whole adventure down to a fine art, balancing thrill with care for our furry friends’ home turf. Ready for an escape that’s a tad out of the ordinary? This is your cue to join in and tread softly into the polar bears’ backyard.
Book your next polar bear safari with Churchill Wild. Choose from one of their many wildlife tours here. Polar Bear tours start at $13,295 CAD per person. Approximately $9,600 USD or €9,000.