- Scheduled Safaris
- Private Safaris
- Where We Go
- Expedition Cruises
By Michelle Valberg
Erik was from Austria. Robert and Kendra were from Hong Kong. Micki and Chuck were from LA, Joanne was Australian and Pat was a friend from Ottawa. Most of us had never met before, but we greeted each other like adventurers with a common goal: combing the western edge of Hudson Bay for mother polar bears and their months-old cubs. Stowing our gear and chatting excitedly, we boarded the VIA train in Churchill, Manitoba, bound for Chesnaye, 60 kilometres south. It was a slow ride south through the boreal forest, but with every kilometer clicking past, our anticipation grew. The spring 2013 Polar Bear Mother and Newborn Cub Photo Safari with Arctic Kingdom was about to begin.
Two hours later, we rolled to a stop in Chesnaye. Very late on a very cold March night when the temperature hovered at -30C, we stepped off the train onto the frozen tundra, with no station or platform in sight.
There, the Lodge staff met and whisked us into their specially-designed Arctic vehicles – vans with special tracks instead of wheels. A quick 30-minute drive brought us to our home for the next seven nights. Ten adventurers were already at the lodge and they were buzzing with elation. That day, they’d experienced an amazing opportunity to capture, on camera, a polar bear and her cubs. Needless to say, our excitement and their stories kept us up until after midnight.
Day 1 at the Newborn Cub Lodge
At 9am the next morning, after a chef-made breakfast, we boarded the specially-equipped van. Parkas on, photo equipment at the ready, we crossed our fingers and toes in the hopes that we would see a mother and her cubs close to their den.
Just twenty minutes later. “There they are!” shouted our guide, pointing to a Momma bear feeding her cubs. From a respectful distance, we observed the tender interplay of nature and nurture. Once she was done, our guides positioned the vehicles and we clambered to get all our gear on and our photo equipment ready.
Stepping outside, the cold took our breath away. And yet…this is what we had come so far to see. We stood together, slightly unsure of what would happen. Even so, in that moment I thought, how lucky am I to experience this!
And then, the unexpected happened. Momma bear awoke from her rest, stretched, rolled onto her belly, sat up and sniffed the air in our direction. Slowly, she walked towards us. Our guides were immediately on alert and started their snowmobiles. She wasn’t aggressive in her approach—but she was curious.
Once the bears got too close, the guides moved in and gently suggested they head in another direction. The only sound over our overawed, pounding hearts was the quick click-click-click of our camera shutters as we captured each movement.
Perhaps convinced we meant no harm, Momma bear and her cubs went back towards their den to rest. As they slept, we chatted, moved in and out of the vans and tried to keep warm—the temperature by then was around -40C (-55 with the wind chill). And we marveled. On our first day, we had spent 10 hours watching this family. They had approached us four times, we had magic light and an all-around eventful day. We weren’t sure how any other day would compare.
Day 2 at the Newborn Polar Bear Cub Lodge
The next day, we searched fruitlessly for the family…but eventually, our guides located them later in the day. The babies played, slept and never strayed far from their mother’s side. They were adorable, and yet we had to remind ourselves that one day, they too would become the most fearsome predators in the Arctic.
Day 3 at the Newborn Cubs Lodge
The wind howled across the tundra, forcing the little family to hunker down. Even so, the light and setting were absolutely stunning. Momma bear put her face into the snow to sleep while the cubs played with each other. In between sniffing around and nosing each other, they crawled all over their mother, giving us unbelievable photographic opportunities. Once again, they approached us with interest.
Day 4 at the Newborn Cub Lodge
After such excellent luck, it came as no surprise that it ran out by the fourth day of shooting. Our guides had spotted three families, but they were deep in the park and the trek would have been too treacherous to make in our vans. We had beautiful light and spent a few hours sitting outside in the sunshine waiting for word from our guides.
But the day wasn’t a total loss: An extraordinary sunset morphed into a mesmerizing, noble display of northern lights early in the night. We definitely had nothing to complain about.
Day 5 at the Newborn Polar Bear Lodge
There are days in the North when it feels like you’re on a movie set. The light is gorgeous, the landscape was Hollywood perfect and the players all know their parts well.
The day dawned cold and windy, but a new mother and her very tiny, very new cubs fresh from the den emerged to explore the world around them. Everywhere Momma bear went, they followed. If she stopped to sniff the air, they stopped, too.
Polar bears use the small hilly areas to make their dens and there, we watched them sleep most of the day. Anytime we spotted movement, we would run to our cameras. It wasn’t the best day for shooting—the wind was strong and blew snow straight at us. But I don’t think any of us minded.
Day 6 at the Newborn Cub Lodge
Could anything top the week we had experienced? In the Arctic, nothing is a sure thing. There are too many variables, too much can change in a heartbeat. And yet, in many ways, our penultimate day at Wapusk was the best. Under the biggest tree for kilometers, our guides found the family. It was another beautiful background. After hours of sleeping, Momma Bear got up and walked in our direction with her cubs. Our guides warned her with their snowmobiles. She walked back to the tree and we watched her try to feed her cub. She took her big front paw and gently nudged him towards her. It was a tender moment that spoke volumes about how, regardless of species, our desire to both protect and feel safe. We want to feel loved. We want to be nourished.
At the end of the day, we had the unparalleled luck to have all three polar bears – mother with her two cubs – walked right past us. Trigger-happy and filled with excitement, we watched her walk away with her cubs close behind her. It was a fitting farewell and I was overcome. Tears ran down my face and I sobbed. I felt so blessed. I was doing exactly what I had dreamed of doing for so long. The Polar Bear Mother and Cubs Photo Safari trip had fulfilled my dreams.
The return back to Churchill was uneventful. Upon arriving on a bright, sunny day a bit warmer than what we’d experienced in Wapusk we had a dog sled ride and enjoyed the afternoon. But our hearts and minds were far away with the mother and newborn cubs that were back in Wapusk National Park.
ABOUT MICHELLE VALBERG
This was Michelle Valberg’s first trip (of many) as an expedition leader with Arctic Kingdom.
Michelle Valberg is a globally recognized and celebrated photographer, whose quest to capture the beautiful and unique on camera has taken her to all corners of the world.
Valberg’s stunning, and at times haunting photographs are highly sought after by art collectors globally, and have been showcased in various exhibits and features across North America. In 2011, Valberg’s work was the subject of a critically acclaimed 3-month solo exhibition at the esteemed Canadian Museum of Nature.
By: Liz Fleming
The last blog from Liz Fleming’s trip to the Arctic. Read below for the final fascinating installment.
There was less laughter than usual at breakfast on the last morning. We all seemed to be struggling to swallow the idea that the best adventure ever was coming to an end. Looking around the dining tent, I realized that in the space of just seven days, total strangers had become close friends –
friends who lived in places like Berlin, Seattle, Melbourne, Singapore and Pond Inlet. The gaps between us were going to seem vast.
Packing up, loading our bags into the komatiks, saying goodbye to the few camp staff members who weren’t coming with us to Pond Inlet, taking group photo after group photo – it was a long morning. As we pulled away, heading back to town, our yellow tents quickly shrank until they were nothing but tiny spots of colour on the flat, blue-grey ice. I think we all felt our hearts contract then too.
Mike and Tom had warned us that the trip back to Pond would be a long one. During our week away, the ice had shifted and larger than usual cracks had appeared. The acrobatic snowmobile leaps we’d seen on the trip out were going to seem like child’s play.
Who knew you could make bridges from chunks of floating ice? I certainly didn’t, but fortunately it was a skill Tom and the guides had honed to a fine art. When we came to cracks that seemed too large to slide a komatik across, they calmly moved big bits of ice into the gaps, creating the smooth surface we needed. Weirdly, this engineering wizardry caused no panic – I didn’t worry for a second about whether the whole process would work. After a week of watching the calm, capable guides handle every challenge our extreme environment presented, and knowing that the rock-solid Tom was in charge, I felt totally safe. No worries – we were in the best possible hands.
Though it was a long trip back, it was punctuated by seeing a rare white gyrfalcon in its nest on a barren cliff. These birds of prey are prized so highly by Saudi Arabian princes that they send bird-nappers to capture and smuggle the falcons out of the Arctic. Though he glimpse we had was brief, it was enough to send Jens, our ornithologist, into fits of joy as he added it to his birding life-list.
After hours of bumping around in the komatiks, we arrived back in Pond Inlet, tired and ready for our denouement dinner – a bitter sweet moment. As we ate, Mike and Tom talked about our time together on the ice – and Mike reminded us of his promise that we would find our magic
We realized that we had each found an individual magic as we shared our most important reflections on our week together. While all were special, my favourite revelation came from Sandra, my Singaporean buddy. Tiny, intrepid and seemingly always ready for anything, Sandra confessed that she’d struggled her whole life with a fear of water, but wanting to snorkel with whales and narwhals, had decided to conquer her phobia. For the past year, Sandra had been taking swimming lessons at a pool, working her way from wading to actually swimming a few strokes. When I remembered helping her wrestle into her dry suit and seeing her hop off the edge of the ice into the water, I was amazed by her courage. No shortage of guts, that girl!
By far the funniest ‘best moment’ belonged to Sandra’s husband, Soo Young, a serious-minded, cautious orthopedic specialist who told us his favourite experience had been…riding in the komatiks. Given that we were all nursing various degrees of stiffness from banging around in those same komatiks on the seven-hour trip home, Soo Young’s comment exploded like a laughter bombshell. Perfect timing – we needed something to keep us from crying as we finished our night and our incredible adventure.
As a travel journalist, I’ve been lucky enough to travel to some of the most exciting destinations in the world with fellow travel journalists who are usually adventurous and articulate. But no trip has ever been quite like this one. No destination has challenged and changed me as this did and no other group has ever bonded like ours. Mike was right – we did find magic on the ice and more – we found a passion for the Arctic that will stay with us forever. If that sounds like a dramatic statement, it is…because only words of that strength can describe a life-changing experience.
Author: Liz Fleming
Because it was our last full day at camp, Tom and Mike suggested we sleep in a bit in preparation for a late, great night. Lolling in bed felt delicious.
When we finally crawled out into the daylight, the sun was dazzling – so warm, in fact, that we began to lose our minds…just a little.
I went in to the bathroom to brush my teeth and stepped out to find that the usually conservative Cornelius had stripped down to his black Calvin Klein boxers and was setting up his camera for an iceberg photo shoot in front of the iceberg. Sandra and I were enchanted! Not wishing to be outdone, we ran for our bathing suits and the craziness took hold. Never had our Inuit guides looked more surprised.
After an hour of rampant silliness and giggling, we gathered our clothes and our wits and headed for a new floe edge – one that was much closer…just half an hour away. We arrive to find the air filled with hundreds of birds and as we dragged the kayaks to the edge and set out on the calm water, we were snapping photos of the mers, kittiwigs, king eiders reflected on the surface.
Justin and Jens pulled on dry suits and kayaked to a floating berg, where they were quickly surrounded by belugas. Pulling on their masks and snorkels, they slipped into the water (no mean feat when you’re balancing a kayak at the same time) and began what was for them, their best ever day of whale watching.
Meanwhile, on shore, the sense of last-day lunacy returned. Spreading out a couple of caribou skins, Sandra, Tom, Cornelius and I posed for our own Arctic version of a Sports Illustrated swimsuit shoot. This time, the guides had their cell phone cameras ready and snapped shot after shot – most of which were no doubt sent to their friends under the heading: “Dumb things southerners do when the sun shines.”
The biggest excitement of the day was provided not by the whales and not by our swimsuit silliness but by Edward, our fifteen-year-old campmate. All week long, he’d been needling his parents about wanting to do a polar plunge – and they’d said no. This was his last opportunity and he somehow managed to convince them. Stripping down to his bathing suit, the lean, lanky, shivery Edward headed for the edge. Tom quickly tied a rope around his wrist to enable a quick yank back onto the solid ice should the cold water prove too much – and Edward’s moment had come. We gathered at the edge, cameras at the ready, and waited. And waited. Edward looked at the water. And waited…and looked as if he might change
his mind…and waited some more.
The tension was deadly until Tom took matters in hand. “We’re doing this together, buddy,” he said, stripping down to his own bathing suit.
Then Tom jumped, giving Edward the encouragement – and the yank on the rope – necessary for him to make his much-anticipated polar plunge. It was a life-changing moment and we are all impressed by both Edward’s courage and Tom’s ‘just do it’ attitude.
There was a sense of trying to hold onto that last day…to stretch it out as long as we possibly could…to savour every last moment of that Arctic passion we’d all developed. As the long, long day came to an end, Cornelius and I followed Simon and Mike on a slow paddle in our kayaks. A thin film of ice was crusting the utterly still surface of the water – each stroke of our paddles carved into it. In the distance, narwhals were breeching and all around us, breaking the stillness of the air, was the gargantuan sound of a bowhead whale breathing. It sounded just as the dinosaurs once did.
When we loaded the komatiks and headed back to camp, it felt as if we’d filled our own lungs to bursting with the clear, fresh air of the far north – and it’s a scent that will linger with us forever.
Day Five – By Liz Fleming
After our incredible day and night (hard to distinguish between the two) yesterday, crawling out of our cozy beds was harder this morning, but luckily, breakfast waited for us. A big feast of eggs and toast and lots of chatter about all that we saw and did the day before and we were soon revved for another trip to the floe edge – on this, the longest day of the year.
Our arrival was punctuated by a group of belugas cavorting just off the edge of the ice, so we hurried to get into our dry suits and kayaks to join them, wriggling into dry suits or climbing into the kayaks. The whales lingered with us for a while, gliding smoothly around the drifting ice chunks, then slowly swam off, leaving us eager for more.
With the belugas gone, we turned our cameras on the huge flocks of birds that swooped overhead. Though they were all beautiful, my favourites
by far were the king eiders with their black and white bodies and brilliant, toucan-like beaks. It was incredibly peaceful to simply sit in the sun and watch them soar and dive.
Peaceful sitting in the sun got old pretty quickly for the four kids in the group, however, so Mike and Tom started an impromptu ice soccer game, using a cushion for a ball. Despite my basic lack of both ability and competitive spirit, I found myself playing goal – and getting decked by a
rampaging Mike! I laughed so hard I could barely get up.
Brett, our crazy Aussie pal, had brought a kite and his flip-flops (what else would you pack for an Arctic adventure?) and put them both to use that afternoon. The reds and yellows of the kite were like bright streaks of paint against the white landscape and the blue sky.
Though a duck hybrid dropped by to fascinate Jens the biologist, other wildlife proved elusive for the rest of the afternoon. Still tired from the night before, we were content to head back for dinner at what seemed like the early hour of 8pm. When the sun never stops shining, you lose all track of time.
Back at the camp, Chef Andrew had a great dinner waiting – and Tom and Mike had more treats in store. One of the guides had agreed to tell us the story of his family and their life in the north…speaking in Inuktituk. Billy, another guide, sat beside him to translate what was a harrowing story of devastating hardships. The guide’s grandparents had traveled for two years from a tiny, remote community to make their home in Pond Inlet. The grandfather was sick throughout the trip and unable to hunt, so the grandmother carried the burden of the family alone.
Often going without food, the family lost six of their seven children during the course of the journey – those who remained survived only because the desperate woman managed to kill a walrus.
As we listened, we could hardly believe that anyone could live through such terrible challenges – or that the grandson
whose mother was the only child to survive that epic journey could tell the story in such a matter-of-fact way. We were coming to realize that life in the high Arctic is unlike anything experienced anywhere else.
Day Four – By Liz Fleming
We woke to an unexpectedly damp camp. The sun had come out and was shining brilliantly (yay!) but the sunbeams, in combination with a warm wind, were turning the surface of the ice to melt-water and causing our camp manager Simon grief. Not to worry. This was a man who’s spent a good chunk of his life navigating Antarctica, largely without support – a little water was no match for him.
In no time, Simon had produced an enormous auger and was drilling holes down to the sea below the ice, creating a superb drainage system. He also, quite unexpectedly, created a whole new form of adventure for the guys in the group who all wanted to take a turn with the auger and seemed fascinated by watching the water get sucked down the hole.
With the water situation well in hand, we again loaded the komatiks and headed for the floe edge. We’d only just gotten underway when our convoy came to a halt and the guides all jumped from their snowmobiles. They’d seen polar bear tracks in the snow.
Furiously snapping away with our cameras, we marveled at the huge footprints. The guides scanned the horizon with the binoculars and finally spotted the maker of the prints far in the distance – he was hard to see as he blended so well with the landscape. After a few moments, he seemed satisfied and ambled off.
We hopped back in the komatiks and continued our journey to the floe edge.
Today was our day! The sun was blazing overhead and the water seemed filled with life. Tom, Mike and the guides hauled out the toys for the day – kayaks, paddles, survival suits, drysuits, snorkels, masks – everything we needed to get up close and personal with the whales, narwhals and seals we could see just beyond the edge of the ice.
If you’ve never wriggled into a dry suit, let me tell you, it’s a trick that’s best achieved by removing all your hair and perhaps your ears as well. Because the seal has to be complete to keep the frigid water from rushing in, necks and cuffs are incredibly tight. We took turns torturing one another, stuffing heads and hands and feet through the rubber openings as we fought our way into the suits – and we laughed ourselves sick while we were at it.
My best moment of what proved to be an absolutely incredible day, filled with every kind of Arctic wildlife I’d ever dreamed of seeing came when two enormous, browny-grey narwhals surfaced on either side of my kayak. I raised my paddle and laid it across the gunwales so I wouldn’t disturb them, while my heart tried to beat its way out of my chest.
It was a moment I’ll never forget…but only a taste of what was yet to come.
After hours of snorkeling and kayaking in the endless sunshine, we were reluctantly packing up the komatiks to head back to the camp for dinner when suddenly the water erupted. Beluga whales – dozens of them – were breaching. We abandoned the komatiks and raced to the edge of the water where we could see our new playmates arriving – gigantic bowhead whales had joined the belugas. The excitement in the group was off the chart.
Later that night, following a toast to Simon, who’d created an entire small city’s working drainage system in our absence and secured all of our tents, we were still so pumped that going to bed just wasn’t an option. Heading out with Mike and Tom, we hiked our neighbourhood icebergs, leapt like ballet dancers off icy outcrops and took turns photographing one another’s reflections on the lenses of our sunglasses. It was long past 2am when we finally fell asleep in our beds listening to the winds whipping the sides of our tents, still reeling from the glory of our incredibly Arctic day.
Day Three – By Liz Fleming
As we climbed out of our tents the first morning, the air was damp with mist. Although Tom and Mike were a little apologetic about the lack of sunshine, we were all so pumped about heading out for our first trip on the ice, we hardly noticed.
After a big breakfast, we gathered at the komatiks and loaded up for a trip to the bird cliffs, a particularly great area for Jens, an ornithologist and biology
professor from Germany. He was my komatik partner and I felt very lucky to be able to listen to his commentary as
we headed out, bumping along the ice behind the snowmobile. I could tell I was going to go home considerably better informed about birds.
“The best advice I can give you,” Tom told us when we arrived, clambered out of the komatiks and stared up at the sheer cliff faces ahead, where hundreds of birds wheeled and screamed, “is don’t open your mouth when you look up!”
The guides warned us often to watch where we stepped – the ice was solid but there were cracks. Our Aussie buddy Brett learned the hard way. Looking up as he focused on a shot, Brett put his feet too close to the edge and plunged into the water up to his armpits. In just moments, the guides had hauled him out – no mean feat, as Brett’s a tall, solid man. Wet but none the worse for wear, he was helped to a komatik and offered a quick ride back to camp. In a display of true Aussie toughness and good humour, Brett opted to stay and seemed to dry out remarkably quickly.
After a return to camp for a hot lunch, we made our first trip out to the floe edge – a world unlike anything we’d seen anywhere…ever. Pulling our small chairs from the komatiks, we moved to the edge of the ice where we sat, stunned into near silence by the vastness of the water. As we watched, cameras in hand, we played with photographing the King eider ducks that swooped past in huge flocks, their images reflected in the mirror-like surface of the water.
Suddenly, though very quietly, our guides signaled us to come. As binoculars were passed from hand to hand we saw – perhaps a kilometer away – a polar bear, watching us as intently as we were watching him. Against the brilliant white background, his fur seemed cream-coloured – almost yellowish – and he was huge. And we were in his backyard.
It was an afternoon of watching, of breathing in the cool, clear air, of trying to capture the size of our new world with cameras that suddenly seemed inadequate. When it was time to reload the komatiks and head for camp, we were stunned to see that it was long past 8pm. In a land where the sun never sets, we were quickly losing our sense of time.
On the way back to camp, a seal appeared on ice, sitting stock still beside its hole. Our guides stopped and Cornelius, whose camera outclassed the rest of ours, climbed out to see if he could get a shot. Taking slow, deliberate steps, Cornelius moved closer to the seemingly unconcerned seal, clicking shots as he went. He didn’t get very far before the seal – who had actually been hyper-aware of his approach the whole time – turned, slid into the water and disappeared. I suddenly realized how incredibly difficult hunting seals must be and
how ridiculous it was to worry about the possibility of mass slaughtering. Seals are far too quick.
After our long day on the ice, we’d have been happy to eat anything that stayed still on our plates, but were thrilled by the feast Chef Andrew had waiting for us. Hot carrot and ginger soup, rare lamb chops and a decadent chocolate dessert topped with berries. How he managed that, in the middle of nowhere, I can’t imagine.
A few hours later, stuffed like a Thanksgiving turkey, I snuggled into bed in my little yellow tent and listened to gentle rain falling. I’d have been happy to stay there forever.
Day 2 – By Liz Fleming
Packing up for a week on the polar sea ice is like outfitting an army for a major campaign. It’s an exercise in memory – anything you forget, you’ll have to live without – there’s no dashing out to the corner store for that extra quart of milk.
Fortunately for us, the Arctic Kingdom team proved to be masters of organization. Not only had they made sure we’d brought everything on the list they’d provided, but they also rented us anything we didn’t own (and really…who has a stash of Arctic-style gear hanging in the closet, next to their shorts and t-shirts?) but also, when it was discovered that one part of the group had forgotten their oh-so-vital big warm rubber boots in Ottawa, the Arctic Kingdom team managed to scrounge replacements.
We gathered in the lobby, marveling at the sheer bulk of our gear, then piled mountains of stuff into the hotel’s bus and headed for shore to load the komatiks (sleds pulled by skidoos) for the expedition north to camp. As we met our Inuit guides and helped them to load a seemingly endless collection of bags, boxes and coolers, I started to get a sense of the size of the project – it was like loading a wagon train for an epic journey.
The hauling and lifting worked up a sweat. Decked out in acres of Canada Goose down – coats, pants, mitts – and wool lined, knee-high rubber boots, we were roasting like Thanksgiving turkeys and silently wondering if we’d need it all. After all, the temperature in Pond Inlet that day wasn’t cold – not even close to cold.
Tom Lennartz, Expedition Director (and secret mind reader) laughed at our glowing faces.
“You might be baking right now, but later on, you’re going to be happy you have every bit of that gear.”
By the time we stowed the last bag and box and climbed into the komatiks ourselves, I was zipped and tucked into more clothing than I’d ever worn before, and thought I was ready. Guide Mike Beedell knew I wasn’t. He pulled the strings on my parka hood tight, framing my face in coyote fur so only my ski goggles peered out.
Some hours later, as the komatiks rocked and rolled and the wind whipped across an unbroken sweep of sea ice, I was grateful for those tightened hood strings and glad of every ounce of down that protected me from the cold and wet. In the Arctic, staying warm and dry is key – once you’re chilled, the fun’s over.
I’d never given much thought to cracks in the surface of ice before, but they became a huge entertainment feature of our trip to the camp. Because komatiks rest on long wooden skis, they can glide easily over almost any split. Snowmobiles are another thing. After pushing our komatiks carefully across the big cracks, our guides then backed up, gunned their snowmobile engines and leapt across the open water like Olympic long-jumpers. It was simultaneously terrifying and fascinating – a madly exciting spectator sport.
After nearly seven hours of travel across the frozen polar sea, punctuated by the snowmobile stunts and the occasional tea-and-pee breaks, we arrived at camp. Dwarfed by towering icebergs, the collection of white and yellow tents looked impossibly, almost hilariously tiny in the vast sweep of the ice. We were home – and like any good home, ours was warm, and inviting, with the smell of a hot dinner wafting from the dining tent.
Travel journalist Liz Fleming joined the Arctic Kingdom team for the polar bear and narwhal safari north of Pond Inlet in Sirmilik National Park in June. Her blog posts give a day-by-day look at life on the ice, 80 kilometers from anywhere.
The day began with flights, from Ottawa to Iqaluit, then north to Pond Inlet. Though First Air proved to be a happy surprise – I’d been expecting only very basic service and a potentially bumpy ride. It’s hard to believe a small airline like First Air provides the kind of service they do – hot meals, friendly
attendants, blanket and pillows. Air Canada – take a lesson!
In the Iqaluit airport, I spotted some other members of our group and introduced myself to Cornelius, Justin and Jens. I’m not gifted with great detective skills – they were easy to spot and so was I. Grinning from ear to ear, wearing coats way too bulky for the airport and wheeling duffel bags straining their zippers
– we were stoked and it was obvious!
We boarded the plane and filled most of the seats. I sat next to a petite Inuit woman named Martha on her way home to Pond Inlet after having been in Ottawa
for surgery. After a bit of where-are-you-from-and-what-do-you-do conversation, I learned Martha – four years my junior – was already the
grandmother of three. She was sorry to hear that my young sons haven’t yet given me any grandchildren. “Maybe soon,” she smiled, while I fervently
hoped they’d take their time!
After a moment’s silence, Martha asked, “You’re a southerner. Do you think seal hunting’s wrong?”
Before I could even process the idea that I’m a ‘southerner’ (my Florida friends would think that was a riot, I’m sure) Martha continued.
“I read an article in the newspaper in Ottawa about Inuit ‘slaughtering’ seals. That’s not right. We don’t slaughter them. We take only what we need and we use everything. We have to hunt to feed our families.” She paused and gestured to the vast frozen landscape below. “Look out there. I can’t grow anything on that land and the food in the stores in Pond Inlet is too expensive to buy much. If southerners don’t want us to hunt – what
should we feed our families?”
I didn’t have any answers but could sense my worldview was in for a good shakeup.
We arrived at the airport in Pond Inlet to be greeted by Mike Beedell who’d come to collect us, and our mountain of luggage. Mike’s a bearded ball of craziness – alternately cracking jokes, singing snatches of old rock and roll, sharing fascinating nature factoids, and telling the kind of stories of his travels in the wild that make you realize that you’ve found a latter day Daniel Boone.
Having stuffed the little hotel bus to bursting, we made the five-minute trek to our lodge. After sorting out room keys in the lobby, Mike announced that we’d meet for dinner at 6pm so we hustled to toss bags into rooms and wrestled with the sketchy wifi to send messages home. We’d arrived.
The evening included a walk to the local cultural association building for an evening of dancing, singing and displays of strength by some truly talented local Inuit performers. Throat-singers explained the jokingly competitive aspect of their eerie performance while young athletes kicked and
wrestled, showing incredible strength. Throughout the performance, the overriding theme was the hunt – whether
for seals or walrus or caribou. Dance steps, drumming, even the sounds made by the throat singers – everything was linked and I could hear Martha’s words in my mind, “If southerners don’t want us to hunt – what should we feed our families?”
Though the cultural performances were fascinating, perhaps the most important moments of the night happened at dinner. After introducing himself, and his colleague Tom Lennartz who would be with us for our great adventure, Mike Beedell asked the group members to share their reasons for coming on the Arctic
Kingdom trip. Why were we there? People talked about their love of wildlife and of years of longing to see the Arctic – clearly, we were a wildly varied
collection of backgrounds and personalities but we shared this one important passion.
Mike listened carefully to each comment and then added his own, “I think we’re all looking for some magic in our lives,” he said. “And I think you’re going to find it here.”
Author: Liz Fleming
One of Canada’s most respected wildlife photographers – John E. Marriott, joined us on our Polar Bear Migration Fly-In Safari about 100km south of Arviat, NU, Canada. With a maximum group size of 8, a private plane flying 40 minutes north of Churchill hugging the coastline, and then landing on the tundra in what is known as “Polar Bear Alley” with bears only meters away – John was in for 4 days of pure polar bear fun.
Here is his account of that trip:
“He’s going to come right at us!”
And just like that, a 500-kilo polar bear hurled himself up and over the bank and bee-lined straight for us in a cloud of snow and seaweed.
When he was fifty meters from us, he put on the brakes and glanced behind him nervously, watching to see if his nemesis, the little 250-kilo white ball of fury that had chased him towards us, was still in sight.
Seconds later, the mother polar bear marched up the bank with her two big cubs in tow and glared furiously at the male, completely ignoring the two armed guides and the two photographers in front of her.
As the big male lumbered closer and closer towards us (and away from her), I tried desperately to fit some part of him in the frame with my 500mm lens, finally giving up when he got within twenty meters. In perhaps a final test of what the boundaries might be, he took a hesitant step towards me and was instantly rewarded with a loud boom from one of the guide’s rifles. The crackerjack shell sent him running off across the tundra for a few hundred meters, where he lay down on the hardpack and cautiously eyed us on his left and the mother and cubs on his right.
|The big male came flying over the bank right at us in a panic to escape the female|
The adventure began with a thrilling, hour-long flight over the tundra in a Turbo Otter plane from Churchill. I love small planes that hug the landscape, and this one provided a spectacular view of the coastline and of the Barrenlands. I spent the entire hour scanning the horizon feverishly for wildlife and was rewarded with five different bear sightings!
We arrived at the tiny Arviat Polar Bear Cabin complex at noon on November 1st and despite the noise of our plane landing on the flat tundra, a polar bear was laying there having a snooze on the seaweed no more than 100 meters from the complex’s electric fence.
|The tiny cabin complex (6 cabins in total) is surrounded by an electric fence to keep the bears out|
For the next three full days, we watched as eleven different bears wandered by the windswept complex, with many spending hours checking us out. For the most part we stayed inside the fence and photographed them as they circled around us nosily, but we also ventured outside the fence regularly for forays onto the tundra in search of more bears (we saw five in total on our short hikes) and other arctic wildlife. By the end of the trip, I’d seen arctic hare, arctic fox, willow ptarmigan, snowy owl, and gyrfalcon.
|An arctic hare eyes me warily on the edge of a frozen pond|
|Willow ptarmigan on the tundra|
From a polar bear perspective, the trip was a fantastic success — while we didn’t see as many polar bears as I was used to seeing on my Churchill trips (where you can often see 10-20 bears in a day), I was like a schoolkid in a field of candy whenever a polar bear approached us. The level of excitement was palpable, as was the thrill I got from standing on foot face-to-face with these beautiful animals in non-threatening situations (the bears seemed to know that the fence and that the armed Inuit guides meant business and they either stayed back 30-50 meters, or they got a warning crackerjack shot fired at them once or twice, which kept them back).
Being on foot with these polar bears was an experience of a lifetime and I would try to put it more eloquently, but suffice to say that it’s as close to indescribable as wildlife photography gets for me.
|A huge polar bear checks us out at close range|
|A polar bear portrait|
I was so impressed with the photography opportunities that presented themselves (and with the glorious ones I envisioned that didn’t present themselves this year), that I began planning my trip back before my November adventure was even over!
It’s a true adventure into Canada’s hinterland, so if you’ve ever dreamed of photographing polar bears from ground level and wanted to do it with a fun group, then check out the rest of my pictures and if you’re still interested, then go read about what the Polar Bear Migration Fly-In Safari entails for October and November.
|A curious cub walks by us at close range|
|Polar bear tracks on the tundra just meters from the electric fence|
|Sunshine and -10 never felt so good! A scenic view of the coastline at low tide.|
|A polar bear rolls around in the snow on a windy day|
|Another polar bear walks the beach by the complex|
|A polar bear mother and cub|
|The peek-a-boo polar bear!|
|My favourite shot from the trip, taken during a blizzard on Day 2|
|How close do we get? Pretty close!|
|Our guides, Jason and Graham, checking out tracks with fellow photographer, Kevin|
|Eye level and gorgeous!|
|A mother and cubs trying to decide whether or not they should come visit us|
|Another one of my favourite polar bear photographs from the trip|
Thanks for looking everyone!
We love receiving emails or letters from guests as it makes all the effort that we put into making your Arctic wildlife experience the best it can be all the more worthwhile. The amazing email below came in from one of our guests on the Polar Bear Migration Fly-In Safari and Terry gave us permission to share her email for all to see.
From all of us at Arctic Kingdom…thank you Terry for sharing your heartwarming reflection of your trip with us!
Good Morning to Graham of Arctic Kingdom,
Looking at the photographs… put me in the mood to finally type this travel log up. The truth is, this is something I’m still extremely emotional about …. I truly left my heart in Nunavut… I hope you all enjoy my view of this trip – even if it’s just a smidgen of how incredible it actually was. Polar Bear hugs to you all …. Terry F.
It was my idea to go and see the Polar Bears. But so much these days depends on timing – and worried that nature might not correspond with our travel arrangements, I asked our travel agent for the ‘full’ Polar Bear experience. She had already booked us into Churchill, and now she came back with a trip to Arviat, Nunavut. We jumped on it. Now we felt we had covered enough ground, all we needed was luck on our side to see the great white Polar Bears of the North [with Arctic Kingdom].
The single turbo Otter trip from Churchill to Nunavut was thrilling, and already, I felt the trip had paid for itself. Little did I know, it was all going to be so much more … much more than I ever expected.
Our Nunavut camp was based by the Ocean shore, where we had a complete view of the ‘slush’, the jigsaw pieces of ice that would eventually join together and freeze up that part of the ocean. The camp is rugged, like the terrain it lies on – but you have all the comforts and amenities you’d expect for a unique True North Safari.
We went to Nunavut to see Polar Bears, but ended up falling in love with the Tundra as well. The ice formations of the Tundra were so diverse and beautiful. We ate icy cold berries that hugged the Tundra, discovered mushrooms in the middle of ice fields, heard the eerie sound of whipping winds grazing the Tundra, and when the sun came out, you were standing in a field of dazzling diamond sparkles in the snow. Nunavut is a place that takes your heart easily. It demands respect, this unforgiving, harsh land …. And yet … it’s so incredibly inviting, so heartbreakingly beautiful.
There wasn’t a day that went by where we didn’t see a Polar Bear. These magnificent creatures, in their territory, in the stillness of the Tundra. The fact that your standing there, on the Tundra, and a Polar Bear and her cub are pacing, slowly, gently up and down from about 20 feet from you – you can’t come to terms with what you’re seeing – it’s exciting down to the fingertips. And then you notice that the mother bear is sporting a huge ice crystal on her front leg that gleams in the light like a huge rhinestone adornment. A perfect coca-cola bear, dressed for the occasion, with her young one always close to her. Ohhhhh, it’s not something you can catch on video or camera like the eye sees it. It’s something that notches into your heart, along with the Tundra itself.
The Polar Bears aren’t the only white creatures of this utterly extreme world. We also saw the quirky Ptarmigan, the sweet Arctic Hare, the shy Arctic Fox and the regal Snowy Owl …. All white inhabitants of this desolate and magical land.
All the while, we’re listening to the low, rhythmic voice of our Inuit guide as he’s telling you stories of his grandparents adventures while giving you tips on what and what not to do on our daily walks. While we eat a hot meal and discuss the day’s events with each other, another Inuit guide watches from the rooftops for incoming Polar Bears, because this is a land without time and anything can happen. To complete our Nunavut family, there was our cheerful chef and our amicable expedition leader. Our chef delighted everyone with ready smiles, eye appealing dinners and he always had the number one ingredient to every morning kitchen … ready, hot coffee ! Always in charge, our expedition leader made sure everything ran smoothly, we were safe, and where possible, individual needs were met e.g. a Polar Bear Dip ?
We’ve been home for a few weeks now. We live in a sea-side town that’s as cute as cute gets …. But still, in my heart of hearts, I’m longing for Nunavut …. That far away place, so open, so barren, so …. inviting.
Polar Bear Hugs from Terry and Carl F., Vancouver Island, Canada