“I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
I can’t be the only one who has uttered the phrase when stepping off the plane in Churchill, Manitoba – and this is my own province! It was my first time visiting northern Manitoba, and I had my sights set on a remote lodge 60 kilometers north from the town of Churchill. Boarding a 8-person propeller plane, I was in the early hours of my adventure, already met with the unknown as we soared over the steadily changing landscape. My visit to Churchill Wild‘s Seal River Heritage Lodge was once-in-a-lifetime and filled to the brim with extraordinary experiences. I was about to cross unfamiliar terrain, and with it, collect an array of first-times.
First time being co-pilot
If you’re heading up to a remote lodge and someone nominates you to play co-pilot, do not argue and do not protest. This is a privileged position, offering phenomenal views as you cross over the lakes and frozen flat lands that makes the north so distinctive. Seeing the diversity of the land from above brought forth a new appreciation in me.
We passed along coasts and rocky terrain, keeping our eyes peeled for wildlife while snapping away at amazing aerial views. The landing was surprisingly smooth (I’m not sure what I was expecting, but the plane was small) and definitely warranted applause for our wonderful pilot.
First time staying in a remote lodge
Imagine watching a blistering snow storm from the comfort of a warm lodge. This is how my stay began. Fellow guests sipped warm beverages while watching the sudden and enchanting snowfall that seemed to say welcome, wanderers. Included in the prestigious National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World, the Seal River Heritage Lodge focuses on being sustainable, eco-friendly, and of course, highly hospitable. Under the high ceilings, I curled up by the wood burning fire and savored the scents of cedar that filled the air. Looking around the room, my co-worker Nisha declared it to be one of the best rooms in Manitoba. She might be right. It’s all in the details at Seal River Heritage Lodge, adorned with taxidermy and touches of Indigenous art that served to remind us of where we were in the world.
After long walks and excursions, the lodge was the perfect resting spot for cozy evenings filled with chai tea, cookies and of course, the highly coveted appetizer and wine hour. Both the lounge and the dining room offered spectacular views of the surrounding landscape, and no bear went unnoticed with the help of binoculars, telescopes and keen eyes.
There must be something about the north that guarantees a restful sleep (with the exception of waking up for the northern lights, of course) because we were all tuckered out around 9:00 pm and gladly retreated to our cozy bedrooms. There were no locks on the door (no need) and the propane fireplaces kept us warm all night long. And as if on queue, there was a slight chill that came with each morning to rouse us awake for our next adventure.
First time walking the subarctic
After seeing the stunning landscape from the plane, I was eager to explore it a bit more – and lucky me, all excursions from Seal River Heritage Lodge are done on foot. Being an eco-lodge, the use of land vehicles is kept to the beach ridges and tidal flats, and no driving is allowed on the vegetated tundra. I was amazed at how quickly the land changed during my trip. The coming and going tide frequently transformed our surroundings, and snow covered the ground alongside bright cranberries and short, flag pole trees, known for their distinctive shape.
First time seeing a polar bear (and other arctic animals)
If we’re being technical, I locked eyes with two bears as we flew into Seal River Lodge. “Bears, bears!” I exclaimed into my headset as the pilot chuckled – he was well acquainted with this type of first-timer excitement. While the plane was going much too fast to catch the scene on my camera – it is one that will be forever in my memory as the most picturesque wildlife scene I had ever seen -a female alongside her cub, standing out starkly against the barren landscape while gazing up at the passing plane. This was my first sighting, but certainly not my last.
Churchill Wild offers the unique opportunity to walk alongside polar bears. Our experienced guides, Derek and Andy, led the group across the taiga¹ in search of polar bears on two 3-hour excursions each day. In the history of Seal River Heritage Lodge, no bear has never been harmed on such outings. The guides are experienced and equipped with the skills necessary to read the bear’s behavior and act accordingly. Tapping rocks together is the first measure if a bear comes too close, followed by firing off a loud banger to deter the bear. During my stay, only the rocks were ever used by the guides, during a moment when a huge male polar bear crossed our paths, glancing over once before continuing on his way. It was a take-your-breath away moment, and one that left my heart pounding in my chest.
We trekked far and wide to see several male polar bears, a female, and two mums and cub-of-the-years. It was hard not to squeal as we watched the cubs scurry after their mothers while looking over curiously at the group. Equally as exciting (for me) was seeing an extremely hard to spot fluffball known as the arctic hare, as well as a sik-sik, mink, lemming and fluffy-footed ptarmigan. The silence of the tundra was interrupted only by our footsteps, snapping cameras and instructions from our guides.
It’s hard to describe how it feels to stand 25-50 feet away from a wild polar bear. Discomfort in the presence of a large predator is fairly natural, but over time, I felt like I was starting to have a small understanding of the noble polar bear and all its mesmerizing, and sometimes silly, mannerisms.
First time not finishing dessert (not by choice)
I’m not sure what I expected of a remote wilderness lodge, but tasting the best food I’ve ever eaten (yes, you read that right) came as a happy surprise. The mornings were marked by full breakfasts of banana french toast, bacon and eggs, and delectable apple pancakes. Every day brought something new to the table. After the morning excursion, soup for lunch warmed our bones and was always followed by freshly baked dessert. Dinner was a spectacle of its own, with multi family-style courses and different nightly themes.
By the fourth day, my indulgence had finally caught up to me and I could barely finish dessert – but I certainly wanted to.
First time napping in a polar bear day bed
Okay so, I didn’t really fall asleep. But I did have a lay down in a polar bear day bed, moments after a bear abandoned it after a lengthy nap. It was cozy, but not quite as cozy as Seal River Heritage Lodge, which I’ll be dreaming about now until my inevitable return. ‘Til next time.