Somebody once told me that the words “luxury” and “wilderness lodge” don’t belong together. His reasoning was that one shouldn’t spoil the wilderness by mixing it with luxury items. Wilderness should be camping and roughing it. In my opinion, he missed the point of what a luxury wilderness lodge really is. It is not silver spoons and caviar for dinner. That’s so 80’s! The recipe for today’s luxury wilderness lodge is a blend of superb local cuisine, comfortable and homey accommodations, excellent personal service, and spending time in a wilderness that is so remote that to be there is a luxury in itself. Add a polar bear tour and you’ll be killing it!
The Road to Nanuk, the Perfect Prelude to the Polar Bear Tour.
Here’s the thing. There are no roads to Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. To get to there you must fly in a small plane to the tiny remote town of Churchill along the Hudson Bay in northern Manitoba (Churchill is considered the polar bear capital of the world, one of the best places to see polar bears in North America), and then take another even smaller Churchill Wild plane an hour east to Nanuk.
The short flight is a wonder of its own. There are no other people or roads or buildings out there. Flying low over the boreal forest and the coastline of Wapusk National Park is something unforgettable.
From the plane, you can spot polar bears and beluga whales (I also saw a black bear with her grown cub), and it is from up there that you’ll get your first sense of how wild this place really is. You can see the photo essay from our flight here. If you can’t spot these marine mammals, try again on your return flight!
The lodge used to be a goose-hunting lodge, and when the present owners bought it, they transformed it into the premier wilderness lodge that it is today. An impressive amount of renovation has recently been completed, although minor changes are still being made. Like the fence. When we visited, the perimeter fence completely surrounded the lodge compound and we were able to walk around the “front yard”. You could stand at the fence and watch the bears walk by.
We were told they were about to move the fence back to join with the sides of the lodge, allowing them to “re-wild” the tundra that is now being used as a front yard. This will reduce the footprint of the lodge compound, remove the fence from views out of the central dining room and guest halls, and allow wildlife to walk right up next to the viewing windows and decks! The photo below shows the dining room and one of the decks that connect the dining area to the guests rooms, and on the left is the current perimeter fence. Once the fence is removed, polar bears will probably be able to peek in through the dining room windows when standing on their hind legs. Peek-a-boo! An exclusive polar bear viewing from your fantastic lodging!
The lodge compound contains a series of small buildings housing staff and utilities, but the main central structure is the newly-built lodge. It is shaped roughly like a large goose with a central dining room as the body and two guest room wings sweeping back on each side. The guest wings are each connected to the dining area by a large deck.
The rooms, four in each wing, are very comfortable with spacious bathrooms. When we first walked into our room, I was a bit disappointed that it didn’t have a private outdoor space in which we could chill out in the evening. But when you think about it, you don’t really want to sit outside in the evening unless you are armored with a mosquito net from head to toe! Seriously, mosquitoes here are the size of airplanes. If you think you’ll want to enjoy an evening outside, bring a face net.
Thankfully, the corridor leading to the guest rooms doubles as a sort of closed-in front porch with comfortable Adirondack chairs and large viewing windows. From here you can enjoy big beautiful canvas prints of polar bears and views that stretch as far as the shores of Hudson Bay. You can spot polar bears, black bears, birds, and wolves from the chair in front of your room as well as spectacular views of the northern lights. We were also told that a couple of moose like to hang out at the little lake nearby, but sadly we were not moose-lucky during our stay.
Since the only way in is by small plane, you are asked to bring only the necessities (you will be given instructions as to how much weight you can take on the plane). Luckily, Nanuk provides much of the gear you may need during your stay including foul weather gear and waterproof boots. You will need to bring your own shower gel and shampoo. It may seem odd at first, but it makes sense. These products weigh a lot to fly in (wouldn’t you rather they brought coffee?) and they would also have to ship all the plastic trash back out again. By bringing your own little bottle (and carrying it back out with you) you are helping to preserve this fragile environment.
Walking with Polar Bears, an Intimate Polar Bear Tour
Twice a day, guests are taken on a safari around the mud flats along the Hudson Bay in search of polar bears and other wildlife. Here’s how it works. You go out on a “rhino” (a hand-built all-terrain vehicle designed to drive small groups of people on the tundra, their tundra vehicles are kind of a mini tundra buggy) and when a suitable bear is found, the group is allowed to get out of the rhinos and walk a little bit closer to enjoy the company of polar bears. This may sound like a crazy thing to do, I know. But to go on a walk with polar bears safari is very safe when done by experts, like the guides at Nanuk. Do not do it by yourself! Take polar bear trips with experienced guides.
After a slow, quiet approach in a single-file line, our guide lets us know when it’s OK to stop and take a few photos. At the closest, during a polar bear tour, we approach to somewhere between 100 and 200 yards from the bear. As you can see, if approached correctly, the bear remains very calm and relaxed.
If there are no bears around, there’s still plenty to see and learn around the edge of Hudson Bay. From plants, to animal tracks, and even a small ship wreck. Your experienced guide will help you decipher all these natural signs.
And don’t worry if you feel chilly. There’s always hot coffee and cookies to warm you up during a polar bear tour.
Is it Safe to Walk with Polar Bears?
Under normal circumstances I would say No, it is not safe, you crazy dumb dumb! But let me explain what happens here at Nanuk and at Seal River Lodge (another of Churchill Wild’s lodges). They are the only lodge-based, walking-with-polar-bear tours in the world, and have been doing this for years. This is nothing new. They have the best bear guides with years of experience under their belts. They are knowledgeable and passionate about the polar bears. If they don’t feel sure that it is going to be a safe encounter for the bears and the guests, there won’t be an encounter.
During our polar bear tour we saw a big male who, after assessing the bear’s behavior, it was decided it would be best not to approach. I got the impression they didn’t want to approach any male polar bears. Also, these kind of encounters can only work well in isolated locations far from human populations. Near the town of Churchill for example, it would be a much more dangerous exercise for both the bears and humans. Polar bears who come ashore near Churchill are better off learning to avoid humans.
You can read about our first encounter walking with polar bears in our post here. This polar bear mum and her cub spotted us first by using their highly acute sense of smell. They stayed at a distance and then they were on their way.
This successful polar bear tourism model is largely based on other walking-with-bears programs in Alaska and BC where you can enjoy a peaceful encounter with grizzly bears. I also thought they were out of their minds until we had some of our own grizzly encounters. You can read about one of our grizzly bear encounters here. These tours are also done with qualified and experienced bear guides.
Do NOT try this by yourself without a guide. It will probably be the last thing you do. It is dangerous, not only for you, but for the bears. If you force a bear into defending itself against a human by behaving improperly, then you are likely to get that bear killed as a “problem bear” when in fact you are being the “problem human”. Remember that polar bears are wild animals and that all animals (including humans) can behave unpredictably and should be treated with respect. Go on a polar bear tour with an expert.
The Human Side of Nanuk
We couldn’t have asked for better people to welcome us to Nanuk. Our polar bear safari guides, Andy and Albert, were a perfect team, combining extensive bear guiding experience with vast local knowledge. Each one emanated a caring kindness and a true passion for the natural world. Nolan Booth, Nanuk’s manager, immediately made us feel welcome, like we were family members returning home for the holidays. The guest care provided by twins Kyla and Keanna Bateman was always friendly but never imposing. By the end of the trip we truly did feel like a family sitting together around the fireplace.
Dining at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge was like dining with friends back home. The food served at Nanuk was fantastic. Chef Carla Castro combined fresh local ingredients and traditional recipes with a modern flair. And the desserts were definitely worth saving room for. We were pleasantly surprised that the portions were sensibly-sized. Too often, luxury lodges make the mistake of over-feeding their guests to the point of nausea (and unnecessary waste). Nanuk nailed it in the food department. The delicious meals were portioned perfectly and served unpretentiously. Yum!
Nanuk Has a Little Surprise in Store For You (and maybe two!)
The main attraction at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge is, of course, polar bears. But visitors have another great wildlife treat waiting for them at Nanuk.
A couple of years ago we spent a month in Manitoba during the summer months and really wanted to see a wolf in their natural environment. You might have read how we traveled for four months in the US and Canada during summer and fall to try and see wolves and we failed (a seven-day hike in Yellowstone didn’t help either). We really did try, but could only find their tracks in a few different places. That is why we were so thrilled when a beautiful black wolf visited the lodge twice during our stay at Nanuk.
If you have ever tried to see a wolf in their natural habitat, you know how hard this can be. Wolves are shy and, like any other predators, they’ll be watching you long before you ever lay eyes on them. This is why the opportunity that Nanuk offers is just amazing. Our wolf sighting wasn’t anything out of the ordinary for Nanuk. Earlier this month, the whole pack gave Nanuk guests a fabulous show while they tried to interact with polar bears. One of the guests captured everything on camera, you can see the photos here. Aren’t they insane?
I also really wanted to see other arctic wildlife like an arctic fox or an arctic hare, but we had no luck this time.
The other great surprise was the Northern Lights. We were lucky enough to see them one night, and extra lucky that it coincided with a meteor shower. If the Northern Lights appear during the night, the Nanuk lodge staff will come around and tap on the door of anyone who wishes to see them!
We took this time-lapse of the Aurora Borealis while we were at Nanuk. A polar bear tour with the northern lights.
When to Visit Nanuk for a Polar Bear Tour?
This is a an important question as what you see will vary depending on when you visit. Currently, Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge is only open from mid August to late September, though they are considering adding an earlier trip to visit bear denning sites in early spring. If you want to see polar bear moms with cubs, you need to visit in August. But if you are more interested in seeing male polar bears sparring, then you should visit toward the end of the season.
If you are interested in the wolves I would say that later is also better because that’s when this year’s pups are old enough to travel with the adults and your chances of seeing them are higher. They’ve also started offering a couple of polar bear tour that run during the middle of August that include a swim with the belugas in the Churchill River. If you ask me, I’d go on those! If you can see polar bears, wolves, and swim with belugas all on one trip, I’d say it has been a very successful week!
But remember that anytime you visit Nanuk, you’ll have a wonderful stay. This is a wonderful hotel-based adventure and the trip of a lifetime.
Zoologist and wildlife photographer. She has worked in the field with jackals, wolves, cheetahs, & leopards. She serves on the Board of Directors of SEE Turtles, a non-profit sea turtle conservation organization.