On a chilly October morning we climb aboard a single-engine Otter in Churchill, Man., and fly north, with a foggy overcast sky just overhead and the wave-lashed Hudson Bay coast several hundred feet below. At one point, our bush pilot, Chris, banks the plane to show us a bull moose he's spotted in a creek. It's a short half-hour flight to Seal River Heritage Lodge, and as we land and taxi along on the gravel strip, two polar bears rise from the willows on either side of the runway and saunter off. We climb out of the plane and meet Riley Friesen, a slender young man shivering in a hoodie with a 12-gauge shotgun slung over his shoulder.
"Are you our security detail?" I ask.
"No, I'm the chef."
At Seal River lodge, everybody packs heat, all the time. Located on Hudson Bay, the lodge is right in the midst of polar bear country. Just two days prior, one of the animals smashed a window in the great room and stuck his head inside. ("I ran him off," says Tyler Goertzen, a lodge guide who was here alone.) If you want to meet polar bears face to face, this is the place.
Most bear tourists go to Churchill, where you can bounce around on a big "tundra buggy" and photograph bears from the safety of an elevated platform. The lodge offers a more up-close experience.
Under the tutelage of veteran wilderness guides, small groups hike the coast and learn about bears at ground level. It's the only place in the world where tourists can take part in such foot safaris and get so close.
After checking into our plush pine-paneled quarters, we're told rule No. 1: No one goes outside without an armed guard. The guides stay in a separate building, a hundred steps away from the main lodge, and even they have to escort each other back and forth with shotguns.
"It's unlikely our staff will ever need the gun, but if they need it they'll really need it," says Mike Reimer, who owns and manages the place with his wife, Jeanne. Having spent a lifetime in the North, Mike has only had to pull the trigger a couple of times (once when a polar bear killed a man in downtown Churchill and dragged the body down the street), but that was a long time ago, and attacks are rare.
Still, the lodge is surrounded by chain-link fencing, and we can't help feeling that the bears are the observers and we're the exhibits. Which is okay because this zoo feeds its inmates well. Shortly after our arrival, Riley announces that lunch is served. "We use local food as much as possible," he says. "The jelly is made from cloudberries we pick right outside the lodge, and the caribou stew is from choice animals we harvest every year."
The dining room features large windows overlooking the boulder-strewn shore and the corrugated waves of the bay. Every night the guides fortify the windows with "bear mats" – nail-studded sheets of plywood. While we eat lunch Jeanne tells us about when the bears broke in during the winter and wrecked the place. Another time, she almost became lunch herself when a large bear chased her, her sister, and her brother-in-law Nelson. When Nelson's gun jammed he vigorously clubbed the bear in the head to fend it off.
"Most of the time the bears are very well-behaved," she says. "But they're all different."
After lunch we dress in warm clothes and meet our guide, Andy MacPherson, a modest, soft-spoken man with a weedy beard in gumboots and an off-kilter tuque. "Bears are less likely to approach if you're in a group," he tells us, so three of us stick together as we cross the spongy tundra and head down through the willows and boulders toward the shore.
Along the brushy coast, he points to drifted kelp, which provides the bears with much needed minerals and vitamins. "The winters are getting shorter here, but the bears we're seeing are fat and in good shape," he says. "They forage on berries, bird eggs and carrion, and they'll dig out ground squirrels. We've even seen them attacking belugas. They'll perch on a high boulder and jump on a beluga as it swims past. Maybe they're adapting to the warming climate. I hope so."
He's spent many years as a bear guide, and loves the animals. "Everybody wants me to pose with my gun," he says with a sigh. "But these bears are not as dangerous as everyone thinks. Over the years I've had hundreds of close encounters with grizzlies and polar bears, and they've always reacted peacefully and with more tolerance than I deserved."
A few kilometres north of the lodge we come across fresh polar bear tracks – immense clawed footprints in the mud. For a while, we follow the tracks along the coastline. The tide is out, and a raw wind is blowing at us across the mud flats. Andy says the bear is probably looking for seals. "Sometimes a seal will fall asleep on a rock and wake up after the tide has gone out – an easy meal for a bear."
When the tracks enter a thicket of willows he stops. "You don't want to surprise one at close range." In any case, we've been hiking for hours and it's getting close to dinner. On the way back we come across a bear lying in the willows only a short distance from the front door. It's reclining indolently against a boulder and staring out at the bay, waiting for winter.
"I think that's the one that broke the window," Andy says. "It's a nice healthy young male, not a dangerous bear, just curious."
The bear watches us as we make a respectful detour around it. We're looking forward to Riley's dinner menu and maybe the bear is hoping to be a last-minute invitee: As we clean our boots on the front porch, I notice fresh claw marks on the front door.
IF YOU GO
Seal River Heritage Lodge offers polar bear tours from July to November. Summer tours may also include the opportunity to swim with beluga whales. Seven-day tours are arranged through Churchill Wild and include two nights in Winnipeg, all meals and air transportation from Winnipeg to the lodge. From $8,795. 1-866-846-9453; churchillwild.com
Jake MacDonald's most recent book is Grizzlyville: Adventures in Bear Country (Harper Collins). He stayed as a guest of Seal River Heritage Lodge. The lodge did not review or approve this story.