After one week in Thompson we really made it to the lodge, right at the coast of Hudson Bay.
The runway still wasn’t fully cleared of snow, which meant we had to land on a lake close by. Our little plane had to have skis for us to land there safely (I’m not even going to mention that there were slight issues with the skis right before we took off in Gillam). Since it was freezing cold on the plane, we were dressed in our super warm winter gear. When we arrived at the coast of Hudson Bay, we were greeted by the bluest sky imaginable. Difficult to believe that there had been a storm only a couple of days earlier, which nearly ruined our trip. Walking through the snow back to the lodge was a rather tough exercise and warmed us up pretty well. Finally reaching the lodge, we were all very excited: We finally made it all the way!. The lodge is absolutely beautiful, our rooms very comfy and spacious. The panoramic windows on the corridor overlooking the bay are just perfect for wildlife viewings and aurora watching, without getting cold. Fires were lit and it was just so great to be there.
The main building with kitchen, dining and chill-out area is in the centre, connected to the two guest room wings with large platforms, ideal for aurora and wildlife viewing, should you prefer getting cold (That would be me). There was always a fire going in the communal area and it was nice and warm, while freezing cold outside. Stuart made sure that none of the fires went off, even throughout the night.
After arrival, we got our first lovely meal. The food at the lodge was always super delicious and made you forget about low carb diets instantly.
After lunch, we headed out on snowmobiles for the first time to break trail. You would be mistaken if you think the snow is flat and smooth on the mud flats of the bay. The wind had carved the snow into impressive sculptures of rock hard snow. We also had to go through areas covered in willows. The trees there are not very high, so most of the time only the highest branches reached out of the deep snow. To reduce the damage we inflicted to these poor slow growing trees, we all tried to stay on one track. Felix and I shared a snow mobile, which gave me a bit more time to look around, hoping to spot some wildlife. But since we were usually the 4th snow mobile in our convoy, any kind of sensible animal would have been long gone, before I even could have spotted it. It might not have helped that I didn’t wear my glasses under the skiing goggles 😉
We obviously were there to find polar bears. They are usually at a size that I can spot without my glasses, but actually we were looking for tracks in the snow, which we than would have followed, hoping to find mama bear and the cubs. So this was one of the challenges we had. I, in addition, had to face a challenge of my own. This takes us back to Germany, a view weeks earlier. When I tried to persuade Felix to go on this trip with me, I lured him in with the promise that we would see snowy owls. Despite the fact that Felix has never seen one in the wild, he loves them and I knew that this was one of the best arguments I could bring to the table, and it did the job.
Well, I have to admit, I didn’t do the research properly and our snowy owl excitement didn’t last long, after arriving in Canada, to say the least: During our first dinner in Winnipeg, I mentioned to our guide Andy, that I had promised Felix some snowy owls. He looked at me in disbelieve and just said: “Yes, but not at this time in the year.” I was in trouble. Felix was not pleased. Should I have known that the owls already migrated back to the tundra to breed? Should I?
So there I was, on the back of the snowmobile, scanning the trees. I possibly should mention that we are talking “snow covered” trees. Great task to find a white owl on a snow covered tree. Binoculars were not an option, since I had to hold on for dear life, to prevent possible “lift offs”. I knew there still was a slim possibility to find a snowy owl for Felix, since Stuart had spotted one from the plane on the day of our arrival.
Besides the wildlife we had also been looking forward to seeing the Aurora borealis. For me this is one of the most magical natural phenomenons. I will never get bored of watching it and will make sure that future holidays will include the possibility of seeing the lights. I don’t think anybody could be immune to this magic. Unfortunately our delayed arrival at the lodge meant we arrived during full moon. Its rather bright when the moonlight gets reflected by the snow but that doesn’t stop the lights 😉 Everybody else thought they were not worth watching during the first night, since they were not super strong (maybe even “iffy”?), but for us, even the faintest of lights is better than none. We didn’t know if they would appear again, so we stood in the cold being happy that the first night at the lodge did also bring out the lights. And to be honest, they were not that bad after all.
Our first full day out in the wilderness looked like it would be a tough one. We took our picnic with us, which meant we would not return to the lodge for lunch. We spent many hours on the snowmobile and were rather knackered on our way back. The fact that we didn’t see any signs of a bear did not help to lift the spirits. This all changed, when I spotted a rather white bird on top of a tree. OMG, mission accomplished! I found a snowy owl for Felix. Not very close, no spectacular hunting scenes right in front of us, but a SNOWY OWL. Our first Snowy owl in the wild. VERY VERY EXCITING!
Now back to find bears.
After a well deserved rest (ok, not in my case since I was up ever so often to check for northern lights) we headed out the next day, planning to be out for a full day again. Mike and Butch went ahead to look for bear tracks, while we struggled our way through the deep snow. Deep snow means capsizing the snowmobile more often. You usually don’t hurt yourself, but I can tell you, it is terribly tiring to get the damn thing out of the snow again. Volunteering to walk through the most difficult parts while Felix tried to manoeuvre the machine through it without falling over, was mostly a rather stupid idea. You sink in A LOT. IT’S NO FUN! And it wasn’t just us. While Andy, Felix and Jad tried to dig out Jad’s snowmobile, which he managed to dig in properly as well, I had a good look around, with Andy (from Texas) staying with me for protection. This is one of the rules you should follow while out in the wilderness. If you don’t have a gun, you should have a snowmobile, which will allow you to get away from any danger approaching. And apparently “danger” wasn’t too far away. I spotted a wolf pack on the sea ice and counted at least 9 animals. I would not have wanted them to “check me out”. One serious danger for baby polar bears are actually wolfs. So my first thought was, that we might have a mother with cub(s) on the ice and the wolfs are trying to get a snack. I didn’t want to sound like a total freak, so I kept this thought to myself. After we were all back on our vehicles we tried to get a bit closer to the wolfs. This is when Mike called us. They had spotted a sow with two cubs, heading inland. AWAY FROM THE WOLFS!!! Not such a freak after all.
We were all rather frustrated and sad when we realised that we would not have a chance to see them, since they had gone too far, by the time we found Mike and Butch. All that was left for us were some tracks and the pictures Butch had taken. I think there is no need to explain how we felt at that point. To take our minds off we made a fire and grilled some hot dogs. Hot dogs – cuddly fur balls – cuddly fur balls – Hot dogs. Oh well, we told ourselves that they are around and we might see them in the next few days.
We came back to the lodge after sunset and were all rather exhausted. As if the elements had realised that we could do with some cheering up, the most amazing aurora display happened. No wild animal would have approached us at that point, since our OHHHHHs and AHHHHHHS could be heard for a long long way.
The next morning we had an early wake up call. A wolverine came to visit us. To see them is even rarer than seeing a polar bear (so we’ve been told). So far we can’t confirm this, but this day still turned out to be a good day for wildlife sightings. After the Wolverine disappeared into the sunrise, our local cross fox came to visit. During our snowmobile ride we saw a Northern Hawk owl as well as some Great grey owls and (again) a Snowy owl. The Great grey owls are funny (in a very owly way). They are the worlds largest species of owls by length. Surely not by weight, since they have the tendency to sit on the smallest of branches, which we were lucky to experience more often during the coming days. The Great grey owls have many names and I think I like “Phantom of the North” the best.
While we were all still hoping to get lucky and find a mother with cubs we drove many miles on our snowmobiles. Great fun (apparently) was driving on the Oppoyastin Creek. The snow was super deep and we were all ploughing through it as fast as possible. It’s only a little bit scary when you sit in the back seat! Especially when you see that in front is a very very slushy bit and all you can do is wonder WHY not just drive around (as everybody else did). No no no, Felix decided to test it (unplanned as he confirmed later with a slightly hysterical giggle). Not so funny, when you know that the slushy bit could be your direct entrance into the river, if you are not making it over it by luck.
Well, we made it all back to the lodge in the evening. Nobody went swimming but sadly we didn’t see much wildlife here either.
The next morning we were woken up early again. You would think I should know by now, that a PJ does not count as appropriate clothing for the given weather conditions. But I thought time was of the essence. A young wolf had decided to take a nap on a snow drift right in front of the lodge. I assumed we didn’t have much time to snap a photo, since it would be heading off as soon as we all appeared on the veranda.
I could not have been more wrong (and flipping cold). This must have been a proper teenager wolf. A lot more, than a few people staring, had to happen to get this wolf out of bed. When we came outside it was still dark and we actually used a flashlight to watch the wolf (we decided it’s a girl, but couldn’t really tell). Reaction of the wolf – NONE. Mike put his best effort in imitating a howling wolf. Reaction of the wolf – she lifted her head, but decided it’s not worth the effort of getting up, so went back to sleep. It slowly started to get a bit lighter (sadly not warmer) and we really were not very quiet on our viewing platform. Reaction of the wolf – she opened her eyes again (excitement on the photographer front), looked at us and ….. went back to sleep.
Finally, when the sun came up it was also time for our new friend to get up. She really was not in a hurry. When she was lying down, all curled up in a ball, she looked so small, and all you wanted to do was go over and give her a cuddle. When she got up, it was amazing to see how large she actually was, even if she still was clearly very young. She was a beautiful wolf and it was amazing to see her so closely. We had a few more visits from a lone young wolf during the next few days and it possibly was also her.
After breakfast we headed out for another full day trip. Butch and Mike had found some fresh tracks and we were all hoping we would still be able to see the mother and cub(s) before they reached the sea ice. Sadly we didn’t. It’s not really a good idea to head out onto the sea ice, since there is always a chance that the ice sheet might break off and you float away. You wouldn’t even want to think about the cost of the rescue mission. Therefore we stayed on the frozen mud plane and could only imagine what we might have experienced. I’m talking about the bears, not the rescue mission from the ice.
We travelled further west following the coast of the Hudson bay and up the Michichi River where we had lunch. It is really slightly surreal that we often travelled on rivers and end up having lunch in the most remote locations. But todays lunch place was apparently not remote enough. The land belongs to the Cree, which is the largest group of First Nations in Canada. Our guide Butch is Cree, so it was ok to set up camp on the shore of the frozen Michichi 😉
We found a boat hidden away, which apparently was from a potential poacher. You might be able to imagine the plans we came up with to teach the poacher a lesson. All the plans had to be abandoned, since we decided to head further west to reach the historic York factory. Since the chances of seeing bears were rather slim, why not throw in some Canadian history instead. If we would have known that getting there was such a pain, I would have rather spent my afternoon digging a den or whatever. The snow was so deep and we had to drive through a lot of areas with willows, where the snow just gives way when you get off track a bit (which we did a lot, since the turns were to narrow to manoeuvre with two of us on the snowmobile). We didn’t even count how often we fell over. I reached the point where I was seriously fed up digging myself and the snowmobile out of the deep snow. Felix was exhausted and equally fed up. So that made for a proper grump-mobile. Worst thing was, we knew we had to get back a similarly “great” track. Well, we made it eventually. It was kinda cool to visit the York Factory in winter, since nobody can get there (easily) during this time of the year. In the summer month the factory can be visited by “normal” tourists reaching it via boat.
Felix and I were not looking forward to the ride back. Conditions weren’t any better than earlier in the day. With two people on the snowmobile it’s just so much harder. To give Felix a bit of a break, when the snow was the deepest, the bends the narrowest and the willows the densest, I doubled up with Andy for a few minutes. Poor guy, I’m sure he was glad when he got rid of me again. Back on our normal track riding was better and I switched back to Felix. The highlight of the trip back to the lodge was (besides the fact that we survived it) a plethora of great grey owls. I think I stopped counting as well as looking for them, after number 5 or 6. I’m so glad we had at least the owls to look at. There were no bear tracks, not to mention an actual bear, to be spotted at all. I think this day took a toll on some of us. Butch headed off to see if he can find any tracks and didn’t catch up with us on the way to the lodge. Since we were riding in the back as usual we weren’t even fully aware of all of this. You could notice that people got tired, so snowmobiles had to be dug out on a regular basis. Which is not helping with the tiredness. Even our guide Andy, who usually was very calm, got stressed out. Especially when we arrived back at the lodge and Butch was not yet there. It was getting dark already and while we were sitting down for dinner Andy got ready to go out again, looking for Butch. Just when he was about to leave, we spotted some lights coming towards the lodge. With a great relieve we all could enjoy our dinner.
The next day the weather had turned. It was really cold, we had high winds and the snow was blowing. It didn’t stop us from heading out and soon we all looked like snowmen and women. Today we had a coffee break on the Menahook river, at “Mike’s cabin”. The weather got a bit better and we enjoyed our little fire while Jad was flying his drone. Seeing this beautiful landscape from the air is stunning. The large number of rivers all flowing towards Hudson Bay is rather impressive. We had lunch at the lodge and for the afternoon tour it was just Andy, Jad, Felix and myself. Since the weather was a bit better we decided to stop more often for pictures and we were allowed to lead the way. It was a fun afternoon, even if the pictures I took were not that great.
Back at the lodge we had our last pre dinner appetizers with a glass of champagne, to toast to the most unusual holiday. This trip really tested us mentally as well as physically. You might have noticed that the trip seemed to be longer than it should have been. While we were stuck in Thompson, Mike arranged for an extension of our stay, if people were up for it, since we had lost an entire week due to the storm. We should have spent around 10 days at the lodge, if the trip would have gone to plan. With the storm delay it would have just been 3 days, which would have given us an even smaller chance to see bears. We all had changed our flights, adding an extra day in Winnipeg, just to make sure we have some buffer and had planned to stay until Sunday at Nanuk Lodge, instead of Wednesday. It would not have been us, if this plan wouldn’t have to be changed again, right? Instead of Sunday we had to fly out on Saturday, since another storm was forecasted.
So, sadly our therefore last day at the lodge was now coming to an end. Our fellow travellers went to bed early, and could not be woken up for the display of farewell lights. They were not as spectacular as the last Northern light display, but who knows when we will have a chance to see them again.
On Saturday, we packed our bags, went on a last short snowmobile ride and after lunch the plane arrived to take us to Gillam. It was a beautiful sunny day and I really didn’t want to leave this magical place. From the plane you can see how fare the wilderness stretches and I’m sure I will be back one day. Strange to think that we are now travelling back to civilisation (though I think living a the lodge is pretty damn civilised) with people, cars and city noises. Seeing the first settlements made me a bit sad.
Even if our stay at the lodge was very short, I could carry on writing about all the things we experienced here, since even theses 5 pages do not cover it all, but I will spare you.
But there is one last thing I would like to say. Whenever I travelled into the cold, might this be the North Pole, Iceland, Norway or Canada in winter, what touches me the most are the people you meet.
And yes, the polar bug does exist!