Wat’Chee Lodge, established in 1994, is a full-service non-consumptive wilderness lodge located 40 miles south of Churchill, Manitoba owned and operated by Michael and Morris Spence. The lodge is a refurbished navy communications base adjacent to Wapusk National Park and the world’s largest polar bear denning area. Open for only a short period every year, Wat’Chee Lodge offers a unique opportunity in North America to see, virtually guaranteed, polar bear cubs and their mothers in their natural habitat. With a rare operating permit from Parks Canada, Wat’Chee Lodge brings visitors as close as 100 metres to the bears, while they learn about various aspects of the bears’ dens, habits and life cycle. Other wildlife viewing opportunities include ptarmigan, arctic foxes, caribou herds and wolves in addition to night time viewing of aurora borealis.
Wat’Chee Lodge was recognized by Travel Manitoba and awarded the Aboriginal Tourism Award at the Manitoba Tourism Awards. Wat’Chee lodge was named a finalist in the Business of the Year category (single unit) in the Tourism Industry Association of Canada’s (TIAC) National Tourism Awards program.
Wat’Chee Lodge has long been a coveted secret of naturalists and wildlife photographers. Images and video taken at Wat’Chee Lodge have been seen around the world resulting in international exposure for Manitoba. Many pictures of polar bear cubs and mothers have been taken at Wat’Chee Lodge and are commonly seen in magazines, books, calendars, et cetera.
For Wat’Chee Lodge, with its operating permit from Parks Canada providing access to the polar bears denning area, the issue was how to grow from an operation that relied on one visitor at a time (mostly photographers) to an full-service non-consumptive operation that delivers not only dramatic, virtually guaranteed views of polar bears as well as opportunities to see aurora borealis, but an authentic northern experience based on aboriginal culture and traditions.
The Response and the Result
Wat’Chee Lodge provides a true northern experience, including immersion into the Aboriginal culture and virtually guaranteed exposure to polar bears. By limiting the time the lodge accepts guests to a timeframe that coincides with the highest probability of viewing polar bears, Wat’Chee Lodge can be confident it can deliver the experience the visitor is expecting. Taking into account the comfort and safety of their guests, Wat’Chee Lodge has made upgrades to its communications and transportation systems; old winter track vehicles have been replaced with 15-passenger 4×4 vans on tracks.
The development of Wat’Chee Lodge and its operating principles have been based on intensive and ongoing consultations with polar bear biologists and wildlife land managers with many years experience in the area. As well, the lodge was established after consultation with the Spence brothers’ father.
Wat’Chee Lodge respects the land and wildlife that surround it, in the tradition of the Aboriginal people. Land operations are conducted only in winter when the tundra is frozen and the vehicles used are designed to leave no tracks. Impact on wildlife is minimized by implementing a minimum viewing distance of 100 metres, ensuring the safety of both the guests and the animals.
Preservation of and learning about the Cree culture of Hudson Bay is engrained into the experience at Wat’Chee Lodge. Guests learn about the way of life of past generations on the ancestral trapline of the Spence family. Stories are shared so guests can see the land through the eyes of the storyteller. Guests are treated to northern cuisine of tea and bannock, caribou and arctic char.
Wat’Chee Lodge demonstrates the importance of valuing and respecting the resource on which the experience relies, the polar bears and their natural habitat, as integral to the lodge’s ongoing economic viability. The owners and staff at Wat’Chee Lodge are committed to their cultural traditions and to their community, helping to demonstrate and promote tourism as a viable economic opportunity for other members of their community.