Wonderful Day on the Tundra

Friday, November 25, 2022

Sunday, November 13th was our first full day on the tundra.  The schedule for each day on the tundra was basically the same.  Coffee, hot tea and snacks available in the lounge beginning about 6:00AM, breakfast at 7:00 and depart the lodge on our tundra buggy at 8:00, in search of bears, other wildlife and general adventure.  Breakfast was always a hearty meal to get the day started.  Today we had French toast, bacon and sausage and eggs along with a great bowl of fruit and you could have oatmeal, cereal, etc. as well.  During breakfast we learned most people really didn’t sleep a lot last night because of the aurora and just the general excitement of being on the tundra.  To add to the excitement, we saw really big bear tracks out our windows this morning.  We both woke up several times during the night and looked out our little window but never saw a bear walking by.  We had great hopes for the day.  First things first, after breakfast and loading everyone into the buggy, Mark, our great driver, drove over to the kitchen and transferred our lunch into the rear of the buggy.  We were fed way too much excellent food on this adventure!  It was about a twenty minute buggy ride with everyone looking out the window searching for our first wildlife sighting.  Mark brought the buggy to a stop and cut off the engine and pointed out the front window.  Finally, we all spotted the big sleeping bear.  FUN FACT.  Just for the record, polar bears are not bright white.  Their coat actually has no white pigment. In fact, a polar bear’s skin is black and its hairs are hollow.  Their color is determined by the lighting and their surroundings. When light strikes the polar bear fur part of the light is absorbed and the rest is scattered away.  Normally, polar bears appear white because the fur is scattering the sunlight which is also white.  White is a good color because its the best camouflage on the snowy tundra.  But on very cloudy days, the bears may appear grey or a little yellow due to oil from some of the prey they have recently eaten or orange at sunset.

Now back to our bear.  It was large and a little yellowish in color and sleeping.  We watched it for quite a while.  Occasionally it would lift it’s head a little and we were hopeful it would get up but no, it always just put it’s head back down and slept some more.  After a while we had all taken all the pictures we really wanted of this sleeping bear.  Our guide had given us some history of the area and some of the problems the polar bears are facing due to less polar ice and honestly, we were all getting a little bored.  That is when our driver told us some upsetting news.  Yesterday, this sleeping bear was the only bear that yesterday’s tour group saw except for some tiny spots of distant bears out on the ice.  The ice had begun freezing and the bears were moving out to catch seals.  He said that this bear would eventually wake up and move but …. When?? He couldn’t promise us that we would see anything else today.  Anne was pretty devastated by this tale and really thought maybe Mark was joking.  The buggy got very quiet.  Anne and Donna just looked at each other not knowing what to say. Mark was very serious and just wanted to be truthful with us.  After several minutes we all began to look out with our cameras and binoculars again. Suddenly Donna said “Don’t look over there look over here.  Over here!  There are two bears walking over here!”  The bears were on the opposite side of the buggy, walking toward the ice.  They were not right next to us but they were close enough to see with the naked eye and good pictures with the zoom on the cameras.  Mark started the buggy and we headed toward the bears, hoping to get closer before they made it to the ice.  We followed those bears for a good while, taking lots of pictures.  As we got closer to them we could see it was three bears.  A little later we saw three more bears.  The two smaller ones were sparring – so amazing to get to see in the wild.  They were slowly making their way toward the ice and we followed as long as we could.  Sometime in the middle of all this we started seeing some smaller animals.  Later in the day we saw three amazing little arctic foxes.  The arctic fox is a much smaller fox – solid white – blends in completely with the snow.  We saw a silver fox – beautiful.  We watched this one while he jumped up, dove down in the snow (almost cartoon like), dug around and eventually caught the prey, a small lemming (rodent), we think.  We also saw numerous Willow Ptarmigan throughout the day.  They were in full white splendor.  This is the state bird for Alaska and we saw many on our Alaska trip in 2014.  In May we saw them in white but later in the summer got to see their “summer outfit” with lots of brown feathers.  The topper on the cake this day was seeing a Snowy Owl!  We never thought we would get to see this beautiful owl.  We were told they had all migrated south by now but we rounded a curve and saw something different on top of a large bolder we had passed earlier.  Anne didn’t know what it was at first but Mark sure did and quickly positioned the buggy so we could get some pictures.  What an absolutely amazingly wonderful day!! We saw numerous polar bears and all the other critters mentioned.  Mark and our guide Ward were so surprised.  Ward said he had only led one other adventure where so much wildlife was spotted in a single day.  Donna was our super spotter.  By the end of our trip Mark was wanting to hire her to spot for him.  We still have two more days on the tundra so check back for more of our amazing subarctic trip.

We Really Did This!?!

November 21, 2022

Saturday morning, November 12, we were again up early with baggage downstairs at 6:00 and breakfast at 6:15AM.  With that out of the way we boarded a bus for transit to the far side of the airport to board a charter flight to Churchill.  It was again windy and cold! Winnipeg 18 degrees with feels like of 12 and on arrival to Churchill, minus 11 degrees with feels like of minus 26 degrees!  We now REALLY understood the requirement of gear rated at minus 40 degrees and were thankful it was available to rent in Winnipeg since you can’t easily purchase that type gear (coats, pants or bib overalls and boots) in Alabama.  We, especially Anne, did not like the gear.  It was heavy, bulky, and the smallest size available was too big.  The boots required two pairs of heavy socks to stay on her feet but….she stayed toasty warm in the coldest of conditions (even if she did feel like the Pillsbury Dough Boy.)

After landing in Churchill, we boarded a bus to tour the little town of 800 people.  First stop was at the Polar Bear Jail.  Nestled on the shore of the Hudson Bay, Churchill sits on the annual migration path of the world’s largest land predator – the polar bear.  Churchill also hosts beluga whales, wolves, moose, migratory birds, snowy owls, arctic, red, and silver foxes, arctic hare, other amazing creatures at different times of the year. It is the gathering area for the polar bears as they await the freezing of the Hudson Bay.  Once the bay freezes hard enough to support the weight of the bears (700-1500 pounds for mature male), they go far out on the ice to feed on seals. Sometimes the bears wonder thru the town while waiting on the freeze and become a danger to the residents.  If that occurs the Polar Bear Warning System jumps into action, an outdoor alarm sounds signaling everyone that a bear is close by and to go inside, the naturalists respond to fire noise makers to hopefully encourage the bears to leave town and head back to the tundra. Sometimes a helicopter will sweep down and try to herd the bear out of town but sometimes the bears just want to say in town and then they are captured, tagged as a troublemaker and relocated.  Until the relocation, they stay in the polar bear jail.  We also saw some of the huge, humane traps that are sometimes used in the relocation process.  Living where bears wonder thru town would require some adjustment for us but seems second nature to the locals.  We learned that for the most part doors are not locked because there are times your neighbor may need to duck in your house to escape the bears.  You can fly to Churchill or take the train.  No roads in or out.  So again – no locks.  People don’t lock the cars because someone may need to jump in for protection.  Also, there is no car theft in Churchill.  If a car is “borrowed” the most someone would be charged with is joy riding.  So…what’s a teenager to do when they need to pass their drivers test and one of the requirements is to demonstrate knowledge of what to do at a four way stop?  As we were entering town from the airport there was a four way stop.  No need for it at that intersection, but it was placed there so the young people of Churchill could pass the provincial driving test. It’s the only 4 way stop in Churchill.  As we drove around town we viewed a number of murals painted on walls of various buildings.  The murals are part of the SeaWalls Churchill project which was created to educate and inspire the community to protect the oceans.  It serves as a reminder to this small town on the edge of the Arctic of their value and worthiness in this world.  “Plans to protect air and water, wilderness and wildlife are in fact plans to project man.” – Stewart Udall.  We spent time after lunch roaming main street looking in the various shops and the grocery store – also sells clothes, cold weather gear, snow machines etc.  The prices were crazy high.  Milk is over $9 per gallon and produce is just too expensive and old when it arrives.  We really don’t know how people live in Churchill.  We were told they harvest most of their meat from the forest.  Grow what they can in the short growing season and as one teenager we talked to in a shop told us, “It’s all I’ve ever known.”  We also visited and enjoyed a presentation at Polar Bears International.  PBI is made up of a passionate group of conservationists, scientists, and volunteers working to secure a future for polar bears across the arctic.  Over the course of the week we heard several lectures on the work being done to secure a future for the polar bears and the sea ice they depend upon.  We also had a quick visit to Cape Merry Battery.  By then the wind had increased in speed and the will chill was so cold we couldn’t stay out on the point for long even in all our gear.  We got a quick look and read the handout back in the bus.  While Churchill  is definitely a beautiful place, with amazing wild life, it is also an unforgiving, and harsh environment.

As darkness approached our group of 20 adventurous souls were taken to the Tundra Buggy Docks to board our buggy out to the Tundra Buggy Lodge.  After boarding the buggy, our feet would not touch the ground again for 3 days as we were not allowed to walk on the tundra due to the damage it could cause to the tundra and permafrost (and the presence of hungry polar bears).  We departed the dock and traveled for about 10 minutes into the pitch black darkness.  Our buggy then dropped into a deep mud hole, pulling apart the drive shaft.  There we sat stranded at minus 18 degrees and strong winds making it feel much worse.  This could have been a scary experience, and was a little, but we had another buggy following us so we weren’t alone and had radio contact with the dock.  Very soon the repair buggy arrived and there was another surprise. Men came out of the buggy with guns.  The guys couldn’t be outside their buggy to repair our buggy without other guys covering their backs watching for bears.  Truly a different world from the one where we daily live.  Obviously, everything was okay because we are writing this blog but certainly new experiences for us.

The buggy was repaired in about 20 minutes and then we were back on our way to the Tundra Lodge.  We arrived after about 45 more minutes of very slow travel out onto the tundra.  We were greeted by the staff, given a quick tour of the Lodge and began enjoying appetizers while awaiting dinner.  All the food was wonderful!!

Saturday was a long day and after a wonderful but late dinner (due to our breakdown) we were ready to get some rest. However, there was a scheduled lecture in the lounge buggy.  Just as everyone was gathering, we looked out the window and saw the aurora borealis!  Oh my gosh!! This was one of our biggest bucket list items.  We wanted to see and photograph the aurora while on this trip but had been told it wasn’t likely due to the clouds.  It was beautiful.  So exciting.  Obviously, there was no lecture and everyone was grabbing heavy coats and out on the viewing platforms taking pictures for the next hour or more – no longer tired.

Stay tuned for the next episode when we spend our first full day looking for wildlife on the tundra.  Are all these new experiences and things we are learning keeping us young?  Don’t know, but we sure are having fun.

Let The Next Adventure Begin

November 20, 2022

When we closed our last post, we had traveled in B(eyond) B(lessed) from Randy and Debra’s house where we left Fred, to Ellijay, GA, for the Switch It Up Huddle, to Oneonta to our church, and landed at Camp Sumatanga for two nights while preparing for our next BIG adventure which began on November 10, 2022.  We had little connectivity over the next week and had no room to pack our computers so we will now be catching up on our blog postings over the next several days.  Because of the remoteness of our destination, we had some pretty tight luggage restrictions.  Of course after having everything we own traveling with us in Fred for so long, packing light was somewhat of a challenge and we repacked more than once.  Since we were going to a very COLD environment, our clothes took a lot more space than our typical Florida winter clothes.  Yep, had to purchase a few winter items.  Wednesday we moved BB to Barry and Donna’s house where we did an overnight and prepared BB to be alone.  Thursday morning we were up at 2:30AM.  The four of us departed Pine Mountain for the Birmingham airport at 3:29AM and we were off on a trip that we had been discussing and planning for over a year.  Our destination was Churchill, Manitoba, Canada, to participate in a Polar Bear Photography Adventure.  Of course, we first flew from Birmingham to Atlanta, then to Toronto Canada, cleared customs, and  then landed in Winnipeg, Manitoba at 5:30 Thursday afternoon.  It was cold and windy but there was no snow on the ground.  However, while we were eating dinner, one hour later, it began snowing and snowed all night, continuing into Friday.  Of course, as soon as we finished dinner, we had to go out and play in the snow.  We are from Alabama where it was 81°F the day before our departure.

We chose to arrive in Winnipeg, (called “Winterpeg” by some of the locals), a day before our Adventure began because we didn’t trust the airlines to get us there on Friday by 6:00 PM.   This gave us a day to play in Winnipeg.  After waking up with a great view of the airport snow removal equipment constantly de-icing planes and keeping the runways open, we took a taxi (Uber not available due to road conditions), to an area of Winnipeg called The Forks – forks of two rivers merge there.  There is an indoor market with many restaurants, shops, views of the rivers, a riverwalk park, and restored/ repurposed train station.  It was very cold to us southerners, 18°F with a feels-like temperature of 12°F and the snow to us was deep, about 5-6 inches.  However, we only had about 10 hours to explore so we weren’t going to let a little snow stop us.  Friday, November 11, was Remembrance Day in Canada.  It’s sort of a combination of the USA Veterans Day and Memorial Day.  The armistice agreement that ended WWI was signed at 11:00 o’clock on the 11th day of the 11th month.  Almost everything in Winnipeg was closed until 1:00PM –  after the Moment To Remember events at 11:00 AM were completed.  We visited most things in The Forks region, returning to our hotel in time to see a beautiful sunset across the runways and be entertained by the constant train of snow removal equipment.

We officially began our Adventure at 6:00PM with our opening dinner, meeting our fellow travelers and our guide.  Three of our group had not yet arrived due to travel problems.  So glad we went a day early.  We had a great dinner, were given information on what to expect on Saturday – the first full day of our Adventure – and our cold weather gear.  Gear good to -40°!!  We were so excited to get started!

2022 Switch It Up Georgia Huddle

Monday, November 7, 2022

Last Wednesday, November 3, after readying Beyond Blessed for travel we headed northwest.  We were able to avoid the interstate (GPS was not happy), and had a beautiful drive from Johnston, SC through the north Georgia mountains to Ellijay, GA.  Some of you may recall we attended the first Huddle for Switch It Up this same week last year.  Just as last year’s event, the Huddle was at Talona Ridge RV Resort.  Two of the first people we saw after arriving were the owners we got to know last year.  We were so glad to see them again.  They are such sweet Christian people and have done an amazing job completing the Resort.  It was not complete when we were there last year when there was red mud all around and just a hole in the ground for the pool and hot tub.  Some of us shared sites because not all the sites were complete.  We all had a great time but it was great to see everything completed this year.  Such a beautiful setting.  The sites are very large and the amenities extremely nice.    If any of you need a little get away, we can highly recommend Talona Ridge.  For those with out an RV they will be building some cabins in the future.  There are many attractions in the area too.

The Huddle actually began on Thursday evening but we went in Wednesday so we could spend some time with friends we had met last year.  Wednesday evening as a pre-huddle event we had a chili cookoff.  Some people brought their favorite chili which was judged by a panel of YouTube creators and Talona Ridge staff.  The rest of us brought sides and all had a great meal and wonderful time catching up with friends.

Thursday we had some free time and visited one of the local apple barns.  There was a good crop of apples this year with many to choose from, as well as all the cider, jellies and pies you could want.  This year we tried the blueberry and the peach fried pies as well as some scuppernong cider and coated pecans.   All Excellent!

At the Huddles we always do something as a “Give Back” to the community.  This year we made 300 gift bags for the teachers in Ellijay as a way of saying thank you for taking care of all their students.  Our members donated such items as pencils, pens, highlighters, markers, drinks, $5.00 gift cards, candy and several other items.  Each bag included a note from the Switch Crew thanking the teachers for their dedication.

Friday afternoon we could choose from two different hikes.  We had made some new friends at lunch Friday so we rode with them in their Jeep to Amicalola Falls for our hike.  We did this one last year but it’s a beautiful water fall and is always a challenge due to the 604 steps you climb if you start at the bottom of the falls.  There are at least two other ways to the falls involving some driving rather than the steps but we did ALL the steps.  We actually think maybe we are in better shape from all our hiking and walking because we didn’t have to stop and rest as much this year.  After dinner we gathered around the fire place and fire pits for a time of music, singing and building of community.

Saturday morning we all drove to Blue Ridge to take a four hour trip on the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway thru the north Georgia country side to the sister towns of McCaysville, Ga and Copperhill, TN.  We had lunch there and while we were exploring the little towns we heard a lady behind us mention they were from Canada.  Anne turned around and said, “We are going to Manitoba next week.”  That led to a conversation where a younger gentleman said he was from Manitoba.  We had an interesting little conversation and then all went on their way, so more of Manitoba later.

Sunday, as is customary, we had a worship service.  Todd and Shelia know that this service will be the only worship service some of the Switch Crew may ever attend.  It’s not preachy, or judgemental, but Sheila does make sure she always shares the salvation message and talks about what Jesus means to her.  This service was a wonderful service with Luke (who wrote the Switch It Up (SIU) intro used in their videos) leading our music with some familiar music and one fantastic song that he wrote.  Sheila brought the message and  along with the message of Jesus, shared how the Huddle last year was a turning point for she and Todd from SIU being all about their travels to being about the Switch Crew (us) and developing our community.  Just as last year we witnessed the foundations of Talona Ridge being poured and this year it is nearly complete, last year’s Huddle laid the foundation for a change in direction and focus to the developing SIU community. Todd and Shelia nor the rest of us know where this will all lead but God does and it is our privilege to be a small part of this growing community.

That was it for us this year as we needed to return to our church for an important meeting.  We headed back to Alabama about 10:00 and had an uneventful drive – the best kind – through the beautiful fall leaves.  Now we are spending a few days at Sumatanga getting some work done, and packing for our next big Adventure.  Stay tuned.