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.

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