Merry Christmas!!!

Sunday, December 25, 2022

Merry Christmas to all our family and friends and thank you all for following along on our journey this past year.  We hope you have had a great Christmas season and remember the reason for the celebration.  We have had a quiet but unusually cold Christmas in Gulf State Park in Gulf Shores, AL.  While it’s been warmer than north Alabama and way warmer than our family and friends farther north, but it’s still been very cold for here.  One night was a low of 18 and we have had pretty icicles at our water hydrants since we were told to leave the water dripping beginning last Thursday.  We are glad the forecast for this week is a little warmer.

Our last entry left off with our return to Alabama from our Polar Bear Photography trip.  The next morning we headed back to Johnston, South Carolina to Randy and Debra’s house.  We did a quick change out from Beyond Blessed (van), back into Fred (Class A) and on Saturday drove to Gaffney, SC to Freightliner for Fred’s annual service.  Fortunately, all the work was routine and no problems were found so we were back in Johnston Monday afternoon.  We had a great Thanksgiving week with Randy, Debra and their family.  It was also great to see nieces and nephews and their children who were able to come visit while we were there.  We made a quick trip back to Red Bay, AL to get other work done to Fred and then returned to Johnston to begin a deck project. Randy and Debra have a large deck on the back of their house and we helped them get started on rebuilding it with Trex.  We had several “weather days” when we couldn’t work outside so we had time for some games, puzzles, cooking, and just enjoying our time together. We also celebrated Anne’s birthday with Randy and Debra and of course it included some yummy ice cream.

We have now been in Gulf Shores for a week.  After getting settled in here we finally got out our Christmas decorations.  They may have to stay up later this year since we just got them up.  We have enjoyed the many trails in the park when the weather allowed.  We spotted an alligator at one of the usual places they hang out and went to a good raptor presentation by one of the naturalists. The past three days we have been inside a lot due to the strong winds and cold temps.  Next week will hopefully be better and we can get our bikes out.  We will let you know.  Stay safe and warm everyone!

Final Episode of Our Polar Bear Adventure

Sunday, December 11, 2022

Wednesday morning (November 16th) we awoke in Churchill to a heavy overnight snow.  It was cold and windy.  Very cold and very windy.  When we met Barry and Donna in the lobby for breakfast we met some local construction workers who were working on our hotel roof.  We don’t know how they were up on that roof in the extreme temperatures.  When Max said something to one of the men he said, “It’s ok.  We have gloves.”  When we looked up on the tin roof when we returned from breakfast – he didn’t have any gloves on his hands.  The people of Churchill are certainly hardier than the two of us.

The schedule for our last day was busy.  We toured a little more of the town, first visiting Churchill Rocket Research Range.  While no longer active this was the location from which rockets were launched to study the upper atmosphere off and on from 1954 to 1985, including studies of the aurora. It is now a National Historic Site of Canada.

We also visited the Itsanitaq Museum, a museum dedicated to the Inuit culture.  It was very well done and very informative on the people, animals, region and culture. It’s in a small space but is packed with displays and information.  We weren’t expecting to see wildlife this day but saw another fox perched on a large pile of snow.  Next we went to the Parks Canada Visitor’s Center where there were other great displays.  We were also very glad to find two geocaches located at the Visitor’s center.  The multicache was buried in the snow outside the visitor’s center.  The ranger offered us a snow shovel and then went outside with us and dug it out for us.  He was so excited we were looking for the cache because he had hidden it.  We had a good conversation with the young ranger.  We asked him about working in such a remote and isolated place.  He had only been assigned to Churchill a few months but said it was his dream location.  He was so excited to be there. 

Our big event for the way was dog sledding.  We visited the kennels, got to pet the dogs and then go sledding – so much fun and a very different experience sledding out through the woods.  Very different from the tundra and ice. 

We had lunch and time for a little souvenir shopping and then were supposed to head to the airport for our flight back to Winnipeg.  However, the weather took over and changed our plans.  It began snowing very hard during lunch.  Our original flight was cancelled and we had a later charter flight which meant we remained in Churchill for supper.  The snow was very heavy when we finally arrived at the airport.  It took a long time to deice the plane and then we headed to Winnipeg.  It probably wasn’t a blizzard but it sure was to these Alabama natives.  It was still snowing when we landed in Winnipeg a few hours later.  We turned in all our -40° gear, got a good night’s sleep and returned to Birmingham on Thursday.  The polar bear photography tour was a wonderful, exciting, beautiful experience.  A once in a lifetime adventure that we feel so blessed to have been able to experience. 

Last Days on the Tundra

Friday, December 2, 2022

The continuing saga of our experiences on the tundra north of Churchill, Manitoba.  In case you are interested, today, 12/2/2022, at 7:30pm EST, it is -19 degrees with a wind chill of -39 in Churchill.  Weather Bug cautions that it is “very cold”.  So glad we had the opportunity to visit this almost magical place, but very, very glad we do not live there.

Now back to our story of this cold far north area.  We forgot to mention in our last post, for Sunday, that the northern lights were out again late Sunday night.  The sky was not as bright as Saturday and there was some cloud cover but you could definitely see the lights. We were so blessed to see them both nights because the rest of our nights we had lots of clouds.

Monday and Tuesday began as Sunday with another great breakfast and then a full day on the tundra.  After the spectacular viewing day Sunday, we really didn’t know what to expect.  The next two days, we did have time to get to know our fellow travelers better.  As we quit totally concentrating on wildlife, we began to appreciate all the different cultures and backgrounds in our buggy – people from Canada, USA, Germany, Holland, and Japan and maybe elsewhere.  We also learned more about the tundra, the environmental concerns with the melting of the polar ice, and we noticed more of the plant life in the tundra, and the smaller things we had missed on Sunday.  We met Tundra Buggy One while we were roaming the tundra Monday and Tuesday.  It is the research vehicle our tour company (Frontiers North Adventures) provides to the Polar Bear Institute for their research.  Buggy 1 is equipped with some great camera gear and web cams anyone can watch.  The look and feel of our surroundings became more real as we spent more time there and began to take more in than just the wildlife.  Not that we were not still looking for and photographing wildlife both days.  But we began to notice other things too.  We saw more bears, fox, ptarmigan, and seals, but the big thrill for the day Monday was spotting an arctic hare – a rare find.  Our guide has only photographed one arctic hare in all his time on the tundra.  The hare is so beautiful and so very fast.  Most of the time all you get is pictures from behind as they run away.  They are very difficult to spot because they blend in perfectly with the snow, as do the arctic fox and ptarmigan.  Until they move, they go unnoticed even when they are right in view.   We had a gorgeous sunset Monday and then a very peaceful evening drive back to the lodge for another amazing dinner – our last dinner at the lodge.  Tuesday was another wonderful sunset but instead of heading to the lodge we went back to the buggy dock for our bus ride back to Churchill and our own hotel room and bathroom.  The lodge was actually very nice but it’s been a long time since we slept in bunk beds like at church camp and shared 3 bath rooms, 2 with showers, for 20 people.  We really enjoyed our long hot showers back in Churchill. Check back in for our final day of this adventure.  There was lots of fun on the final day.

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.