This post is part of a series of posts on our trip to Churchill, Manitoba to see the annual polar bear migration. In this post, we finally get to see some actual bears, and Alexander declares war on his snowsuit.
November 10, 2002
I grew up in Ohio, where winters were cold and snowy. I lived in Chicago for three years, where I thought I'd freeze to death in the two block walk from my dorm room to my law school classes, when the howling winds off Lake Michigan whipped up in a frenzy of ice, wind, and snow. I thought I knew cold.
Despite that, I was not prepared for how cold it would be in Churchill. I can honestly say that this was the coldest cold I'd ever experienced in my life. Both Frank and I are Midwestern refugees who gladly traded in the snow and ice for the temperate climate of California, and hotter than West Hell summers in Austin. Maybe that made us wimps, or maybe it's just too damn cold in Churchill. Probably both.
On our first morning in Churchill, we suited up with layer upon layer of long underwear, t-shirts, flannel shirts, sweaters, fleece, then polar jackets, scarves, gloves, and boots. It took 20 minutes to get dressed just to go thirty yards to breakfast next door at Churchill Motel.
Alexander was content to put on the layers, but drew a firm line in the sand when it came to the one-piece snowsuit. He went on an all-out toddler rampage when the evil contraption brought forth, as though he were being dragged to the dungeon to be put into a modern equivalent of an Iron Maiden. He put up quite a fight, and it took four adults, two cookies, and a promise of something shiny to get him suited up for the day.
After breakfast, we joined our tour group for a helicopter tour that took us over the town and out over the Hudson Bay to look for polar bears. The Bay was sufficiently frozen so most of the bears had moved out onto the ice to hunt for seals. If all else failed over the next few days, we hoped to at least get a glimpse of a few from the air.
We went out to the helicopter landing site, and found out that Alexander was not allowed to go up (nor did he particularly want to), so he and I stayed in the cozy station while Frank goes up with the first group, along with Chris, Ruth, and Ralph. Alex and I drank hot cocoa in the station and watched the helicopters take off and land. He still hated his snowsuit, and stared pensively out the window. His expression is either "Wish I could go on one of those big whirly contraptions" or "I wonder why my parents hate me so much to make me wear this damn snowsuit."
When Frank and the family returned, it was my turn to go up. I told Frank, "Whatever you do, DO NOT REMOVE THE SNOWSUIT" in case he got some bright idea to free Alexander from his bondage.
On the helicopter, I look outed and saw varying shades of white and gray in all direction, and not much else. We finally saw a yellowish speck moving, lumbering really, across the ice. Our first bear sighting! Another yellow speck looked like it’s hunkered down over an ice hole, and the pilot points out that the bear is about to break through to catch a seal. The others in the helicopter get really excited. I was relatively unimpressed, because my glasses kept fogging over so I couldn't really make out what the yellow speck was doing. I decided I would have a better view watching polar bears on Animal Planet.
Flying out, we got a nice view of Churchill and I realized how small it was. Frank later wrote in his journal, “From the air, it’s really clear this town is an isolated place at the edge of the Arctic—vast white in every direction."
While in the air, we passed over a shipwreck that is surrounded by ice, and long ago abandoned. The brown and black metal and wood stand out against the blank white canvas of the ice, and it's somewhat jarring to see it when you hover over it. We fly back over the town and touch down safely at the heliport. If you're keeping score, we saw: Yellow Specks Alleged to be Polar Bears: 2; Shipwrecks: 1; Ice floes: 289,038,420.
After the ride, we go on a “private” tour that John arranged just for Alexander, so he could see bears without a 9 hour tour with a busload of retirees. I'm not sure if he did it for our benefit or for the sake of the other passengers after observing Alexander's behavior in the heliport station. As far as I could tell, it was a win-win situation. We weren’t sure how long Alexander would last, so going our separate ways seemed to be the best for everyone.
Ralph, Ruth, Chris, Frank, Alexander and I got on a small bus. The other members of our group get on another bus. There was an Australian naturalist who got on the bus with us. He had been in Churchill for a while, studying the hibernation patterns of the bears, and gave us the inside scoop on what had been happening with the bears in Churchill. Alexander was absolutely thrilled to be on a school bus, for some reason. I think it made him feel grown-up, like a five year old
The Australian naturalist recommended that we go out to a piece of land east of town, near the ship wreck we saw from the helicopter. The driver complied, and we were off through the snowy streets, heading toward a compound where someone who owns a bunch of sled dogs keeps his dogs chained to stakes in the ground when they are not in use. As we're driving in, we passed a pick up truck, who stopped and waved at us. The Australian mentioned that the guy in the truck is Norbert Rosing, a famous nature photographer who does bear calendars. Norbert is well-known around Churchill, and we're told that his work is in the calendars we see all over town, as well as in National Geographic.
We drove past the gate into a somewhat bizarre scene of thirty-forty sled dogs, mostly huskies, on long chains. They had some room to run around and interact with each other, but I found it kind of disturbing that they were out there in the open, in full view of all the polar bears traipsing through on their way out to sea. I wondered why the hungry bears didn't just eat the defenseless pooches, and told Frank they looked to me like polar bear snacks on a string.
I asked the Australian naturalist about it, and he said the bears and dogs are actually friendly with each other, and the bears rarely attack or try to eat the dogs. While not exactly a symbiotic relationship, the dogs and the bears have worked out some kind of peaceful co-existence.
While admiring the dogs, we spotted our first actual bear, off in the distance. Suddenly, my heart started pounding and I fumbled my camera gear. Finally! There it was! National Geographic come to life! A real live polar bear lumbering along. It was thrilling and terrifying at the same time. He was a hundred yards or so away, so it was safe to get off the bus to snap a picture and hop back on in the event he started to charge. From what the naturalist told us, the bears look slow, but when they are motivated to charge, they actually run quite fast.
Together, our little group took about 5,000 pictures of this lone bear, then eased on down the road a little, where we saw two bears of to the left of the bus, sauntering along. We stopped again, and the two of them reared up and started fighting. The Australian naturalist says the bears are probably adolescents, sparring to practice for mating. He is a wealth of information. We're so caught up in the bears sparring practice, we don't notice a third bear peacefully napping about thirty yards from the bus. The third bear rouses from his slumber to watch the fight. We snap pictures and Ralph takes video of the bear boxing match, and no one is paying attention to the little cub on the bus, Alexander. I develop a serious case of lens-envy looking at Ralph's zoom lens.
At first, Alexander was as enthralled as we were, but after realizing that the bears are getting all the attention, he the started crying. I think it because we were not paying enough attention to him. He started shouting, “I’m cold! I’m cold!” which with a stuffy nose sounded like "I'm code! I'm code!"
This was our cue to get the bus moving and go back toward town.
We got back to the hotel, where some of our fellow tour group members were lounging. They had a disappointing morning, and didn't see much of anything. Ralph showed a few people his video of the bears sparring, and suddenly an insurrection started to brew. John settled the question of why we got to go somewhere they didn't by telling them that we would all go to the dog compound after lunch.
John also told us that the family who runs the Bear's Den Bed & Breakfast, where part of our group is staying, offered to watch Alexander for a few hours so we can take the rest of the tour with the group. I was hesitant about leaving him with a group of total strangers, but after I met them, I realized I had nothing to worry about.
The Marten family lives in the B&B year round, and opens their home up in October and November for tourists during bear season. I recognized one of the daughters, a little redhead who had been at the playground the day before. They told us to come back after dinner, and not to worry about him. They said they were thinking about taking the kids out snowmobiling, and I told them, "Good luck getting Alexander to put that snowsuit back on once it's off!"
Alexander blends in immediately with their kids, and we went off to visit an old fort, revisited the dog compound, took a tour by the town dump, and headed toward the airport. There's not much to see around Churchill, so this route is pretty much the route to take if you want to see bears anywhere near, but not too close to town.
I got out of the bus at an old fort at Cape Merry, and was knocked breathless by the cold, cold wind blowing over the bay at around fifty miles per hour. I thought my lungs were going to freeze for sure, so I got back on the bus and waiting for a few brave souls who trekked out to take a closer look.
We saw one big bear sleeping in the dog compound, and the group went nuts taking pictures of the bear. All our other efforts to see polar bears were a dismal failure, although we were told that a mother bear and cub were spotted near the dump earlier that day.
At the end of the tour, our driver dropped us off at the train station for a lecture on bears from a Parks Canada ranger. Afterward, we head over to Gypsy's again for dinner. The food is excellent, and there are several nice choices on the menu. It's a homey kind of place, with red checkered tablecloths and a friendly staff. Everyone sat together at long tables and recounted our day out hunting for polar bears.
We finally got back to the Bear's Den around 9:30, and the house was suspiciously quiet. Two of the women who were staying there let us in, and we went in search of our toddler. The house was completely empty. I wondered where on earth they could have gone, and worried that something might have happened to Alexander. I berated myself with thoughts of, "What kind of mother leaves her baby with total strangers?"
Just as I was about to call in a search and rescue team, the Martens and their crew came in. "Can we keep him?" the mom, Lynn, joked.
They had gone out to their cabin on the outskirts of town, and taken Alexander out snowmobiling. He rode on a sled pulled by a snowmobile, and from all accounts, loved going fast. The kids gave him "snowsuit lessons" and helped him feel more comfortable in his suit, and even got him to wear gloves rather than try to eat them. He had a nice nap, a practice he had abandoned a few months earlier, much to my chagrin. I was astonished. Left to his own devices, Alexander was a perfectly charming little gentleman.
We sat and visited with them for a while. Alexander was so enamored of the family that he didn't want to leave. They have four kids, and the eldest was going to boarding school in Winnipeg. They are incredibly nice people, as are all of their kids.
We finally said our farewells, and pull Alexander away from the house. The dad, Gord, gives us a ride in their truck back to the hotel, which is only about 100 yards away, which seems like a ten mile hike in the bitter cold. He offered because he realized that the night wind is treacherous and we California wimps were obviously weren’t set up for it. Alex falls asleep in the car, dressed his snowsuit, but without any protest at all. I'm not sure who had a better day, him or us. My money's on him.