This is the final installation of our Great Northern Adventure to see polar bears in Churchill, Manitoba in 2002, in which we board a train and barrel through the night into the Canadian darkness, only to discover that there really is "no place like home."
November 12-14, 2002
After the spectacle of the Northern Lights subsided, the train rolled into Churchill and we boarded. Like all good things, our Great Northern Adventure had to come to an end. We saw polar bears, rode a dog sled, saw the Northern Lights, battled a snowsuit, and froze our noses off. In the end, a good time was had by all.
On the Via Rail Canada Train going back to Winnipeg, we had a room similar to the one we rode up in, next door to Ruth and Ralph. Fortunately, the lower berth was flat this time, so Alexander and Frank don't get pitched onto the floor as frequently as they had been before.
The next morning, we discovered that we can open the wall between our room and Ruth and Ralph's. Together, the two rooms seemed quite spacious.
Alexander spent much of his time on the training playing on the floor with the few toys we had brought along, and watching his "Thomas the Tank Engine" videos over and over. He continued to call Ruth and Chris "Toby" and "Percy" for the entire trip, and we amused ourselves by singing along to "Accidents Happen" and "Rockin' on the Railway" when we got bored.
The trip back was uneventful. We stopped in Thomson and bought a few Via Rail souvenirs, and rehashed the trip with our fellow passengers. We peered at tiny video camera screens to see footage that various people caught of the polar bears. No one was able beat Ralph's video of the two sparring bears, though.
On November 14, we finally rolled into Winnipeg, the final stop on our Polar Bear odyssey. We had a final breakfast with Ruth, Ralph, and Chris before going to the airport to catch our respective flights back to California, Michigan, and Indiana. Throughout the trip, they were patient and kind to Alexander even in his less-than-stellar moments. We couldn't have asked for better traveling companions.
We flew back that day via Denver to San Jose, where we peeled off our winter gear for 63 degree weather and sunny skies. No matter how far we roam in this wide world, it's always good to be back at home.
I've often wondered what compels people to live in harsh, unforgiving climates. I think I found the answer on this trip. The bleakest, most remote places on earth can become paradise if you are surrounded by people who love you, do work that you enjoy, and have something to look forward to every day. In Churchill, Steinbach, and Angle Inlet, we met people who invested themselves in their communities every day. I'm sure they couldn't imagine living anywhere else.
Something about traveling to a very distant, remote location, makes you appreciate home even more, and makes you see it all in a different light. I was reminded of a refrain in T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets, from the poem "Little Giddings":
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
The reason I love living in California is that life seems to be easier when the sun is shining and you don't have to battle the elements to accomplish simple tasks. Despite the threat of earthquakes, forest fires, and mudslides, California is the place I call home. What I learned from this trip, however, is that my home will always be wherever there are people I love and who love me. In the end, it doesn't really matter where that is, it only matters who is by your side.
Seven years later, this trip is just a vague memory for Alex. A few people have asked us why we would bother to take a child so young on a trip like this, when it was unlikely that he would remember much, if anything, about it. I don't think that the precise memories are necessarily as important as giving him the sensory memory that there are still wild places on this earth, where massive, magnificent creatures roam free. That wildness is vanishing all too quickly, and we felt that we needed to see it while we still could.
I hope that somewhere in his dreams, Alex still sees the polar bears off in the distance, sleeping, waiting, and dreaming their dreams of endless ice and abundance.