This is part of a series on our trip to Churchill, Manitoba in Canada to see the polar bear migration in 2002.
Tuesday, November 12, 2002
On our last day in Churchill, we had to get up really early for the culmination of the trip: the famous tundra buggy tour out onto the frozen tundra to look for polar bears. We had been intrigued by the giant school buses from the beginning, and hoped to get a closer look at the bears.
We had discussed with our tour leader, John, whether or not Alexander would be able to enjoy the Tundra Buggy Tour, and decided that it was probably a bad idea. We would be out all day, with no chance to return early if he couldn't take it. He spoke to the owner of the motel for us, who mentioned that his daughter was available to babysit. She was a stay-at-home mom with a baby who didn't mind babysitting one more to make a little extra cash. Again, we decided to leave our kid with a total stranger.
A Tundra Buggy is an odd sort of vehicle, a mash-up of a school bus, a double-wide trailer and a monster truck. The giant wheels can maneuver on the roughest, snowiest terrain, and make it tall enough that the bears can't jump on for a ride. On the back of the buggy is a small deck where people can go outside to take pictures. In pictures we had seen of the tundra buggies, bears went right up to the windows to try to beg for snacks from tourists. We hoped we'd get such an up-close and personal look at one of the polar bears.
Frank and I chose a seat in the back, near the heater. It didn't seem to matter, because within an hour out on the frozen tundra, my feet turned to two bricks of ice, despite having on 3 pairs of socks and fleece-lined hiking boots. When I just couldn't take it anymore, I took off my shoes and put my feet directly on the heater in order to thaw them out. A few others joined me in my quest for fire.
Our tour guide was a French dude named Jean-Pierre, and in a very cute French accent, he explained what we might see out on the tundra. It was a spare, white landscape, with snow drizzling down, and looked somewhat bleak. He talked about ptarmigan, arctic foxes, and of course, polar bears. He gave us a number of facts and figures about the bears and how they were faring with the onset of global warming. I wasn't paying that much attention, I must admit, because I was too busy worrying about how long it would take for frostbite to settle in, and worrying whether my feet had turned black yet.
We drove around the tundra for several hours and saw...nothing. Just snow. And Ice. And more snow. I started wishing I were watching Pixar videos with Alexander back at the babysitter's house, in front of her roaring fireplace.
After a few hours, I figured we might never see a bear, so I etched on into the frost on the window. I poked Frank and said, "Look! A bear!" which made him chuckle, but pissed of the people in the seat in front of us, who got excited thinking I'd actually seen a bear.
We finally spotted a ptarmigan out on the white plain, which was kind of hard to see because it was of course, all white. The crowd on the buggy got really excited about seeing an arctic fox, but all I could think was "big whoop". I was cold and cranky and didn't want to settle for no stinkin' arctic fox, thank-you-very-much.
At noontime, we stopped the buggy and Jean-Pierre and his assistant served up soup and sandwiches from Gypsy's Restaurant. The soup was hot and delicious, and I resisted the urge to pour it directly on my feet, which, by this time, had lost all feeling. The buggy was allegedly heated, but I couldn't tell a great deal of difference between the inside and the back porch. Lunch, so far, was the highlight of the trip.
We drove out to the site of the Tundra Buggy Hotel, where, for $200/night, you could actually sleep in a larger Tundra Buggy with beds inside. This sounded like a frozen version of hell to me.
We saw a couple of ptarmigan, doing a good job of blending in with the landscape. I started to think that the IBM couple we met at Gypsy's were right and all the bears had abandoned Churchill and it's environs and were long gone.
Just when I gave up hope, a lone bear appeared. Out of nowhere, about 10 other Tundra Buggies started circling around him. Everyone on our buggy started furiously snapping photos. I decided to brave the elements went out onto the back deck to get a better look, and seriously thought I would freeze in place in the process. Frank was outside trying to manipulate the video camera, and having no luck with bulky gloves on, took them off and nearly lost the use of his fingers in the process.
The bear sniffed around our buggy, figured we're not about to give up any of the delicious soup we had for lunch, and then sauntered off into the distance. The bear was not very big, and Jeanne Pierre explained to us he was probably an adolescent male, only recently separated from his mama, not quite sure what to do yet. He'd better get a move-on, I think to myself, or all the good seals are going to be taken and he's going to have one hungry, long summer.
After the excitement of the Lone Bear Sighting, we stopped to look at some very exciting rocks. Frank calls it the “Ice Age Geology Exhibit”, saying, “You know you’ve hit rock bottom on a tour when you spend 1/2 an hour at a geology site."
After about eight hours on this ice mobile, we finally made it back to town, and went to pick up Alexander. It turns out that he had an exceptionally happy day watching “Monsters Inc” three times in a row, playing with toys, eating grilled cheese sandwiches, and napping. I envied him.
It was our last night in Churchill, so John arranged for our entire group to convene at a dinner at the Seaport Inn. Everyone in the group was tired and weary from the day out on the tundra buggies. One of the waiters pulled out a guitar and serenaded Alexander, who gave his rapt attention to the man.
After dinner, we have to walk back to the hotel in the cold, arctic wind blowing off the Bay. We gathered up our belongings and boarded a bus to the train station.
As we were waiting for the train on the bus, suddenly, there was a stir outside, and someone got on the bus and announced that the Northern Lights had appeared. At first, I hesitated to get off the bus, since I knew it would be really, really cold out there, but I finally decided to go outside and take a look.
I looked up at the night sky, where I saw fantastic neon green strands dance in the sky, straight up over my head and and on the horizon line. The bright green strands shimmered in waves, making ribbons and waves of green against the black sky. It was like nature's laser show, bidding us a fond farewell.
I don't know how I could adequately describe the Northern Lights, and my photography skills failed me miserably that night. I can only compare the feeling that I had to the feeling that I got when I saw burnished late afternoon light on the
Ponteveccio in Florence, making the scene golden and magical; it was the same intensity and awe that I felt during each total solar eclipse, gazing out into the mysterious three-hundred sixty degree twilight. Like those signed, it was an awe-inspiring moment, one that reaches right into your heart and connects you with all of human history. For one fleeting moment, time and your heart, stand perfectly still.