“Oh dear,” I heard our driver say over the sound of spinning tires. “Yep…uh huh…I think we’re really stuck now,” he continued. Somehow, even words you don’t want to hear, sound better when said in the chipper northern accent of a friendly Canadian. The positivity of their voice comforts you and infers, “Don’t you worry…everything is going to be juuuuuust fine.”
Our van had stopped moving. Forward or backwards. We had just dropped off some travelers at the gift shop and were headed about 100 meters down the road to our hotel. It didn’t matter how close your destination. In Churchill…you drove. I guess the imminent threat of being eaten by a polar bear was enough to enforce this unspoken rule.
It was our first night back in town after a full day spent on the tundra in search for polar bears. And the search wasn’t very hard. The locals agreed that this had been one of the best seasons in a few years for seeing the large white furred bears of the north.
We hadn’t been out on the tundra for more than an hour in our six-wheel drive Polar Rover when we encountered a mother bear and her yearling cub. Her nose was in the air. Neck outstretched. She smelled something. And she was going to lead us right to it. The scene we saw next was one of those rare gifts of nature you cannot plan, but most certainly can savor.
As our rover crept over the snow, we saw two male polar bears. Standing upright. Jaws wide open. Low rumbles warning the other to back off…or else. One of the males had a long red mark of blood smeared along his face. As we got closer, we could see the remains of a cub, gripped firmly in the bear’s paws. Not wanting to waste any of their precious energy reserves, the males more or less agreed (through barred teeth) to rip the cub in half and share; a concept not typical for these large white predators.
The door slammed shut as our guide hopped out of the van. A passing tractor (a common sight in Churchill) had pulled over. The driver ran towards us. Through the white snow we saw a big work truck come to a halt and that driver also jumped out and came to lend a hand. Together, as these three men pushed, our driver shifted in reverse and hit the gas.
Watching polar bears in their natural habitat peels back any unnecessary fluff and exposes you to the raw, vulnerable story of nature. And every one of us plays a part. There is little room for error in this arctic environment. Life in the north is precious. And every animal. Every plant. Every person, fights for their share of this story. And the bears, while mighty and captivating, are only a small part of the magic that brings people to Churchill, Manitoba every season.
I asked our expedition leader if he had also fallen into the northern “magic” that seems to grab ahold of people’s hearts and never lets go. A guide for thirteen seasons with Natural Habitat Adventures here in Churchill, Colby didn’t hesitate to answer.
“Oh yes,” he said as he smiled deeply and looked out on the horizon. “This place is special. Sure the polar bears are amazing, but that’s not what keeps me coming back. It’s the people of this town.”
I nodded as he paused, caught in reflective mood.
“No matter how long the days, or how tired you feel as a guide, you feel rejuvenated here in Churchill. We all share stories from our travels. And even though we work independently as guides and locals, we are all connected.” And he is absolutely right.
The van rolled backwards out of the snow. “Yahoooooo!” we all cheered from inside the van. The tractor driver ran back to his rig, hopped in and drove straight at us, turning at the last second as he dropped his plow and cleared the snow in front of the van. And just like that, we were on our way. All 100 meters to our hotel. Not more than four and a half minutes had passed.
We watched in silence as the two male bears started to walk away. The mother polar bear managed to get a scrap of food for her cub. Without the protection of his mother, the cub would never make it in these conditions. While the bears live an independent life, they wouldn’t survive without the seals. There would be no life here without the willow brush giving precious nutrients and protection on this harsh tundra. It’s a fabric where animals and nature and man are all woven together.
As a tourist, I can only look in from the outside on this tight community in the north. But even as an outsider, I can feel the community. The nights are long. The wind is cold. Resources are limited. But there is no shortage of laughter. And friendship.
You’re not alone all the way up here in the northern part of Manitoba. You can’t be.
You are in this together. There’s no waiting to call a stranger on the other end of a telephone line for help. You grab your buddy. A shovel. Or whatever tool you need, and get to work. With a little creativity, and a lot of grit, you can get out of most situations. But only if you work together. And in the end, it all seems to work out. Just like magic.