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Churchill: Huskies, Bears and Aurora

This is an old journal, from our trip around the world in 2002, taken from the diary I wrote at the time. Apologies for the poor quality photographs, they are scans of prints taken with a compact camera.

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View Around the World for our Silver Wedding 2002 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Breakfast at Churchill Motel again this morning, as are others in our group. The weather outside is cold, snowing, windy and bitter. We walk up to the Post Office to buy some stamps and get our passports stamped with a gorgeous Churchill mark complete with a polar bear of course.

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This is a free service, and we spend quite some time in there chatting to the two ladies behind the counter. They both grew up in the town and tell us about the pros and cons of living in such a small place where everybody knows everybody else. Crime is not a real problem, apart from the odd joy-rider, but they normally find out who the culprit is eventually. You can’t get away with any childhood mischief in a place like this, without your parents knowing all about it sooner or later. Our next stop is Traders for a thimble for my mum. They sell lots of lovely, quality souvenirs and I feel almost embarrassed asking for something as small and cheap as a thimble. We decided before we left home that we wouldn’t purchase any souvenirs on this journey especially not this early on. I do want a mask from Papua New Guinea though.

It is only in the last few years that the Meti people have been recognised as an ethnic minority in Canada. Meti is a mixed race Indian and White and Myrtle’s granddad was Scottish while her grandma was an Indian. Both her mum and dad are Metis, her father was a trapper, and she spends two hours telling us about her childhood. I have never known a story teller so captivating, everybody is spellbound; nobody even starts to fidget during the time she is talking to us. Myrtle tells us about the trapper’s line, the food they ate, their traditions, prejudices she experienced at school, their art and their music. She uses no notes and the stories flow from one to the next. It is extremely interesting. The hall has traditional items used by the Meti on display and Myrtle sells her home made arts and crafts. She creates beautiful pictures from animal skins, but they are dear and would look out of place back home.

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In the Eskimo Museum there is nothing older than 70 years, and it isn’t as interesting as I thought it would be. Perhaps if we had received a guided tour talking us from exhibit to exhibit, we might have gotten more out of it.

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There are plenty of stuffed animals: polar bear of course, ptarmigan, eagle, musk ox, walrus, fox and wolf amongst others. Carvings tell various folk tales and are about the most interesting. I would have loved to have spent some time with Eskimos / Inuits hearing about their life style and traditions, but that is not part of the itinerary. Some of the more unusual exhibits are carved human teeth. Different.

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Lunch is taken en masse, although it is not included in the price. We get to Gypsy’s Bakery before the others (we didn’t spend as much time in the museum shop) and get our order in first before the rush. Most people just opt for a cake or pastry, while we go for Reuben’s Sandwich with fries and a couple of Blues. We are the only people who order alcohol. Oh well, we might as well show our true colours. The sandwiches are good and very filling. Most people have finished their activities for the day, we’ve only just started. We are picked up from the café by John Stetson who runs a Husky Sleigh outfit from the Northern Studies Centre out on the Tundra. The centre is a former US Rocket Launch pad, now used by various scientists studying polar bear behaviour, astronomy and anything else of interest. As this is not part of the normal package, we join a German group of 17 with a most peculiar guide. I can’t make out whether he is gay or just slightly odd. David thinks he is a she. The group aren’t bad - to be Germans - but it is irritating that their guide has to translate everything John says for them. John was the first person to walk right across Antarctica and he has crossed both poles with dog teams. His photos are stunning and he is witty and interesting in his speech. He even claims you get ‘used to constantly feeling cold and uncomfortable’. Really?

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From the Research Centre we travel out on the tundra, half the people in a bus, the other half on dog sleds on wheels. The dogs are so excited, the just love to pull the sleds, and they jump up and down, rearing to go. There are two types of huskies, racing dogs who wear little booties to protect their feet and the bigger Inuit dogs. There are 70 dogs in total at the centre, and John knows each dog by its bark. He is currently planning his next jaunt, from Alaska to Greenland and the North Pole. Since his last expedition he has married Shelly and they now have a son, Nelson. Shelly has accompanied John on minor treks, and they are hoping to introduce Nelson to the joys of dog sledding expeditions soon.

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Once out on the tundra, we take it in turns to go off in ‘proper’ sleds, two at a time. We only travel half a mile or so, and much as the dogs are gorgeous and it’s a fun experience, it is rather commercialised.

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Back to the centre it is our turn to travel in the sled. I was determined this morning that I would not get cold out here in the dog sleds, so I am dressed in so many layers I waddle when I walk: knickers, tights, leggings, sweat pants, microfibre trousers, cargo trousers, bra, vest, 2xT-shirts, polo-neck jumper, fleece and a thick warm jacket. 2xhats, 2xgloves and a scarf wrapped around my face. I am boiling!

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We are not going back to town with the German group so we get a guided tour of the Research Centre. It is all very basic, with dormitory accommodation, working labs and a self-help kitchen. They serve us hot chocolate and cakes and we spend some time chatting to one of the research assistants. She spends her days in the observation tower (obviously made it past the first date) studying polar bear behaviour with and without tourists around. Her opinions gave us a totally different perspective to that of the tour guides or the local people. It’s an interesting comparison. Steve and Jennifer are both as excited about seeing bears as the tourists they ferry around. Some local people are excited, some blasé and some find the bears an absolute nuisance. For the researcher they are a fascination of a different kind.

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Michele from the Tundra Buggy picks us up to take us to the buggy departure point which is only a few hundred yards away. Our driver is Steve again – good! Only a very small group this time. We are only meant to be six people, but we somehow end up with a freeloader from Australia who’s very condescending and derogatory. Is she Steve’s girlfriend? Whatever you say she’s been there, and done it better, longer, smarter etc.

Nice sunset as we drive out on the tundra. Frozen willow bushes are backlit by the low sun with beautiful reflections in the semi-frozen ponds. Very photogenic, and we ask Steve to stop the buggy a couple of times so that we can catch this wonderful vista on film.

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The Aussie girl spots an Arctic Hare sitting in amongst the bushes, stretching, scratching and just generally doing what hares normally do. It is too far away to photograph with my little compact camera and anyway, the light is fading fast. That’s one of the things I miss about the SRL – the longer range lens and the flexibility. It’s not to be though. Right by the side of the track are a small flock of ptarmigan grazing – they are hard to spot as they are white on white. Not like the polar bears which are actually rather yellow against the whiteness of the snow – the ptarmigan are whiter than white.

We spot a couple of bears not too far away; one is sleeping, the other just out for an evening stroll. Out on the ice one youngster gets the jitters when he spots us and scampers off. This is the first time that has happened; usually they are totally oblivious to our presence. He is probably too young to be used to lots of large vehicles around.

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We continue to the same lodge area we were at yesterday, this is obviously where they all congregate. There are several bears here already, and as if on cue, one of them ambles up to the buggy to check us out. He is as curious about us as we are about him. Wonder if he goes back to his mates and tells them about all the cute little humans he has seen today? Just like us with the bears. He sniffs around a bit and Steve shines his spotlight on him for us to see him better.

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Then it happens, the classic shot that I have been waiting for all the time I have been out here: he stands on his hind legs and tries to peer into the buggy. Wow. He must have been just a foot or so away from Steve’s face. Cameras clicking, we are all uttering sounds of ‘aah’ and ‘ooh’ and ‘gosh’.

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The bear walks around the buggy a few times, and although it is cold, I decide to go out on the little viewing platform at the back of the buggy. Waiting for what seems like ages out there in the freezing temperatures eventually pays off: I get the magic photo of him on his back legs from straight above. Wow, wow and double wow! I didn’t realise that polar bears are unable to bring their front legs above their heads when standing on their hind legs. Therefore, the highest point of an upright bear is his nose. There’s a bit of useless information you can use in a pub quiz!

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Our little friend is performing well tonight and does this trick several times in a number of places around the vehicle, giving everyone the chance to capture this amazing display.

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Dinner is pasta with chicken and a Caesar Salad on the side, bread roll and dessert, and accompanied by Canadian wine, coffee, tea or hot chocolate. While we are eating, other bears are just walking around, inspecting the buggies that have gathered here or just generally being nosy. I find it utterly humbling merely to be here in the first place, and the whole experience of being served a full dinner with a choice of beverages in the warmth of the buggy while two polar bears are having a stand-off outside, is totally bizarre. How can you ever beat this in terms of wildlife experience?

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Once we’ve had our fill of food, wine and bears, Steve makes his way back to town. We spot a sleeping bear nearby and stop for a closer look. Actually we are not 100% sure whether it is a polar bear or just a rock, even with the spotlight on it, but out on the viewing platform we discover something altogether more spectacular: the sky is full of dancing lights. Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights. The whole sky is covered with greenish swathes of light, moving in waves and creating dramatic patterns of illumination. There are curtains of vivid glare appearing to come down to engulf us in the most outer-worldly fashion. Really quite spooky. It varies from an intense flash to a gentle glow and an amazing radiance across the entire sky. The atmosphere is electrifying and almost illusory – like something from the film ‘Close Encounters’. This really is the icing on the cake and there are not enough superlatives to describe the experience. Steve’s favourite word is ‘awesome’, but even that doesn’t seem adequate to express how incredibly fortunate we have been to witness this wonder of nature. David is so thrilled – this has been his ambition for a number of years. I have been lucky enough to observe the Northern Lights once before – many years ago in Norway.

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I don't even try to photograph the lights with my little camera, instead I just enjoy the spectacle for what it is. Here are a few bits and pieces I cut out of magazines etc for my scrap book.

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We keep stopping and getting out to catch another glimpse of the scene unfolding before us on the way back to town. None of us want to let go, we would like to be able to freeze this moment of splendour forever. At the Buggy Departure point the transfer bus has been left (unattended) with its engine running to keep it warm for us. Steve just leaves the buggy locked up and drives the bus back to the various hotels to drop us off. As we near town, the mist is coming in and getting thicker and thicker the nearer to civilisation we get. A realisation dawns on us – they probably haven’t seen the Borealis here tonight. Despite the generous thought of leaving the bus engine running, I feel very cold and hunch my shoulders against the chill in the air. By the time we reach the Tundra Inn, I am in much pain with my neck. The room is warm though and a Duty Free Bacardi seems to loosen the tight muscles nicely. While we’ve been out, Jennifer has dropped off an Anniversary card for us. Steve is a very skilled photographer and has arranged for some of his photos to be printed as greeting cards. This is one such card and Jennifer has been to the Post Office to ensure that there is a Churchill stamp on the envelope. What a kind thought. Can life be any sweeter than this? Wow! What a day!

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Posted by Grete Howard 08:44 Archived in Canada

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