In late October of 2013, my friend Delia and I headed to Churchill, Manitoba for the journey of a lifetime. We spent a week visiting Winnipeg, Churchill and staying on the Tundra Lodge. The polar bear viewing was spectacular. It was a trip I will never forget.

Revisiting the Magic

Things are as they should be. The ice on Hudson Bay has frozen and the polar bears have migrated onto the ice. 

I will never forget my incredible trip to Canada, from the start in Winnipeg and rising to the crescendo of seeing polar bears and other wildlife in the remote and harsh tundra. It is a magical experience and I was lucky enough to share it with my good friend, Delia, and some wonderful new friends who joined me.

While I can’t recreate the experience, I can revisit my memories through the photos I took and the journal entries I’ve made.

Enjoy!

Another Piece of the Puzzle

Have you experienced a time in your life when things started happening, leading you in a new direction? I’m in that place and not quite sure how it all fits.

Here are a few of the pieces:

  • I traveled to Churchill to see the polar bears. This is one of several trips I’ve taken related to similar things: wildlife, nature and diverse environments. I have loved every minute.
  • Annie, our guide, helped me focus beauty of the tundra by suggesting I listen, see, hear and feel the moment and to document those things. It was a profound experience for me that I don’t ever want to forget.
  • I took hundreds of photos on my trip and as I process them, my heart is telling me they have a purpose. (What? I’m not quite sure. How? No idea.) I know that sounds strange, but these photos shouldn’t just sit on my hard drive, be uploaded as stock photography to be used to sell products or just hang on my wall.
  • When I returned from Churchill, I attended a James Balog presentation on the Extreme Ice Survey. Annie had inspired me to learn more about global warming and this was my first opportunity. James Balog started with an idea based on the change he was seeing as he traveled. Today, because of his idea, there are cameras in many parts of the world attached to solar panels that take a picture every hour, documenting changing glaciers and ice.
  • After seeing some of my polar bear pictures on Facebook, one of my friends, Kerry Koepping, suggested we get together to share our experiences in the arctic. Kerry was inspired and recently traveled to Iceland to document change, not necessarily the same kind of change that James Balog is focused on, but change in general. You can see his work on the Arctic Arts Project website. We met for lunch yesterday and his passion and excitement were contagious.

inspired-arctic-arts.MOV from Arctic Arts Project on Vimeo.

Both of these men are working on amazing BIG PROJECTS. They are photographers. The photos they take are incredibly beautiful and tell a story about what is happening in the world around us.

In contrast, I’m a tourist. I travel on group trips hosted by travel companies. My travel leads me to tourist places: a tundra lodge where 29 tourists stay; a ship that has 50+ tourists traveling to Antarctica; camps in the Okavango Delta that have 8-10 permanent tent-like accommodations so tourists can stay in the bush. It’s different. I’m also in a different place in my life, working full time and with a limited budget.

So how do I take the BIG PROJECTS that inspire me and break them down into something that realistically contributes to my area of the world? How can I use my art to communicate and what is my story?

I have some of the pieces to the puzzle. I have no idea how they will come together. When and how things are meant to happen will become clear at some point. When it does, I’ll be ready…

Polar Bear Porn

Keep editing…keep editing…keep editing

It’s been almost four weeks since I returned from Churchill. I can’t believe time has flown so quickly. I’m still in polar bear mode and enjoying almost every minute. I check in to the polar bear cam a couple times a week to see what’s going on. I’m following Natural Habitat on Facebook to catch the latests posts. And, of course, I’m working on editing my photos.

In previous posts, I talked about a polar bear we called Flash. Would you like to know why?

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Hmmm…first exposing himself to the tourists and then taking a sexy pose. Looks like polar bear porn to me. 🙂

Rhythm of the Wind

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Another group of travelers on the tundra lodge on our same trip contributed to this poem, with our guide, Annie, providing the glue to tie it all together. Beautiful!

 

The Rhythm of the wind

Wind jostles me insignificant

If I was lighter I’d blow away

Like the fox earlier today.

You can see the wind.

If I was lighter I’d blow away

Let this feeling of desolation take me

You can see the wind

Pierce the emptiness.

Let this feeling of desolation take me

Down the tracks

Pierce the emptiness

A tourist, as in one that takes a journey.

Down the tracks

Where the plants, trees, rocks endure

A tourist, as in one that takes a journey

Invigorated and alive.

Where the plants, trees, rocks endure

The whirling dervish spins

Invigorated and alive

Ghost like wind you can actually see.

The whirling dervish spins

And I see distance in a new way in this

Ghost like wind you can actually see.

We are the visitors here.

I see distance in a new way

Cleansing, sterile maybe

We are the visitors here,

As in one who has made a journey.

Tundra Symphony

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One of my posts from last week talked about a session we had with our guide, Annie, that was focused on seeing, hearing, smelling and feeling the the tundra and environment around us. Seven or eight people participated, so this came from a group effort, with lots of wonderful word play on Annie’s part. Here it is:

Tundra Symphony

 Bass tenor with an occasional gust of soprano

Symphony in the wind

Metal tin lodge becomes percussion

Each movement different

 

Symphony in the wind

Waves play while water waits

Each movement different

How fragile the human body is within this sphere.

 

Waves play while water waits

Wind the all powerful thing!

How fragile we are in this world of constant motion.

I can’t hear, I can’t smell, but I feel the cold.

 

Is wind the all powerful thing or is

There a king of this tundra?

I can’t hear, I can’t smell, I feel the cold and

Learn the art of patience

 

There is a king of this tundra

Majestic being

Teaches me the art of patience

I hear no cell phones and see a landscape fairly free of us

 

Ahh, Majestic being that

Humans live here is almost beyond comprehension!

So –I am left with this.

Our symphony –stillness and constant motion.

 

Bass tenor with an occasional gust of soprano

 In the wind

Metal tin lodge becomes percussion

Each movement different

 

 

 

Day Eight- Back to Civilization

Wednesday, October 30th

I was up early and the first one in the lounge. It was nice to catch up on my journal. Looking out, the wind is back with larger snowflakes, and…yes they are blowing sideways. As the journey begins, it comes to an end. There is technically one more day before we fly home. I am really sorry to be leaving. While I miss people at home, this has been such a wonderful place. After saying goodbye to Chubby, the bear who has taken over the area around the lodge, we left while it was still dark and headed to Churchill.

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This is Chubby, the bear that hung around the lodge. We all got a little emotional saying goodbye. He was lit up by the early morning Tundra Lodge lights. He’s clearly been in quite a few fights.

Delia, Marcus from Brazil, and I were going to take a helicopter ride this morning, so they dropped us off at the Polar Bear Jail, where another Nat Hab employee picked us up. The Polar Bear Jail is a place where they put bears that have come too close to town. It’s kept cold and bears are just given water. As quickly as they can, they airlift the bears out and away from town. If a female bear and cub/s are caught, they go out right away so that the bear won’t be too stressed around the male bears. No one is allowed in. I think they had eleven bears in there.

On our way to the helicopter company, we saw a red fox. He was a bit too far away  and moving too fast, but I happened to catch a few shots.

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We arrived at Hudson Bay Helicopters and were assigned to fly with Eric. As we climbed aboard the chopper, I got more and more excited. I was in the front seat with my camera in hand. Just as we started up into the sky, we set back down again. The wind had really picked up and the snow was swirling around. Two other helicopters had taken off just a minute before and couldn’t see each other. It was too dangerous to fly. I was disappointed, but really appreciated that the company’s focus was safety. So…no flight means more time and money for SHOPPING!!!

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We were settled in the helicopter, ready to take off, when the wind increased.

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Helicopters already up, landed quickly in the blizzard.

So, we met our group and hit a couple of the stores, including the Eskimo Museum. The museum has incredible Inuit carvings and art. There is a stuffed polar bear. As I stood next to the display case, it was clear how big he was. I would guess about four feet high at the top of his back. I would not want to be ground level with a polar bear. 

I wanted to go to the gallery, so I set off on my own in the snowstorm. We’d been given the Polar Bear Alert Rules prior to getting off the bus. If you see a bear, don’t run. Walk into the nearest business, house, car, etc. The residents of Churchill leave everything unlocked just in case someone needs protective shelter. The hood of my coat was so big, I kept pushing it back and looking in all directions just in case. It’s a little creepy, especially when it is hard to see. Then…I slipped and landed on my butt. Thank goodness there is extra padding. 🙂

We met for lunch in Churchill and then headed to the airport. If the helicopter trip got cancelled, could they possibly cancel the flight? I have to admit that my fingers were crossed. I wouldn’t have been disappointed to stay an additional day. But as one of the staff members said, “If we didn’t fly in this weather, we’d never be able to do business.” So off we flew.

The shower….hmmm….a long hot shower back at the Fort Garry Hotel in Winnipeg was magnificent. Then we met our group for the final cocktail hour. It was a great chance to connect once more before we all went back to our busy lives. I hope to stay in touch with a number of very special people. As I went through the list in my journal, I was happy to see that I had a chance to sit down and get to know almost everyone. There are just a couple people I missed out of thirty+.

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Photo courtesy of Sylvio Michel, our friend from Australia. Thanks Sylvio!

Thank you all for sharing this incredible journey with me. All of our laughs, conversations and memories will stay with me for a very long time. I am a very lucky person.

 

Day Seven- Tundra Lodge

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This is the view of the Hudson bay from the shore. Ice is beginning to form along the shoreline.

This post was written on October 29th on the Tundra Lodge.

One more sleepover and we’re done. This was our last day out on the Polar Rover. Everyone went for the longer ride today except 5-6 people. They stayed behind hoping for some action at the lodge. I think they were concerned about having so many people on the rover. It was a bit more crowded, but everyone was very accommodating as far as getting photos.

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We saw a number of bears. The first one walked toward us. I managed to get out the back on the deck early and had a great photo.

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This was an early morning photo with the bear walking toward the Tundra Lodge where we stayed.

The next bear actually walked under the grate of the back deck area. He looked up and smelled our boots. He was so close, I had to use the little camera to get a photo. I couldn’t see what I was getting, but I kept taking pictures. It’s amazing how big he was. I don’t think I’ll ever be closer to a live polar bear then at that moment. I could hear him breathe. Unbelievable!!

We saw a couple bears sparring, then laying down together and eating kelp, then the cycle would begin again. I think it was a quiet day for bears so more rovers pulled up and the bears finally walked away. I’d seen a couple at a location at a time, but this was a little frustrating. There’s quite a bit of ice now, a lot more than when we came. You’d think with all the snow we’ve had over the last few days that we’d be knee deep. But, the snow keeps blowing. There was little wind today and that was really nice.

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I had an error show on my camera while I was taking photos of the sparring. I thought the battery had gotten cold, so I replaced it. Luckily the camera continued working. A bit later, it just quit. I tried everything I knew to do. It appears it has to go in for professional service per the error code 40. At least it waited until the trip was about over. The only thing left where I would have loved to have the big camera was the helicopter ride. At least I have the little one. I’m so glad I brought it.

As we sat at dinner, two bears sparred outside the window. Then, the kitchen bear that sleeps out back woke up and we had a chance to wish him goodbye. He’s scarred and, according to Annie, about 14-15 years old. He still will chase off the other bears, but he likes to conserve his energy. He’s beautiful!!

It was a good day. I had a chance to really talk to Bonnie about photography and her experience with the professionals coming through. She’s met some of the really famous photographers who have published photo books. It was an interesting conversation. She’s also a wonderful person. I think we lucked out. All the people, staff and travelers alike, have been fantastic.

We are up very early tomorrow. Luggage has to be out by 6:15am and breakfast is served at 6:30. Our helicopter flight is at 8:45 for an hour and then we have to be to lunch by 12:30. So, we have limited time to shop. Probably a good thing. So, off to bed.

 

Day Six- Tundra Lodge

This post was written Monday, October 28th.

This morning I got up early and headed to the lounge car to gather my thoughts for the journal. There were only a few people out and it was nice and quiet. The wind was still blowing outside and the cars sway as the gusts come through.

Then as more people came in, someone asked Linda, one of our Sex in the City gals, how she slept and her answer was, “the pill ran out after four hours.” I laughed. She is just so funny. After a couple days her hair isn’t perfect, almost perfect but she is still fashionable in her warm gear.

It was our morning to remain at the lodge while the other half headed out in the tundra rover. Annie taught yoga and then a class on Interpreting the Environment. I grabbed my shower while the yoga class was going on and then participated in the interpretation class. It was about focusing on listening, smelling, seeing and your feelings to fully appreciate the environment you are in. It was very powerful and I found myself tearing up when it was time to just stand on the platform and look out across the tundra.

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What was I feeling? Very humble; very blessed and grateful to be part of this incredible experience; small in the midst of such a vast and unforgiving environment, only protected by the lodge and vehicles that are heated and closed off to the cold; very weak and fragile against the strength of the animals and plants strong enough to survive.

What did I hear? A symphony of wind from a constant hum in the background, bass, tenor and even an occasional gust of soprano. Metal from the lodge banging added percussion to the sounds. Not only did it provide the music, but pushed against me in the beat of the song.

What did I smell? I couldn’t really smell much of anything. I guess it was fresh, clean air free of the exhaust of the city. It made me appreciate the fact I was breathing the same air as the polar bears, breathing in and out, cleansing myself.

What did I see? Ice, snow, water, waves, drifts, bushes, clouds, trees, texture, pattern, clouds, movement, stillness, animal tracks, rocks, the lodge.

Only about seven or eight people participated and Annie asked for people’s thoughts and created a poem she read at dinner. We’ll each get a copy of it that I’ll share later.

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We headed out on the rover in the afternoon. We saw several bears and then headed inland to see if we could see a bear with cubs. The females tend to stay away from the shore because the large males frequent the area and will kill her cubs. They only come this way after the ice freezes. Polar bears eat the vast majority of their diet when the ice is frozen, because they hunt seals. They store lots of fat and live on their fat reserves the rest of the year, with the addition of some berries and other minor snacks. In essence, they are in a walking hibernation. It’s fascinating.

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We saw a hare. The only things that stood out were the black eyes and the black tips on his ears. Otherwise, he blended almost perfectly into the show. He was very still for the time we observed him.

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The rules here are strict. The saying goes, “a fed bear is a dead bear”. Once the bear gets used to getting food, they will begin breaking into cabins and frequenting areas where humans live. If that occurs more than a couple of times, the bears can be euthanized. The guides assured us that we had signed the agreement that said we wouldn’t feed the bears. They removed a tourist immediately from a trip early on and had her sent home for violating this rule.

The tundra rovers are required to stay on specific tracks. That allows bears and other wildlife that are afraid to move away and saves the plants that are tough enough to survive. The trees, which are few and far between, grow very slowly here and tend to have more branches at the bottom where they are protected by snow. Bonnie pointed out a tree that might have been 6-8 feet tall (it’s hard to judge the height when we are so far up) was probably 400 years old. It’s interesting how everything has adapted.

The educational session tonight was about the loss of the sea ice. Annie did a great job helping me understand more about global warming. I’m a bit leery of the “sky is falling” mentality that has become part of the global warming argument. I worked the Democratic National Convention and remember Al Gore’s people demanding a motorcade to escort him to the event. Really? Mr. Global Warming Guru?

Annie compared the polar ice to the rainforest and the destruction of ecosystems that support specific food chains and species. It was very compelling and it challenges me to become more aware of both sides of the science, or at least the parts I can understand. I get the rain forest comparison. I clearly have a lot of thinking to do.

It was another great day. I can’t believe we only have tonight and tomorrow night and then we head back to Winnipeg. Tomorrow is Tuesday and I’m home on Thursday. This trip is flying by and I want to grasp every precious moment.

Day Five-Tundra Lodge

This post was written on the lodge on Sunday, October 27th.

I can’t even begin to explain how magical it is here. It’s been a blizzard on and off since we arrived which has been perfect. Polar Bears and Snow and Ice. It makes sense to me.

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This morning half of us headed out on the Polar Rover with Bonnie while the other half remained behind. It was so peaceful and almost a white out at times. The Rovers go through small lakes as they run on their approved roads and it’s interesting to watch the ice break up as we go through. I asked Jason, the driver, to stop a few times to get photos of what looks like islands of trees in an all white ocean. We saw an arctic fox. He was quick. I’m not sure any of the pictures turned out very well or at least they are blurring showing how fast he is. Then we saw a ptarmigan. He was still against the snow and right by the rover. I don’t know how these guides see spot the really small animals that are white. It’s nice with only half of us on the Rover so we have easy access to windows. There is also a back deck outside so we can step out. Brrr!

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The best part of the morning drive, of course, was the polar bears. They are hard to spot in very snowy and blowing conditions because they tend to hunker down and sleep. But we saw two and they were magnificent!!

The first polar bear was lying right next to the road and lifted his head as we came closer. In order not to stress the bear, we stopped until it looked like he settled down and then we creeped up and stopped about thirty-forty feet away. He’d sleep for awhile and then lift his head up to look around. He even sat up once and lifted his nose to the sky to gather in the scents. I managed to get quite a few pictures. He was gorgeous. Another rover drove up, so we moved on.

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It wasn’t much longer before we saw another rover near a second bear. Again, right next to the roadway lying down. It was blowing really hard so the bears lie down on the opposite side of the willows and sleep. I guess this bear, who we have affectionately decided to call Flasher, had enough sleep. The guides have said many times that the polar bears are curious and Flasher certainly was. He first decided to give us a show and rolled around, sitting up just like a person. These are the photos that I’ve seen with great captions. Now I have my gallery full of them. He was so funny that we were laughing out loud. Then, the other pictures of polar bears interacting with the rovers. Flasher decided to do just that. He walked around our vehicle and then stood up. I have a closeup or two. The best photos were of him on his hind legs up beside the other rover. It was incredible how close he got to the people.

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One woman had her camera strap hanging over the edge. I guess the bear swatted at it. I must have missed that, because I don’t remember seeing that happen. I do remember our guide, Bonnie, yelling across about the woman in the red jacket with the dangling strap. She stepped back to safety.

It was about that time I filled my memory card and I couldn’t find where I had “safely” stored them the night before. One of the other Canon shooters was willing to share his and as I went to put it in my camera, I found a zippered section in my bag where I had put mine, so I managed to get a new card in. In the meantime I had resorted to my little camera. Those shots are amazing.

Flasher wasn’t done yet. He walked over toward another rover a distance away who were observing the first bear we saw. Then, it was time for sparring. What an amazing thing to watch. I took a lot of pictures, but they were at a distance in a blizzard, so I don’t think most of them turned out. Thank goodness the closer shots are much clearer.

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We relaxed in the afternoon and listened to Bonnie tell us the story of how tourism began in Churchill. It was a great story. Her husband had put together a large snow type machine sometime in the mid 70’s, he and a friend could get pictures of the polar bears. It took them a couple of years to figure out how to approach the bears so they wouldn’t run. Then people began hearing about it so they started giving tours. Some strangers came into town and were referred to Bonnie and her husband. They went out and were thrilled with the photos and then a few months later, there was a multiple page spread in a newspaper back east showing the polar bears. Within days, Churchill had 3,000 letters from people asking to come on a trip. So everyone pulled together and shared the cost for designing and printing brochures and for the postage to mail them and people began to come from all over the world. There’s way more to it than that, but there are the basics. That’s how it all began and Bonnie was right in the middle. She has guided for incredible photographers who’s books I’ve seen. Just goes to show the quality of the Nat Hab guides. Annie is just as skilled and knowledgable. And…I have to admit I love that two women are leading this trip.

Dinner again was good. There are two polar bears outside the lodge and an arctic fox. Other than that, things have been quiet. The sunset was incredible. I’m not sure my camera captured what I saw, but I know it was orange and pink with light shining straight up.

Tired and ready for bed. We get to sleep in tomorrow since we go out on the rover in the afternoon. I’m sure I’ll still be up for breakfast. Good night!!