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!

Polar Bear Porn

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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. 🙂

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 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!!

Day Four- Churchill (Tundra Lodge)

I wrote my posts on the Tundra Lodge and we are back in Winnipeg,
so it’s time to catch up.

Wow! That kind of sums things up. We left for the airport where we took a chartered jet on Calm Airlines. So, no security, camera equipment safe, climb into and out of the airplane on the tarmac. I kind of like this bypass plan. Certainly was quicker.

Once we flew into the Churchill Airport, we loaded up to a bus that took us to the Churchill Wildlife Management sign for our “tourist” photo and then on to the polar rover. Within about twenty minutes, we saw our first polar bear. It was a long way off, but still an amazing experience. Another bear started walking across the tundra towards the second, who was sleeping on the shoreline. They never met up, but it was great to see. Then we saw a bear that was sleeping in the willows (bushes) along side the road. And this was just on the way from the airport to the lodge.

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This is the first bear we saw. It was a moment that took my breath away. He was clearly at a distance, but truly magnificent.

Then, once getting to the Tundra Lodge, we spotted a bear sleeping right next to the dining room/kitchen car. It would occasionally look up. It was incredible to be twenty feet from a large polar bear. I could have watched him all night. Beautiful.

The landscape is vast, remote, and incredibly beautiful. It is snowing hard and the wind is blowing the flakes sideways. One woman asked me about taking pictures of the snow. It was only the second time in her life to see it.

As I’m writing, I’m lying in my bed which is a lower bunk in a very small room. It isn’t what I would call luxurious, but it is comfortable and meets my sleeping needs. It’s actually kind of nice to have my own room. The bathrooms are much larger than I expected and have functional toilets and hot running water. Water is at a premium here so it will be short showers.

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There is a chef on the lodge and dinner was very good. We had chicken, couscous, broccoli and a tiramasu kind of dessert.

I put out my “Do Disturb” sign so that the guides would wake me up if there is any polar bear activity or northern lights, although it is a blizzard outside so the northern lights are a bit of a stretch. The lodge is swaying in the wind. Kind of like sleeping in a cradle.

There are twenty nine tourists on the lodge from mostly the USA, but also Australia and Brazil. Our guides, Bonnie and Annie, are amazing. They already know everyone’s name and go out of their way to make each of us feel welcome.

I had that incredible moment of watching the polar bear who was watching me. This is an amazing world with miraculous things. It’s part of the reason I travel. I just don’t want to miss anything.

Never too Late

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Elsa, you go girl!!

I’m definitely one who loves a new adventure. Adventure is a relative term. I don’t climb mountains or jump out of planes. I don’t even hike or bike for days at a time. I do love to travel to unusual places. I’m not a beach and umbrella drink kind of girl, at least for more than a day or two. When I go on vacation, I want to go where “no man” has gone before. Or at least where most people aren’t interested in going.

Why? For several reasons…first of all, I don’t like crowds. I like to be able to see, contemplate and really take in a new experience. I met a friend a few weeks ago that I only have known on social media. She cracked me up when she told me she didn’t really like people in general. I have those times, so I can definitely relate. I’m an introvert and I like to be alone sometimes, or almost alone, so I can recharge my batteries, so to speak.

The second reason I travel to places like Antarctica and Africa is because I’m fascinated by nature and wildlife. One of my favorite channels to watch is the National Geographic channel. A beach is a beach is a beach. I can be served drinks on a beach in Florida or Mexico or Tel Aviv. There are only a few places in the world where I can see three cheetah hunt zebra and where I can take a photograph that has cheetah in the foreground with wildebeest and zebra watching them. Oh, did I forget to mention that there is an elephant grazing (do elephants graze?) in the far background. And…there are only a few places where you can see polar bears in the wild.

Which brings me back to Elsa. Elsa, at 100, is headed to Churchill, Manitoba to see the polar bears. If my timing is right, she is flying with a group from Winnipeg today to board the Tundra Lodge in Churchill for several days worth of “once in a lifetime” polar bear viewing. A Natural Habitat Adventure staff member heard about her desire to go and the company made it happen. I love it when people help others make their dreams come true.

Elsa, you inspire me. I hope I am experiencing new things my whole life, too. Just wish I was there to see your face when you see the first of many polar bears. I’ll be there in a few weeks sharing your delight. We are both lucky girls.