Bearly believe it, an adventure set in Churchill, Manitoba

Ptarmigan-winter plumage

The thin blanket of snow under our boots crunched like crushed cellophane as we left the Iceberg Inn, our home-away-from-home.  We cautiously crossed the dimly lit deserted street to have dinner at Gypsy’s, a favourite eating establishment in town.  This was our second day in Churchill, Manitoba.  The day’s excursion in the much publicized tundra buggies had disappointingly brought us face to face with nothing more than a couple of red foxes and a small flock of ptarmigan.  As a Texan tourist had so aptly put it, “damned tundra buggies, I’ve traveled 2500 miles by train and plane, just to see a fox and a couple of pigeons.”

The travel brochures had promised sightings and close encounters with a variety of wildlife, especially the king of all North American mammals, the polar bear.  After all, this is the polar bear capital of the world, and a promise is a promise.

For now the day’s activities were behind us and we were hungry.  We crossed the road, as everyone does up here, with the certain knowledge that the great white bear could suddenly appear from out of nowhere, at any time.  The local, popular advice is, walk with someone who is slower than you, that way you can at least outrun them.  I knew that I was safe in that department, although I felt like a cad for even thinking of leaving my beloved Beth to the wants of a gigantic flesh-eating monster.   Hearts beating a bit faster than normal we finally reached the entrance to the restaurant.  Hearing the door bang shut returned us, for the time being, to feeling safe.  We would deal with the walk home later.

We removed our awkward but cozy northern winter gear (I had purchased a fur-lined Siberian style hat for the occasion) and settled in for a comfort meal of fish and chips and hot coffee.  What a great little place in such a remote setting.  A dining room, the usual selection of photographs of bears, local gifts actually produced in the north, and a well stocked deli section.  It gave this establishment the appearance of a ritzy resort in the Rockies.

Next to us sat a very attentive young father and his 10-year-old future Wayne Gretzky.  They were discussing the evening’s hockey game at the local arena.

The young man leaned over and introduced himself.  “Hi, I’m Vern and this here is my son, you folks enjoying your visit to our town?”

“We are indeed,”  I replied, “except we managed to miss the move of the polar bears onto the ice, and we hope that some time this week we’ll be lucky to see at least one.”

Vern turned out to be a great source of information and lore about this part of the world.  He regaled us with stories of his father’s success in the tourist business, his plans, south of town, for a brand new resort complex, and plenty of scary stories about people getting attacked by bears in and around the town. By the time we finished our dinner, we had won over a good friend for the upcoming four days.  “Tell you what,” Vern offered, “take my truck tomorrow and go out to the dump, you’ll see bears for sure.  I, and the whole town, will be at the ‘Ducks Unlimited‘ banquet at the recreation hall, and your Innkeeper Dick can drive me home when the banquet is over.  The truck is white and it will be running in the front row of the parking lot. Pick it up and have a great time.”

Well, that was an offer too good to pass up—an opportunity to take my lovely wife to the dump, and finally a chance to see some polar bears.

Darkness comes early this far north and at the end of November.  Around seven o’clock the following day we nervously made our way down a deserted, unlit street, across, what seemed like a 60 acre field, and over to the parking lot in front of the recreation hall.  We moved quickly and nervously, knowing that we could most certainly be attacked at any moment.  Half hidden by a white cloud of hot exhaust, a white half-ton Chevy truck was idling and had probably been doing so for the past hour.  For some reason people will not turn off their vehicle’s engine, unless it’s absolutely necessary to do so.  Or so it seems.

Our hearts still pounding, we quickly climbed aboard. The heater had been running and our cab was very hot.

“Safe again Beth,” I said jokingly, “hang on for an adventure, you and I off to the dump in Churchill, cavorting with the great white bear of the north.”  I think she was impressed, and if not impressed, she certainly appeared excited about what lay ahead of us.

The drive out of town was quiet and beautiful. We silently skimmed across a fresh snowfall under a clear sky and a full moon. To the north of us we could see the ragged, blue-green, curtains of the aurora borealis whipping across the vast expanse of the northern sky.   We had the road to ourselves and we were gliding across the top of the world.

The 20 km partially paved road skirts Hudson Bay, passes the airport, the holding compound for delinquent bears, the now retired rocket range, the dump, and a few scattered cottages.  I guess even in a remote place like Churchill people find it necessary to escape the rat-race of town living.

“Let me see if this thing will shift into four-wheel drive on the fly, it might help us when we turn down the unpaved road into the dump,”  I said, talking mostly to myself.  Beth is not very much impressed with my love for all things mechanical.  I pulled the floor shifter forward and was indeed in four-wheel drive.  “Now that I know it works, I’ll just return to normal two-wheel drive until we get to the turn-off.”

That was to be the last statement of absolute certainty to come out of my mouth for some time.  From here on the mysterious forces of the far north took over our destiny.  I tried to shift out of four-wheel drive and into two-wheel drive on the fly, but only managed to grind the gears with a horribly destructive sound.  “I will have to stop this thing and make the change,” I said, trying to maintain a calm and rational voice so as not to show the panic that was suddenly welling up inside of me.  “No need to worry, I can, after all, drive this thing in four-wheel drive all day, it won’t hurt the truck.”  I know that it won’t hurt the truck, but I do want to prove to myself and to Beth that I can do this…I am a man and, I know something about cars.  “Only one thing left to do, I will pull over, shut off the engine, disengage four-wheel drive, restart the engine and Bob’s your uncle.”

Well–I did–and it did not.  No, it would not start.  I tried everything in my repertoire of possible solutions; it  just went ‘click’ as the lights momentarily dipped lower.  This truck is powered by propane, perhaps there is a switch somewhere that one must activate, perhaps a button to push, perhaps two at a time.  Why is there no light in this cab?  I just pulled the right radio knob off, how stupid is that?  Could it be that panic is robbing me of my mechanical know-how?  “Beth, where are we?” I asked, mainly to change the topic and to give the appearance of being in control and calm.

“I think we are about half a kilometer from the dump, and we have just passed the airport, and I am beginning to panic—my door is ajar will not close, the heater motor is screeching, you don’t seem to know what to do or where we are, there is no traffic in sight, and we are within a bear’s smelling distance of the dump.  Nobody will look for us for at least four hours, they’re all at the stupid ‘Unlimited Ducks’ thing, and by the time they do look for us we’ll be either frozen or eaten.”  That was the most she had spoken all night and, she seemed to be as scared as I was.

“Don’t worry” I said, giving the appearance of supreme confidence, “I know how to get somebody’s attention, I know the distress signal…surely there must be people at the airport nearby–just over the ridge–hidden just over the ridge.”  I started with the international distress signal, three of anything will do the trick, three light flashes, three horn beeps, three screams…”is anybody listening?”

With all of this commotion coming from our truck I was actually beginning to worry that I might be attracting the wrong kind of attention.  What if the bears at the dump thought that we were an interesting sort of flashing food conveyance, or someone wanting to compete for their stinking garbage?  What if they made their way over here to investigate…Beth’s door was still slightly ajar and would not close, a bear could easily insert one of those four-inch claws and rip the door wide open. Earlier that day we had seen the results of an SUV ripped to pieces and the windshield smashed by a polar bear who wanted to get at a scientist’s lunch.  Luckily he had left the vehicle and gone into a home nearby.  Our truck would be easy prey.

After about half an hour sitting idle in this tin can, our windows were beginning to freeze up from our hot breaths, and we were left with no view out.  Earlier on we decided not to run the screeching heater for fear of gaining the attention of hungry bears that must surely be closing in on us for a closer look.  The outside temperature was at least -15° C, it was getting cold in here—and still not a single soul on the road.

By now we had both lost all sense of humor and an eerie quiet had come over us.  In situations like this it was best to stay calm and rational, not to leave the safety of the vehicle, and hope that help is just around the corner.  “I am getting out to better see what is around us and perhaps I can get help.”  I said without any real conviction.

“Oh no you don’t!” Beth screamed at me. “You get your ass in here and you stay in here with me, and if they come and get us…they’ll find the two of us!”  I was not about to argue with her solid reasoning, and so we settled in for the long wait.

Suddenly, after what must have been a full hour of quiet terror and absolute resignation to our inevitable demise, lights appeared over the slight hill behind us.  Someone was coming from town.  I jumped out of the truck, stood in the middle of the road, and waved my arms like a crazy man.  All of my fear of bears gone…stop that vehicle!…was my only thought.

We were snatched from the claws and teeth of certain death, and safe in the comfort of our rescuer’s truck. He introduced himself with an East European accent as Boris, and told us that he had moved to Churchill many years ago, and he was on his daily trip along the coast trail.  So here we sat, trying hard to hide our trembling. A cosy foursome consisting of Boris, his snarling German shepherd, Beth and myself, all on the truck’s bench seat, heading back to town and to the ‘Ducks Unlimited’ banquet.

Politely and patiently listening to my rantings, Vern was terribly apologetic about his truck and offered it to us for the next day.  We agreed, but secretly we both knew that one outing in Vern’s truck was enough for this trip, and we thanked him for his very generous offer.  We returned to the Iceberg Inn and sat up until two in the morning giggling, laughing, speculating ‘what if’ scenarios;  all the while thanking our lucky stars that we had not actually reached the dump, turned off the key and watched the cute polar bears.  We were told that there had been eight bears sighted at the dump that evening.  Hearing that, I broke out in a cold sweat and thanked the friendly spirits of the north for our safe deliverance.  We both agreed that we could not have survived a visit to the dump.

When I paid Vern a visit at his garage the next day, he said exactly what I expected him to say.  “I don’t know what you did Fred, but I went out after the banquet, got into the truck, turned the key, and started it.”

“Thanks Vern, I really did not need to hear that.”

Next time we go to the dump in Churchill we’ll tell the bears that they lost out on a great feast that night long ago.

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