“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 just fine.”
Our van had stopped moving. Forward or backwards. We had just dropped off some fellow guests at the gift shop and were headed about 100 meters down the road to our hotel. It didn’t matter how close your destination was. 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 of 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.
The door slammed shut as our driver and 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 as that man jumped out and came to lend a hand. Together, as these three men pushed, our driver shifted into 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 for the northern “magic” that seems to grab hold of people’s hearts and never let go. A guide for 13 seasons with Natural Habitat Adventures here in Churchill, Colby Brokvist 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 from 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.
Watching the bears wait for the ice to freeze made me realize the tundra is an interconnected fabric where animals and nature and man are all woven together. Without the protection of their mother bears, the cubs would never make it in these conditions. And while the bears live an independent life, they wouldn’t survive without the seals. And no life would be here without the willow brush giving precious nutrients and protection on this harsh tundra.
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, Canada. 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.
This guest post was written by Nat Hab Adventure Concierge Kristyn Tobey. All photos © Kristyn Tobey.