On a windy, cold, late October afternoon, I walked the streets of the little, sub-Arctic town of Churchill, Manitoba, Canada, alone. I had just arrived there by plane, and I had a bit of time before the official activities on my Natural Habitat Adventures polar bear tour were set to begin. This was a groundbreaking moment for me in several ways: not only did it mark my first time traveling outside the United States, it was my first solo faraway adventure and my first experience with a guided group tour, a trip in the company of total strangers.
It didn’t take long for me to meet someone new. Outside the town’s small community center, a man walking by paused to greet me. “Hello,” he said and politely nodded his head. “Are you a visitor here?” Since almost everyone knows everyone else in Churchill, he pegged me right away. I answered yes and told him I was from Wisconsin. He replied that he had heard nice things about my state and wished me well. As he started on his way again, he gave me a parting “Enjoy your stay in Churchill!”
The exchange, truly, wasn’t all that remarkable. But it was the first time that I had met a local in a foreign country who took the time to ask me about myself and specifically welcome me into his homeland. That event took place in 2002—almost two decades ago now—but it’s as fresh in my memory as if it happened yesterday. It’s one of the reasons I love Churchill so much and try to go back as often as I can.
I did return to Churchill two more times in the ensuing years. On a trip there in 2008, a hotel manager told me that I looked familiar; and in 2012, a bakery shop owner said he recognized me and asked if I’d been there before. It seems that a piece of me—probably a slice of my heart—remained in Churchill when I first departed the town in 2002.
Famed British-born travel writer Pico Iyer once wrote, “Travel is ultimately about going to a place from which you’ll never entirely come back.” If that’s so, I think that not only is there a part of me still in Churchill, but in Newfoundland and Yellowstone National Park, as well.
New Newfoundland friends
The Broom Point Fishing Premises in Newfoundland’s Gros Morne National Park is a restored traditional fishing site that provides a glimpse into the lives of inshore fishing families in the 1940s through the 1960s. It was here, on a group tour in 2007, that I watched as a Parks Canada guide named Luke Bayne showed us how the fishermen of old would catch lobsters and skin and salt fish.
Luke’s voice and accent reflected the sea itself. He told us stories as he demonstrated how knitting a fishing net was done, his hands a ballet of fingers. As he spoke, his inflections would rise at the climax of the tales and then fall at the denouements. There was an unmistakable Irish lilt to his words, an accent preserved by the salty Atlantic air, in this tiny isolated place along the coast. It spoke of a time long ago before there were roads here.
His stories got caught inside me, much as if they were tangled up in that net he worked on so diligently.
In the succeeding days in Newfoundland, we visited places such as Parson’s Pond in the Great Northern Peninsula and Arches Provincial Park. Here, a rock formation composed of Ordovician-aged (Paleozoic Era) dolomitic conglomerates has been eroded by tidal action into an archway. This big, stony ridge provides caves, watery recesses and a grassy top where I saw Newfoundland children stretch their arms out into the wind. Those kids made me fall in love with this place. Nothing constructs better places for imagination than nature.
In Trinity, on the southern shore of Newfoundland’s Bonavista Peninsula, we caught a boat from the Old Bonaventure Harbor to Ireland’s Eye, a small island in Trinity Bay.
There, we disembarked and walked to a working fish camp; really, just a few cabins in a protected cove. On the back deck of one of the cabins, we ate dinner, prepared by our boat captain and his first mate. In very primitive circumstances, they served us salad, chicken, noodles and fresh vegetables. The evening was topped off with some good conversation and wine.
Watching these fishermen host us and cook for us to the best of their abilities with what they had in their simple surroundings was heartwarming, to say the least. It prompted our guide to say, “If you aren’t enjoying this, there’s something’s wrong with you.”
I thought then—and still think now—that he was right.
Ageless Yellowstone National Park ally
During my first group trip to Yellowstone National Park in winter 2004, I stood one late afternoon at Old Faithful Geyser, waiting for it to erupt. A nearby park ranger had a crowd gathered around him, and he proceeded to explain the geothermic reasons behind this natural phenomenon. After answering a few questions from his listeners, he turned to me and my travel cohorts to ask where we were from and why we had chosen to visit Yellowstone in winter. “On a search for wolves,” several of us answered. He remained silent for a moment. Then reaching inside his jacket, he pulled out a book and read a passage by Aldo Leopold, a man best known for his environmental writing while working at the University of Wisconsin, my alma mater. The ranger read:
“We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes—something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”
I knew then I was in the presence of a local prophet in a park uniform.
Coming back and going toward
It seems that when you travel, you receive the kinds of gifts that only strangers can give. Some of my strongest memories from trips I have taken are those of the people who have done kind things: a man on the street in Churchill, fishermen in Newfoundland, a park ranger in Yellowstone.
Right now, meeting people during faraway travels may seem like a distant hope, literally unreachable in this pandemic. But when it lifts, we may find ourselves once more awed by the very notion that we can go from here to there, from our own worlds into those of others, and savor new acquaintances more fully, as something nearly lost can be treasured afresh.
So, I would add something to Pico Iyer’s quote. Not only is travel ultimately about going to a place from which you’ll never entirely come back, but about going toward people you’ll never quite forget.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,