Finally We See Churchill, Manitoba

Trip Start Nov 09, 2006
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Trip End Nov 18, 2006


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Flag of Canada  , Manitoba,
Friday, November 17, 2006

The next to last day of our trip, we go into Churchill for the day. It's a little place, a frontier town. First we go to the Eskimo Museum where I wish the docent would just shut up so I can look at the exhibits. Then we go to the Parks Museum in the train station, where I wish the docent would just shut up so I can look at the exhibits. Then we have an hour to ourselves before we have to meet at Gypsy's for lunch. Julie and I look into about four tourist gift shops before crunching through the ankle-deep snow over to our rendezvous.

Gypsy's is a deli/diner. They serve all kinds of food, plus they are a bakery and coffee shop. Well, sort of a coffee shop. They are out of caffeinated espresso when we get there, and when I ask if I can get a decaf iced mocha, they look at me like I am nuts. This is a huge disappointment to me. I've been looking forward to going to Gypsy's because I'd heard they have espresso. See, I'm a fancy coffee-drink addict. I don't drink hot coffee (or hot chocolate, or hot tea--I don't like hot drinks). I always drink it iced. I live next door to a coffee shop, and every day I have at least one iced mocha. And not just that, it's an iced mocha, skim milk, half the chocolate, and made with toddy (cold-press coffee. It's not brewed, so it's not as bitter and it is stronger than regular coffee). The Center doesn't have anything but regular coffee, and on my second day there (after three days with no coffee at all), I figured I'd patch together my own mocha with coffee and hot chocolate so I asked if they had any ice. The cook looked at me like I was crazy. Why the hell would you want to use ice when you are in the arctic???? I eventually began drinking lukewarm mochas as a compromise, but that was several days later.

Anyway, lunch at Gypsy's is okay, nothing to write home about (except I just did). Then we are let out on our own. We have three hours until we have to meet back at Gypsy's to return to the Center.

Outside, it's cold, but not too bad unless the wind is blowing. Maybe -16C, which is about 3F. Julie and I had already been to 3/4 of the shops in town. After checking out the other two gift shops and the hardware store, we decide to walk over to the town center, this huge complex containing the town's library, medical center, hockey rink, swimming pool, bowling alley, movie theatre, and high school. Someone says they heard there was a coffee shop in there where you can sit and look out over the Bay.

Well, the movie theatre is only open on the weekends, the bowling alley and hockey rink are closed--not that they are of much interest anyway. We don't need medical attention. and the coffee shop turns out to be a concession stand (closed) with a view of the inside of the complex. When we find the big window with the view of the Bay, both benches are already full of other members of our group trying to kill time.

That leaves the swimming pool and the library. Swimming actually sounds nice, not so much because I want to do laps, but because I could take a nice long shower first. Alas, I don't have a suit, so we go to the library. They have free Internet access, so Julie and I check our email. That takes about five minutes.

Still two hours to kill. We decide to walk around the town. It's a very small town and within three minutes, we are at the northernmost border. We can tell it is the edge of town because of the Polar Bear Alert signs which say, "Stop. Do not walk in this area."

Bears don't wander into town that often, at least that's the impression I had. But earlier in the day, when we left the Eskimo Museum to walk to the Parks Museum, Julie and I had run into a German couple who told us that an hour or so before that, a bear had been sighted on the shore near the Eskimo museum, and that an RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) officer had driven by and told them to get inside immediately.

So now, just a few hours later, Julie and I are at the edge of town, and I'm really nervous. It's garbage day in Churchill, and you'd think that a town plagued by bears would make sure that all garbage is kept inside or in bear-proof containers, but that isn't the case. On every street are bags of garbage, waiting to be collected. Polar bears have an amazing sense of smell, and I'm thinking Churchill must be smelling pretty enticing today. I keep imagining what I'll do if a bear shows up. We'd been told that if you are in town and see a bear, you should go to the nearest house and pound on the door to be let in. There are houses around us, but what if nobody is home? What if the bear is so close that we can't make it to a house?

As much as I thought I wanted to see a bear up close, I realize that's only in theory. In fact, my guts are churning at the prospect.

--Interruption--

POLAR BEAR SAFETY
1) Don't walk alone where there are polar bears. There's no recorded case of a polar bear attacking a group of three or more humans, so travel in a group.
2) Have a deterrent device in your group, usually something that makes a lot of noise that will scare a bear away. You probably should also have something that can kill the bear if someone's life is actually threatened. An extremely rare occurrence, by the way.
3) When walking around a corner or other impediment to vision, walk wide and check for bears before proceeding.
4) If confronted by a bear, stand still and wait to see what it will do. Do not run--the bear can run faster than you can. Do not look it in the eyes as that is a sign of aggression among bears. Be prepared to use your deterrent device.
5) If the bear doesn't lose interest and turn away on its own, try to scare it off.
6) If that doesn't work, get on your belly on the ground and put your hands over the back of your neck. Spread your legs out wide. Your goal is to keep the bear from turning you over and exposing your belly.

All that sounds scary, but polar bears, though bold and inquisitive, don't normally see humans as a source of food because we're too lean. Unless the bear is angry or frightened, it's probably just curious and won't hurt you. The thing is, you can't tell what's going through a bear's mind and have to be prepared for the worst. It's a balance. Don't assume it will attack you and overreact, but don't assume it won't and be taken off guard. Better yet, don't meet one on the ground at all.

---END Interruption---

So, Julie and I are skirting the polar bear safety rules. There are only two of us. We have no deterrents on us. We're just assuming there are no bears around because we are in town. But the sign, "Here There Be Bears," brings home the situation.

I pretend I'm not scared silly, and am relieved when Julie suggests we walk down the next-to-last street instead of the one bordering the Polar Bear Alert zone. I keep looking between the houses toward the Zone, checking for bears. A dog starts barking on the next street over and one on our street joins in. Why are they barking? Is it a bear? I decide they are objecting to the snow mobiler inexpertly revving his engine and steering raggedly around the nearby streets. He's annoying me too.

I breathe a vapor cloud of relief when we turn back toward "downtown." We're on Kelsey Street, the main drag, for no more than a block or two when we hear the sound of a fire-cracker from the northwest part of town (we'd been on the northeast). That's the sound made by bear-banger projectiles, used to frighten bears. We look at each other. How close were we to a real bear? I'm actually disappointed not to have been there, not relieved as I would have expected.

The next day, we're back in town, this time to leave. Some of the Learning Vacation group left by plane in the morning, and there are 11 of us who will be taking the train out of town. We are dropped off at 2:30 and our train leaves at 8:30. We agree to meet for dinner at the Lazy Bear Cafe at 5:30.

Once again, we have 3 hours to kill in Churchill.

I don't know if I made it clear that there is nothing to do in Churchill, so let me say it: There is nothing to do in Churchill. If you aren't on a tundra buggy, or taking a helicopter, dogsled, or snowmobile ride and are just trying to amuse yourself in town, forget about it. No offense to the town. It's a little place, overrun by tourists during the six to eight weeks of polar bear season and inhabited by probably about a thousand people the rest of the time. You can't expect it to be anything more than it is.

But it's still a bore when you have time on your hands and no home or hotel room to retreat to.

First we go to the post office. I had a cunning plan to ship back my dirty laundry so I had less luggage to lug around on the two day journey back. We also get our passports stamped with a polar bear. After that, Julie wants to go back to the Eskimo Museum gift shop (we decided to buy souvenirs on the last day). Then she wants to take a walk. The day before, one of our roommates, Linda, had walked behind the town complex, right by the Bay, and lived to tell about it. Julie thought that sounded like fun. The complex is right by the museum, and when Julie sees an alley next to the complex, she starts walking down it. Ahead of us is a Polar Bear Alert sign. The closer we get to the sign, the more frightened I get. There's no place to go if we meet a bear here. There's one door, an employees only door, on this side of the complex to our left, and on the other side of us is the featureless wall of a church. I decide to take a picture of the sign, but I'm afraid to get too close to it. To the left of the sign is a huge snow pile. "For all we know, a bear could be behind that," I tell Julie, pointing. So what does she do? She starts walking around to take a look. She's walking wide, as we've been taught, but is now at the back of the building. My insides are buzzing and I give up trying to take pictures. I see her check the back of the snow pile and keep walking, down toward the shore where there is a big replica of a ship for kids to play on.

I start to follow. I tell myself, "There are no bears here. What are the odds?" But I can't shake the fear. There were bears here yesterday, after all. There are no people around who could spot a bear before we did. There are no doors to knock on. We have no bear-bangers. I imagine a bear stepping out from behind the huge rocks littering the shore. It's head would be as high as my chest. It would look at me with those dark, dark eyes, and lift its nose to sniff. I couldn't imagine past that. Would it just stare at me and walk away after a moment? Run away? Come toward me? All my fantasies about communing with bears seemed hippy dippy at that point. To a bear, I'm a big fat nothing. Or hopefully a thin little nothing not worth eating.

Julie is halfway to the shore now. I'm way behind her. I get to where I think I can see behind the snow pile and I realize I can't, there's an embankment in the way. A bear could still be hidden there. Julie's looking around, being careful, but for some reason I can't trust her to have made sure the way is actually safe. I measure the distance between the boat and Julie and myself and wonder if it would even be protection enough against a bear. Were those steps up wide enough for a bear to climb?

I try to take another step forward, and I can't do it. I'm too scared. There are just too many places for a bear to be hiding. Behind rocks, snow piles, corners of the building, heck there could be a bear behind the boat for all I know. I call out to Julie, tell her I can't do it. She's gracious about it. I know she really wanted to go down to the shore, maybe climb around on the boat. We go back, and I don't start breathing normally until we are on the street again.

In some ways, that was the best lesson of all for me about the bears. From the safety of a tundra buggy they were cute. Big, with big teeth, but they didn't seem menacing or threatening. Just sleepy and bored. But the thought of meeting one on the ground, armed only with my natural defenses (in other words, nothing), now that's another thing entirely. Then their size and strength and power can't be denied or minimized. They are big carnivores, and I'm really small in comparison.

Myths about polar bears are that they are mean and blood-thirsty. It isn't true. They're hunters, and at the top of the food chain on land so they're bold and unused to being afraid. They're opportunistic--if they see some easy food, they'll go for it. So they aren't really afraid of us, and when they smell food on or around us, or in our dumps, they'll try to get at it. They're just being bears. So forget everything you've heard about them being the nastiest animals on the planet. They aren't.

We are.
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