by Vanessa Desorcy with photos by Churchill Wild guest Barbara York.
A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of chatting with one of the first guests to experience our Fall Dual Lodge Safari. Barbara York and her wife Gail Gutterman visited us in 2017 and our conversation couldn’t have happened at a better time. Amidst the anxiety and uncertainty of this year, it felt great to speak with someone like-minded who understands how it feels to miss travelling, and to swap stories about our adventures, polar bear related and otherwise. Thank you, Barb!
For Barbara and her wife Gail, life revolves around travel.
A normal year for the New Hampshire-based couple consists of at least two significant trips. Throughout their years of travel, they’ve been as far south as Antarctica, and as far north as our polar bear lodges near Churchill — and there’s no end to their bucket list.
An avid traveler from a young age, Barb loves trips that allow her to explore the natural world. She believes travel is most rewarding when we allow ourselves to appreciate how it opens our eyes up to other ways of doing things. By watching the way other people live, and getting to know them, we can gain insights that improve the way we live. Barb wisely explains, “You can lump people and cultures together, but when you meet individuals, you form bonds and develop a greater understanding of where they came from.”
For Barb, a trip to a new destination cannot be summed up solely by the photos with which she returns home. “It’s also the people you meet and the experiences you have that allow you to carry the journeys with you forever.”
Barb and Gail are currently eyeing Scandinavia and Scotland for future adventures, but who knows when they might be able to start making plans. They’re among many who rely on travel to escape the stress of everyday life, and not being able to do so right now amplifies the anxiety of the current reality.
Thankfully, Barb’s been able to find comfort in the memories of her 2017 trip to Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge and Seal River Heritage Lodge. Barb and Gail were among the first group of guests to experience our Fall Dual Lodge Safari that year.
After a trip to British Columbia to view grizzly bears, Gail and Barb decided they wanted to see polar bears “while they still could.” Gail, the planner, started researching their various options. While they thought that travelling the fjords of Svalbard and seeing its population of polar bears would be fun, they had some concerns they’d only see the bears from far, far away.
During their grizzly bear trip with Tweedsmuir Park Lodge, they’d heard about the Magnificent 7 Lodges, which includes our Churchill Wild properties, and decided to investigate further. After settling on the Fall Dual Lodge Safari, the decision to book came quite quickly when they heard there was just one room left for the upcoming season. The idea of seeing polar bears up close and in their natural environment is what sold them.
Barb and Gail’s trip included four nights at Seal River Heritage Lodge followed by four nights at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge in late October. As Barb recalls, “The trip was more than we could have ever imagined. It was beyond priceless.”
There are no guarantees when it comes to wildlife viewing and no two days, weeks, or safaris are the same. Some groups will have bears near the lodge every day, some will have to go further afield to find them. Some groups will see northern lights, and others won’t be so lucky. Barb and Gail were among some of the luckiest guests we had that year.
In addition to polar bears, they saw snowy owls, Arctic hares, two bull moose, and caribou — not just one or two, but thousands.
The Qamanirjuaq caribou herd, based in Nunavut, used to have a very predictable migratory path that would bring them down the Hudson Bay coast, past our lodges. Over the last decade, environmental factors and human interference have altered their habits and migration patterns and we stopped seeing the herd each fall. That is, until 2017 when the stars aligned and brought them back one spectacular morning during Barb and Gail’s trip. Just as they were sitting down to breakfast with their fellow adventurers, someone spotted the herd. Photo leader Andy Skillen, who was with Barb’s group, described it best:
A rolling sea of shaggy coats, upon which, it appears that giant antlers sail like the tall ships of old, bobbing and weaving in an ocean of cream and brown. More and more pour over the horizon, endlessly creeping towards an unknown goal, peaceful movement punctuated by occasional sparring; an unpredictable squall flaring up in an otherwise calm and endless vista.
There is no turning of this tide. It never ebbs but flows at a steady pace through unseen channels marked only by the sense of previous generations, soft hooves rolling over the tundra in muffled harmony. Noses, wide, wet, and curious, push through the landscape comparing opportunity and impossibility at every turn as eyes and ears, ever alert to the howling of a pursuant enemy, record every movement.
Barb also recounts two of her memorable polar bear encounters. The first, a quiet yet powerful interaction at Seal River.
Early one morning, (possibly drawn in by the smell of bacon!) a small female dubbed “Betty” came up to the fence that surrounds the lodge while Barb was in the compound. “I was four or five feet away from her. I looked her in the eyes, and she looked back. It was one of the most spectacular moments of my life and gives me chills to this day.”
Just a couple days later at Nanuk, Barb had a very different polar bear encounter, this one out in the field.
Our polar bear guides had spotted a bear and knowing in which direction he was headed, took the group out on a Tundra Rhino excursion. They had stopped just past a curve in the path for a quick washroom break when the second Rhino, following a bit farther back stopped suddenly and the driver radioed to say, “There’s a bear behind you!” Evidently, the bear had been sleeping in the brush just off the trail and woke up when the vehicles approached. Startled, he ran across the path right in between the two Rhinos!
Following their guide’s direction, the group moved slowly back towards the vehicle as the bear’s surprise turned to curiosity. He began to approach.
Following protocol, guide Derek Kyostia started verbal negotiations with the bear. “Hey buddy. That’s close enough.” His curiosity further piqued, the bear began to move in closer. Derek raised his voice and banged a couple of rocks together, making a sharp sound that usually stops a bear in its tracks. Not this one. He was obviously too intrigued by the wall of camera lenses pointed at him, the sound of clicking shutters creating a symphony of images.
Barb recalls that she “never felt a moment of fear or insecurity” because she and her safari-mates knew their guides had the situation well in hand.
Derek then lobbed a rock at the bear that bounced off a knee before landing at his feet. Insulted by this affront, the bear began walking away, though not without casting one last glance over his shoulder.
Seeing bears when you embark on a polar bear safari is a reasonable expectation. It’s the unexpected moments, the ones that can happen when you stray from a schedule, that can really put a trip over the top!
If all goes according to plan, shortly after guests arrive in Churchill, they board a charter and head directly to the lodge. On the day of Barb and Gail’s arrival, inclement weather delayed these plans, so the group was taken on a tour of the town and surrounding areas.
As she climbed into the bus, Barb noticed a mug on the dashboard bearing another tour company’s name and logo. She recalled the name from meeting a woman named Andrea, who worked for the company and became a friend during their Antarctica trip. When Barb shared this anecdote with the group’s tour guide, she was told that the company had an office in town.
One quick phone call produced news that Andrea was in town at that very moment! She, Barb, and Gail had a lovely reunion visit four years after initially meeting on the other side of the world. It’s no wonder Barb has an appreciation for the ways in which travel can make the world seem a little smaller and bring us a bit closer to one another.
Barb and Gail are holding on to the simple joys in life to get them through the pandemic. Plenty of time in nature, socially distanced visits with friends, home renovations (though not necessarily joyful in execution, the results are definitely something to enjoy!) and memories of their polar bear safari that prompt Barb to say, “Hopefully, one day, we’ll be back.”