The weekend of November 6-8, 2009 was an exciting time to be in Churchill, Manitoba. Not only was polar bear season in full swing, the Olympic Torch also made its way into this tiny arctic seaport community of less than 1000 round residents.
The weekend celebrations began with a town social (a Manitoba tradition to party and raise money for events and charities). There was an excellent turn out of local townspeople, tour operators and especially tourists, who were flocking to the Polar Bear Capital of the World to try and catch a glimpse of these ice giants.
Saturday was a typical day in Churchill during bear season. The streets were filled with tourists and buses were zooming back and forth with people going to see the polar bears on one of the massive buggies that operate just east of the town.
At the Webber house, Helen and I were busy in the kitchen preparing a meal fit for a king. We had been asked by Lynda Gunter of Frontiers North if we could host a dinner for a group of people who were here to see polar bears and take part in the Olympic Torch Run.
Our guests showed up that evening after a very eventful day on the Tundra Buggy. Among them were Steve Allen, the Chairman of the Board for the Canadian Tourism Commission (CTC), and his wife Marjie; Charles McKee, Vice President International for the CTC; Sandra Teakle, the CTC representative from France; and Donna Campbell, the CTC representative from Australia. Our guests were also staying at the Webber house for the weekend!
Dinner went off beautifully and our 15 guests also included Lynda and Merv Gunter from Frontiers North, their son John and his wife Lisa Joy. The only interruption of the evening was the postponement of dessert so we could all go out and enjoy the fireworks display that was put on that night.
After breakfast the next morning we ventured out to watch as the Olympic Torch was carried through Churchill to the Town Square, where the Olympic Cauldron was lit. Among the officials in attendance were the President of Coke, the new Premier of Manitoba Greg Selinger, and Deputy Premier Eric Robinson, Minister of Aboriginal and Northern Affairs.
After watching the Olympic ceremonies we took a group of seven from the CTC and crowded into the Turbo Beaver for the 25-minute flight north along the coast of the Hudson Bay to Seal River Heritage Lodge. We thought we were just going for quick lunch, but upon arrival there was a sleeping polar bear only 100 yards away from the airplane.
The big white bear awoke from his sleep and proceeded to check out the new arrivals! He was within 20-yards of us before he decided we were not a threat, and he sauntered off to his napping spot again. We made the 10-minute trek to the Lodge through six inches of glistening white snow, all the while keeping an eye on our new white friend, who had moved to the runway to pushover one of our marking signs.
After a quick lunch of Hamburger Soup and Chocolate Banana Crater Cake, our hosts Mike and Jeanne Reimer, gave us a bit of an orientation, including a history of the area. We took a quick tour of the Lodge, and got the call that the plane was in the air already on its way to pick us up. That was quick! Ten minutes later we looked out the window and saw nothing. We were fogged in and it wouldn’t lift until sundown, which made it too late for the plane to take off from Churchill. We were at the Lodge for the night.
But there was more than enough room, and the staff appeared to enjoy accommodating an extra seven people for the night. In fact, our extra guests were treated no differently than any other. They enjoyed appetizers and cocktails, as well as the slide shows we present in the evenings about polar bears and the local wild life in and around our Lodge and the Churchill area. Everyone had a bed to sleep in, their bellies were full, and we even found extra toothbrushes and contact solution!
We awoke to a stunning sunrise over the ice forming on Hudson Bay. And just when the sun had fully risen, a large male bear walked up the road and right to the front door of the Lodge. He must have smelled breakfast! And all of our guests had a chance to get up close and personal with the bear while staying in the warmth and comfort of the Lodge. We made it out of the Lodge that morning and everyone made it home safe and sound.
For many in the group it was the polar bear trip of a lifetime.
The friendships and memories created that weekend will certainly last that long.