2020 marked the first time since 1994 we haven’t opened our polar bear lodges to guests, and to be honest, it was really hard on all of us.
Back in May, we made the heart-wrenching decision to postpone our summer season — we still had hope that things would improve by October. (We were very clearly in the denial phase of the grieving process.)
By the time August came around, that naivete had faded. The last shred of hope evaporated as we realized our border would not be opening anytime soon and we wouldn’t be able to welcome guests in 2020.
It took a little while for that idea to sink in. Once it did, we were left with so many questions: What would the rest of the year look like? How would those of us involved with seasonal lodge operations fill our days? How would I, as a marketer, keep people engaged without new content?
As our lead expeditor, Allison, said, “We had to shift our perspectives, adapt to a new way of living, shoulder new burdens, and try to focus on what’s really important.” For her and husband, Jason, nearly everything changed.
Jason is a pilot and during our season, he and Allison are both based in Churchill. She meets and greets guests at the airport and hands them off to Jason, who flies them into one of our lodges. Their days normally start early, end late, and blend into one another.
Come to think of it, that last part probably hasn’t changed, and I can definitely relate to being unsure of what day, or even what month, it is. Being at home so much means my days all feel the same. Mondays feel like Thursdays, Saturdays feel like Tuesdays, noon feels like happy hour — uh, I mean, 5:00 p.m. ‘What’s the date today? Do I need to put on pants this morning? IS THIS OVER YET?’ I digress.
Without guests to move around, Alli and Jason spent significantly less time up north. They helped with some construction projects during the summer, but then Jason took a job in another field, Allison joined us in the office, and their lives have settled into a very different kind of routine. It’s quieter and calmer, but that will change soon as they’re expecting their first baby in just a few short months!
Calm, stillness, and slowing down are themes that came up quite often when I asked my colleagues to reflect on this past year. The hectic pace we’ve become accustomed to during our season never came to fruition this year. Making plans, changing plans, managing delays, and coordinating vendors were replaced with…TIME! We found time to tackle projects that keep getting pushed aside, both in the office and at our lodges.
We sent up staff to put fresh stain on our lodge exteriors, make improvements to staff accommodations, and perform mechanical overhauls on expedition equipment. We also had time for a couple of fun initiatives that wouldn’t be possible during a “normal” year.
Early in the summer, we sent a team up to Churchill to help with maintenance at Camp Nanuq, a site for Boy Scouts and Girl Guides programming. Originally built as military housing, the buildings at Camp Nanuq have needed repair for a few years, and we’re so happy we could help.
During July and August, we all spent some time at the Prairie Wild farm, helping Riley care for his orchard and gardens. Had our lodges been open, Riley’s harvests would have been served to guests, but we made sure nothing went to waste. Riley, his wife Karli, and Allison set up shop at their local farmers market, and those of us who live nearby enjoyed weekly deliveries of lettuce, peppers, tomatoes, broccoli and more.
Just this month, we had our very first Wild Walk for Charity which saw us raise more than $2,500 for United Way of Winnipeg and the Canadian Wildlife Federation. It was a lot of fun and something we wouldn’t have had time for if our lodges had been open.
Those who did travel up north for work projects, or to lodge-sit, found the silver linings to our unusual circumstances.
Nicole Spinks, our lodge manager at Seal River, normally busy with opening the lodge or overseeing the care of our guests, finally had a chance to slow down and bask in the beauty of the Hudson Bay coast as it changed from season to season.
She and her partner, Ben Lawrence (co-manager at Seal River Heritage Lodge) spent time at each of our lodges this year, something she’s never done before. As the designated chef for our work crews, she also had a chance to experiment with her culinary skills and try out new recipes from our famed Blueberries & Polar Bears cookbooks.
Another nice thing about a mostly empty lodge?
“We got to enjoy all the wildlife without worrying about other people, or loud noises scaring the animals away,” Nicole says. When guests are around and wildlife approaches the lodge, our staff ensure everyone has a chance to enjoy the encounter. A quieter lodge meant that Nicole and Ben could bask in the moment. Our founders, Mike and Jeanne Reimer, had the chance to do this as well, a rarity for them.
Mike and Jeanne have worked hard to surround themselves with an impressive team of staff, affording them the opportunity to step back from year-round operations. Even so, their expertise and experience are often called upon during the season. Whether at one of the lodges, at our Churchill office, or home in southern Manitoba, they’re always ready to jump in.
This year, those tasks were replaced with difficult decisions about postponing the season, figuring out how to keep staff employed, and wondering what the next day would bring. Thankfully, they were able to put those worries away for a little and enjoy some relaxing time up north.
In the early days of Churchill Wild when we had one lodge instead of three, Mike and Jeanne could easily find time to explore and enjoy their northern oasis. As guest numbers have increased, the time Mike and Jeanne now spend at the lodges is filled with the hustle and bustle of operations. This year, they were able to soak up a week at Seal River by themselves and experience the beauty of ice break up in June.
Jeanne also appreciates the rest and rejuvenation we’ve all been afforded. Normally, by this time of year, our operations team is pretty burnt out, but the forced break in routine we’ve all faced has given us a new outlook and renewed energy for future seasons.
Some of that renewed energy came from spending a lot of time in nature and with family, rather than hunched over our computers or running around meeting/greeting/shuttling guests. We spent time at the lake, went camping, explored Manitoba’s many parks and hiking trails, and had lots of backyard bonfires.
The timing of this forced slowdown was especially poignant for Shari, our Human Resources and Logistics Director, who was able to savour some extra time with her daughter and son-in-law before they relocated to Calgary with their two young sons.
As much as we all enjoyed a quieter and less hectic year, we quickly realized how much we treasure meeting our guests in person after months of exchanging emails before their trip. Our sales manager, Doreen Booth, found it particularly difficult.
“I’m an extrovert,” she said. “And my position requires that of me. I miss people and I’m craving those interactions.”
Normally, Doreen and our sales associate, Courtney, would meet each guest as they come through Winnipeg at an orientation dinner. This equates to roughly 700 guests and 50 dinners. Doreen and Courtney invest countless hours throughout the year corresponding with guests in the lead up to their safaris, so suddenly missing out on those one-on-one encounters is tough to swallow.
I can empathize with Doreen. I’m an introvert at heart, but an outgoing one. (Contradictory, yes, but some of you will understand.) Normally I attend a few PR events throughout the year to catch up with travel writers and friends from the industry, but not this year. These events make for long days, but I love them. I come away with new friends, new ideas, and new perspectives. Pitching a story idea to my cat just isn’t the same.
I miss my work friends too. I think we all do. We’re a tight-knit team and the months we’ve spent working at home have only highlighted that fact. Zoom meetings just don’t make up for our Monday morning debriefs or lunch hour visits. Why is it that speaking to someone through a screen isn’t as rewarding as sitting down with them over a cup of coffee or a beer?
As Kate Murphy wrote in her New York Times article about the perils of video conferencing platforms, “The problem is that the way the video images are digitally encoded and decoded, altered and adjusted, patched and synthesized introduces all kinds of artifacts: blocking, freezing, blurring, jerkiness and out-of-sync audio. These disruptions, some below our conscious awareness, confound perception and scramble subtle social cues. Our brains strain to fill in the gaps and make sense of the disorder, which makes us feel vaguely disturbed, uneasy and tired without quite knowing why.”
A resounding ‘YES!’ to all of this. I don’t know about you, but Kate perfectly described my experience with Zoom calls. They’re just exhausting to me. In fact, “vaguely disturbed, uneasy and tired,” is a rather good summation of how I felt throughout 2020.
The busyness of our season often puts us into survival mode. We focus on what’s immediately in front of us and how to work through each challenge or delay. While maybe not the healthiest way to move through life, it’s temporary. And so is this chapter we’re living through.
Shari shared something that summarizes the collective attitude I think we all have. “I don’t know what tomorrow, or three months from now, will bring. I do know that we have great staff and great guests and we’ll be ready and able to mobilize quickly WHEN we are able to accept our first guests again.”
To that I say another resounding ‘YES!’
As I sit here watching big, fluffy flakes of snow being blown around before gently landing on the ground, I recognize that maybe sometimes, being blown off course, having your world shaken up like a snow globe, can be a gift. We’re meant to grow, evolve, and learn from the challenges handed to us, and I think we have. And now that we’ve all made it through 2020, I’m going to go ahead and say, that’s enough growth for awhile.
Happy holidays, friends! We wish you love, peace, joy, and a less tumultuous new year!
The World’s Next Great Safari