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Grin and bear it
As I flew into Winnipeg, Canada, my base for an expedition into Churchill, called the polar bear capital of the world, my world was dyed white - stark, snowy landscape, dainty ice floes on frozen lakes, the whitetailed ptarmigan with its scratchy zuk zeeek zeeek call and, of course, the polar bears, the world's largest land predator. My red dress and brown mukluk seemed incongruous against this sea of white.
"Please sign the no-liability form," said Trevor Lescard, the Frontiers North Adventures tour leader, interrupting my reverie for an expedition briefing. Ah! The indemnity form. So, if the polar bears had me for dinner, no one was to be blamed.
Then came the warnings. "Remember, this is polar bear habitat. The terrain is rugged. The breeze frosty. You cannot step out for a walk;the cellphones will not work. Do not hang out of the Tundra Buggy. Do not be noisy. The conditions are sub-Arctic. Bundle up, " Lescard, in a striped skull cap and blue jacket, continued instilling fear and I iced up at the thought of three days of chattering teeth, frozen ears, feet chilled to the bone. Then, he dropped a bomb. "There are no roads into Churchill. " I dropped a jaw. "Actually, there is a 4x4 road, but it is not used often. You can fly in or take a train;we'll fly into Churchill. "
Next morning, I woke up at 5. 30 am and it was absolutely dark. I was still groggy and caught in a time warp. Reluctantly, I wriggled into Arctic jacket with fur trimmings and heavy snow boots, tied my long hair into a tight bun, pulled the ear muffs, and buckled up for the 90-minute chartered flight into Churchill. On the way, I soaked up fascinating stories: of the barely 700 headcount of Churchill;a prison for rogue bears;and a crash-landed C46 aircraft called Miss Piggy (she once carried a cargo of pigs, hence the name) that has been lazing on a rocky cliff since November, 1979. And the dream of a World Bank man who made the polar bear natural habitat so accessible to wildlife lovers.
For ages, the polar bear habitat remained inaccessible until Merv Gunter landed in Churchill on a World Bank tenure. The inevitable happened - he fell in love with the polar bears. He, along with wife Lynda, founded Frontiers North Adventures (www. frontiersnorth. com) in 1987 so that others could get the same chance that he did. Almost 25 years later, Gunter's dream brings 8, 000 tourists annually into the sleepy town of Churchill which is tucked by the Hudson Bay.
I hopped into the Tundra Buggy, a vehicle with 240 horse power and 1. 7 metre high tyres, that took me to the Tundra Buggy Lodge at Polar Bear Point. By the time the evening's dusky orange tinge had turned into an inky night and the stark landscape was swathed in silence. As far as the eye could see, there was nothing but the four bogies of the Lodge complete with a pantry/dining hall, lounge car, and two bunk bogies. My name was stuck on a bunk with a soft, green blanket, blue curtains, personal thermostat, a square window and snowdrops peeping through the tidy pane. A wilted willow stood outside like a conscientious sentinel and the air was heavy with the aroma of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. I have never lived in a dorm or bedded down in a bunk yet that night I slept like a log.
Next morning, a quick breakfast, Arctic overalls and off I was on the buggy for a day out in search of polar bears who move from inland towards the shore in the autumn yearning for the bay to freeze and the seals - their favourite meal - to pop their heads out of the breathing holes in ice. Brian James Nicolle, the driver, gently manoeuvred through the rugged terrain. Nicolle squinted hard for the polar bears and Lescard taught all about polar bears that I should have learnt in kindergarten. There were 900 bears in the neighborhood;I knew Nicolle could spot one.
"There. There's the bear. By the shore. Look at the brown bed of kelp, "Nicolle shut the engine and whispered. "Look at a 3 o'clock position", he whispered. I peered hard. In the snowy sheath, white was the only hue. I peered hard. Harder. Then, I saw him. The 800-pound bear plodding through snow with a cub. I whooped in joy. For three days, my world turned completely bear-ish. I watched them spar, roll in ice, plod, meander, laze in snow. For three nights, I peeped out of my bunk window. No, not for snow angels. For polar bears. In the polar bear capital of the world, it is all about the bears. Nothing else.
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