Polar bears in the mist
The greatest memories of adventure tours seem to be the ones that aren’t predictable or pre -determined by set activity schedules. They happen unexpectedly and usually involve some trepidation. With the Churchill Arctic Summer season approaching I’m reminiscing about a memorable day on the Hudson Bay coast.
I had a feeling of angst that August morning years ago as we boarded the polar rover docked at the platform just outside the Great White Bear shop 20 kilometers outside Churchill, MB. After an extraordinary 38 hour train journey from Winnipeg to Churchill with a group of a dozen avid Arctic explorers, we were all anxious to get out, “on the land” as they say in the north. The rover journey to Halfway Point was one I had taken nearly a hundred times before..but this day something felt strange. The air was cool and misty fog floated from the bogs up and over the tundra toward the coast. My mind kept wandering.
Halfway Point..a view down to the beach and location of the beluga skeleton in the grass.
Our drive through the Churchill Wildlife Management Area (CWMA) was soothing as the rocking movement of the rover blended with the slight hint of salt air wafting up from the Hudson Bay to lull everyone into a calm state of mind. Although the group had spent minimal time on land the past couple of days, everyone seemed content to know that soon we would be on foot trudging over the precambrian shield rocks and incredible wildflowers and berries of various northern plants. A barbecue overlooking the Hudson Bay with a cool Summer breeze off the water to dissuade mosquitoes….life doesn’t get any better up north…unless a polar bear happens to walk by.
On board my co-guide and Ornithology expert Bonnie Chartier spotted various birds in the willows and across the landscape. Birders in the group enjoyed witnessing rare species interacting in the northern web of life. With the fog sometimes making identification difficult, the enjoyment came from just observing. The excitement was infectious to all.
We crept closer to the point overlooking the turbulent Hudson Bay. I explained that we would be hiking down through a rocky outcropping which opened onto a beach strewn with kelp. There was a skeleton from a beluga whale carcass at the far end of the beach nestled up in the sea grass. Another Natural Habitat group led by myself and long -time colleague Mike Bruscia had been lucky enough to discover it nearly a year before while exploring the beach. Now the hope was to find it again…though we would never make it that far.
Our rover driver, John Sinclair, who this story really is about, was a quiet unassuming local who did whatever he needed to provide for his family. A great guy and a friend of mine. As John maneuvered the machine into a spot up on the rise above the bay, everyone was anxious to disembark and feel the tundra under their feet. I still had a sense of hesitation but couldn’t pin point why….just a feeling.
John lowered the heavy aluminum-grated stairway and the group gathered around the rover’s enormous rear wheel for some safety rules. We headed down the gravelly road toward the beach. Usually the rover driver would stay behind on the hike to get the barbecue going for the guests return and I alone, wielding a 12 gauge shotgun filled with cracker shells and a couple of slugs would escort the group along the beach. But as I quickly realized, John was walking quietly and..well..unassuming next to me.
The mist was now a ground – fog as the group moved tentatively along and we were soon about a hundred yards from the rover. John told me, “he was going back to the rover”…well at least that’s what I thought he said. What he actually said in a tone somewhere between a whisper and a mumble was, ” I think we all should go back to the rover”. At the time I was talking with a traveler so the moment didn’t sink in as it did later. I remember looking up at John and seeing the calm in his eyes…though later on I realized it was a heightened calm that only someone who lives year – round amongst the polar bears has…someone who knows to never let his guard down when in the bear’s territory. A breeze separated the curtain of fog just enough for us to see a massive male bear about another hundred yards from us..slowly walking, as calm as John, right toward us all. We quickly signaled the rest of the group that was somewhat spread out and we all as one unit retreated intently though slowly back toward the machine waiting silently to rescue us. This was really the only time in the 12 years of guiding Summer trips I thought I might actually have to shoot a polar bear. If it wasn’t for John Sinclair’s innate sense of the land and bears I surely would have….hopefully with success.
Years later John Sinclair died in a snow mobile accident on the outskirts of Churchill in late winter. I will always remember him for his cool and relaxed personality as well as the day he possibly saved many lives. Whenever I think of him I first remember that afternoon at Halfway Point.