One October a few years ago I spent a couple of days in Churchill, Manitoba looking for polar bears. Churchill is famously the “Polar Bear Capital of the World” because so many bears come in to den when the pack ice breaks up on Hudson Bay. In the fall, when Hudson Bay begins to freeze, ice forms first around the spit of land where Churchill sits, and the bears know it. That’s why they gang up here, why thousands of tourists like me come to gawk.
But now there’s a new game in town: snorkeling with belugas. Yep, you can don a dry suit and slip into water that was frozen solid last week and come nose to nose with beluga whales. John Flinn took the plunge and conveyed his experience in the San Francisco Chronicle this week.
Bob Howells, an editor-at-large for National Geographic Adventure, also gave it a whirl in a story that won the Adventure Travel gold medal in the Solas Awards and also contributed to his Lowell Thomas silver placement as Travel Journalist of the Year.
On my trip a few years back, during many hours of vigilant horizon panning, imagining every mound and swale to be moving, I saw lots of creatures: arctic foxes, snowy owls, beluga whales, but no polar bears, not until dusk on my last day, way off in the distance.
It was a lesson in observation: I saw lots of interesting things while looking for something I almost didn’t find, and realized that, while it was nice to finally see the bear, seeing everything else was its own reward. The landscape around Churchill is big and rough and raw, and I might not have noticed so much if bears had been crowding the horizon.