Travel Day to Cape Churchill – November 15, 2007
This morning began with a flurry of activity. This will be my 17th Gordon Point to Cape Churchill expedition. The day dawns with a beautiful sunrise and polar bears are dotted around the Tundra Buggy lodge. The clear skies from the night before have given way to the region’s typical blanket of clouds. They’re thick, heavy, and reminiscent of a mantle the early trappers referred to as a Hudson Bay blanket. Out on the edge between the horizon and the clouds is a sliver of sky and it’s here that the sun breaks free, shafts of golden light bouncing off the land and upper ceiling, polar bears rimmed with the glowing Arctic light.
We’re headed for Cape Churchill, the land of polar bears and ice. Why have I been coming here for the past nearly 20 years? It’s simple. The scenery is stunning. The habitat surreal. When you see the ice and snow these magnificent 1200-pound animals live in you fall in love. No other spot on the planet known to man is as accessible for studying polar bears. It’s a gift from the animal world and an essential part of why humans feel such a fondness for this majestic species. Nearly all the world’s polar bear pictures come from this area, and Cape Churchill is part of a national park called Wapusk. The ability to come here to study these animals as well as document their lives has been exceptionally beneficial for the Arctic overall. The polar bear has fast become the global icon for climate change and people stop to listen when they hear polar bears will be so seriously effected.
Our presence at the Cape is relegated to approximately five square kilometers out of the 11,400 square kilometers that make up the park. It’s not much in the scheme of all lands within the Canadian Arctic. I can only hope that there will always be this opportunity for small groups of people to come see these extraordinary animals. Cape Churchill is the stepping stone for humans taking an interest in the Arctic. Polar Bears are the ambassadors.
Breaking the camp down to be hauled to Cape Churchill is always a fascinating affair. So much commotion. The first thing you notice is the kitchen. Julie and Bree have been in charge for the last couple of years and they’re busy serving the clients breakfast while attempting to keep the kitchen as consolidated as possible. Everything comes down and is stored safely in some manner. If it’s not taken down on purpose it will certainly be on the floor by the time we arrive, and most likely it will be in many broken pieces. Fred Bruemmer, the famous Canadian explorer likens it to “falling downstairs” for three to four hours.
Operations manager, John Bykerk, is on the job with a battery operated drill. Screws are used to lock the doors to the cabinets of plates and dishes. Same is true for the cupboards that hold pots and pans. Next is the refrigerator which needs tying down so as not to tip on the ride out.
BJ and JB are in the process of dismantling the communications tower we use for Buggy One, our link to the Internet where we deliver video, stills, and written communications to the outside world. The radio dish needs to be packed up, cables need to be collected, the dish loaded onto the buggy.
The actual pulling apart of the camp is next. Kevin Burke and Kyle Martins are positioned as lookouts, shotguns in hand with three cracker shells and two slugs loaded for safety. Nobody has any desire to kill a bear but protection is needed when so many people are on the ground. In all the years this operation has been in business—since 1979—not a bear has been lost and we go to great lengths to keep the record in tact. Kevin lobs a cracker shell in the direction of what looks like a curious subadult making his way toward us. It explodes over his head with a loud POP. He turns and runs.
The gray water pit is taken apart. Gas lines are disconnected, the barbeques gets tied in place. Slowly the orchestrated dismantling of this mobile lodge is falling into position. One buggy after another takes their turn backing up and hitching a trailer to their tale. We all haul a piece of our Arctic home for the 21-mile drive over the frozen ice edges of Hudson Bay.
In the 17 years I’ve been coming to this part of the world I have seen changes hard to believe. In the late 1980s, my arrival in Winnipeg was often greeted by howling winds and snow drifts along the streets of this southern Canadian city. I can recall nights I would leave my hotel to find a bite to eat and have to climb over snow banks three feet high. What’s more is that these wintry conditions were always at the front end of November unlike today where we now go to Cape nearly two weeks later. Last year I arrived in Winnipeg to not a flake of snow on the ground and temperatures in the low 50s. This year was even worse with the mercury readings topping out near 60F.
Our goal is to be on the trail by 10:00am and we beat that mark by more than ten minutes. If the trail is good we should pull onto the lake at Cape Churchill around 3:00pm. Things are going well and we all make our way, single file, heading out of camp. We’re not more than 100 yards from where we started when a tire on the utility trailer goes flat. The radios crackle with questions and directions. It’s initially hoped that the bead of the tire is all that’s amiss but further inspection tells us the tire is completely destroyed, unsalvageable. There’s a gash 12 inches long and we’ll need a replacement. Merv Gunter, the owner/operator of Frontiers North and The Tundra Buggy Adventure quizzes Jason, his master mechanic, about flying out a spare by helicopter from the shop in town. That sounds incredible but it’s the common procedure for such events on the trail.
Jason goes to work along with John Bykerk, Kevin Burke, BJ, Kyle, JB, and others. It’s an amazing process to see a wheel over five feet high and three feet across get replaced in the middle of nowhere. The spare tire and rim requested by the boss is denied. We only have a spare tire, with no rim. That’s going to take longer but we have no choice. Jason tells Merv the new rims he requested had been ordered three months ago the day after they were called for. He spoke to another shop in Canada and was told these rims often took as much as six months to be delivered.
Tools come flying out of the utility truck, a monster of a vehicle that has a reticulated body, all four wheels that drive and can pull anything short of a eighteen-wheeler from any drift or uncharted coastal pothole. Jason and the boys jack up the trailer and go to work. Fast and furious the tire reluctantly sheds its rim just as Hudson Bay Helicopters swoops in from above with a new colossal buggy tire. Two hours after we started the tire is in place and we’re once again on our way.
Our near record start came abruptly to an end and we were now way behind schedule. Thankfully the coastal ice trail was fairly smooth with no additional break downs or calamities. In the old days, back in the late 80s and early 90s it sometimes took as many as three days to get to Cape. At that time we took the inland trail rather than the coastal trail we take today. Warmer weather dictated we find a new route and so the coastal trail was discovered. It was a good thing. There’s less destruction of habitat, it’s faster, and much easier on equipment. But the old stories survive of how Len Smith made all of this happen.
Len Smith is an interesting character. He’s the founder of Tundra Buggy Tours along with his wife Beverly, and the inventor of the now famous Tundra Buggy. Strangely enough he also happens to be my father-in-law. Len began his career as an Arctic adventurer, Canadian sourdough, MacGyver-type, all rolled into one in the early 80s when he guided Dr. Dan Guravitch out to Cape Churchill. This was first documentary project on this area and its polar bears. Soon thereafter National Geographic TV produced a film titled Polar Bear Alert that showcased Len and his unique adventure. Once that hit the airwaves polar bear tourism was in full swing.
So now here I am for my umpteenth time getting ready to spend the next ten days photographing polar bears. The lodge has been reconnected, the girls are getting dinner ready for our 36 guests, the guys are finishing up on the ground reconnecting the drain, the propane, and other incidentals. BJ and I are off to climb the tower to try and resurrect our wireless signal so we can report to all the world what this incredible place is truly like.
We made it to the tower, the wind is beginning to howl. BJ and I backed the buggy up to the ladder and proceeded to make the climb. Along with the wind the snow is starting as well. I’m thankful for the outer cage on the ladder going up. It’s not a huge tower but a drop from 50 feet or so would most likely be somewhere close to tragic. Driving wind, spitting snow, the only light coming from our headlamps and the red brake lights of Buggy One. It’s dark and the steel rungs are cold to the touch even through my mid-weight gloves. BJ gets to the top and I climb back down to check the camera. He hollers down he needs one of the two fuel cells we’ve been using to run the remote cameras and wireless Internet. Down comes a rope and we use a carabiner to latch attach the fuel cell for its journey into the night and straight up the tower. As I write this a mid-sized polar bear is cruising the outside of the buggy, standing up to check us out. I know because I can feel his weight and his paws as they push the aircraft aluminum in and it pops loudly. He’s not trying to get in. Just curious for now. These rigs are built to a height where you’re always safe as long as you don’t hang your arms or clothing overboard. But it’s a little eerie. Quite a site. An amazing adventure still after all these years.