I hear her before I see her: the sound of a little, gurgling splash in the water just off the left hand side of our kayak. My husband and I are at about the one-hour mark on our Sea North beluga kayaking adventure. So far we’ve seen what feels like hundreds of whales, mostly from a distance, as we paddle around the calm waters of the Churchill River, in the shade of an unloading cargo ship, just in from Quebec. Every so often the curious head of a harbor seal emerging from the water disrupts the grey and white specks of the energetic beluga whales. Moments after the first splash, I see a rounded white head emerge, followed quickly by a smaller grey one, her calf. My heart leaps in excitement and nervousness as I realize that they are swimming directly towards us. Lifting my paddle out of the water, I brace myself not sure what exactly it will feel like to have this gentle beluga so close to our small kayak. Suddenly, a bump sends us rocking from side to side, followed by a smaller bump and the splash of a tail. The whales are playing with us now, and the feeling is like nothing I have ever experienced before. We paddle a few paces, and they come up behind us, splashing and diving beneath our kayak. We stop and paddle backwards; they come up again on the bow of the kayak. We play like this for a while, paddling backwards and forwards with our beluga friends.
Churchill is filled with these unexpected moments, so far beyond my everyday New York City life that they were unfathomable to me before arriving here. We initially came on this trip to spend time with my family, who had wanted to come and explore this tiny, northern town on the Hudson Bay. They kindly invited us to join them on a Road Scholar Trip and I must shamefully admit that Churchill was far from being on my bucket list when the idea was first raised. Even after further research, I was apprehensive: a cold place where, for months out of the year, polar bears outnumber people, not exactly my idea of a holiday. However, from the moment we arrived I realized that Churchill is a place with it’s own unique energy and ways of doing things, a place unlike any other I had been to before.
While in New York City, I often spend my afternoons strolling through neighborhoods and peeking into shop windows, a tradition I often cherish while traveling and walking through new neighborhoods as well. In Churchill, this is simply not an option. Even in the summer months, polar bears restrict all outdoor travel pretty significantly, especially beyond the edges of the small downtown area. Even a simple walk from the CNSC required the company of an armed and trained bear guard. While, this initially felt strange and stifling, but I began to see it for the blessing it was. When outdoor movement is restricted it becomes both prized and deliberate. I loved exploring on short walks by the CNSC with their knowledgeable staff, hearing about everything from the long-decommissioned missile range to the unique local flora and fauna.
The other side of having all time outside be in large group, pre-planned expeditions, was learning to value time spent inside, and for this I can’t imagine a better home base for a Churchill adventure. As a literacy educator, I love learning about the places I visit and seeking out new and exciting information to share with others. Churchill is a place filled with interesting people and stories and heaps of new information on all different topics just waiting to be explored. At the CNSC, our tour group lived in dormitory-style housing alongside researchers and scientists from around the world. Over shared cups of coffee and the occasional card game as well as more formal talks and lectures, we learned all about their own stories that brought them to Churchill as well as about the wide-range of research being done, on everything from climate change, to geology, to wood frogs. Being surrounded by people so deeply passionate and knowledgeable about the land we were exploring helped us to see it in new and unique ways.
Of course, the only lingering thing that would make such a trip perfect would be a polar bear sighting, which during mid-July isn’t quite the given it would be in the fall months, when the bears congregate to wait for the sea ice to form on the Hudson Bay. In this respect we lucked out, not once, but six times. Glimpsing a mother and a cub and a very sleepy male bear while riding in a tundra buggy with Frontiers North was just the start. On our very last day, as we were about to leave for the airport we were treated, yet again, to a much closer view of a mother and cub lazing about on the rocks right by the street- the perfect farewell to a place I know we won’t be able to stay away from for long.
By Molly Picardi, Road Scholar Summer Participant