LAKE PLACID - Former Bookstore Plus owner Nancy Beattie spent years dreaming of watching the polar bears in Churchill, Manitoba, yet those dreams almost vanished when the pilot of her airplane announced some dispiriting news.
Beattie and her daughter, current Bookstore Plus co-owner Sarah Galvin, began their eight-day trip on Tuesday, Nov. 5 with longtime friends Yvette and Don Caldera. There were no problems during the flight from Ottawa to Winnipeg, but there was an incident on the second leg of their adventure to Canada's Hudson Bay.
"When we left Winnipeg the first day, we had a direct flight from Winnipeg to Churchill," Galvin said. "It was a little over a two-hour flight, and about an hour into the flight, the captain came on and said we'd lost power in the generator and we'd be making an emergency landing in Thompson."
Polar bears on Hudson Bay in Churchill, Manitoba (Photo provided)
"In an hour," Beattie added.
"In our minds, an hour away was Churchill, so why were we landing in Thompson?" Galvin said. "We really were fine. We asked the two guides who started with us in Winnipeg if they landed in Thompson on a regular basis, and they said no ... And the reason they had to land in Thompson, as opposed to Churchill, was they had the parts and mechanics in Thompson and not in Churchill."
"That was scary," Beattie said. "We thought our journey was over before it had even started."
But it wasn't over, and once the plane was fixed, the foursome enjoyed the "trip of a lifetime."
Beattie's dream of seeing the polar bears at Churchill didn't materialize overnight. It began before she and her husband, Chris, sold the Bookstore Plus to her daughter and son-in-law, Marc, in 2005.
"The idea came about when a customer was standing across the counter from me at the bookstore years and years ago," Beattie said. "The customer's name was Yvette Caldera. She said she and my mother had been talking and they would like to go to Churchill someday to see the polar bears and did I want to go."
That was more than 15 years ago.
"Of course I wanted to," Beattie said. "Then as things evolved, Yvette left town and my mother couldn't go anymore, but I was able to, so we went."
The Calderas now live in Colorado, and they met Beattie and Galvin in Winnipeg before heading farther north to see the polar bears. For their guides, they chose Natural Habitat Adventures, based in Boulder, Colo., an organization that partners with the World Wildlife Fund.
During their trip, Beattie and Galvin would hop from one capital to another - from their hometown of Lake Placid, Winter Sports Capital of the World; to Ottawa, the capital of Canada; to Winnipeg, the capital of Manitoba; and finally to Churchill, the Polar Bear Capital of the World. In the summer, Churchill is the Beluga Whale Capital of the World, but that's a story for another day.
Life at Tundra Lodge
When the group arrived at the Churchill airport on Thursday, they got on a city bus, which took them to the launch station.
"From that city bus," Galvin said, "we took three steps onto the polar rover, and then our feet didn't touch the ground until Monday morning."
The polar rover took them to the Tundra Lodge, which is parked on the shore of Hudson Bay for six weeks every fall and then removed. There is a 32-unit sleeping car for guests, a lounge car, a dining car and a larger car for equipment and staff. There are two polar rovers, one docking at each end of the Tundra Lodge, which is an elevated, rolling hotel that looks like a train.
"It was essentially four boxcars linked together on these huge tires," Beattie said.
The group was living at the Tundra Lodge for four days and only left their accommodations briefly on a polar rover, which made morning and afternoon trips to get closer to the polar bears.
"We were kind of the caged animals," Galvin said. "The bears were watching us as much as we were watching them, but you didn't walk on the ground at all."
The Lodge was remote but not primitive. The adventure group hauled in water, the lounge car had a stove for heat, there was electricity, and two chefs provided excellent meals. And the polar bears only provided part of the entertainment.
"If you went out in the morning on the polar rover, then you spent the afternoon in the lounge car or at the lodge and then had presentations about cultural history or the animal history," Beattie said.
Curiosity flowed both ways at Hudson Bay; the adventure group found the polar bears were just as interested in the humans in the Tundra Lodge.
"We walked from the end of the sleeping unit to the outside over a grate, and occasionally there were bears underneath there," Beattie said, adding that each of the outside platforms were used for viewing the bears.
At the far end of the Tundra Lodge, the second polar rover was used as an escape vehicle in case something happened while the first polar rover that was out on an expedition.
"We couldn't go down onto the tundra, because that's where the bear are," Beattie said.
As a co-owner of the Bookstore Plus, it was natural for Galvin to prepare herself for a week-long trip with reading material, but she soon found the extra baggage wasn't necessary.
"I was scared that I would be bored," Galvin said. "I brought five books with me because we were watching white bears on a white tundra that's really flat, and everything else was white. And I read half a book ("The Art of Hearing Heartbeats," by Jan-Philipp Sendker)."
Beattie intentionally didn't bring reading material because she usually reads brochures while on vacation.
"I didn't want my mind off in another direction," Beattie said. "On the last day, I did borrow one from Sarah, and I read it on the way home, but I forget its title."
Traveling from the Adirondack Park - full of trees, mountains and lakes - the thought of erasing those features from the landscape seemed foreign, and Galvin was surprised when she got there.
"I was amazed that I loved the beauty of desolation," Galvin said. "You would sit and watch these bears for 45 minutes or an hour, and sometimes they'd just be sleeping there. But there was something about being so close in their environment and watching them do what they do on a regular basis that it was fascinating. I loved every minute of it."
Even though the polar bears were the advertised attraction, Beattie found that the landscape was the real star of the show.
"Yvette and I frequently said to each other that I would be totally satisfied even if I didn't see a bear, just to be in this environment," Beattie said. "One day we had quite a blizzard, and it was so exciting to be in this arctic environment and be in a blizzard. They called it 'stark beauty,' and it was stark beauty. It was just gorgeous."
As for lessons learned at Hudson Bay, Galvin said she finally found out why Churchill was the Polar Bear Capital of the World.
"It's because of how the ice and water flow in the Hudson Bay," Galvin said. "It flows in a counterclockwise motion, so in the springtime when the ice melts, the bears ride the ice as long as they can to hunt on. And the ice gets all pushed into Churchill from the tidal currents in the Hudson Bay."
During their lectures in the lounge car, the group learned about the cultural and natural history of Churchill.
"It felt like a college course in five days," Galvin said.
Before she left Lake Placid, Beattie didn't know anything about polar bears.
"I know there's been the cry that the ice is disappearing and we have to worry about climate change and global warming, and that is affecting the bears," Beattie said.
And now she knows there are 35,000 polar bears in the arctic region, with only 1,000 in Hudson Bay.
"There's not a collective noun for a group of polar bears because there are no groups of polar bears," Beattie said. "Like you have a gaggle of geese, you don't have an anything of polar bears. That was fascinating for me to learn because they don't congregate and get together and play. They said because conditions are so good for them in Churchill, they don't have to fight each other. For whatever reason, they get along."
Early November at Churchill is a transitional time for the Hudson Bay and its polar bears. As fall turns to winter, water turns to ice, and the group witnessed this transition.
"The first morning we went out, we happened to see a mother nursing her cub, which was the highlight for all of us," Beattie said. "At that point, it was low tide in Hudson Bay and you could see all the rocks in the bottom of the bay. Farther out, Sarah noticed, and was intrigued by, the waves on Hudson Bay. They were just beautiful. You could see all the tidal action."
Two days later, back in the same spot, the bay was turning to ice.
"The second day it got slush ice along the edge, and the third day it was all iced over and the bears really started moving," Beattie said.
Husbands at home
This was a true mother-daughter experience. Asked what life was like without Marc and Chris, Sarah and Nancy said this was most likely a trip they'd never make with their husbands.
"They couldn't have handled it because they would have felt too cooped up," Sarah said. "They're the type of guys who need to have their feet on the land either skiing or running or something."
When the women came home, they asked the guys if they could have stayed in the Tundra Lodge for several days.
"I don't think either one of them could have," Nancy said. "The third day, I went and paced the halls. I just went and walked up and down in front of our bedrooms for 20 minutes just to be able to walk more than from the lodge into the polar rover. You were not active, and those two men would not have handled that."
Nancy and Sarah landed safely in Churchill, survived the cramped quarters of the Tundra Lodge, soaked in the solace of Hudson Bay and saw a lot of polar bears. But this trip wasn't necessarily about the bears. It was about family.
"I said, 'I don't care if I don't see a polar bear. If I can just have seven days with my daughter, that would be a totally successful trip for me,'" Nancy said.
Churchill, Manitoba was once a major center for the Canadian fur trade, and the English and French fought over its control. Vestiges of those days remain. You can still see the English Prince of Wales Fort. An earlier fort was erected in 1717 by the Hudson's Bay Company on the western shore of the Churchill River as it empties into Hudson Bay. Construction on the fort that still stands today began in 1731, about the same time that the French were building Fort St. Frederic at Crown Point here on Lake Champlain. The French abandoned its Adirondack fort as British forces moved up the lake in 1759. In Churchill, the French took over the Prince of Wales Fort from the British in 1782 without firing a shot. This was all part of the French-British colonial battle for North America.