The lands that we come from are certainly a big part of who we are. When people ask at first meeting, “Where are you from?,” they’re trying to get a sense of who you are in a shorthand way — what influences have shaped your thinking and which issues are important to you.
But I think we each have one other land that defines us, and that is what I call our “Comeback Country,” the spot that calls us back, time and time again.
For me, that place is Churchill, Manitoba, Canada. I recently made a ten-year-anniversary return visit. While we all know that places change and grow over the years, we hardly notice the differences on our home grounds since we adapt to them over time. But changes in our Comeback Countries can be startling after our prolonged absence.
And so it was with Churchill for me. Coming back in the fall after ten years away, I had to wonder: Has climate change changed Churchill?
I revisited Churchill this year, in mid-October. Almost exactly a decade ago, I had gone on NatHab’s Churchill Polar Bear Tour. Although I had been back to Churchill in the intervening years — during the summer on an Arctic adventure to see beluga whales and in the winter on a northern lights tour — this was the first time I returned in the fall to witness the influx of polar bears.
Ten years ago in mid-October, I landed in a Churchill that was covered in snow. Back then, during our first day on the tundra rover, my fellow travelers had trouble with camera batteries freezing because of the extreme cold. We experienced blizzard-like conditions one night; and after my very first dog-sledding excursion, I was surprised to find frost on my glasses. Polar bears by the dozens encircled us and rolled in snowdrifts.
Two weeks ago, on October 16, the Churchill I now entered was a very different place. There was no snow in sight. That night, as I sat on the tundra rover in thirty-degree temperatures, I realized that I didn’t need the parka and boots I had been provided. Was this climate change at work? Would there even be any polar bears in Churchill at this same time — this time around?
A polar bear mind-set
To my mind, polar bears and snow just seem to go together. Perhaps it’s because of the many media images of polar bears on ice floes or the thousands of pictures of them on Christmas cards, where mothers and cubs are cuddled together in their wintery habitat.
As poster children for global warming, polar bears are unique among animals protected under the Endangered Species Act because they were the first to be designated as threatened because of global warming. Ever since then, they — and their environments — have been surrounded by controversy. According to Mark Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center, the Arctic will be ice-free by the summer of 2030. More than two-thirds of the world’s polar bears could be wiped out. Other sources, however, point out that polar bears are highly adaptable and that making any predictions about their future cannot be scientifically validated.
Strong wills; felt energies
The week I got back home, it snowed in Churchill. NatHab guide Brad Josephs wrote on his Facebook page, “Gale force winds shaking the windows, thick ice from freezing rain covering the land, drifting snow, cracker shells going off outside hazing polar bears out of town — love polar bear season!”
I have to admit that it pulled at my heart a bit to know I hadn’t seen that Churchill this time. It did give me comfort, though, to hear proof that there still is a Churchill that remains the same as it did ten years ago. I just happened to observe a different one on this ten-year reunion.
And I’m happy to report that even on my snowless tour, I did encounter plenty of polar bears. They still wait for the freezing of the Hudson Bay in the same place that they have for eons. Their white bodies against the brown willows made for some extraordinary photo opportunities — the kind I didn’t get ten years ago. Our travel group had lunch alongside a snowy owl, and I even went dog-sledding again. This time, it was on carts rather than sleds, giving me a new appreciation for the willpower and drive of these amazing canine athletes; not just when the snowflakes fly but in all temperatures and conditions.
In the mid-1800s, English poet Alfred Tennyson wrote, “I am part of all that I have known.” I will always think of Churchill as a slice of me. If the recent spate of ghost-hunter TV programs has shown us anything, it is that our residual energy still lurks in the places where we’ve felt strong emotions. If that’s true, a part of me is probably still in my Comeback Country of Churchill, wandering around.
Ten years from now, in 2022, should I return to Churchill again, will I forget the snow-dusted polar bears of 2002 and instead pine for polar bears in the willows? I can’t wait to see.
Do you have a Comeback Country? If you find it significantly changed on a subsequent visit, does it still call you back?
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,
For more polar bear stories from the field, be sure to visit our Churchill Polar Bear Blog!