Comeback Country: A Climate-Changed Churchill?

Candice Gaukel Andrews October 30, 2012 11
Polar bear by water

The Churchill I landed in this year was a different place; there was no snow. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

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?

No snow

Snowy owl

We had lunch alongside a snowy owl. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

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!”

Sparing polar bears

Churchill is still Churchill, with plenty of polar bears. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

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,

Candy

For more polar bear stories from the field, be sure to visit our Churchill Polar Bear Blog!

11 Comments »

  1. Joan Campbell October 30, 2012 at 10:37 am - Reply

    The Canadian Rockies are MY Comeback Country. I was first there several times in the late 1960s/early 1970s, and then not again until 2003. Since that time, I’ve returned every summer.

    The glaciers receded markedly between 1974 and 2003, of course, and I have compared old slides to new photos to see the differences. There are many more visitors (and traffic, too, on the Trans-Canada Highway) than there used to be, leading to more clashes between humans and wildlife. Tranquility is harder to come by near the towns and roads. Access to many hiking trails is now restricted, at least seasonally, due to bear activity, as the bears and their movements are increasingly constricted by people and construction.

    But as sad as I am to find these changes, the place calls to me more insistently than ever. As much as the area has been altered, I’ve changed over the years, too, and I think I see the mountain environment with a broader perspective, each visit tying more threads together in my mental fabric and spiritual web.

    The more I’ve traveled, the more I’ve realized that the mountains of Western Canada NOURISH me more than any other place on earth. So I will continue to come back to them.

  2. Karyn D. October 30, 2012 at 5:57 pm - Reply

    I wish I could go, too. Someday.

  3. Carlyn Kline October 30, 2012 at 6:44 pm - Reply

    Wyoming’s Bridger Wilderness is my Comeback Country. For many years we, with our four children and a dog, backpacked for a month deep into its gorgeous, challenging backcountry, restoring our souls for the year until we could return. We always learned a great deal about nature, survival, ourselves and each other. We are no longer physically able to continue this renewal, but often revisit those marvelous mountains and forests in our memories and someday that is where my ashes will be scattered.

  4. Robert Pettit October 31, 2012 at 8:44 am - Reply

    I was enamored with the arctic when I was in high school and read extensively about the search for the northwest passage and the exploration of the far north. When I found myself in churchill at the tender age of 18 I was ecstatic. For me the summer tundra was a place of unexpected miracles and glories from the tiny cloudberries to the chittering whiskey jacks it was magnificent. I haven’t been back for many years, but I greatly appreciate the update!

  5. Virendra R. October 31, 2012 at 12:32 pm - Reply

    climate change is changing the whole bio-diversity of environment so churchill is part of it.

  6. Brian October 31, 2012 at 8:04 pm - Reply

    I was there on Sunday, and it’s turned cold & frosty, and now looks more ‘northern’ normal. 8 bears seen……I’m sure more on their way in anticipation of the ice forming soon on the bay. And all the ponds have frozen over, all within the previous few days.

  7. Dr.Jagdish Mittal November 2, 2012 at 2:57 am - Reply

    Natural biodiversity is worst affected by natural disasters like the present one.

  8. Phillip T. November 9, 2012 at 5:34 am - Reply

    I visited Churchill not so long back and cannot say for sure whether the climate is changing the situation there but I had some wonderful opportunities of seeing the bears with some fellow photographers. an amazing experience.

  9. Pat Fostvedt-Oxendale November 14, 2012 at 12:23 pm - Reply

    Hi Candy, For 3 decades my ‘Comeback Country’ was France. I still think about the next time I might travel to Europe. However, since discovering Churchill 6 years ago on a Nat Hab Polar Bear Adventure, I absolutely can not stop thinking about my next trip to the North. I love Churchill! The people, the quaint motel/hotels, Gypsy’s bakery and of course the solitude of the tundra. I never tire of watching the polar bears. I’ve watched their antics in snow, rain, and ‘balmy’ weather. This summer will be another trip to Churchill to watch beluga whales. I can’t wait!

  10. Candice Gaukel Andrews November 14, 2012 at 1:48 pm - Reply

    Pat,

    You will most definitely enjoy Churchill’s beluga whales of summer! They are beautiful, and they seem to be just as curious about us as we are about them. I hope to hear all about your trip when you return.

  11. Nancy November 24, 2012 at 10:35 am - Reply

    Churchill is one of our favorite locations. I hope it doesn’t drive the bears to a different area. That is what draws us. Seeing the polor bears in the wild was such a great experience. Our first bear sighting was one meandering along the side of the road. How exciting!!!

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