It was fall when I saw the little town of Churchill in Manitoba, Canada, for the first time. Like most of the other visitors there at that time of year, I went to see its polar bears. That trip also marked the first time that I ever set foot outside the United States. That milestone, along with the natural charm of the place, worked its magic on me. At the end of my eight-day tour, I vowed that I’d return someday.
The second time I went to Churchill — almost five years later — it was winter: a full-blown, blizzard-shrouded February. By the third time I went to Churchill, summer had come to the sub-Arctic.
While two trips to a much-loved location may not be all that unusual, journeying to a small dot on the map three times may seem a bit excessive. Given all the places in the world I haven’t been to, you might wonder about the soundness of my spending my limited travel dollars on a town I’ve already seen — twice. But the thing is, I still feel like there’s so much more to explore in Churchill’s seven or eight blocks. To this day, I wonder if I’ve really seen it all.
Often on the trips I’ve taken over the years, I’ve run into some very well-traveled people. I’m awed by those who can claim they’ve visited every continent on Earth. Inevitably, during the last day or two of these tours, the conversation will turn to “where next?” Most people then run down the roster of places on their “wish” and “bucket” lists. Rarely, I’ve noticed, does anyone ever mention returning to a place they’ve already seen.
I understand the allure of going to a new place: such a journey holds a certain excitement; the call of the “unknown.” But I look upon returning to the same place over and over again as a different sort of adventure. It’s a form of time travel, for not only does a return trip show me a place in its different aspects and colors and moods, but repeating a voyage pulls into focus the changes that have occurred in me since I was last “there.”
In Churchill, I’ve seen how locals — like Dave Daley, who runs a dog-sledding outfit in winter and a general store in summer — adjust to the seasons. I’ve seen his just-born Husky puppies in warm weather, and his fully-charged sled dogs in winter. I’ve seen the town transition from “Polar Bear Capital of the World” to beluga whale hot spot. I’ve seen the northern lights dance in the winter sky and then watched them light up a July evening. On my last trip to Churchill, I thought I caught glimpses of my younger, wide-eyed self, sitting in a tundra buggy and watching polar bears in the wild, while the older but wiser version (I hope!) got a new perspective on the town from a kayak out in the river. How far I’ve come, I mused, how much deeper I’ve seen into this town and its people, from the parka-clad women of just a few years ago who had never ventured outside her own country.
An illuminated letter
Several years ago, I visited an art gallery that was exhibiting the works of American artist Andrew Wyeth. In a small display case in the back of the room, beyond the great works hanging on the walls, was one of Wyeth’s handwritten letters. It was addressed to a friend and dated February 23, 1961, when Wyeth was in his mid forties. The letter was included in the show because it contained a watercolor sketch of a red sled, propped up against a barn wall in winter. However, more than the illustration on the page, it was one of his sentences that caught my eye. It read:
“It is very odd, but I find myself going back to the same places I have walked all my life and getting more and more excited.”
In one simple statement, Wyeth had captured the joy of “going back.”
Are there places in the world that you never get tired of seeing? If you could, where would you go, over and over again?
For me, it’s a little town on Hudson Bay.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,
Candice Gaukel Andrews’s account of returning to Churchill will appear in an upcoming book titled An Adventurous Nature: Tales from Natural Habitat Adventures.