After siesta I woke up with my guard down. Out of sorts, wandering with my head in the clouds.
I was waking up to the third day that day.
The eclipse was expected to reach total coverage at 12 minutes after sunrise, at 6:14am. We’d been up every morning for sunrise to gauge the conditions for the big day. It was always hazy. Dawn provoked a mist rising from the immense floodplain, as if the earth exhaled with the relief of a new morning. It was as if we were witnessing the dawn of time.
On the day of, the mist rose well above the horizon. We gripped our hearts & waited.
The sun rose at 90% coverage – a massive pink crescent on the edge of the world. The sunlight came & soon enough was arcing above us, leaving us to darkness. Crickets buzzed. Birds flew on. The air felt lighter beneath the Ring; everything in my body went on high alert. I trembled with goosebumps.
It’s difficult to describe a world of surreal darkness. Attention focused; all our breath was drawn. Time stopped.
It was so soft. It was the best time of day to watch the eclipse. The sunlight was very gentle. It was the only part of the day when the regular harshness would be subdued enough to witness without fancy blackened eclipse glasses.
The festival had been planned for 8 years. Eclipse chasing is not a culture I had ever been exposed to. My friends insisted that after today, I would be hooked. No longer just for astronomers & mathematicians; a quick search on Wikipedia will give a precise calendar of when & where the next solar eclipse will be witnessed.
My plans changed sharply the week before, when I was extended an invitation. My life is more foreshadowing than planning.
The actual event was over in a few minutes. The sun was still rising in the sky when people were packing up camp to get back to reality.
There had never been an open invitation to outsiders to visit this part of the Aboriginal territory known as Arnham Land. Numbers were restricted, because they were unsure how it would run. Everything was questioned 10 times, to allow for cultural sensitivity. Organization wasn’t optimal; it felt like we listened to soundcheck for days & drinking water arrived at 4pm after spending all day in the heat.
The first year of a festival is expected to be unrefined. That’s not why we came.
On the last evening, the local community finally came out. The elders had visited the previous nights, gone back & championed the event to the people. My guard was down, & I was taken aback. We invoked spirits that night with the locals. A little girl smiled at me who was so genuine & beautiful I almost cried. We played with the kids who climbed on us, danced with us & embraced us.
Who are we? We are nobody, just 4 bastards from down the road – but we were embraced as brothers & sisters.
It took a celestial anomaly to bring us all together.
I almost sat on a scorpion, was almost hit by a fireball, & almost crushed by a tree branch. I ate water buffalo, still cannot weave a basket to save my life, but learned a few words in Yolnu.
It was an incredibly moving experience. I am better for it.
I was on the top of a snowy hill when my phone rang. Actually, I was in the middle of a photo shoot with my chameleon companion Pascal. It couldn’t be helped. He stands out so vibrantly in the white landscape. I love the juxtaposition of the colours (really, I just love the irony).
“Hey! How was your hike? You said you’d call me when you got back!”
There’s a few reasons why this is funny:
#1) I didn’t even know I had cell service. Plus, how did my gramma know I was stopped at that time? My ringer was off & if I had been hiking, I would never have noticed the call.
#2) She’s right. I had planned to knock out the trek in 3 days, which is a normal estimate at any other time of year. In the winter – it was laughable. It would mean either hiking faster over the slippery terrain, waking up really early (no thanks) or hiking a few hours in the dark because of the shorter days. I’m already hiking alone, I didn’t want to be grouchy when I only had myself as company!
#3) I was giggling from the excess of fresh air & the general absurdity of the moment, so everything was funny. It was great to talk to someone other than myself or Pascal or the birds or the trees. She probably thought I was losing my marbles.
I whipped this trip up last minute. 3 days earlier, I had no idea that I’d be chasing daylight through the Canadian Shield later that week. The forecast was unreal for December in Manitoba: high of +4/low of -4. It called for a bold celebration.
So I packed my bags to do the longest hiking trail in Manitoba – the 64km Mantario Trail – for my second time.
My first time on the Mantario trail was kind of a nightmare. Circumstances seemed like it should have been great! It was the week after Thanksgiving during a particularly mild fall. The forecast was perfect for hiking; 10 to 15° during the day & hovering around freezing at night. We had one day with a bit of snow, one day with a cold overnight, & most importantly: no bugs, no bears, & no people.
By the time we hiked out however, our friendship was pretty much over.
There was some oversight about gear that we hadn’t considered; we decided to bring 2 stoves just in case one stopped working, but we only had one Jetboil pot that my friend was borrowing & didn’t want to chance scorching it on my stove. That means suddenly we had half the fuel we meant to, plus the dead weight of the extra stove, extra fuel & the fuel-intensive food that wasn’t going to be cooked – like oatmeal.
Looking back, this trip was a recipe for disaster. I had just bought new hiking boots & me, in my brazen go-get-em-ness, decided that there’s no better way to break in a pair of boots than on a 64km hike. What could possibly go wrong?! About halfway through the trail, I started to get knee pain. I’ve never had a problem with my knees before & it scared me. This was also during a time when I scoffed at the idea of using hiking poles (“The forest is filled with walking sticks that are just as good!”). I gradually became conscious of each extra ounce in my pack & it was all bearing down on my mental & physical state. It made me grouchy.
Oh, and we were sharing a tent. Great.
I haven’t even mentioned the transportation snafu. This is a one-way trail, so most hikers either leave a car at either end or swap keys with other hikers heading in the opposite direction. Since we only had one car between us & we were the only ones on the trail, so the plan was to hitchhike back to Winnipeg, which a mutual friend had done in the summer.
This turned out to be almost impossible because it was October in cabin country & there were simply no cars on the road. After a long 4 day hike through the woods, we plodded along the road for over an hour faced with the prospect of spending another night out when the tension between us was at its peak.
This was 100% my fault – I said I would arrange transportation. We did finally get a ride from the only car we saw. The next day I hitchhiked back out to the trailhead to get my car because I couldn’t ask my partner for a ride because he was mad at me….which a whole other can of worms.
All-in-all, it was a pretty horrible experience.
I could use a redemption arc.
After the amazing forecast made me hallucinate adventure ideas, everything fell into place. I got the time off work & miraculously arranged a drop-off at the south trailhead with my car waiting safely at the north trailhead. Before I knew it, it was happening.
I made sure to pack some extra gear for the colder overnight temperatures; an extra sleeping pad, extra base layers, cozy socks, & extra extra flashlight batteries. This time I packed hiking poles – I always carry hiking poles on a long trip now. This is a testament to the personal growth that comes with experience.
However, a recent purchase meant that I would be breaking in new hiking boots again. Maybe I haven’t learned anything.
The day we drove out was miraculous. It was one of those gentle winter mornings with hoarfrost & lavender skies that reminds you that dawn is a gift to those who wake up early.
I was energized by the cool fresh air, the sun on my back & more than a bit of adrenaline from making foolhardy daydreams a reality.
Laughing again, I shocked a group of day-hikers by suggesting I may have dropped my car keys somewhere along the way. For a brief moment, it was conceivable that I could successfully reach my vehicle & have everything go according to plan, only to lose my keys some 50kms behind me. That was just my mind playing tricks on me (“They’re not in my pocket…did I put them in my backpack?”) – I was already in my own world.
Getting to the first campsite, Caribou East, I felt good. I looked over my first pick of virgin campsites & checked my watch. I’d come 12kms & it was around 2:30pm. Tricky timing – too early to stop for the night, but far enough away that it’d be dark before I got to the next campsite. So I continued on..
Hiking in the dark was a trip. I knew that the trail could be hard to find in sections with a bit of distance between markers. Mostly I was surprised at how easy it was to find; this trail got a lot of use in the past year & sometimes it was either well-defined through the brush, or well-trafficked by a variety of animals. I found myself often following fox tracks to lead me towards the path of least resistance.
The trail design seems highly intuitive. That is, until the hairs stand up on the back of your neck – a subconscious suspicion you’ve gone the wrong way, which happened occasionally even during the day. Only mildly disconcerting, it’s easy enough to follow your own tracks in the snow & backtrack to another marker.
Marion Lake was a chance to practice my winter camping skills. I decided to melt snow for water over the fire to preserve fuel. The balancing act of sourcing clean, fresh snow to drink, constantly refilling the pot so it doesn’t burn dry & keeping the fire hot enough was a chore that kept me busy for hours. Luckily, I had a random plastic grocery bag with me, so I would scoop a bagful of clean snow off the ice instead of going back & forth with my little one-person pot.
I got the best campsite that night, sheltered from the wind & close to the edge of the lake. I had used a couple pages from my book as firestarter, but never actually sat down to read it. Between the unsettling sounds of the ice groaning, the halo of stars & the mental quiet that comes with doing what needs to be done, it was enough to be immersed in this wild wonderland; I didn’t need an escape.
The morning glistened with hoarfrost. I had hoped this mild weather would create the perfect conditions for moisture to crystalize the landscape. The sun was already up. I always have the best intentions of getting up early, but I am notorious for over-sleeping in my tent – even as the summer sun bakes me alive.
Even though the sun was shining, black clouds were forming in my mind. This was my worst day. I pressed on even though I was achy. (“Whose idea was this anyway??”) I assumed I was in good hiking shape. I was not. No sign of knee pain though, which is a good thing.
My anxiety was triggered by a change in the weather forecast. The road into the north trailhead was steeper & icier than I’d realized, & I was worried that a little bit of snow might defeat my 2-wheel drive & leave me stranded. There was no precipitation in the forecast when I left. That morning when I asked about overnight temps, I heard the last thing I was expecting:
Overnight freezing rain.
I stopped in my tracks & checked the skies. Sure enough, I could see the clouds coming in on the horizon. I spent the day hoping I could literally out-run the weather if I got further north. That was my motivation for the day; I was sore & alone, but if I kept going as best as I could maybe I could beat the weather.
When I approached the campsite, the light was growing dim. There was a bridge to cross & I could see the sign marking the campsite. My backpack was feeling particularly heavy but rest was within sight.
The sign read Olive Lake. I was supposed to be at Moosehead Lake by now! Groaning, I let my bag fall to the ground. I sat down on a picnic table, grabbed a Clif bar & weighed my options. According to the map, the next campsite was less than 1km away over mostly flat terrain. After Moosehead Lake was the most arduous section of the trail. I was hoping to get as far as I could before the rain, but I had only done 13kms that day – 5kms less than the day before. And I didn’t want to take any unnecessary risks like hiking the hardest section in the dark.
I gave myself a second-wind & kept on to Moosehead Lake. Actually, I immediately got lost & just thought about staying the night at Olive Lake. Once I found the trail, it was straight-forward as the map suggested. After a quick 20-minute hop, I had finally reached the halfway point.
It was an uneventful evening. I set up my tent before anything else, & was flipping through the hikers’ logbook when the rain started at 6 pm. I listened to the rain spatter on my tent for an hour or so before I decided to just go to sleep. Had some trail mix & a bar for dinner. I expected a fitful sleep of waking up shivering again, so may as well get started early.
During the night, I woke up with a surge of energy & a brainstorm idea. The rain had made the snow nice & sticky, so I used it to build a wall around my 3-season tent to help with insulation. I felt like a genius.
I woke up refreshed. I stayed warm & had a pretty good sleep. My body was acclimatizing to the exercise. (Or maybe it was because I slept for ~12 hours… Who knows?)
It wasn’t as sunny & beautiful as it had been, but it was a great day. It was hard work, but it wasn’t as icy as I’d feared. I felt strong & the fog was gone. My mind was a jukebox of all the music I’ve ever heard & when I stopped for a snack break, it was also a dance break. I even stopped to get a Geocache at the North end of Mantario Lake!
I was in love with the world. There were tracks from so many different families of animals – rodents, weasels, canines, & hoofed mammals. I kept a my head on a spindle, hopeful to catch the sight of an owl or fox or lynx or anything there is to see. One time, my head was in the clouds as I scanned the area & I caught sight of something that made my stomach drop. It was a big black wolf standing still on the rocks above me. As I watched, I shifted my weight side-to-side & realized it was a fallen tree that was perfectly aligned to create this illusion. (Did I mention I was alone?)
Alas, the only animals I can confirm to have seen (other than Pascal) were red squirrels, woodpeckers & ravens. Maybe I was singing too loudly.
I got to the first pick of campsites that night too, & I even arrived before dark! Actually, the best campsite at Ritchey Lake was too exposed, so I chose something more tucked into the woods. There was already a hole in the ice which was surrounded by shells, where an otter had had a meal. I was struck by my good fortune. (“This campsite has everything!”)
This was supposed to be the coldest night, so I prepped my tent with another wall to help with insulation – this time built with fallen logs. I had my comfort food of spaghetti for dinner & felt an inner warmth as I tucked into bed. When I woke to sounds outside my tent during the night, I pictured them coming from a deer or a wolf that was drawn by curiosity. I figured that they meant no harm & went back to sleep.
The final day was a blur. It was colder than it had been during the day at -5° & the air was still. Couldn’t ask for better hiking weather. The northern section of the trail is boring since a large portion of it follows an old road. Up until then, my mind swirled over the signs of other people! Like footprints, & snowmobile tracks & a call from my gramma who sounds like she’s somewhere warm where her bootlaces aren’t frozen with ice chunks.
Suddenly, I was done. I had my keys, no pain in my legs & had no problem on the roads after all. The Mantario is a mental challenge as well as a physical one. Not gonna lie, it was tough. There were times when I would have been terrible company & I was glad to be alone. There were also times when I had to muster up the strength to do it myself & conjured up hugs from my friends through their motivational text messages. <3
I am relieved to hike out on a high note, in better shape than I went in.
In 2014, my friend Matt Cairns & I canoed from Winnipeg to Churchill. It took us 64 days. This trip is too epic to summarize in a single story, so I like to break it up into manageable sizes. Enjoy!
There is no substitute for good gear. I was waking up & relaxing in my tent. Between thoughts, a stream developed underneath me. It was early July & still warm at night, but I was thankful to be dry. Years ago, I had the foresight to get myself a good tent when I had a government job & spending money. If I hadn’t, I’d be using a beaten tent designed for warmer climates, like Matt’s, & I would be wet.
We had to learn quickly on Lake Winnipeg. Also known as the Inland Sea, it is the 12th largest freshwater lake in the world. It’s shallowness – absurd for its size – allows 6ft waves to kick up with little warning. Our collective sailing experience saved us, as we learned effective coursing with the winds – which often meant waiting for them to change. We developed an understanding of the conditions around us, & were able to adapt before they gave us a swift slap to the backside.
There had been some rough activity the day before. Our eyes were sharpened, keeping a close eye both towards the waves, to avoid whitecaps that could flood us & turn us off course, and scanning for rocks that would jut out in the troughs of the waves. Progress was negligible; our minds were silently focused on dodging the elements. After a couple of very close calls, Matt was the voice of reason to say “This is stupid; let’s find a place to land.” There was a landeable beach nearby, and dark clouds approaching. Within seconds of setting up our tents, it rained so hard we couldn’t hear each other 3 feet away.
The storm had blown over, but headwinds insisted we were to stay there overnight.
After dinner, we were doing dishes when a black bear decided to come share our snacks. We’d had bears on the brain, since we hadn’t seen any large animals yet. Our combined surprise & admiration (‘this is so cool!’) gave him enough time to decide to stick around & become a feature in our adventure. I’ve since been told that apples are like honey to bears. Sure enough, he was persistently trying to steal our picnic baskets. Bear protection was high on the preparation list, & although we were venturing into polar bear territory, we decided on bear bangers, flares & bear spray over a gun.
This guy seemed fairly harmless. He wasn’t a full-grown adult, but old enough to be away from his mother. As we tried to scare him away, he would feign running off, then stick to the perimeter & try again from another angle. He was non-threatening, but delicious snacks are enough of an incentive for him to become a pain in the neck. We tried bear bangers, which are supposed to replicate a gunshot, to no effect. We had the same issue with the flare – how do you hold a bear’s attention long enough to frighten him away? He finally disappeared when I ran towards him holding a stick over my head. Matt laughed; all the ‘recommended’ defenses were no match to the threat of an old-fashioned hiding.
Lake Winnipeg is so big, it has a tide. It is a fake tide, but when the wind blows from the North, the Southern basin’s water level rises, and visa versa. After the emergence of the stream beneath me, I heard expletives coming from the direction of the canoe. I held my breath. The only thing that makes me lose sleep is the possibility of something happening to the boat. We were less than 2 weeks into a 60-day trip.
Nothing major; when the water level rose, the canoe had been pulled into the water, flipped, then pushed back onshore. Incredibly lucky! We were at the edge of a swamp, where there weren’t any strong trees to tie up to, but we had pulled her all the way up onto the beach. This was not a great situation, especially because we left our olive oil in the boat & it covered everything. This was still the best-case scenario. If the boat had gone adrift during the night, I would have lost my shit.
Although we’d recognized our position near the swamp when we decided not to tie up the boat, this didn’t seem of consequence until the water level rose. On the one hand, we were directing streams from the odd wave that would break over the beach, and on the other, we had to start constructing a dam from the rising waters of the swamp. What is the water equivalent to “between a rock & a hard place?”
After a few hours of futility, fighting back one of the biggest lakes in the world on a spit of sand, the winds had died down enough that we could take our ark to higher ground.
It was already late in the day & we could only paddle 10km before we hunkered down for the eve. Our new camp wasn’t ideal; it was overgrown & jungly – we planted our tents on top of a few saplings – but it was high ground. We definitely had pasta for dinner (our comfort food.)
During another wet evening with no dry firewood, while replenishing in silence, I laughed at something Matt had said earlier: “I don’t know anyone who would do a trip like this, except you.” “Look at what we’ve just been through & you wonder why no one would do this!”
Matt’s response makes me a hypocrite. The only better thing than good gear is a great travel partner: “This is what makes it fun.”
And I’ve tried to enjoy it. I joined a running club, I got new shoes, I downloaded a tracking app. I feel like a resolution failure; I plan to make a habit of running during the winter, only to opt for greener pastures in fair weather like paddling & biking.
My physical fitness has always been fine. My cardio has been consistently better than my strength. I mean, I could run to save my life, but that’s the end of my motivation.
April 2012: The only 5k race I’ve ever signed up for.
I hitchhiked to the starting line. As with all things that involve running, I was very poorly prepared.
In the back of a stranger’s car, we entered the gates of the compound. This race was taking place on the grounds of Kingseat Hospital & psychiatric institution, one of the most haunted sites in New Zealand, and current home of Spookers Haunted Attraction Scream Park.
Welcome to ‘Run for Your Freak’n Life’ – a 5k obstacle course set in the zombie apocalypse.
All participants get a belt with 5 tags attached. These are your ‘lives’. The zombies will be trying to take your flags. The goal is to finish the race alive.
The runners start altogether, but before you even notice, everyone is separated. You know how when you’re watching a movie, & you think you would make smarter decisions? Everything happens all at once.
One second ago, I was crawling through the mud under a rope net with zombies hissing & arms reaching in from the sides. Next thing I knew, I was running through the woods alone. The only sounds my feet padding on the ground, my heavy breathing & my heartbeat pounding (did I mention I’m not a good runner?) There are screams in the distance.
My mind is clear. Only survival.
At some point I band together with a group of people. We rely on each other like we’ve always been together. There’s a clearing in the bush. No one wants to be the first to cross it. The “tough guy” who has more tags than the rest of us, volunteers. I’m not making this shit up!
Then there was the corn maze. I was navigating up front when there were screams behind me. Run-run-run – right into a dead end, with my ragtag crew hot on my tail. Trapped! That’s where the chainsaw zombie got us, & the one time I actually screamed.
People are getting picked off, you’re jumping over people & leaving them behind as sacrifice. These were once your friends, right?
The zombies are horrifying. They are so convincing – howling, screeching, & never breaking character. I even came across one who was outside a dilapidated old shack. I stopped when I rounded the corner a little ways off, so I was hoping he didn’t hear me. I stood there watching him for 30 seconds or so. He was thrashing against the side of the building, like he got mindlessly caught there & didn’t think to turn around. Until he spun around & locked eyes with me. His eyes were white.
I may have peed a little bit.
There was also manoevering through tires, straight up diving over haybales & wading through some kind of thick stream looking up at the zombies on the banks above.
I also couldn’t stop laughing at the end. What a freaking rush. Is this what a runner’s high feels like?
This was just a drill. I have evidence that if & when the zombie apocalypse comes to fruition, I am dead. You think you’re ready? Really? I did end up surviving, but I thought I’d do better than I did. I’m going to stretch more often now, just in case.
See? I can enjoy running. I can even run to save my life.
Every time I tell someone this story, it does more harm than good. Usually the circumstances inspire it to bubble to the surface, are walking along the edge of a cliff, or hiking on polished rocks, or climbing a ladder that’s maybe not as stable as it should be. Once this story lodges itself in my brain, it gives me vertigo. And the trail all-of-a-sudden seems so much higher & slipperier than it is.
I fell into a very cool winter job that season.
I mean cool literally – I was building an ice castle.
They were looking for hardy people willing to work outside all winter in Winnipeg, & reached out to seasonal workers in Churchill. An advantage of working in the sub-arctic in the fall means that we get ahead of acclimatizing for winter. By the time the snow falls in Winnipeg, we’ve already had -20C for a month or so.
We spent the better part of a month growing this castle out of icicles & sprinklers.
Once the walls were above our heads, we had to build stairs to get into the walls, then build the walls taller.
Eventually our jobs turned to building the ice slide, putting features into the walls, like light displays & artwork, & finally maintenance.
Maintenance is constant. When we arrive in the morning, the water has often had a mind of its own & spilled out the sides of the walls.
Eventually, all the stand-alone towers should connect with the outside walls of the castle through arches. The arches are surprisingly sturdy once they freeze. When ice freezes to itself (rather than to a rock face, or hanging off a roof), it is very strong.
But sometimes the sprinklers freeze altogether, & the arches remain unfinished.
On this particular day, I was the only one working maintenance. My counterpart worked opposite days to me, so there was always at least one person working off-the-ground in the ice towers.
I loved it. I loved getting into the warming shack in the morning & strapping on my gaiters & crampons. I love working outside & being reminded of how beautiful the winter is.
Plus we got to build something magical.
I left the stand-alone tower for last. There was no obvious way up – on a tower this size, we couldn’t have stairs from the ground & risk the public trying to climb it. Normally we would access via the arches from the outer walls, but they were unfinished.
I was nervous about doing it. Usually Chris was the one who tackled these sprinklers – he always found a way to scramble up the side of the tower & before you knew it he’d be beaming from the top. My manager reassured me that I didn’t have to do it if I was uncomfortable, but I also didn’t want it to beat me. I’ve seen Chris do it a bunch of times; my compromise was to use a ladder.
The top of the tower had a short wall around it, so once I got up, it was no problem. The side that I was accessing was completely slick & curved, because of a water leak that formed a waterfall. You could see the sheen from the bottom. Not super inspiring.
I was like a foot off the ground when the guy holding the ladder said “I can’t believe you are doing this.” His voice trembled. You are not allowed to be more nervous about this than me.
I cautiously climbed the ladder one foot at a time, making sure my crampons didn’t catch on the steel.
Once I was at the top, I stared at the ice & took a deep breath. I steadied myself. “I could get up, but I am going to have a hell of a time getting down.” There was nothing to hold onto, but I trusted my crampons. I kicked the spikes into the glassy ice & got a firm grip to haul myself up.
I did it. Ohh my god, I did it.
It took me almost an hour to blast through the ice with hot water & get the drainage working properly so it wouldn’t go back to flooding sections of the castle again. I spent some extra time to make sure the fix would stick so we wouldn’t have to come back up here. Once was enough for all of us.
Suddenly it was the end of the day. I had waited so long to build up my nerve to do this tower last, that I had no idea how long it would take. I could see people lining up at the front gates. The doors would open in 15 minutes!
I finished up & tossed down my gear. The guys on the ground said “Great. Now just climb down.”
No Way. I stared at the top of the ladder at the base of this 6 ft slippery section. I would have to climb backwards towards the ledge of this 25ft drop with nothing to hold onto, or crab-walk forwards towards the ledge & climb down the ladder forwards. Both of these options sound terrible.
My manager is saying “You need to come down.” I can’t bring myself to do it. I trust the crampons but I don’t trust the ice. Not with my life.
If I had more time, I could have mustered up the nerve. But we didn’t have time, so my manager radioed the front-end loader to come & pick me up.
I partly slid, partly climbed into the front of the tractor. It was a smooth ride. He gently lowered me to the ground, where I got a few pats on the back from my co-workers who filmed the whole thing – obviously.
When I climbed out, he said to me “That’s the scariest thing I’ve ever done.”
It has been 4 years since I started working seasonally with a fun-loving group of huskies running dogsled tours in Churchill, Manitoba. I haven’t put the miles on like a traditional musher would – we mostly just run tours.
My friend Dan told me, “You’re not a real musher until you lose a team.” I’ve flipped my sled, broken up tangles & dog-fights, I’ve broken clasps & lines & I’ve slid on my knees more times than I’d like to admit. (It’s good to get it out of the system.) I’ve even trailed behind the sled headfirst holding nothing but a rope to pull myself back up to the back of the sled – but I’ve always held on. Still, there’s that nagging feeling that I can’t call myself a musher because I don’t have the experience.
We run our tours through the Boreal forest, which is much more protected than the barren tundra on the Hudson Bay coast. These days, the conditions are magical. -5°C & overcast with a light snow. When the tree boughs covered in snow & the air is still, you hit the trail on the sled & it’s peaceful – just the sound of the runners on the snow & the dogs breathing.
This day was no different. It had been an excellent morning, & we got everything set up for afternoon tours.
We do an introduction, then give the tourists a chance to meet the dogs & take photos. After a few minutes of getting pats, the dogs will start to get restless. They’re watching us & they’re watching Kelly. As soon as one of us unchains a lead dog, they start barking & jumping like crazy. They know it’s time to go.
We’d take each dog to the sled & help them into their harnesses, which are already laid out in their position in the team. Once we start this process, we really want to get them running as soon as we can. Having 7 rambunctious huskies in close proximity when they’re very excited isn’t a good idea. Even though they’re kept in line with clips, it’s a build-up of energy that will cause something to go wrong with enough time.
No worries. The guests are loaded into the sled before the dogs are all hooked up so that we can go as soon as they’re ready. And we’re off! It doesn’t take long for the dogs to settle in. When they’re running, they’re happy. No barking, just running. Bliss.
We come around the first corner & there’s a polar bear walking on the trail. I slam on the brakes.
We skid to a stop. The dogs are pulling, this time barking at the bear in front of them. My guests are unfazed. They’re doing really well for Aussies. They say “oh, there’s a bear” matter-of-factly.
Churchill is literally known as the polar bear capital of the world. It’s not like we didn’t know that there’s bears around. Tourists come from all over the world to see them. They just tend to stick to the tundra & don’t always come into the forest & this is the first time we’ve come across one in this area. It was bound to happen.
The dogs are warding the bear off with bared teeth & angry barking. I’m holding the brakes down with all of my weight & more. I can’t take my eyes off this hulking bear in front of us.
The bear doesn’t make any indication he’s startled to see us. He had probably heard the dogs barking & was coming to investigate. His expression is “oh, that’s interesting.” He continues to take steps towards us. He’s not 20ft from the dogs leading the team.
He stands up on his hind legs to get a good look at us. He’s at least 8 feet tall. A beautiful looking creature with a broad chest & creamy blonde fur. My guests might have said something. I think I’m saying a mixture of f*ck and nononononononono.
He gets down onto all fours & saunters into the ditch beside the trail to lay down. Fine. Sitting there is fine, just please don’t attack the dogs.
A couple of the dogs are lunging into the bush at him. I can see his face from my perspective. He’s moving his head & sniffing at the dogs – not looking particularly angry or anything. Not showing any stress from the fact that he’s 5ft away from an animal that looks like it’s about to tear his face off. He’s the top of the food chain here.
I’m watching this unfold, holding the team in place. With these dogs, there’s no “turning around” – the options are stopped or forward until you come to an intersection, like a train that has no reverse. A thought briefly goes through my mind that I could just try to pass him & leave him behind, but the lead dogs are off the trail in the deep snow trying to get at him. I’m parked here & that’s it. We’re not going anywhere.
As expected, Kelly shows up behind me.
I always go first because I have less experience than Kelly, who’s been doing this for 25 years. When managing a team of dogs, any number of things can go wrong. If something happens, he’s right behind me to help if I need.
He knows there’s a problem & stops behind me. I yell “Remember what we talked about yesterday?” & point into the bush. He knows.
We had just had this conversation about what to do coming across a bear in the bush. It’s a practical discussion. They built Churchill in the middle of a polar bear migratory path & they come to wait for the ice at this time of year. The area is crawling with them. I am however cautious about using language in front of guests who might freak out. (Language like “polar bear” gets people very excited; especially if they’re not in the comfort of a vehicle.)
Yesterday, his recommendation was to anchor the sled down & let a couple dogs loose to chase the bear away. Today, there is no way I’m getting off this sled. If we slip forward even by a couple inches to lunge towards the bear, the whole situation could escalate instantly.
You know the expression ‘Don’t poke the bear?’ So long as I can hold the sled down, maybe we can avoid catastrophe.
Kelly brings the teams side-by-side, so he can get a good perspective of the situation. He knows bears better than I do. He hands me the sled & goes up between the teams to see where the bear is.
We need a gun. Neither of us have one.
Good thing we are a short ways from the beginning of the trail, so our co-workers will hear the dogs barking, know something’s wrong & come to check on us.
The first person to arrive is Julia. I just say “Get Ernest. Get a gun.”
Ernest is an old-time musher & a Churchill local. He was the first owner of a few of Kelly’s dogs, including Cookie, who despite her sugary-sweet demeanour that makes everyone rub her belly & want to take her home, is currently short distance away from tackling a polar bear 10x her size. Ernest is a part of our team & has good bear sense.
Kelly & I are standing there managing the situation, by which I mean, holding everything down. The bear seems fine with this. He’s decided that he wants to sit & watch the dogsleds I guess.
I’m standing on both snow hooks to hold the sleds & my legs are shaking. The bear must have moved because he’s disappeared from my view. Kelly says he could see him the whole time from the front of the team, but I when had called out to see if he could still see him, he was busy breaking up a dog fight. (We intentionally put the dogs that don’t like each other on separate teams, so they never get a chance to interact. We typically never bring the teams so close together, but this was an exceptional situation.)
Dog fights look brutal. They can be really aggressive & even superficial wounds can bleed a lot. White huskies look shocking when they’re spattered with red. I steadied myself by talking to the guests about the dogfight, rationalizing something startling & primal. I did it partly to distract the guests and partly to calm myself down. They were making little “oooh interesting” or “aw alright” sounds of understanding, but I was on autopilot. My mind was on the bear. It had only been minutes but it felt like an eternity. Where the hell is the gun?!?
I thank my lucky stars we had a good bear. All we could do was to stop the situation from escalating from our end. If the bear decided he’d had enough….I don’t even want to think about it.
Ernest arrived on an ATV with a gun & Steph on the rear as backup to take care of the dogs. The point was never to shoot the bear, but to scare it off. Ernest fired off a couple rounds into the air. Once Kelly was satisfied that he was gone (for now at least), I pulled his hook out of the snow & gave his sled a push so the dogs would feel the tension of the brakes release & start to run.
He took off ahead of me. I took off shortly after, with the ATV close behind me. The dogs are running as if nothing happened. They seem to be so single-minded; running comes first, everything else is secondary. They walk it off like pros & run excellently. To be fair, they live outside of Churchill & spend their whole lives outdoors. They’ve probably seen more bears than we would like to believe.
We got back to the start of the trail & set up to get ready for our next lap. All the guests had been loaded onto their bus for safety. Our team acted quickly to make sure everyone was taken care of & get the gun out to us asap. At the time, my mind said that we were cancelling the rest of the tour, but I felt very comfortable running between Kelly & Ernest on the ATV if we’ve got a gun with us. They’ve got my back.
We end up doing all 4 laps. The dogs ran amazingly. The guests were in that protective tourist haze that denies reality. I heard they spoke to some friends of mine in town later & were like “wow! That was neat!”
In fact, when we went to load up our passengers for the second lap, they said “I heard you saw a bear on the trail.” I said “Yep.” “…..A black bear?” I almost laughed. I don’t think I would have even asked the guests to get in the bus if there was a black bear around. I feel like a team of 7 dogs would be more than enough to scare it off.
I guess I have to forgive people for their perspective biases, cause I thought it was funny. If you say “bear” in Churchill, it’s a polar bear unless you say otherwise. But people aren’t used to that. If you say “bear” in most parts of North America, people are going to assume it’s a black bear unless you say otherwise.
Usually your first indication that there’s a bear in the area is tracks – foot prints in the snow. It’s strange to me that we never had any indication until we saw him coming towards us in the trail. He stayed in the area for 6 more days. This was a good reminder for us to always be bear safe, to start carrying a gun & signalling devices on the trail & to always check the trail between tours.
The day he was darted by Manitoba Conservation, he had been to the dog yard & flipped over a couple of dog houses. One of our dogs had been burying her food & he found it, then checked a few others in case of a free meal. None of the dogs were harmed, thankfully. Some of the pups looked at us with wide eyes like they had seen a dinosaur, but they were otherwise fine.
We called them when we saw him in the field behind the dog yard one day. They came with a helicopter, darted him & took him to the Polar Bear Holding Facility (aka bear jail).
He was a 4-year old male polar bear weighing about 600lbs. He had never been tagged before, which means he had never been to bear jail & was new to the area. He was just a young, curious bear checking things out like a good bear would.
A few days later the ice came in on Hudson Bay. Soon after, all the bears were released from the holding facility onto the ice to go hunt seals. So long, Bear!
I consider this my initiation. After 4 years, I can call myself a real musher who can handle anything that might go wrong on the trail, & as a Churchill tour guide, I have had my first experience looking a polar bear in the eyes.
It’s a good reminder that we are in bear country, and not the other way around. It was an experience that will live with me forever.
I hope I can learn from it & walk it off like a husky.
Last night the Northern Lights danced in the sky, so I heard. They were in my dreams. Mine was a vision of sunset colours overlapping the dark night sky. Leaping kilometres in a bound, as gracefully and purposefully as a fish swims.
I used to play this game that, wherever I was, I would try to convince myself that ‘I could be anywhere in the world.’ (Use your bed, or a strangers couch for full effect.) New Zealand was a hamlet in the Rocky Mountains. Mexico City was in a suburb in Florida. The heat of Australia became familiar. I’ve woken up in my bedroom, thinking I was in Uganda. Whenever I woke up in my tent, I could be in Georgia, Newfoundland, or the Grand Canyon. At the end of every car ride, I could have ended up in a place called home.
This is the kind of place that leaves an impression.
The job fell into my lap. It was a perfect right-place-right-time Winnipeg fairy tale. After a couple of phone interviews, I had convinced myself the whole deal was too good to be true several times before I boarded the train to bring me to Churchill Manitoba.
Everything I’ve done until now seems to have prepared me for this, yet I had never done anything like this before.
I am guiding beluga whale tours in the province that I grew up in. How is this even possible??
Summer in the tundra means my commute to work has wildflowers everywhere. I cannot believe how much purple there is up here! The summer blooming season is so short that every few days I see a new flower I haven’t seen before. It’s hard to keep up.
This year’s weather has been insane. I had never thought Hudson Bay could ever be so calm as it was the first few weeks I was here. Although we joke that “if we only ran tours in good weather, we’d only run 2 tours a year,” we only cancelled one tour in July, & every day was better than the last.
I get a lot of questions about what to expect during the tours: Will we see whales? Will we see bears? How cold is the water? At least once a day someone tells me “You must love your job.”
Playing coy in these circumstances is tough. I would try to say something about the ol’ 9-to-5 grind, & how finding the whales or hauling kayaks isn’t that easy. But….
(an example of the 9-to-5 grind. Running shuttles across the Churchill River.)
There hasn’t been a single day I’ve been here that I haven’t seen a whale. I’ve seen feeding frenzies over a kilometer long. I’ve seen 7 polar bears in the wild in one day. I’ve seen polar bears eating a whale carcass, & I’ve even seen them mating! (Seeing bears at all at this time of year isn’t even an absolute!)
One of my favourite things in the world is paddling with the belugas. They’ll swim alongside you & race you, while you pretend you even have a chance. They’ll play with you & when you stop, they’ll blow bubbles underneath you & nudge you, as if to say “why’d you stop? Why aren’t you swimming?” I’d haul all the kayaks just to do it again tomorrow.
Not to mention: – working outside all day – the amazing cast of characters that make up the rest of our team – tapping into wilderness lore on the water – living next to a national heritage site & picking the brains of Parks Canada staff – this community of oddballs that all seem to fit in – how delicious is caribou!?! – all the undiscovered places: trails, beaches, shipwrecks & beyond….
After 51 straight days of working, all I can do is give a big grin & say “It’s not bad.” My reaction is becoming more genuine every day.
For the past few years I’ve realized that I need solace. I have taken about 2 months of ‘alone time’ a year to reassess myself & what’s going on.
When I’m here, my to-do list is blank. My job is to deliver lifelong dreams to people from all over the world. Getting out of bed has never been so easy.
My time here counts – at least on my eternal hourglass, it does.
The North has a way of seeping in. It touches the roots of the most primal emotions. Experiencing these wonders gives people a joy they had forgotten they have. The stark landscape gives people a reminder of the brutal reality in the strength of untouched nature & the beauty found in isolation.
Churchill demands presence. It gives a sense of place. It gives me peace.