I turned off the truck’s ignition, slumped back into my seat and looked across at Audrey apologetically. “All right,” I said, “a no-bullshit assessment of our current situation sounds something like this: despite the four-wheel-drive and snow tires, we are completely stuck, in a snow and slush-filled ditch almost a kilometer from the nearest road, 5 klicks from the nearest warm building, and 15 from Churchill.
“We are nowhere near a cell tower and have no radio, and told no one where we were going. It is not currently snowing, but the wind is a brisk 50-60 knots coming in off the Hudson’s Bay, my shoes are filled with slushy water, and my pants are saturated from the knees down.
“Oh, and we are in precisely the same spot we saw two adult male polar bears 24 hours ago.” I paused and reflected briefly, before asking, “Did I leave anything out?”
Audrey pursed her lips and looked at the dashboard clock.
“Well, we are supposed to be at the airport in about 3 hours…”
I nodded, “Ah, yes; what’s a third act without a ticking clock?”
Neither of us have a MENSA card or anything, but I don't think too many people would characterize Audrey or myself as stupid or reckless people. So how in the hell had we ended up in this predicament?
[FLASHBACK TO 25 HOURS PRIOR]
With some time to kill the previous afternoon before we headed to the Pub for dinner and Fenya’s birthday, Parker and Belinda had lent us their truck, a sturdy Ford half-ton with proper four wheel drive and good winter tires. The loan was conditional on our giving one of their staffers, Sam, a lift to the Churchill Northern Studies Centre so she could grab a sweatshirt she needed as a gift.
I should explain that in addition to providing lodging and lab space for individuals and groups doing research or studies in the subarctic, the CNSC gift shop also has arguably the best assortment of t-shirts and hoodies in Churchill, which you can also say to mean within about 700 km, given the remoteness. Seriously, there must be over 15 different colours, it's awesome. It is about 20 km from town though, so walking there from the Tundra Inn would be a foolhardy choice, what with all the polar bear activity in the region.
It took us a little while to track down Sam, and by the time we did, another of Fenya’s co-workers, Natalie, got dragged along for the ride. They are both delightful young ladies, and Parker’s F-150 has a crew cab and back seat, so we were only too happy to have the company, especially since neither of them had seen a polar bear before.
After making our requisite purchases at the CNSC, we checked the whiteboard by the entrance where bear sightings get logged. Seeing one had been spotted at nearby Bird Cove within the past couple of days, we decided we might want to take a look that way and see if we got lucky.
On Launch Road, headed back toward Bird Cove and Churchill, we saw a tundra buggy pulled over on the opposite side of the road, and slowed down, keeping our eyes skinned for the elusive ursus maritimus.
“I think it’s a bust,” Fenya said, "there isn’t anyone up against the windows.”
“Yeah,” Sam agreed, “they are having some kind of huddle with their guide in the middle of the buggy.”
So we pressed on, but just a little further up the road, a handful of fellows with expensive camera equipment and tripods were piling out of a black Escalade with North Star Tours livery. We pulled over about 25 meters behind them, looked out towards where they were grinning and pointing, and sure enough, a big ol’ polar bear was casually walking parallel to the Launch Road, perhaps 50 m away.
The bear was big (as they tend to be) and a little fiercer around the eyes than the only other such animal I have seen close up, so I immediately began thinking of him as a male, and will continue to do so until given credible evidence otherwise.
He was magnificent, though; lush and healthy looking, striding along without urgency, and yet with a tremendous overland speed, despite the broken terrain he was sauntering across. While Audrey got some video with my phone, I got out with the camcorder, steadying it on the hood of the truck.
I got some good footage (and the still you see above), but the errant ursine’s course and speed would soon take him out of observable range. I turned to my passengers and said, “what do you say we pop ahead of him, turn off on the road that goes out to Bird Cove and the Ithaca and see if we can't get some shots of him coming out the other side of the scrub he’s heading into?”
Everyone agreed enthusiastically. After all, who comes to The Polar Bear Capital of the World and doesn't want to take every opportunity to see one of these gorgeous but intimidating creatures? There is nothing that good on Netflix.
I jumped back into the driver’s seat and we headed down the road. Less than a kilometer later, we came to the Lazy Bear tundra buggy and school bus that marked the turn off to Bird Cove and the rusty wreck of the MV Ithaka, an Italian merchant ship that had run aground there in the 1960s. There is not a lot of space between the Bay and the Launch Road around this spot, and some refer to it as Polar Bear Alley as a result.
The track leading to the cove is rough and rutted, with a couple of deep depressions, one of which looked to be better than 12 feet across and perhaps 4 feet deep and full of water. Thankfully there was a fork providing an alternate route.
We hadn't pulled very far off road when someone spotted our bear striding out of the scrub. Before too long, a buggy from Lazy Bear Lodge followed us down the track, so we pulled over to let him pass, and watched him interact with the buggy riders for almost an hour, moving the vehicle a couple of times to keep him in sight. We even saw a second bear at one point, but he wasn't nearly as inquisitive or photogenic.
The best of our footage is in the video I've posted below, but I'm pretty choked about the scene I missed. After the bear had slumped into a reclining position close to the starboard side of the buggy, a number of patrons were leaning over the edge of the back desk and taking selfies with him in the background.
The trouble is, this particular driver had parked the buggy on just a hint of an incline, and there was a rock or tussock or some other kind of height enhancer for the bear to leverage. When his natural curiosity prompted him to stand up and explore the deck, he was actually able to bend his wrist over the edge of the balcony the tourists were standing on.
When one of the ladies on the deck turned around and realized that a massive apex predator’s claws were now higher than the bottom of her hood had been a second before, she flailed her arms in a Kermit-the-Frog-like fashion, disappeared into the tundra buggy and we never saw her again.
My biggest regret was not catching it on video. My second biggest was not being close enough to hear the noise she must have made.
Afterwards, we retired to the Lazy Bear Lodge for lattés while wondering how the people on the buggy must have felt, having paid hundreds of dollars apiece to go on a tundra safari in a specialized vehicle...only to see a street-legal truck driving to the same place and seeing the same bear for free.
The next day we awoke to a taste of proper Churchill weather, with the forecast calling for 10-15 cm of snow and 70 km/h winds gusting to 90. When Parker opened the door to the porch, the howls of the wind and the coruscations of snow spinning into the house made it look like something out of a cartoon or an old Christmas tv special. We were a little the worse for wear after Fenya’s birthday observances the night before, but brave enough to set foot outside and take some video by the bayside inukshuk.
Actually, this 2 second video from a little earlier with Fenya looks even colder, I think:
Yeah, it's probably the extra snow in the air that does it.
After a late breakfast with our daughter, Audrey and I were eager to go look for bears again, but Fenya elected to return home for a nap. She left the Disneyland duffel bag we had brought up for her and which she had filled with her summer clothes in the truck so we wouldn't forget to bring it later, and we promised to text her when we were on our way back, probably in an hour or so.
You are about to go looking for polar bears in a borrowed vehicle! Do you
- Grab some bear spray from Parker and Belinda's house just in case
- Go see if there is a radio you can borrow
- Just drive off, ‘cause time’s-a-wastin’, and it's not like you are going to get out of the truck anyways, right?
Once again, we headed out to Bird Cove, turning off at the tundra buggy and school bus. This time, however, the first depression was more than half full of snow, and halfway through, the burly F-150 ground to a halt.
My eyes widened momentarily in surprise, but I switched the dashboard knob over to “4 High”, gave it some gas, and the truck muscled its way out with very little difficulty.
I looked over at Audrey with an air of smug confidence, but she knew better. “Did that scare you a little bit?” she asked.
“A little bit,” I confessed, “But between the four-wheel-drive and snow tires, it didn't seem too bad, and I figured we could back out if we had to.”
She nodded, somewhat placated but still somewhat uneasy.
Moments later, we came across the second depression perhaps 18 feet across. I lined up on it as Audrey said, “Remember, ‘momentum is your friend’...”
I grinned in response. “Got it,” I said, as I goosed the gas and sent us across the breach.
The tires maintained traction admirably. Unfortunately, it turned out that the two feet of snow bearing us up covered another 18 inches of slush and nearly frozen water. We were halfway across when the snow stopped accommodating the weight of the big truck and we sunk about three feet in a single downward movement.
You’re going to get stuck! Do you
- Floor it!
- Stop and pray
- Try reverse maybe?
My heart sank and my pulse quickened. I pushed the accelerator down in an exploratory fashion, only to hear all four wheels spinning. I let off the gas immediately, turned the wheels slightly and pulled the transmission lever over to reverse, but it was no use. We were well and truly stuck.
I was more annoyed and embarrassed than anything; my cousin Parker, who had lent us this truck in good faith, was a busy and hard working individual, and now I was going to have to call and ask him to come rescue his dumb-ass, city slicker relative.
Well, not without trying to get out under my own power, right? I mean, I've lived in Edmonton most of my life and only started using winter tires 5 years ago. I know how to push a vehicle out of the frickin' snow for pity’s sake!
Telling Audrey to hang tight for a moment, I put on my gloves, opened the door, pushing snow out of the way to do so, and stepped out into it.
As I stepped into the nearly waist-high snow, my foot pushed down into perhaps 18 inches of ice cold flavourless tundra slurpee. I was wearing my good hiking boots, waterproof Clarks with a solid sole, but icy slush grabbed my ankle with a clammy and pervasive grip and poured into my otherwise unassailable footwear.
Now your feet are cold and wet! What do you do for an encore?
- Climb back into the truck and hope some of Fenya's socks might fit you
- Lay down and await death
- Swear and push
Well, my feet weren’t going to get any dryer out here, so I figured I might as well keep working at extracting us. I trudged to the front of the truck and saw that snow was up past the front bumper. I motioned Audrey to the driver’s seat, leaned against the bumper and heaved while she put the transmission back into reverse.
It was no use. The snow was too deep, and there was nothing for me to really push against. Schtumping around to the back of the truck, the situation was much the same, except for the twin tracks made by our wheels leading in to our current predicament.
I climbed back into the truck and told Audrey we weren't going anywhere without additional traction. Our options seemed limited.
Pushing has proven ineffective due to your pitiable strength! What do you do next?
- Gamble a stamp on the Charles Atlas body building course
- Start rationing out the loaf of bread you bought for Belinda and hunker down for the night
- Suck it up and call your cousin for help
I feel obliged to point out that it was only after drawing my phone from my pocket and seeing the terrifying words "NO SERVICE" appearing across the top of the display that I truly appreciated the predicament I had placed us in.
The nearest cell tower was probably back at the airport, some 10 km north of us.
We hadn't told anyone of our plans, except Fenya, who was asleep in her room, waiting for us to text her. It could be hours before she woke up.
Even Fenya didn't know know exactly where we were heading.
Plus, not to put too fine a point on it, but, you know, real-life, non-theoretical polar bears.
This had the very real potential of becoming an actual life-threatening situation. And we were on our own, for the nonce.
Think, dammit! What else can you do to move this truck?
- It's low tide; march out to the Ithaka and tear off something for leverage
- Begin braiding the local grasses into a rope, then start constructing pulleys
- Head back to the first depression and find something for traction
This time it was Audrey's turn to pick C. "There was a ramp or something back where we first got stuck..." she mused.
"And some pallets too," I nodded, pulling my tuque back on. "I will head back there and grab something to throw under the wheels."
"Do you want me to come with you?" she asked.
Well, do you?
- God, yes! Extra eyes, possible bear distraction...
- On second thought, maybe you should go
- (Snort) Naw!
I shook my head. In truth, I felt bad enough getting us into this situation, and wanted her to stay comfy and safe as much as we could manage. "No point in both of us gettin' et!" I deadpanned. "Although, if I do get devoured, make sure you find my phone afterwards, because I intend to catch as much of it on video as I can."
She didn't find it as amusing as I did.
I pulled on my gloves and started waling back to the dip, perhaps three or four hundred metres back. The wind had picked up again, polishing the icy surface of the gravel road into a fine sheen, but at least it was to my back. I took mincing steps in my icy, squishy boots, my head constantly on a swivel as I scanned the horizon for polar bears. Despite my caution, one particularly strong gust of wind actually blew me off my feet, my shoes flailing against the ground trying to find purchase as I imagined that hollow sound effect from the Flintstones that always accompanied someone slipping on a banana peel or leaving the scene at speed.
Dressing out at over an eighth of a ton as I do, I don't fall with a surplus of grace under the best of conditions, which these were not. I went down hard, banging my knee, but taking the brunt of the impact on my shoulder. I lay there for a moment catching my breath and collecting my thoughts and realized two things: first, that it was almost criminally stupid to have left Audrey in the vehicle. If I had hit my head and blacked out, she would have absolutely no clue what had become of me, and would have to come looking.
Secondly, I was still in polar bear country, and should get up off of my ass, with the quickness.
I clambered to my feet, surveyed my surroundings, and satisfied I was the largest land mammal in the immediate vicinity, I made my way to the depression. Sure enough, on this side of it was a sturdy set of stairs.. that were made of tube steel and treadplate, looked liked they had fallen off an old tundra buggy or something, and weighed over 200 pounds. I could lift it, but getting it back would take forever, if it didn't just kill me outright.
Trudging through the snow and slush of the dip and refilling my now tepid footwear with more sub-arctic slush, I looked at the sturdy, blue painted palettes. I supposed they had been left here for just this purpose, or perhaps to give better footing to people walking over the snow...in bear country...wait, what?
Focus, man, focus.
You aren't that far from the road, now. Drag something back or make a break for it?
- Go get Audrey so the two of you can haul that metal behemoth back!
- Head for the road and hope to flag down a passing motorist
- (sigh) Grab a palette and start dragging it back
Once again, pangs of empathy shot through my belly as I thought of Audrey waiting for me to return, with no idea where I might have wandered off to (or been dragged, for that matter). Had she been with me, we probably would have pressed on for Launch Road, 3-400 meters away. Instead I grabbed the lightest looking palette, with a few missing boards keeping the weight down to a manageable 50 or 60 pounds or so, and started making my way back to the truck. I pushed it ahead of me in places, dragging it behind me in others, like some sort of Sisyphusean Linus pulling his security blanket of the damned across the treacherous slopes of Acheron.
It was slow going, especially now that I was walking headlong into the biting offshore wind, which had not relented in the least. I managed to keep my feet, but had crosswind gusts blow down the palette or wrench it out of my hands on more than one occasion. Pausing to catch my breath after one such instance, I leaned on the wooden cargo holder, and wondered how much protection it might afford me if a half-ton of hungry apex predator took an interest in me.
Probably about 45 seconds worth, I figured. Better to keep moving.
When I got back to the truck, Audrey was leaning out the open door, keeping watch for me. When I got close enough to hear, she shouted, "What about the floor mats?"
Huh, hadn't thought of that. What do you figure?
- No way, man, those things are expensive!
- Tell her "That's a pretty good idea... for a girl!" I dare you!
- Why the hell not?
"Great idea!" I yelled back. "No reason not to try both."
Before we could do either, though, we had to excavate the wheels, just so we could access their lower halves and try to get some traction aids in there. Audrey passed me the snow brush, but I made better time digging with my gloved hands, like a dog.
After about fifteen minutes of this, my top half was sweating while my gloves and feet were cold and drenched. Time was ticking in more ways than one. I jammed the palette as close behind the right front wheel as I could, while Audrey pushed the floor mats under the rear wheels.
I jumped behind the wheel, switched to "4 Low", put the truck in reverse and gingerly applied the gas.
I could hear the tires spinning against the palette, but there was no way for them to get a decent grip. Craning my shoulder to look at Audrey, I could see the story was the same for her floor mats. She pointed into the bed of the truck, saying "What about that piece of plywood in there?"
Shutting off the truck, I shlumped over to the tailgate and saw the bed liner she was referring to. Yanking it out unceremoniously, we positioned it sideways beneath the two rear wheels, putting the floor mats on top for any additional purchase they might provide. I kicked at the board's edge, hoping to wedge it in even further, but the snow was completely unaccommodating in this regard.
I got in the truck, started it up, and tried again, with the same result: the sound of clean, wet rubber whirring against slick plywood. Pushing down my window, I shouted at Audrey to try jumping on the bumper. She dutifully did so, opening the hatch to the canopy for a better grip, and made some gain in depth, but no commensurate advantages in traction.
Wait a minute, I thought to myself, why the hell is she out there and not the heavy one?
I ran to the back of the truck, and explained how we should switch places, grabbing onto the tailgate and levering myself up onto the bumper.
And slamming my head firmly against the lip of the canopy.
I staggered off the bumper, seeing stars, but willing myself not to pass out. The thought of my beleaguered wife trying to push my unconscious carcass into the bed of Parker's truck to protect me from being devoured by subarctic wildlife prior to walking out of Polar Bear Alley all by her lonesome gave me enough additional incentive to keep my footing. Waving her back to the cab, I resumed my position on the bumper, more carefully this time, and began to push the bumper down for all I was worth while Audrey gave her some gas.
There was progress of a sort, I suppose, because now showers of dirt and gravel were being flung up by the wheels in addition to the snow and slush, but there was still a disappointing lack of momentum. Exhausted, disappointed, and now with a headache and scuffed scalp for good measure, I retreated to the cab of the truck with Audrey and had her turn on the engine so we could warm up.
The dash clock said 2:15. "All right," I said, "We are not missing that flight if we can help it, but if we are going to leg it out to the road and possibly the CNSC, we are going to have to hat up pretty quick. 15 minutes to warm up, and let's GTFOD*, all right?"
*Get The F(larn) Outta Dodge
Audrey nodded. I got out to move the palette out of the way of the door to help whoever ended up trying to extract the truck from this slushy quagmire, then climbed back in to see Audrey packing up Fenya's duffel.
"You aren't figuring on bringing that damned thing with us, are you?" I inquired indignantly. "It must weigh near 20 pounds!"
She looked at me with steely eyes, and simply said "Yes." With authority.
I blinked once, before suddenly perceiving the options she had been presented:
Time to get the flarn outta Dodge City, cowgirl. Anything you want to take with you?
- That loaf of bread, for sustenance
- The rear view mirror, for signalling and looking behind us
- The duffel bag and clothes, for distractions
Fenya had to take a Bear Awareness and Safety Course when she started working in Churchill, and told us all manner of helpful things and entertaining anecdotes. One of these was the strategy of taking off an item of clothing when approached by a polar bear. They are extremely curious, you see, and their primary sense is that of smell. With any luck, they will stop to investigate the scent of what you have dropped, while you continue moving away, repeating the maneuver if necessary. You may end up naked, but if it gets you further away from a polar bear, that is still a win.
Where I had seen useless encumbrance, my brilliant wife had seen a big bag of time.
Thank God one of us was keeping their wits about them!
"Awesome, good idea. I'm all caught up now," I said. She nodded and handed me the snow brush, which I took without hesitation before asking, "Okay, and what's this for, then?"
There was only a hint of eyeroll as she said, "A weapon, if it should come to that."
I looked at the 12 inch tool, with its cheery pink ice scraper, and shrugged. "I guess it beats trying to pull whiskers out of his nose one at a time, eh?"
"Something like that."
Unwilling to wait any longer, we shut off the ignition and left the keys in the little cubby under the radio. We wrote texts to Fenya and Parker, so that if we wandered back within range of a cell tower, they would know we had run into trouble. We clambered out of the cab at about 2:25, scanned our surroundings for bears, and seeing none, began making our way back to Launch Road.
It wasn't too awful far, but we were cold, tired and apprehensive about the possibility of encountering one of the cuddly tundra daemons we had watched so placidly the day before, so it was slow going. Once we got to the corner, we could probably get into the buggy or the bus to warm up out of the wind, and there might even be a radio we could use to try to get in touch with Parker. Failing that, if the keys had been left in the school bus (which was common in Churchill), I had already resolved that I would be learning to straight-up drive a school bus today y'all.
I was still feeling terribly responsible for our current circumstance, so as we shuffled forward over the icy track, doing our best to walk on exposed gravel instead of ice or snow, I tentatively asked Audrey, "So, on a scale of 1 to 10, how mad at me would you say you are? You don't have to justify it or anything, I just want to know what I am working with here."
God bless 'er, she just shook her head. "I could have told you to turn back after the first time we got stuck. I just feel so stupid about causing more trouble for Parker and Belinda!"
I nodded. Barring our actual demise, inconveniencing the incredibly busy family members who had bought us so far to surprise Fenya and who had put us up in their home felt like a pretty terrible outcome.
Although missing that charter flight and having to wait days for the next one or take a commercial flight out of Churchill at a cost of multiple thousands of dollars wasn't too appealing either.
As we approached the corner, Audrey said, "Y'know, I think there is another vehicle there now."
We were about 50 meters away from the buggy, and that could well be an additional bumper peeking out from around it. I craned my neck downward, and say a booted foot step out of something and onto the frozen ground.
We quickened our pace and were gratified to see 4 tourists piling out of an 11 passenger Econoline van they had rented from the Tamarack in town. We waved as we hurried up to them and said, "Are we ever glad to see you! We were out looking for bears and got stuck, and I hate to inconvenience you, but could you possibly give us a lift to the Studies Centre?"
They looked back at us blankly for a moment, and because they were of East Indian extraction, I feared they might be from the other side of the world and not speak English, but then one of them spoke with a puzzled tone in accented but clear English, saying, "You...got stuck?"
Now I was a little confused. "Well, yes," I confessed, "We were out looking for bears, went off road in my cousin's truck and got stuck crossing a slush filled ditch."
His eyes widened. "You were driving out there?" he said, pointing to the coast.
"Yes..." I said.
The sole woman travelling with them smiled and said, "Oh, we saw you walking and thought there was maybe a hiking trail here, and stopped to check it out."
"Good heavens, no!" I exclaimed. "I mean, thank goodness you stopped, but no, you can't walk out here, this is totally bear country! We saw two adult males on this very spot yesterday, and never would have gotten out of the truck if we'd had a choice."
|You wanna roll up on this on foot, foo'?|
They blanched a bit at that, but graciously agreed to give us a ride to the CNSC. Once there, we still had no cell service, but were able to use one of their phones to call Parker, and he answered quickly: "So you're stuck?"
I explained the situation, and to my relief, he was truly laid back about the whole thing. "I left work early today so I could take you to the airport. I just finished pouring a cup of coffee from the pot I made and have nothing else to do. I already pulled one guy out of the snow today, and then he had to return the favour. It's no big deal. I will head out to the Studies Centre right away and see you in maybe half an hour."
In short order, he had shown up in his 3/4 ton Manitoba Hydro truck with his friend Lionel. We headed out to the abandoned F-150, and with a length of ship's rope attached to the smaller Ford's trailer hitch, Lionel drove it out in about five minutes.
Once back at Parker and Belinda's house, we had about 15 minutes to finish our packing and get out to the airport. Parker wrapped my dripping hikers with plastic bags and sealed them with electrical tape (and a day later, not a drop had leaked out, either!) while I rushed upstairs to change. I peeled off my socks and toweled off my feet before putting on the wool socks Parker had lent me. Removing the towel, I noted that my feet had very little sensation. In fact, they felt remarkably similar to the whole fish I had held at the grocery store in the summer: cold, clammy, and a bit alien. I have never been so grateful for warm fuzzy socks in my life.
They rustled me up an old pair of size 12s, courtesy of Parker's son, Thomas, and we raced off to the airport. Where, coincidentally, they have an absolutely enormous polar bear pelt.
We thanked them again for their hospitality, and said goodbye to them and to Fenya, who we would at least be seeing again at the end of the month. Less than an hour later, we were snugly ensconced in a Nolinor 737, winging our way to Winnipeg while taking in an amazing sub-arctic sunset over the starboard wing.
On the ride from the Winnipeg airport to our hotel, we had a great chat with our cabbie, comparing our experiences seeing polar bears from a tundra buggy and truck with his of seeing tigers in the jungles of India from an open jitney and the back of an elephant.
Stumbling in to the reception desk of the Best Western we were exhausted but in good spirits. I gave my name to the clerk, who frowned at the display before a display of understanding crossed his face.
"You were booked into a mobility room, with a roll in shower, is that right?" he asked.
"Yes," I replied sheepishly. "Honestly, I just took the first room with a queen-size bed that came up on the Air Miles site, and never noticed."
"Oh, it's no problem," he smiled, "It's just that we needed that room for another guest and took the liberty of upgrading you to a whirlpool suite. I hope that's all right..."
I returned his grin with a smile of my own. "Brother, the kind of day it's been, that is a lot more than all right. In fact, it is just what the doctor ordered."
And that is my capping memory of the day: eating a Reuben sandwich from room service and drinking a Fort Garry Dark Ale as Audrey enjoyed a vodka cranberry and chicken wings while up to her neck in hot sudsy water.
I still had half of my second beer left when it was my turn.