7am flight from Winnipeg to Churchill, landed in Churchill to -41C. I have all day to acclimatize before the Via Rail train leaves tonight for Chesnaye. The town of Churchill is located just under the 59th parallel and sits just a few miles from the Nunavut border. The buildings here all look the same, covered in sheet metal, and little character can be afforded. We visit Home Depot for supplies and I spend several hours in the equipment rental store, trying on extreme weather clothing. I settle on Baffin boots (good for -100C) and goose down pants and parka. My friend knows where there are some Arctic Hares so we take a walk to try out gear. I am warm except for my hands and face, and realize that even though we are out for a short time, I should have been fully prepared with my battery heated gloves and face protection.
We find an Arctic hare near the edge of town. So beautiful, white against white, with her little black eyes and ear tips in contrast to the snow. After only 20 minutes my fingers and lens are frozen and I can no longer see out of my glasses. The hood of my parka is fringed with frost and my lips are already beginning to blister from the cold. How I am going to stand outside in this all day when we find bears?
By the end of day the train arrives to take us on our two hour journey to Chesnaye, which is really nothing other than a designated drop/pick up spot for the back country lodge. The chaos of the last 48 hours and the extreme heat inside the train put me instantly to sleep. I wake up at 9:30pm when the conductor comes through and announces 10 minutes to drop off point. I have not had time to organize the kind of bags I would like for my gear and have been struggling with two big backpacks. As I step off the train in the black of night, my size 9 boots (2 sizes larger than normal) punch into a snow drift and I am stuck, weighted down by my bags, as the other guests rush to meet the waiting track vans. I am last to get there puffing and struggling under the weight of my 800mm lens and 40 lbs of other assorted camera gear. I have a sick feeling that no one will know to wait for me and I will be abandoned, left on the tundra in the dark and blizzard conditions with nothing but my precious gear.
I climb into the van behind my gear and fight back tears of relief. Sitting in the back seat I resist car sickness as the tracked vehicle bounces along the primitive and temporary snow track, up and over snow drifts, up and over snow drifts, with nothing to break the night landscape except for a few, one-sided, spindly black spruce trees. For half an hour I try to focus my eyes on the imaginary horizon, searching in the dark for the lights of the lodge. Finally they appear and the rustic structure which houses us comes into full view. The yard is littered with machinery, water tanks and caribou antlers.
Inside I can see the warm glow of lights and guests milling about in the great room. Hockey Night in Canada is on TV and the Ottawa Senators are taking a beating by the Calgary Flames. How Canadian is that, eh? But the cliental is hardly Canadian at all. It is a small but international group of photographers from the USA, Japan, China, Germany and Switzerland. No one notices my arrival and I enter and knock the snow off my Baffins. I am shown my room, where I will stay with three other women, dorm style bunk beds – my accommodation for the next week.
The lodge is run by three Cree Nation brothers. One is manager and he tells us that his brother (a tracker) has found a female bear with two cubs in the area and that we will look for her tomorrow. After an hour of sorting and repacking I retire to a restless sleep, and dream of gear failures and frostbite.