12/28/2012 2:36:37 PM

Churchill Reflections

By Kt Miller

An adobe fireplace flickered in the corner as I snuggled up on my grandparents' couch over the holidays.  My toes were comfortably nuzzled into my slippers from the Arctic Trading Post in Churchill, Manitoba. These slippers are one of my most cherished possessions. I take them with me wherever I go.

We flipped through a few photos from the fall. It has been just over a month since I returned from Churchill, where I volunteered for six weeks with Polar Bears International.

We paused. My grandmother asked, "So, of all the places you've been recently, which was your favorite?"

My face contorted into puzzled wrinkles. "I can't pick a favorite... they're all so different."

Another pause. "Well... actually, Churchill. Definitely Churchill."

"Really?" My grandfather exclaimed. I was almost equally surprised by my own answer.

On September 25th, I arrived in Winnipeg, Manitoba, alone. It was cold, but not overwhelmingly so. I called for a taxi ride to the Four Points Sheraton, the hotel that takes superb care of our Polar Bears International family whenever we need to overnight in Winnipeg. An extremely friendly driver picked me up and took me the two (maybe) blocks to the front entrance. I felt a bit ridiculous. Had I known, I would have walked! Before turning in I opened the curtains of my room and gazed out over the city. A cold fog settled over everything in a misty glow. I enjoyed my last mellow night. I knew the minute I landed in Churchill it was go time.

When I first arrived my initial thought was, "Wow. It's really flat!" To someone who grew up in the Rocky Mountain west, flat can be a bit overwhelming. I was nervous. I thought I might go crazy there. I think in only the best of ways, I did.

The first evening we took a break from working and went down to the flats to watch the sunset over the Churchill River. The sky lit up into vibrant red and purple hues. In the distance we could make out beluga whales gently surfacing and playing beneath the setting sun.

Churchill's beauty is subtler than other places I have been. Over time, you get to know the delicacy and intricacy of the landscape; each curve of the tundra, each cove, each bend in the road has something unique to share.

The community also stole my heart. Each person does their part to make their economic season, Bear Season, a success. It's different when you live that far north. If you don't have enough pillows you can't just run down to the store and buy more. If the grocery store is out of lettuce, you're not having salad. Want to make a pan of enchiladas? Sorry, no enchilada sauce, no black beans, and jalape̱os are rare. Need an extra set of sheets? Call the Tundra Inn. Need a laugh? Call Simon. Want to learn about the Inuit history? Visit Garth at the Eskimo Museum, and then stop by open-mic later to hear him strum the banjo.

Each person is recognized for their wonderful individuality and has great stories to tell. Some of my favorites are those from the traplines in winter and the moose hunts in the fall.

Today in Churchill it is forecasted to be minus 32 with wind chill, minus 20 without. That kind of environment yields tough people. I can picture our friend Heather who works at Parks Canada all bundled up, leaning into the wind, as she pulls a sled full of groceries home from the store.

I miss how challenging certain things could be up there. Struggle makes us more aware, more appreciative, thankful. The subtle things in life are illuminated by the stark barren landscape. In that environment, all things are delicate and precious, and must be treated accordingly.

Thank you for everything you are doing to save this delicate ecosystem. As a good friend of mine would say, "It takes an army."

This is part one of a three-part series by Kt on this year's Churchill season.

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