What is it about the North that calls to me so? Whenever I’m there, even in its most frigid embrace, I feel free and happy as though I have come home. I am not afraid of the cold. I glory in the stark landscape, stark only to unseeing eyes. I don’t care about winter darkness because I know that tomorrow the light will come. I hear the stories of the north as of reminders of things forgotten but just needing to be called to mind. I feel the people there are close to me, as long lost relatives.
I have been North many times. Not enough, but more than most. I always welcome the journey as a homecoming. Once, flying through the cold dark night from Labrador to Whitehorse on the 24th of June, I opted to take chance on making it “home” instead of stopping in Edmonton for fuel. The enervation I felt on stepping out of the little plane at the end of the journey and into the midnight sun was as though an arrow of energy had been shot straight into my blood.
So when a chance to return to Churchill with some former parliamentarians and MLAs was offered last month I couldn’t resist. I had to go.
It was cold when we got off the plane — colder than I had expected given the temperature of 5 or 6 degrees C which wasn’t bad, but there was a brisk wind and some precipitation all the while we were there. The sun stayed hidden, too. Still, there was no snow yet and the waters of the Churchill River flowed freely into the steely gray Bay, where foreign ships waited patiently to come into harbour and pick up their loads of prairie grain from the elevators at the Port.
If you’ve never been to Churchill, it’s a small frontier town, with wide streets haphazardly populated by low buildings. It’s not tidy, although local citizens have been working to make it beautiful by transplanting trees — birch, pine, tamarack — from a few miles south in strategic locations. Churchill itself is just north of the natural tree line which ends between the town and the airport. The most notable buildings are the ones made of logs rescued from a forest fire that occurred some 35 km south; there are three of these buildings: the Lazy Bear Lodge, the General Store across the street and the gift shop next door.
The most remarkable edifice is the Port itself with its tall concrete grain elevators rising six stories — or could it be 10? — on the north shore. There are some row houses left over from military days and an ugly “Town Centre” built facing the seashore during the Edward Schreyer years as premier of Manitoba to house community services: the school, the hospital, the town offices, a hockey rink and a library. There are unique little gift shops and a lovely museum that holds northern treasures and delightful stories of the people who were here originally, the stories told through the art on display.
Tucked in among the government-built structures are the homes of the local townspeople, their doors left unlocked in case of need to escape an attack from a wandering polar bear. There have been two such attacks this year, neither of them when we were there vainly searching for a sight of said bears.
There are good hotels and restaurants in Churchill, but we stayed at the very best — the Lazy Bear Lodge, a two-storey log wonder made by hand the owner, Wally Daudrich, from the found logs rescued from the forest fire. He is passionate about the North and has a million stories to tell of its past and its present. He showed us the dwarf birch that hugs the ground here above the tree line on the shores of Hudson Bay. He identified arctic willows and pointed out ptarmigan, already turning white. He told us the entire history of Fort Prince of Wales. There was so much more we could have learned from him.
But we don’t come to Churchill for the glories of small town Manitoba, although this small town has much more to offer than most. We come here to get back in touch with nature, to reconnect with our true selves and to enjoy the freedom of clean air and unspoiled landscape.
It is October when we make our visit — a bit early for the polar bears and a bit late for the beluga whales, but it doesn’t matter. Nor does it matter that the brilliant blooming of the tundra is over for the season and all we can see are the brown skeletons of the many low lying plants that have residence here, some of the tiny ones quite spectacular still even in their quiescent period. The glacial rock and small ponds that dot the landscape offer mystery and hints of ancient times.
The vistas are wide and compelling; the sense of being somewhere important pervades the area. I never feel isolated here, but rather that I am at a jumping off point, where the whole world is within reach. This is an attitude that pervades the community. The people here are very accustomed to dealing with strangers from the far corners of the world.
Wally Daudrich told me he came to Churchill to be free. I completely understand what he means, the sense of freedom is heart swelling. On a more tangible level, sad as it was to leave, it was a delight to board our plane without having to get poked and prodded by security guards. Security in Churchill is defined as being safe from nature: bears and weather, rather than hooded men with wires and chemicals. What a delightful thought.
Even before I leave, I feel the tug to come back. And I will.