Polar Bear Blog

Growing up in Churchill, Manitoba (and at Polar Bear Lodges!)

Rebecca and Karli in deep conversation with a sik sik at Seal River Heritage Lodge.
Rebecca and Karli Reimer in deep conversation with a sik sik at Seal River Heritage Lodge.

The opportunity to be quiet and let nature speak to you and nourish your soul is, in my opinion, a necessary part of maintaining the balance of life. ~ Jeanne Reimer, Churchill Wild

by Allison Reimer

I was born in Churchill, a northern community in Manitoba, Canada. As a small tourist town it’s a place where friends walk into your home without knocking. Friday nights were movie nights, Sundays meant morning pancake breakfasts before church, and I took my first flight in my grandpa’s airplane at three weeks old.

Canada’s national anthem speaks of “The True North strong and free!” and that’s exactly who we were. Running barefoot along the moss trails left by the caribou and stalked by wolves, standing eye-to-eye with polar bears, and facing the North’s fiercest creature — the cold.

We challenged each other to swim further, run faster, and stand barefoot in the snow the longest. Rarely did we have the supervision of adults, but our mightiest adventures were our short-lived attempts at being runaways from the very place that was our escape from the outside world. Of course, when your mother packs your backpack with snacks and you all have walkie-talkies, how brave were we really?

Mike and Jeanne Reimer and family out for a stroll through one of the many creeks along the Hudson Bay coast.
Churchill Wild co-founders Mike and Jeanne Reimer and family out for a stroll through one of the many creeks along the Hudson Bay coast.

Growing up between Seal River Heritage Lodge, Dymond Lake Ecolodge, North Knife Lake Lodge and Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge was an incredible adventure full of twists and turns and definitely interesting learning curves for all of us Webber children and grandchildren.

For example, while a child in a city might learn how to cross the street by looking for cars, we were taught the importance of looking both ways for polar bears before walking around a building. Our parents taught us how to fillet fish, build fires, and how to distribute our weight on thin ice.

I remember one Christmas Eve in Churchill when my younger brother was still too young to walk and a fierce blizzard was screaming through the streets. I trudged alongside my father as he gripped my hand and held my brother while my family hugged the buildings on our way to my “Ama’s” house for Christmas dinner. Vehicles slid eerily down the vacant, icy streets, propelled silently by the sheer force of the wind. We took family dinners pretty seriously.

Dipping into the wealth of experience in the Churchill Wild family I spoke to our three generations of mothers and asked them what they experienced while raising children in the chilly Arctic.

Helen Webber, the true matriarch of the family, not only raised her own children, but also got to live down the block from some of her grandchildren, myself included. You can just imagine the start-up office for Churchill Wild in the front of her home. It was a revolving door for visitors. If you’ve tasted Helen’s cooking, you already know why her house was the hotspot for family and friends. It was mostly grandchildren in search of being spoiled by her baking, but the adults couldn’t resist either.

“There is just something about Churchill that seems to make it a special place for all of us,” said Helen. “Maybe it has to do with how far back our roots go in the actual building of the community and the fact that we can still see family ties in much that has been built here. We’re also proud of the role that our family has played with the First Nations people in the area. Mom and Dad always treated them with respect, did what they could to help them, and taught us to do the same.”

(L-to-R) Rebecca, Karli and Allison Reimer with Mom Jeanne. Bug suits on! Well, sort of.
(L-to-R) Rebecca, Karli and Allison Reimer with Mom Jeanne. Bug suits on! Well, sort of.

I asked Helen what was unique about raising children in Churchill besides the polar bears.

“There were definitely some tricky logistics for supplies or medical care,” said Helen. “And small enrolment numbers in school. But our children definitely had a huge advantage with also having the lodge experience. They have all been meeting people from different walks of life and different cultures from a very young age. My daughters, Shari, Toni, and Jeanne got to have dinner with a Duke and Duchess. I don’t think that’s been an experience for most kids in small town Manitoba.”

Polar bears, northern lights, dinner with royalty, I think we all can agree it wasn’t the typical childhood.

I spoke with my Mom, Jeanne Reimer, co-founder of Churchill Wild, about what it was like raising her kids at the lodges and in the north.

“I loved that they could run in the sand, feel salt spray on their skin and the wind in their hair,” said Jeanne. “Living close to nature has much to teach us about life and I placed a lot of importance in giving my children every opportunity to learn it.”

What were some of Mom’s favourite things?

“Picnics on the rocks, wiener roasts in the snow, changing diapers in the snow,” said Jeanne.

Wiener roast on the Hudson Bay coast. (L to R) Adam Reimer, Riley Friesen, Allison Reimer.
Wiener roast on the Hudson Bay coast. (L to R) Adam Reimer, Riley Friesen, Allison Reimer.

I’m surprised she listed that last one, but maybe there’s some amusement in speed diaper changing. As her child, I’m glad I don’t have recollection of those moments.

Karli Friesen, my older sister, elaborated on what was most important to her.

“I love the connection to the land,” said Karli. “Being able to explore nature and wildlife not in a zoo or park, teaching my kids how to build fires, pick berries, and to be self-sufficient. It’s epic, and people in general don’t do enough of it anymore.

“What I want to share the most with my kids is the knowledge that there’s a different way of living beyond fixing your car, texting, TV, planning your next social engagement and being busy in general. There is a slower way of life where you work harder and are more rested at the end of the day.”

As one who was lucky enough to be raised by all three of the women quoted above (yes, sister Karli kept me in line too), my recollections of growing up in Churchill holds many fond memories that will last a lifetime.

Even if we were a bit on the wild side.

About Allison Reimer

Allison Reimer is the daughter of Churchill Wild co-founders Mike and Jeanne Reimer. One of their four adventure-loving children, Allison grew up in the Arctic watching and helping her parents build Churchill Wild from the ground-up. Allison brings an authentic voice to our blog and we’re excited to have her join us as a contributing writer.

Growing Up with Polar Bears

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