Polar Bear Blog

Jenga blocks hold steady in Churchill and beyond on polar bear safari

Young polar bear arrives at Seal River Heritage Lodge. Jen Alcorn photo.
“Are those humans over there?” Jen Alcorn photo.

by Vanessa Desorcy

You know that feeling you get when you tug on a Jenga block and you see the tower start to wobble? That moment when you wonder if everything is about to come crashing down and pray those remaining blocks stay in place just a little bit longer?

That’s sort of what it’s like for our operations team made up of expeditors, lodge managers, and anyone else close enough to get sucked into the vortex. Our expediting staff on the ground in Churchill deal with unpredictable, rapidly changing northern weather and are at the mercy of planes and trains for transporting supplies. It can quickly start to feel like you’re playing a never-ending game of “will it all come crashing down?”

Which way should we go? Which way should we go? Bernie Jacobs photo.
“Which way should we go? Which way should we go?” “Calm down. You’ve got this.” Bernie Jacobs photo.

I’ve snuck away from the office and I’m on my way to Seal River Heritage Lodge to walk with polar bears, Arctic fox, red fox and other northern critters. I arrive in Churchill on a calm November morning. Big fluffy flakes of snow are dancing around me, slowly meandering their way down to the ground. It’s peaceful and picturesque, like a scene from a snow globe.

I flew up with a group of guests headed to Dymond Lake Ecolodge for the Great Ice Bear Adventure. Unfortunately, visibility is not great, which means the scheduled charter flight for these guests won’t happen until conditions improve. They head off for lunch and a tour of town, and I get dropped off at the Webber family home where Churchill Wild co-founder Jeanne Reimer grew up. This house also acts as our office in Churchill and is always bustling with activity between July and November while our polar bear lodges are open.

Blueberries & Polar Bears Cookbook Series authors Helen Webber (left) and Marie Woolsey.
Blueberries & Polar Bears Cookbook authors Helen Webber (left) and Marie Woolsey made everything look easy.

I walk in to find Jeanne’s husband, Mike Reimer, answering emails while culinary queens and Blueberries & Polar Bears Cookbook authors Helen Webber and Marie Woolsey are busily prepping meals for the guests due to return from Dymond Lake. After their three days of polar bear viewing at the Lodge, these guests are on their way back to Churchill for a chartered Tundra Buggy tour with Frontiers North tomorrow. At the same time, Helen and Marie are setting out lunch for the hardworking team on the ground in Churchill.

As we sit enjoying lake trout, roasted potatoes, baked beans and homemade soup, the phone rings. It’s Allison Francoeur, our Churchill expeditor. There’s been a change of plans. The guests from Seal River Heritage Lodge are also going to be doing a Tundra Buggy tour tomorrow. This means Helen and Marie now need to prepare twice the number of lunches they were planning on. That is, if the weather clears and we can safely fly everyone where they need to be.

That’s the best-case scenario — like always being able to remove a Jenga block from the middle of a row and not having to worry about it becoming too tippy. Right now, it’s still not safe to fly, but everyone is forging ahead based on the new plan.

Helen hangs up the phone and turns to Marie. They start discussing what needs to be done to accommodate the extra guests and jump into action. Helen dashes to the store for barley and tomatoes before I’ve even registered the change. The door has just barely latched upon her return when Marie realizes they need something else and runs out to pick it up. She quickly returns and starts making soup. My head is buzzing. I hear carrots and celery being chopped and a cacophony of phones ringing.

Did someone say carrots? Photo by Churchill Wild guest Bob Smith.
“Did someone say carrots?” Photo by Churchill Wild guest Bob Smith.

Helen’s trying to track down more dishes to send along with the extra Tundra Buggy guests. She dashes out the door again.

Meanwhile, I feel totally inept and completely useless — save for answering the phone a handful of times. I offer to help, but this team runs like such a well-oiled machine, even in the face of constant change.

I take a call from Hudson Bay Helicopters (HBH) and pass along a message to Mike that they have three helicopters ready to fly as soon as he gives the go-ahead. Though it’s not clear enough for our Otter to fly, HBH can shuttle guests back and forth from Dymond Lake to Churchill and get things back on track.

As soon as this plan is put into motion, the snow stops, the sun comes out, and our pilot decides it’s safe to fly. Of course. Luckily, he’ll be put to use soon. Half the group of 16 is taken to the helicopter base for the quick trip to the Lodge. More phone calls.

No buzzing around in Churchill for these two. Relaxing in their Seal River sauna. Bob Smith photo.
“What should we do today?” “Just relax, they have everything under control.” Bob Smith photo.

Mike comes back to the Webber house and asks, “Do we know of anyone who might have a spare washing machine lying around?” Uh-oh. In the middle of everything else, Dymond’s washing machine has broken down. Today is a changeover day, which means all bedding and linens need to be laundered.

Now, let’s pause for a moment and remember where we are. Churchill is a town of about 800 year-round residents. It does not have an appliance store. Helen seems confident she can track one down from a fellow resident. She picks up the phone, which is basically smoking at this point given how much it’s been used today.

Mike calls the pilot and tells him not to leave for Dymond with his load of groceries and supplies until Mike can a) track down a new washing machine, and b) get it to the airport. Within minutes, success! Helen tracks down a brand-new machine that someone brought up as a spare.

Mike leaves. Helen leaves. Helen returns. Helen leaves. Helen returns.

Arctic foxes playing at Seal River Heritage Lodge. Photo by Churchill Wild photo leader George Turner.
“You answer the phone, and I’ll go to the store.” Photo by Churchill Wild photo leader George Turner.

Finally! A task for me! Allison calls to say our chef at Seal River Heritage Lodge needs deodorant and she doesn’t have time to make the stop. Off I go to the Northern Store. I’ve never been so excited about deodorant.

As I walk down the main street of Churchill, proud of how useful I’m being, my heads spins at how the last few hours have transpired and how gracefully everyone around me has handled the day’s events. Changeover was supposed to take about three hours and be done by 1:30 p.m. It’s now 6:00 p.m. and, finally, everyone is where they’re supposed to be.

Guests walking out to see polar bears at ground level. Seal River Heritage Lodge. Denae D' Arcy photo.
“Is that a polar bear?” “It is!” Denae D’ Arcy photo.

We do everything we can to give guests a seamless experience. Behind the scenes, things may be falling apart, but we always keep going.  Seeing the look on a guest’s face when they spot a polar bear for the first time or watching them become mesmerized by the northern lights keeps us inspired. I’m excited to head to Seal River Heritage Lodge tomorrow and witness this kind of joy firsthand.

When I get back to the house, things have calmed down. Marie is taking a well-deserved break before prepping dinner and enjoying a glass of wine. Helen is still coming and going, but more infrequently, and at a less frantic pace. The Jenga tower has stabilized, the phone has stopped ringing off the hook and I no longer feel useless.

After all, I did go get that deodorant.

In Part 2 of her Arctic adventure, Vanessa heads to Seal River Heritage Lodge to walk with polar bears. Read the rest of the story herePolar bears, foxes, Arctic hares and more. Canada’s Hudson Bay coast delivers!

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