Saturday, December 08, 2007

Well, it's now officially cold! Cheek-pinchingly so. We've had the first snowfalls and sub-zero temperatures are becoming the norm as is the sight of me in a silly hat. It's starting to feel very Christmasy everywhere although I've not had a mince pie yet - I haven't actually seen any pies or mincemeat on sale here - and I'm actually thinking of Caribbean beaches instead. I'm heading to Cuba for Christmas week itself before I head home the first week of January. I'll be very sad to leave Canada and particularly Toronto but have a feeling it won't be my last trip here.

Last weekend I welcomed my final set of visitors: Guy and Zoe Hollis. They are both now living in Connecticut in the good ole US of A and flew up for a long weekend break. After they had spent a day at Niagara, we practically froze as we 'did' the sights and shops of Toronto. It felt sooooooo cold at minus 10 and added windchill. We defrosted later in my favourite Italian restaurant, Terroni, with some good food and warming wine. That night it snowed heavily (10cm) and the next day we woke up to a winter wonderland. I had the bright idea that we should go for a walk to the Distillery District for lunch. Half way there as we hit pavements covered in black ice I realised this was not one of my best suggestions. Nevertheless, we skidded into the place and gave ourselves a reward of steaming hot chocolate and a much-coveted pasty for Guy before venturing forth again. It was nice to see some familiar faces and I certainly enjoyed hearing Yorkshire accents again!

I've had a great penultimate month although feeling cold seems to have also featured highly. In mid-November I was lucky enough to undertake my much longed for arctic adventure as I headed north to the town of Churchill on the edge of Hudson Bay. There are no roads in or out of Churchill. The only way to get there is by plane or train (a 40 hour trip from Winnipeg). The crazy thing is this only half way 'up' Canada. Needless to say as you step off the plane and are hit by the arctic winds and minus 20-30 degree temperatures you know you are in 'the North'.

I stayed at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, located on an old atmospheric-rocket launch site about 12 miles from Churchill itself. The place was basically a research station and a bit like a military base but it served me and my 33 companions well. Our group was made up of mainly Canucks, Yanks and Brits of all ages and backgrounds - a good bunch. We were all there with one thing in mind though: to see polar bears.

Over the five days we had lectures and presentations about the polar bears, their habitat and the threat of global warming. At all times we were escorted as the whole area is 'polar bear territory' and going for a walk alone outside the building was banned. October and early November is 'polar bear season' when the bears congregate on the edge of Hudson Bay waiting for it to freeze so that they can go out on the ice to fish for seals and continue their trek northwards.

We spent two days on giant tundra vehicles - a cross between a bus and an aircraft crash truck - watching the polar bears as they loitered by the shore. It was an incredible experience. We saw over 50 bears, including lots of mothers with their cubs, and males sparring.

The bears are inquisitive and came to look at the funny creatures in the stationary vehicles. Absolute silence was order of the day when they came near and feeding or any interference with the bears results in the individuals being put straight on a plane home. Polar bears are massive and although they look cute, when they come close and sniff at you as you stand on the back deck of the tundra vehicle, you can sense the fact that you wouldn't stand a chance against such a powerful predator. Some bears stood right against the vehicle, including the one in the video below (taken by one of our group, Michael Coleman) who pressed his nose to the driver's (half-open!) window and stood about 11 feet tall.

We were fortunate to squeeze in a helicopter flight before the heavy snow fell. We saw the amazing tundra landscape stretching out below us and could clearly see the ice starting to form as well as polar bears in the distance.

Later in the trip we also saw what is known as the 'polar bear jail' where bears that come too close to the town of 900 people are taken. They wait here in 'cells' before being flown in nets suspended below helicopters to a release area north of the town. I should clarify that they are not sentenced by polar bear judges...they simply sit and wait until a time when it is suitable to fly them out. One pilot told how the cubs are too fragile to be flown in the nets so they go in the cabs. The previous week he'd flown a mother (in a net) and her two cubs (in the cab) out. The vet monitoring the cubs was sitting in the front seat alongside the pilot and the two cubs were in the back. The pilot noticed the vet started smiling and so asked him why? The cubs had woken up and were playing happily together in the back!

Other highlights included seeing an arctic fox, going dog-sledding and watching the northern lights dance across the sky. All in all a wonderful trip and I really feel privileged to have had such an experience. I learnt so much about the polar bears and how important it is we work to preserve their environment.

On our last night in Churchill the bay froze and the bears were gone. Their presence, however, will stay with me for many years to come.

Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

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