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Polar Express
Photograph by Preeti Verma Lal

That a short, tartan wool skirt would turn out to be my nemesis in chilly Churchill ( Manitoba , Canada ), who would have thought that. I certainly did not. In nippy autumn, skirts are functionally sexy. So, I thought. But in the polar bear capital of the world, the weather gods sure think otherwise. The wind can be fiendish at minus 15 degrees Celsius, the ground beneath the feet too icy for a stiletto, and snow flurries too callous to let the breeze flirt with my long hair.

Perhaps, I was a nitwit to have packed a short, straight tartan skirt for a polar bear expedition where skirt, skorts and all things short border on blasphemy (and an alibi for hypothermia). Before I could hop into the Tundra Buggy to see the polar bears in their natural habitat, a bale of Arctic clothing was waiting – colossal anorak, skiing pants, thick-soled boots, mitts… Bundled in Arctic clothing, I sure resembled an Eskimo clothed by a clumsy stylist. In chilly Churchill, it was an absolute fashion fiasco. And, I, an inexcusable sartorial disaster!

Perhaps, I am a twit. I should have known all about the sub-Arctic climate when I signed up for a Frontiers North Adventures’ polar bear expedition. Not that it were to be my first tryst with the world’s largest land predator, but, Churchill, they say, is the only place in the world where one can get so up, close with the polar bears. I had flown 20 hours into Winnipeg , the capital of Manitoba , where I got caught between a time warp and the warnings of Trevor Lescard, the Frontiers North tour leader.

“There are no roads in and out of Churchill.” At the expedition briefing, Lescard dropped a bomb. I, a jaw. No roads? “Actually, there is an old 4x4 road but it is maintained and not used often. We’ll fly,” he added hurriedly before the 39 other adventure enthusiasts lost their nerve. No, I did not have to grow wings overnight; I had a seat booked on the 90-minute chartered flight from Winnipeg to Churchill. I scribbled a hasty signature on the no-liability form, picked up the blue and red baggage tags, snaked the white name tag around my neck and got prepped to head to Polar Bear Point, a neighbourhood of nearly 900 polar bears, who walk inland in early winter waiting for the Hudson Bay to freeze and for the seals – their favourite lunch – to pop their heads out of the ice breathing holes.

A flight and a bumpy ride on a monstrous 240 horsepower Tundra Buggy later, I found my bunk in the Tundra Buggy Lodge. In one brisk moment, my world was dyed white. Pure white. Stark snowy landscape. Dainty ice floe on lakes. The white-tailed ptarmigan with stubby bill and a scratchy zuk zeeek zeeek call. The white fox with prized fur. Snowy owl with a crafty white camouflage. And the four bogies of the Tundra Buggy Lodge resembling a stretched train parked in the middle of nowhere. My neatly printed name was stuck by a lower bunk with green soft blanket, a tiny lamp, a square window with snowdrops peeping through the tidy pane. A wilted willow stood outside like a sentinel and the kitchen was bustling with the diligence of Bree Golden and Julie Seaton, the two chefs who serve scrumptious warm meals with warmer smiles.

For centuries, the Hudson Bay has been the favourite haunt of the polar bears, but not many adventure enthusiasts knew about it. It all changed when a World Bank honcho landed in Churchill on a tenure. The inevitable happened - Merv Gunter fell in love with the polar bears. Later, he, along with his wife Lynda, founded Frontiers North Adventurers to offer tourists an incredible experience to see polar bears in their natural habitat. You can get so close only in the polar bear capital of the world. Nowhere else! Gunter’s dream that began in a small room has now flourished. Every October-November, nearly 8,000 enthusiasts swarm into Churchill for the polar bear expedition.

Next morning, I was up before the sun. Full to the gill with piping hot pancakes and maple syrup for breakfast, I wriggled into the ski pants, zipped the jacket, pulled the ear muffs. 8 am . I had to leave for the day excursion. Brian James Nicolle, the driver, was revving the Tundra Buggy engine and Lescard was stacking soup bowls, pickled cucumber, salami, cookies, tootsie rolls, hot chocolate, shredded tuna, artichoke dip in the Buggy for the day’s lavish lunch and tea.

It was freezing; the chill was treacherous. As Nicolle drove through the stark landscape, all eyes were glued to the window. The monotony of the snowy landscape was interrupted by brown kelp beds and withered willow. The Buggy was lumbering on the dirt track, curiosity was killing and anticipation was edgy. It was so silent I could hear the bruits of my heart. I stood by the propane heater. Then, I heard a whisper, and a rustle, as if someone was stomping dried leaves with his mukluk. A few meters away, two 800-pound polar bears were sparring, playing in the snow, shaking the snowflakes off their translucent skin, grunting in pride, oblivious of the world – and the people – around them. What a sight to behold. The spectacle stupefied my wits. I stood stunned in awe.

My awe did not die that moment; it became a habit during those three days in the Tundra Buggy Lodge. Every morning I would wriggle into the Arctic gear, Lescard would neatly stack lunch, Nicolle would pull out his binoculars and the bears… They were always there – sparring, playing, nudging, grunting, plodding…

And when it was time to leave the Tundra Buggy Lodge at Polar Bear Point, Nicolle generously let me drive the 25-tonne gigantic Tundra Buggy. As the sun lent a tinge of orange to the stark landscape, the polar bears ambled towards the shore, I stepped on the gas. In Churchill, I was still a sartorial disaster. That moment, however, I forgave the scruffy Eskimo look. Something was tugging at my heart strings. The polar bears. Perhaps.


The Economic Times, 2011

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