Two weeks have gone by since I returned from Churchill. Nearly every day since then, I’ve had someone ask me how my trip was.
This is one of the hardest questions I’ve ever had to answer.
It was much easier for me to answer Heath’s question of “So when do you want to do this [get married]?” after only knowing him for 4 days than it is for me to sum up the experiences of living in Churchill for 49 days.
With Heath, I knew the answer. We came into each other’s life at the exact moment we both needed each other the most. He made sense in my life and it was like we’d known each other forever.
That answer was easy.
Turns out the answer to what it is like to live among polar bears is not so easy.
During my time in Churchill, I experienced what co-existing with my favorite wild animals is really like.
It’s not like being at a zoo where I watch a bear be silly, put a bucket on their head, and belly flop into a swimming pool.
I learned about polar bear biology and habitat. I learned about polar bear conservation and management. I also learned about polar bear tourism and hunting (still legal in Canada, by the way).
The thing is, once you know this information, you can’t not know it.
Add this information to the emotions of a lifelong dream of seeing polar bears in the wild coming true, and you have a perfect storm for an existential crisis in the making.
That’s what I’m experiencing now, and that’s why I’m finding it so difficult to talk (and write) about my time in Churchill.
If I ever really loved polar bears, how selfish was it for me to intrude on their lives so I could see them?
Not to mention the enormous carbon footprint for me to get to Churchill in the first place.
So when people ask me how Churchill was, I’ve started saying, “Life changing.”
It’s still not clear to me what’s on the other side of my existential crisis. That’s a question I’m currently living. We’ll see how it plays out in the death meditation I plan on doing in the next few weeks in anticipation of how I want to spend my time in 2019.
In the meantime, I am doing what I do best: loving Heath, playing with dogs, walking in the woods, writing, and living with as much joy as possible.
Can you believe my time in Churchill is nearly up? I’ve been here for 41 days and I only have six more days to go.
I’ve now seen 11 polar bears. Some from a Tundra Buggy and some peaking inside the Churchill Northern Studies Centre’s (CNSC) windows.
Spotted while on a Tundra Buggy
Peaking at me through the window
As you can imagine, it’s been quite emotional for me to see my favorite animal in the wild. I’m still processing these emotions and how these experiences are changing my life (and, yes, they are). I’m not yet ready to write about them here.
Instead, let me tell you about something that happened in Churchill that took me by surprise. It wasn’t even on my radar for things that could happen here. Yet it happened and I couldn’t be happier.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I am now the proud owner of a sweater. Two, in fact.
Back when I was an over-worked, stressed out college professor, I owned a bunch of sweaters. I also only weighed between 97-107 pounds at that time because I was so unhealthy. I outgrew many of those sweaters once I quit my job and returned to a healthier weight.
But as a minimalist, I’ve been rather reluctant to buy any new clothing.
I’ve written before about how one of my greatest ambitions is to have all of my belongings fit into one backpack. Sweaters are bulky and take up a lot of room.
As such, I never replaced the ones I outgrew. I managed to make it through two Connecticut winters without any.
Although let’s be honest – I spent these last two winters in Connecticut feeling rather cold. I had already made up my mind to get at least one sweater for this coming winter when I returned to Norfolk, so when I was given the opportunity to buy a sweater here in Churchill, I did so with open arms (haha, get it?).
Besides, it’s cold here, too. As I’m writing this blog post, it’s currently 10 degrees Fahrenheit, feels like -7. This is not the coldest I’ve ever been, which happened over a two-week time span in 2009 when windchills in the Chicago suburbs made it feel like -60 degrees Fahrenheit. But I do feel rather chilled.
Here’s the best part about my new sweaters – I bought them at the thrift store underneath St. Paul’s Anglican Church in town. They were each $1 Canadian, which is about 76 cents US.
You know what I also bought for $1 Canadian?
This awesome Columbia Omni Heat Winter Jacket, practically in brand new condition.
Oh, and this XRoads vest. Yes, also $1 Canadian. I get so overheated when I’m bundled up walking dogs in the wintertime, I thought this vest would be better than a coat.
This thrift store has quickly become one of my favorite places in Churchill. It’s only open every other Friday evening from 7 to 9pm.
Wow! Do they have bargains.
As a minimalist, I did experience some angst that I was adding so many “new” clothes to my wardrobe. Altogether, here’s what I bought at the thrift store:
one winter coat
one winter vest
one fleece top
one bamboo zip-up sweatshirt from the British Columbia SPCA
Winnipeg Jets NHL long-sleeved t-shirt
Irish Viking Hat to wear on Halloween (which I’ll be donating back to the thrift shop)
Striped sweater (for my roommate Rachel who couldn’t come to the thrift shop last time)
My grand total for everything – a whopping $6 Canadian! And I didn’t even pay for all of it myself.
The first week we went to the thrift store, Sarah, one of the cooks at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, treated me to my first sweater. Canadians really are some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet!
In the spirit of full disclosure, I’m also going to admit that before I even knew about the thrift store’s existence, I had already made two clothing purchases.
First, I bought a CNSC t-shirt that was on clearance. When I packed for this trip, I only brought two short-sleeved t-shirts. Working in the kitchen is kind of messy, especially for me, and after my first week I found two t-shirts woefully inadequate. Since this shirt is Kelly green (one of my favorite colors) and features a polar bear, I thought it would be a good addition to my wardrobe.
Second, I also bought a polar Buff, which features a cool design of the Northern Lights and the CSNC’s name and logo and is much less bulky than a scarf. A scarf was always necessary at the start of all my walks with Dodger last winter, but halfway through the woods I was always unraveling it and tying it around my arm when I became overheated. It then would fall off every so often, get tangled with Dodger’s leash, or drag along the forest floor.
My new Buff will now fit in my pocket, so yay for ease and compactability.
As if I’m now on some sort of clothing bender, I’m also going to cop to buying a t-shirt at one of the souvenir shops in Churchill.
I first saw this Made in the USA polar bear t-shirt way back on Friday, October 5th. I told myself if I was still thinking about the shirt towards the end of my trip, I would buy it since one of my favorite t-shirts, a Hogwarts Alumni one that my niece gave me as a wedding present back in May 2016, is pretty much on its last threads.
I bought the t-shirt last week since I’ve thought about it every single day since.
Oh, and did I mention that the Churchill Northern Studies Centre also gave each of the volunteers their choice of CNSC sweatshirt? And my other roommate Fiona gave me another Buff-like head wrap as she no longer wanted hers?
In the last seven weeks, I’ve increased my total wardrobe by an estimated 50%. It will be interesting to see what my actual clothing counts are when I return to Norfolk and take stock of all that I have.
Not all of my clothes survived our 11,500 mile road trip this summer, like my winter coat (reminder — it was still snowing when we left Montana in July). I also know I’ve worn through some other things, like the aforementioned Hogwarts Alumni t-shirt and one of my Carolina shirts that I’ve had at least six years (I gave that shirt to Dodger so he would remember me while I’m gone).
All my acquisitions on this trip has made me question just how committed to minimalism I am.
Then this morning I read a minimalism blog post from No Side Bar on lessons learned from the death of a parent and I found these words of wisdom especially useful:
Minimalism isn’t about having nothing, it’s about finding true value in what you do have and keeping only what meets your high standards.
And you know what? I’m tired of being cold during the winter. So, hello new high standard of warmth. It’s good to welcome you back into my life again.
I am a little worried about how I’m going to get all my “new” clothes back to Norfolk. I only brought with me my backpack and one of Heath’s duffel bags.
Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be coming back from Churchill with half of a new wardrobe. Yet, here I am.
We’ll see how many layers I can wear at once while on the plane. I’m thinking one pair of long underwear, one pair of yoga pants, snow pants, t-shirt, long underwear long-sleeved t-shirt, sweater, vest, winter coat, scarf, and hat. I suspect I’ll look a little something like this:
My first three weeks at Churchill have been exhausting and exhilarating! The exhausting includes the 6-hour shifts a day, 6 days a week. Shifts can start at 6:30am and some don’t end until 8:30pm. For someone with narcolepsy, the constant schedule changes can be a bit daunting and since I’m usually in bed by 9:00pm, a late night shift also has challenges.
Thankfully, the work itself isn’t hard. For example, the other day I washed dishes for about two hours and then dusted and mopped several rooms in the science center. The dusting also included the Aurora Dome, which seems to be one of the greatest challenges for us volunteers to clean. Although there are still streaks on the dome, at least it’s not dusty.
I followed up the housekeeping with 90 full minutes of peeling red potatoes. When in doubt of what to do, volunteers are always welcome to peel carrots and potatoes to help out the kitchen staff. There are currently three cooks who prepare three meals a day for all staff, volunteers, and visitors.
Peeling potatoes was a rather enjoyable experience, especially since the aroma of Oriental Glazed Chicken filled the air. The science center’s kitchen has some of the best smells on a daily basis, including, but not limited to: French Toast, Chocolate Chip Cookies, Pumpkin Pie Tarts, Cinnamon Rolls, Chocolate Cake, Banana Bread, and Berry Crumble.
The orientation packet wasn’t kidding when it stated, ”You will not lose weight while you are here.”
Another part of the exhausting is something I wasn’t prepared for at all: The Northern Lights.
Here in Churchill, the Northern Lights fill the night sky on a regular basis. They are stunning and awesome and I find myself in a constant fear of missing out when the Lights are doing. Thank goodness for cloudy days because then there’s no expectation whatsoever about seeing the lights in their full glory and I can get to bed at a decent time.
Also interesting to note, the Northern Lights are one of the greatest PR campaigns of the travel industry.
The colors that you see popping out in photographs, may or may not be visible to the naked eye. A lot of times, the greens, blues, and pinks can only be captured through a camera lens. These pictures look nothing like what we were actually viewing in the sky, which were shades of wispy white and grey, with just a light tinge of green every so often.
I have yet been able to capture any of the Northern Lights on my camera phone since a Pixel 2 doesn’t have a professional setting mode. Shout out to my fabulous roommate Rachael for sharing the above photos with me. Just for comparison purposes, here’s two of my Northern Lights photos:
Now, on to the exhilarating! Check out this sunrise.
And how about this sunset?
The town of Churchill is interesting in and of itself, and I am fascinated with how this town of about 900 people coexists with polar bears. For example, there is the 675-BEAR alert system that you call if you see a polar bear.
There are also places, like this boat, designed as safehouses for you to hide whenever you encounter a wandering bear in town.
If you’re wondering if I’ve seen any polar bears yet, the answer is YES! I’m saving that experience for my next blog post, but here’s a sneak peak in the meantime:
Now, it’s back to peeling more potatoes and dusting and mopping. Totally worth it!
End Note: Extra special shout-out of gratitude to all the people who have reached out to me in support, excitement, and encouragement over my subarctic travels. I’d especially like to thank Heath for taking on extra work with the pups and house while I’m gone. I miss everyone so much, but thank goodness for the Internet. Heath and I talk every day and he indulges me every time I ask to see what Smudge and/or Faith is doing. I love you all!