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first person

Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

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“You’re going where? In February? At your age?”

Friends’ voices rang with disbelief when I announced plans for my first-ever solo holiday – a two-and-a-half-week jaunt from balmy Victoria to snowbound Churchill, Man. I listened to dire pronouncements about vicious polar bears, frigid temperatures, shut-down tourist facilities and expensive air-ambulance evacuation.

Having thoroughly researched my trip, I shared none of these qualms. I explained that polar bears are not skulking around town in February. They are far out on Hudson Bay, hunting seals on the ice. In late winter, the average temperature in Churchill is -20 C, familiar to me after 45 years on the Saskatchewan Prairies. February/March is the aurora borealis season, so services would be open for tourists. Not as many as summertime but, on the plus side, there wouldn’t be black flies or mosquitoes.

“At your age?” There was only one answer to this rebuke: “I won’t be younger next year.” I have embarked on a campaign called “Embracing 80,” doing 80 new things before I reach that venerable age. The occasion of my 78th birthday seemed an ideal time to visit Churchill. And just in case – Churchill has comprehensive hospital facilities.

Besides, this was a research trip. I’m writing a novel about Scottish Highlanders evicted from their land in 1813 and forced to immigrate to the New World. Unforeseen circumstances caused them to spend the winter near the small Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) outpost at the mouth of the Churchill River. Obviously, I needed to experience Churchill in winter to fully imagine their ordeal. This argument convinced my family there was a compelling reason for my madcap adventure, other than incipient dementia.

Before embarking, I showed my walking group my new waterproof hiking boots, guaranteed to protect to -40, Celsius or Fahrenheit. “Those won’t be warm enough,” admonished well-meaning friends recently returned from Mexican beaches. “I’ll wear thick socks,” I countered.

I did feel a twinge of anxiety about being lonely, travelling on my own. That concern was quickly dispelled. From my first phone call to the Churchill Chamber of Commerce, I felt warmly welcomed. When I chatted with Bill, the proprietor of the Iceberg Inn, he promised to arrange personalized tours. In addition, he offered to bake a birthday cake. A woman I met on the plane ride north gave me a scenic tour of the area before dropping me off at my cozy lodge.

After checking in, I donned my borrowed winter gear – snow pants, down-filled coat, fur-lined mitts – and took my first walkabout. My new boots were perfect for crunching over the dry snow that squeaked with every step. That sound reminded me of winter in Saskatchewan. As I strolled down the main street, the wind stung my cheeks. Pulling down my hat flaps, I carried on to the edge of town, about 10 minutes away. The snow-swept flatlands extended to a line of trees far off on the horizon. I felt right at home.

On the way back I stopped at Polar Bears International House, the destination Bill had suggested for my introduction to Churchill. The instant I stepped inside, I was offered tea and cake. The curator and I bonded and spent the next hour play-fighting with polar bear skulls. Did I mention I was the only visitor?

Back at my hostel, Eva, a 25-year-old traveller from Germany, had prepared supper for herself, Bill and me. Did I feel lonely? Not for a second. Eva became my close companion for restaurant meals and strolls about town. The age difference didn’t matter. We recognized the same curiosity and exuberance in each other, and shared the same awe for the barely touched northern terrain. I quickly realized that wilderness outposts like Churchill attract free spirits who think outside mainstream cultural constraints.

I threw myself into each new adventure. With snowshoes on my feet, I sank down mid-calf into fresh snow, as opposed to floundering waist-deep without them. Yes, I could waddle adequately on a hard-packed trail, but I wanted to experience the challenge of travelling through deep drifts. Each foot had to be drawn straight up with bent knee and carefully placed a step ahead. It required mental concentration to teach leg muscles this new way of walking, not to mention these same muscles protesting for several days. Now I have some understanding of the struggles my poor Highlanders faced on their 150-mile snowshoe trek to York Factory.

Bill arranged an excursion across the Churchill River, about two miles wide at its mouth. My guide, Steve, took me in his side-by-side Ski-Doo. He assured me he was a Northern Ranger, so I was safe with him. Focused on the forthcoming adventure, I hadn’t worried for an instant about my welfare. But just in case, the rifle slung on his back instilled confidence. Near both shores ice ridges erupted from the frozen surface like grotesque sea monsters. I yelled “Stop!” several times to take photos.

On the far shore, Steve took me wherever I wanted to go. The first stop was Sloop’s Cove, an extended area of flat rocks where various HBC employees from the past had carved their names. This was where my characters had been dumped off their ship, instead of at York Factory where accommodation awaited them. At the ruins of Fort Prince of Wales the only other footprints had been made by an Arctic hare. Another advantage of the off-season – I fully experienced the isolation of the desolate, treeless tundra.

When the wind was still, the silence of the snow-shrouded tundra was overpowering. There was no sound except my own breathing. If I moved, I heard my footfall on the creaking snow. On the frozen water near shore, I heard ominous groaning as the ice shifted with the flowing tide. At night, the Northern Lights evoked body-tingling awe no photograph could duplicate. These memories will enliven winter-survival scenes in my novel.

The railway station is a two-minute walk from the Iceberg Inn. During my birthday dinner, two French guests started getting restless about missing their 7 p.m. boarding time. At 6:45 p.m., Bill and Eva were just lighting candles for the cake. Well, who should emerge from one of the bedrooms but the train engineer after an afternoon nap. Problem solved. We invited him to share some cake, knowing the train could not leave without its driver.

When my own departure date arrived, I was torn between reluctance to leave and giddy anticipation of riding the rails. The train crew was another cast of quirky characters who pampered me for the next two days. Munching treats in the dome car, I watched tundra slip into forest and signs of human habitation emerge bit by bit. When I couldn’t stay awake another minute, I snuggled into my own private sleeping cocoon.

At no point did anyone in Churchill imply that I was too old to be there. We were all busy exploring the environment and the history. The next time I have an opportunity for some offbeat adventure I’m going to take it. And so should you. You won’t be younger next year.

Anne Dalziel Patton lives in Victoria.