November 9 – 10, 2008
Yesterday we drove ALL day. We met each other at the Great Bear center in Missoula, Montana at 7am, and carpooled for an hour to a college where we boarded a bus. The thing about “adventure travel” is the word “adventure.”
So the journey to Churchill (where the bears are) began with a day of flying, and is followed by 2 long days (12+ hours each day) of travel by bus. After which, we’ll board a train for a 24-hr ride up to Churchill. We spent most of our time yesterday getting to know each other. I am traveling with some serious ADVENTURE travelers. One couple goes kayaking in Alaska every year, to get close to the whales. Another couple has been in a campground with 30 bears literally sharing their space. I’ve heard too many stories to remember, but it’s a good thing everybody here is used to adventure because TODAY….
I’m writing this from the side of the highway, somewhere in Canada. We slept for about 4 hours last night before getting back on the road at 7am this morning. We made it about 15 minutes and then we saw the first accident – an overturned truck in the center divider, surrounded by emergency vehicles. A short distance further we were met by taillights of about 2 dozen vehicles pulled off the side of the road. Ice!!!
Stranded on the side of the icy highway
Our bus *slid* into its place on the side of the road. And now we wait. Word is there are 4 accidents up the hill ahead of us and the highway is closed for 20 miles due to ice. Our best bet is that the salt trucks come shortly and it’s safe for us to journey on. Our scheduled drive time today was 11 hours, but with this delay, who knows… And unfortunately for all of us, we began our day with extra large cups of coffee, and there are no bathrooms in sight. We’ve watched several drivers try to plow over the ice, only to slide sideways and fall in line on the side of the road.
This could throw a lot of people into a bad mood, but not this group. They’re sharing adventure stories galore: “Oh this is NOTHING… one time….” At one point or another we’ve each gotten out and practiced dance moves on the ice. I grew up in the mountains, with snow and ice every winter, but short of an ice skating rink, I’ve never been on ice like this!
Thankfully, I have a new adventure friend, Brandon. He’s also joining this trip solo and we found each other day 1. He’s my seatmate on the bus, the friend I share all my meals (and iPod charger) with, and when we get to Churchill, we have grand plans to go off the beaten path and get as close to the bears as possible. Brandon just got his Masters in environmental studies and is now traveling the world, crossing things off his “list.” He has a girlfriend back home who’s studying massage therapy. We could all probably use a massage now.
Well, I’m going to put the laptop away for now, to save battery… we could be here for a while.
18 hours later November 10, 2008….
We had a 5-hr delay on the side of the highway. There was a Greyhound Bus driver who let us use the restroom on his bus – phew! We napped on and off, I finished a book I was reading, Brandon and I made each other laugh. At one point, several people got off the bus and shoveled dirt in the road so we’d have some traction when it was time to leave again.
Dr. Charles Jonkel teaching about Polar Bears during our long delay
Chuck Jonkel who’s been studying bears for more than 40 years and leading this trip for 25 years spoke about the bears and climate change. He said he once tagged a 1,500 pound bear and a friend of his tagged a 2,200 pound bear (possibly the largest on record). But due to lack of food supply, bears are smaller now and less able to fight the elements and food shortage for survival. He said it’s true that bears can swim, but not the great distances now required to get to the ice where the seals are and that they’re strong enough to fight the currents so they often drowned. Chuck spoke about some friends who live in the area: last January they were awoken by a sound they hadn’t heard – rain. By January everything should be frozen, and rain was a sure sign of warmer climate.
Chuck said that some bears are adapting, eating berries and other fruit off trees – but it takes a lot of berries to feed a bear! “When you talk about bears, people listen!” Chuck exclaimed. “So we should talk about the bears, because they’re dying and we need to do something about it. The problem is more extensive than the bears, but if we use the bears to get people’s attention, to make a change, then it will help change everything.” He explained that bears are at the top of the Arctic food chain and are a rare species of terrestrial animal that relies on its food supply from another source (the sea).
And then the wheels turned and we heard the crunch of ice below as we slowly made our way up the hill after our long delay.
Everything was going well and we were on our way. A few impatient semis sped by in the left lane, clearly going too fast for the elements. So it should be no surprise that just 15 minutes after we began moving, the road was closed again. This time due to an overturned semi that was carrying cyanide. We weighed our options – wait for a hazmat clean-up or double-back and take a longer route.
We ended up taking the long way and at 5:00am we just pulled into the ski chalet where we had planned to spend the night. Instead, it’s a quick stop for breakfast and then off to catch the train. On the drive up we saw some antelope on the side of the road. Chuck said it’s the furthest north he’s ever seen the antelope. Usually it’s too cold for antelope up here and they head down to Montana. But again, warmer temperatures everywhere are changing things. There’s no more “usually.” It’s “What now?”
We’ve heard reports that it’s 20 degrees in Churchill (also warm for this time of year) and there are a lot of bears milling about, waiting for the ice to form. In fact, the other night a bear dented in the back door of the research center where we’ll be staying beginning Tuesday.
I haven’t had internet or cell service for two days and I’m not sure when I’ll actually get to post this. But during the 5-hour travel delay, notes from friends and Facebook status updates kept me going! (So thank you!)