It was everything I had never dreamt it would be. Here, on the edge of the Canadian Arctic, we cruise along the shores of Hudson Bay under the bright summer sun, while two polar bears swim beside us like gigantic white puppies. Leaning over the edge of our small boat I watch, astonished, as their dinner plate-sized paws pull their chunky white bodies through the water. When a bear looks over its shoulder at us I catch its narrowed black eye, just for an instant, and the connection makes my breath catch in my throat.
For the decade or more I spent dreaming about travelling to the Arctic, snow and ice was always the backdrop (I blame those '90s Coca-Cola polar bear ads). When the window to visit the northern Canadian province of Manitoba finally opened, however, it was during Arctic summer and I had felt a little, well, ripped off. No snow? No ice? No fair.
What I hadn't realised, though, was how moving this visual juxtaposition would be: seeing creatures I'd always associated with ice, doggy-paddling through sun-spangled water. It was unexpectedly delightful, like seeing a monk on a mobile phone. But it also brought the Arctic's position at the front line of the global climate crisis rushing towards me with a sharp, zoom-lens immediacy.
Watching the bears climb onto the sunlit banks, covered in summer's tall purple fireweed, I thought about how the warming of our planet and these longer summers means that the ice on this bay now forms later and melts earlier. This means seal hunting season is shorter, so some bears may not get the fat they need to survive summer, while females without enough fat won't produce cubs, both of which lead to declining populations. I thought about how the polar bears have no way of protecting themselves from this, and about how only our actions will have an effect. I thought, most of all, how lucky I was to see them at all.
During the Arctic summer, travellers to Churchill can meet another iconic white species. Around 60,000 beluga whales flock here to Hudson Bay each summer to feed, mate and give birth in the warm, shallow waters.
The night before seeing the swimming polar bears we drive from our Churchill accommodation, a hand-built wooden chalet named Lazy Bear Lodge, to a nearby dock lined with candy-coloured wooden sheds. After pulling dry suits over our multiple layers of clothing (it still gets very cold out on the water over summer) and donning full face snorkels, we putter out on to the bay on an inflatable Zodiac.
A floating mat is attached to the back and we lay on it belly down, our faces submerged in the water, as dozens of curious belugas approach, peering into our eyes before disappearing back down to the depths. Our guide suggests we sing to these so-called "canaries of the sea". When we do they swim closer, so close a few of our group get a kiss on the face. We play with them that way for hours, as the setting sun throws glitter across the water.
Our base, the remote town of Churchill, is equally as fascinating as the wildlife. Home to 900 residents, each summer around 900 polar bears gather near town as they wait for Hudson Bay to freeze over, giving Churchill the nickname of "polar bear capital of the world."
Almost every resident I meet has a bear tale. Our lodge owner tells me about the day he found polar bears playing on his kids' swing set; a local guide shows me a video of one sunning itself on his back porch. Churchill residents often need to use their trucks to herd bears towards "polar bear jail", a holding facility on the outskirts of town where wayward bears are held for periods of time if they continue to cause trouble.
I am assured there have only been a handful of bear attacks in town over the past 50 years. But still, walking the 300 metres back to our lodge from the local pub after dark one evening – staying in the middle of the road and not cutting corners to avoid bumping into a lurking grumpy bear – was an experience I'd be happy never to replicate.
What I am happy to repeat, as many times as possible, is visiting the belugas. Early one morning we head out on Hudson Bay on a Zodiac and, with our guide trailing a small underwater microphone behind us, listen to the beluga's high-pitched, almost supernatural-sounding whistles, clicks and moans as we watch their white bodies curve through the water. Every so often we glimpse an expressive face – a black eyeball, a melon-like forehead, a swipe of mouth that always seems turned up in a smile.
Next day we hop in single kayaks and within minutes, are surrounded by belugas. It takes a good half hour to stop yelping each time they bump up against the kayak – the idea of these four- to six-metre-long creatures swarming below us was a little scary, sure, but I also worry we are invading their territory.
Once our guide reminds us how curious and playful they are, and how much they enjoy having new creatures to interact with, however, the kayaking quickly became another Arctic activity I couldn't have imagined missing out on had I come in winter.
Months later, as I sit at my desk and take this trip once again, I can still see their white bodies glowing an alien-ish neon green beneath the water, mimicking the northern lights that often flicker across the sky in this part of the world.
Churchill has one of the heaviest concentrations of auroral activity on earth. And while the northern lights are stronger and more visible in the colder months, if conditions are right (clear, dark, cloud-free skies) you can, our guides assure us, see them during summer, too. And so, each night after returning to our lodge to devour pasta with Manitoba bison ragout, Arctic char from the waters of Hudson Bay and other local specialities in the Lazy Bear Cafe, we jot our names down on a "to wake" list, should the lights appear.
Alas, they never do. But the thought that they might made every night feel a little like Christmas Eve. And besides, I'd seen the bears, I'd seen the belugas – I needed something to return to this extraordinary part of the world to see.
FIVE NON-WILDLIFE THINGS TO DO IN CHURCHILL
With its wooden floors and ceiling beams, the Arctic Trading Company on Churchill's main drag sells hand-sewn moccasins, leather medicine pouches, knits, soapstone carvings and more, mostly crafted by the local indigenous community. See arctictradingco.com
Off a scenic back road skirting the shores of Hudson Bay, you'll find Miss Piggy, a cargo plane that crash landed in this spot in 1979, without a fatality. Nicknamed Miss Piggy due to her often oversized loads, visitors can walk onto the wings and through the plane.
Churchill's one-room Itsanitaq Museum holds a collection of Inuit carvings, harpoon heads dating back to 1700BC, a stuffed polar bear, musk ox and walrus head, narwhal horns, caribou skin, ceremonial masks and other fascinating artefacts.
Wander around Churchill and you'll find 18 buildings decorated with charming murals of polar bears, beluga whales, the northern lights and Inuit people. Part of the Pangea Seed Foundation's Sea Walls project, they're painted by artists from around the world to promote ocean conservation. See pangeaseed.foundation.
The mood is post-apocalyptic at the abandoned Churchill Rocket Research Range, set on the outskirts of town. Used by Canada and the US from the mid-1950s until 1985 for launches of rockets to study the Earth's upper atmosphere, the facility's abandoned buildings allow for interesting photo opportunities.
Nina Karnikowski travelled as a guest of TravelMarvel.
Air Canada flies to Winnipeg via Vancouver from all major Australian airports. It's then a one hour fifty-minute flight to Churchill, using local carrier Calm Air. See aircanada.com.
Prices for TravelMarvel's seven-day Ultimate Arctic Summer Adventure, which runs between July 11 and August 24, 2020, start from $7395 a person, twin share. It includes four nights at Lazy Bear Lodge and two nights in Winnipeg, all meals and activities which include a tour of Hudson Bay to see beluga whales and polar bears and a cultural tour of Churchill. See travelmarvel.com.au