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Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Walking in love: Toronto 2

Toronto is not a beautiful city, in the way that Chicago is. Indeed, because of their similar climate and setting on the Great Lakes, the two cities are often compared, usually unfavourably to Toronto. It has certainly not managed its lakefront as attractively as Chicago’s, though this has improved in the years since I lived here. There’s now a bikeable path, the Martin Goodman Trail, that runs all along Lake Ontario and joins up with the Trans-Canada Trail that reaches the Atlantic, Arctic, and Pacific Oceans.

Nor does it have the impressive range of beautiful architecture that Chicago does. I fell in love with Chicago when I was very young—she was my first love, and is still my favourite U.S. city. But Toronto also has advantages, and typically, they’re understated if not bland ones. Toronto didn't give the world electric blues, but I can take the subway any time and never wonder if this line is safe or not. Although violent crime is sadly not unknown, Toronto is still remarkably safe compared with most U.S. cities. That may not be saying much. Gun deaths there are so numerous that Chicago cannot even be plotted on the same graph, for example, as the entire United Kingdom.

But I digress.
Hungary memorial. The Toronto lakefront is dotted with monuments like these.

One of my favorite lakefront walks takes me to Little Norway, the only original part of which still standing is this flagpole. During World War II, Norwegians in exile trained pilots here, near what is now Toronto Island airport. It was part of the resistance to Nazi occupation. (The CN Tower, premier symbol of Toronto, is visible in the background.)

Most Torontonians are not actually from here. About half the city’s population was born outside Canada, as I was, and many of the other people I’ve met here are from different provinces. But even some who’ve spent their whole lives here don’t love it. Part of living in Toronto, and perhaps other places, is complaining about it. Again, I’m different in that when I was living in the most basic accommodation, at one of the lowest points of my life, I realized how much I really enjoyed being here.
Lake Ontario
Part of it is the odd fact that my “happy places” have always included the Great Lakes. I grew up visiting my grandparents when they lived in Lakeside, Ohio, and remember many summer—and winter—days and evening just walking along Lake Erie, telling stories to myself and thinking. Later, I moved to Chicago and spent time walking along Lake Michigan. Neither those walks, nor my long walks along Lake Ontario in my twenties and thirties, were in beautiful places, but that wasn’t what I was looking for. I was working out something—a poem, a decision, a friend’s death. Being able to walk down the street, or take a streetcar, and wear out my old paths along the lakefront is coming home for me.
Spadina Quay Wetland, an oasis where once there was a parking lot

Toronto Music Garden, designed by Yo Yo Ma (apparently) to reflect a Bach cello suite
Toronto is a very walkable city. There are lots of places where one can dip into the ravines and temporarily forget one is even in a city. There are parks everywhere, from tiny square “parkettes” to the vastness of Sunnybrook or High Park. It makes all the difference to be able to walk to High Park from where we’re living now. Again, not a place of stunning beauty, but a place I can be happy on an everyday basis.
Grenadier Pond, High Park
One of the first things we did when we got back from Manitoba was join Out & Out, a gay and lesbian activities group, for a “fall colours” walk.

I was a member of Out & Out before I left Toronto. It’s a group of people who organize all kinds of activities besides going to bars. My most memorable outing with them was in January 2009, when a three-hour dogsledding adventure near Huntsville, Ontario, turned into five hours (the dogs could tell I didn’t know what I was doing). Very cold weather and lots of being dumped into snowbanks.

The leader of this walk happened to be the same guy who gave me a ride up to Huntsville on that occasion, and he remembered it for the same reason I do: toes. We both got frostnip, and still feel those particular toes go cold before anywhere else. Fortunately today’s walk was in much milder weather.

We’ve also had a few opportunities to catch up with our friends Trudy and Maria. I used to work with Trudy years ago, and when Maria, her daughter, was working in England for a while, she was a frequent guest at our place. When we got back to Toronto, Maria suggested brunch at a place called Insomnia. 
“In the afternoon?” Trudy said. I assured her that, yes, we were supposed to have been up all night partying!

We walked past the corner of Bloor and Bathurst Streets, where for decades Honest Ed’s took up an entire city block. The pride of Ed Mirvish, a store that seemed to have everything including free turkeys at the holidays, has been demolished by his son, presumably so yet more condos can go up. 
We also got together with Marg, another friend from Canadian Tire days, and her son Spencer. Marg and Spencer came to London a few years ago too, and we enjoyed seeing them there. We had so much fun with Marg that I saw her again a few weeks later, along with several other friends who hadn't all gotten together for ages.

With Arlene, Jay, Marg, Monty, Jay's husband Wayne, Stéphanie, and Tom
Even without seeing familiar faces, I’ve just enjoyed hanging around our neighbourhood, Roncesvalles Village. One morning I saw four police officers on horseback, having their coffee break. That afternoon a man was playing the saxophone down by the lakefront. 
Interior, High Park library
Just taking the streetcar can be enough to evoke happy memories. Passing Roy Thomson Hall, for example, I happened to hear k. d. lang’s version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” on my iPod. The first time I ever heard that electrifying song was from k.d. herself, barefoot on the stage at Roy Thomson Hall. To me it’s still the definitive version.

Another day we went to Little India on Gerrard Street East. I hadn't been there since my first visit to Toronto. One of the great things about Indian restaurants in North America, that doesn’t seem to exist in England, is the buffet, where you can get a portion of as many different dishes as you went. It suits me perfectly because I never want just one (or even two or three) items from an Indian menu.

Afterwards we had a stroll through Leslieville. More than ten years ago, when I lived in Toronto, The New York Times “discovered” Leslieville, which apparently was where the cool lesbians were hanging out (I was never there). Ever since then, of course, it’s gotten too expensive. 

I’ve been taking advantage of our time in one place to study at Toronto’s excellent Spanish Centre. I’ve gone there before to refresh my Spanish, minimal as it is, and Carla from Caracas has proven an excellent instructor. As much as I’m not looking forward to leaving Canada at all, the winter here seems like a good time to head south to Latin America, so I’m brushing up. Sometimes, when we’re working with partners, the level of hubbub in the classroom approaches that of a colonial-era “blab school.”

It’s been humbling to attempt conversation with my fellow students, especially a couple originally from East Africa for whom English is, at least, a second language; they speak Italian too. They proudly say “I am from Canada” in Spanish, but they aren’t even learning in their native language, which I think is impressive. (Incidentally, I find it much easier to say “Soy de los Estados Unidos” when I’m here in Canada. In other parts of the world I don’t feel like I’m from one place.)

The larger world has, of course, intruded while we’ve been here. The week we were in Churchill happened to be the week marijuana, or cannabis, was legalized across Canada. I haven’t noticed many differences but then I’m not interested in smoking anything. One thing I have noticed, as in states where it’s legalized, is signs popping up warning what is and isn’t allowed. Near the U.S. border, and at the airport for example, there are signs reminding people not to attempt to cross internationally with cannabis, which is illegal.

More sobering was the attack on Etz Chaim=Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, which killed eleven people, including a woman from Forest Hill, the first neighbourhood I lived in in Toronto. We heard at the last minute about a vigil in North York and decided to show up. The vigil was held in Mel Lastman Square, named for the mayor of Toronto when I first lived here, who was the son of Jewish immigrants from Poland.

Someone I know from Glad Day Bookshop, who now teaches in Toronto, remarked that his students seem to think that anti-Jewish hatred was a particular episode that happened in the twentieth century. He has to teach them to see patterns, that anti-Semitism didn’t emerge from nowhere, nor does it, sadly, ever disappear. To counter it, an interfaith group in Toronto organized a “ring of peace” to go around the City Shul on the following Sabbath. Jews around the world were organizing to “Show Up for Shabbat” on the Saturday after the shooting, and some of us wanted to be there in solidarity.

City Shul shares its building with Bloor Street United Church, where I’ve sung shape note music with the Toronto Sacred Harp singers. Members of Holy Trinity, KAIROS, and other Christian groups showed up, having no idea how many people might join us. I was “point person” on the end, directing folks to fill in the gaps. As our line slowly stretched around the building, more and more Jewish people came for the service, some of them clearly not regular members of this congregation. I found myself directing congregants to the door with one hand and non-Jewish supporters to the line with my other. 

Usher with police officer
In the end there were more than a hundred of us, and people kept coming up and thanking us for being there. A couple of women even passed out Timbits, which are doughnut holes from Tim Hortons—possibly the most Canadian thing anyone could do. We were thanking them! I was fine until some of the Jewish folks started tearing up. I don’t think I’d ever said “Shabbat shalom” but I said it many times that day. When an usher nearby was asked by bewildered people what we were doing there (was this the line to get in?) she kept saying, “These are our neighbours!”

The TV news was there too. A woman asked the man standing next to me (with flower) which congregation he was from, and he explained that he was a Muslim. Later I saw an imam on television, stating that he was there because there should not be “such violence in our world.” To which I can only say, Amen.

Back in our own neighbourhood, T. was thrilled to discover that our local farmers’ market, unlike others in Toronto, doesn’t close for the season. It just moves indoors.

We get our meat there now, and maple syrup. I’ve particularly enjoyed the Stanners Vineyard wines from Prince Edward County—they make dry riesling, which I like better than the usual sweeter kind—and, given the neighbourhood we’re in, pierogi.
The last outdoor farmers' market of the year, Riverdale Farm
T. said if we lived in Toronto she would want to live here. I’m afraid that’s as much as I’ve been able to get out of her. Not that I blame her—probably no one wants to leave their country of origin without a good reason. Something I think is lost in the anti-immigrant rhetoric we often hear.

City Hall and Nathan Phillips Square
We had some pretty wet weather in November, but still got in some good city walks. One day we had a look round Old City Hall, now a courthouse, followed by the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives. They’ve moved to a small historic building, and the staff member on hand (the only archivist, I believe) was happy to show us around a collection that dates from 1972. T. pointed out a transgender manifesto from that time, which used the term afflicted for people with gender dysphoria. It was a contrast with the “this is the way I was born, and I’m proud” rhetoric that so empowered me as a young lesbian. Clearly the various strands of LGBTQ have much to learn from each other—and a lot of it can be learned at the CLGA.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

A hundred days: Toronto 1

T. has written in her blog: “Jacqui sees Toronto as home, so it’s not a city we’ll need to explore, per se, although I know there will be places and things she’ll want to show me and lots of friends to catch up with. With three months, and a Canadian winter ahead, I expect it will be a time to hunker down and relax. Get a taste of what living here might feel like.”

I can’t tell you what conclusions she’s reached about living here, but it will take more than one blog post to share mine. I’ll start with today’s theme of writing. One of the reasons Toronto feels like home to me is that this is where I finally became a writer. To the extent that I have a career, it started here. Before Toronto I’d written for university publications, including the odd poem or story. Here I started writing columns for the gay and lesbian newspaper (this used to be a thing, and they paid real money, too). I also studied writing, joined a writing group, and eventually, finished a novel that was actually publishable. My book launches have been here, and my writing group still meets in its current incarnation in Ontario. 
Autumn (September)
One of the pleasures of being back was finally meeting with that group in person, not once but multiple times. Another was being here in October, which is when Toronto hosts the International Festival of Authors. I used to walk down to the Harbourfront and look up at the Westin Harbour Castle, which is where international authors stayed when they had “made it.”

I have not returned as a hyphenated U.S.-Canadian author staying in the Westin Harbour Castle, but at least I got back to the festival. There was a panel and I wanted in particular to see Shari Lapena, whom I met years ago when we were both at the Humber Writers’ Circle. Shari Lapena, you might say, has made it, “it” being The New York Times bestseller list. 

While standing in line to get Shari’s book signed, I discovered that the person next to me was Kathleen Wynne. I don’t know if you all know Kathleen but she’s a groundbreaking politician, the first openly gay premier in Canada—the equivalent of a state governor. She recently lost reelection as premier of Ontario to what, in this province, amounted to a Trump. I remembered Kathleen Wynne from my years in Toronto, when she started her political career on the school board. So when she and her partner got in line behind me, I told her that we miss her. (And I don’t even live here full time—the headline in NOW this week was, “Are We Missing Wynne Yet?”) 

She thanked me and then her partner said, “That’s quite a knapsack!” I hadn’t, she surmised, bought the backpack with all those flag patches on it. This backpack has been the best conversation starter, especially standing in line like this. By the time we reached Shari, and she recognized first me, and then the former premier, we were chatting like old friends. 

“Do you know each other?” Shari said. As much as I wanted to make a joke about us all knowing each other, I really don’t know Kathleen Wynne, so I told Shari we were all just fans of hers, chatting.

I came back to Toronto half expecting it to have changed significantly since I moved away, so that it no longer felt like home. Quite the opposite has been the case. “It never changes,” one friend said disparagingly. I know I am different from other people, because most Torontonians complain about the “seven months” of winter (certainly more than four months, which is too long). No one wants to commute through snow, especially with all these “southern” drivers, but I miss it when I’m gone. When the first snow fell here, I couldn’t wait to get out and walk in it and make snowballs with my 30-year-old mittens. What else is snow for?
Winter (October)
Of course, places do change. There are more condo towers under construction, and all of Eglinton Avenue, where I lived most of my years here, is a dug-up ditch. Some light rail is supposed to be put in eventually. Like such projects in other cities (Big Dig, anyone?) this one is overrunning. None of this is any surprise.
My old apartment building, where I lived the longest
People change too. I never seem to feel any older (still jump in a pile of fall leaves when no one is looking), but other people have grey hair or health conditions that they didn’t have before, and sadly, some seats are empty altogether. I consider myself incredibly blessed still to have so many friends here, including the small but mighty congregation of the Church of the Holy Trinity. This downtown Anglican church has been doing its own thing for generations—it was the first church in Toronto not to charge parishioners to sit in the pews. In the years since, it hosted early gay dances, and U.S. draft dodgers used to sleep in the sanctuary. And it’s still a great musical space to worship in, as the Cowboy Junkies knew when they recorded their album The Trinity Session there on 27 November 1987, circled around a single microphone.

When we first got to Toronto, before moving into our Airbnb (handily discounted for a 3-month visit), we stayed at our home away from home, Wayne and Jay’s. I’ve known Wayne since we were both freelance proofreaders at Canadian Tire, and he and Jay, an elementary school teacher, have become good friends of us both. When we arrived the black squirrels were already eating Jay’s pumpkin. It wasn’t even October yet!

We had a sunny day, so I took advantage of our nearness to the Scarborough Bluffs. These layers of sand and clay expose a geological record of the last Ice Age, and are unique in North America. (When Canadians say "North Americans," they mean themselves plus U.S. Americans. This neatly encompasses me.)

I enjoyed my walk until I heard a big chunk of bluff tumbling down behind me—pretty startling!

By the long Thanksgiving weekend, we were in our new home.

A coach house behind somebody’s large house might seem too small and cramped for a permanent residence, but it’s acres of space compared to most of where we’ve been stuck with each other the past year and a half. As T. says, “Where do you go when you row?” We were almost too excited to have a surprisingly well-equipped kitchen to cook our own meals in.

This is a neighbourhood I’ve always liked, but never got to spend much time in. I promptly crossed the street to the lovely Carnegie library, where I can check out five items at a time for free. Just as a visitor!

We celebrated Thanksgiving with the Church of the Holy Trinity. You can go to a church semi-regularly for years and not be recognized by anybody—I’ve done it repeatedly. But I’ve had friends at Holy Trinity from the very first Sunday I walked in. Somebody spotted my then-partner, Penelope, and me and recruited us for the Working Group on Gay and Lesbian Issues. Some progress has been made since then, but not enough. (Penelope is a friend now and she and her partner, Becky, have had us to their “Tiny House” on more than one occasion.) 

On Thanksgiving Day itself, T. and I met up with our friend Marie-Josée and her son, Olivier. It was appropriately Action de grâces, because I can’t tell you how grateful I am for Marijo and her presence in our world. And because I can’t, that’s all I’m going to say.

Another friend I was pleased to catch up with, on an unseasonably warm October day, was my old writing friend Dan. I don’t mean “old” in that sense, although we’re all older than we once were; Dan and I were founding members of the writing group way back at the Humber School for Writers in 2004. For years we worked through fiction together, but we have so much more to talk about now. Philosophy, gender, Christianity, the need for nuanced thinking around tough issues. And architecture, which is Dan’s other passion. Thanks to him we walked around the University of Toronto and saw some hidden gems that I wouldn't have known were there.

A surprise--the organist was playing!
Trinity College cloister
Being in one place for such a long time has been a refreshing change for both T. and me, even if that place wasn’t Toronto. It’s been surprisingly busy, but I’ve also had time to read chunkier books than I felt like carrying, work more on my fiction, study Spanish, and just take time to think and reflect. When we had lunch with Marie-Josée, she asked if we were different because of our travels. I said at the time that if I hadn’t had a certain openness of mentality to begin with, I would never have started. But now I think of things I’ve gotten sensitive to, like carrying a reusable bag instead of using plastic, not running the shower as long, even thinking more about where meat or our other food comes from. 

Could we learn these habits without traveling around the world and using all that jet fuel? Absolutely—and we all need to, one way or the other.  I overheard a guy on the subway one day talking to his two young girls (one wore a Princess dress, the other a “Feminist” T-shirt). He was telling them that if we undervalue, say, clean water, then we may not care about it being polluted, and then he talked about valuing people. It was the kind of everyday lesson I hope kids are learning, here and in other countries.

Jay had told us one day that she was teaching a lesson about traditions and celebrations, and the children were offering their own examples. “I’m Muslim and we celebrate this,” “I’m Christian so we do that.” She asked why it was important to know about each other’s different traditions. A little girl said, “That’s respect, Ms. C—.”

The late Aretha Franklin would be proud.
This is my favorite picture from the book launch for Arusha in 2009. My whole life in Toronto is represented here. I'm signing a copy for Shari Lapena, and next to her are friends I still know from Holy Trinity and Canadian Tire. The women smiling at the camera are, on the right, Marijo and on the left Nathalie, who tragically left us much too soon. In the background are Penelope and Becky, along with a number of people I knew from my day jobs and from Humber. Photo by Wayne Brewer

Friday, November 2, 2018

On the land: Manitoba

It’s not the coldest I’ve ever been; that was during the cold snap of January 1994, in Chicago, when the wind chill was recorded as -70 Fahrenheit. Churchill, Manitoba was not that cold—wind chill between -15 and -20 Celsius (5 to -4 F). Still, it was the coldest we’ve been on these travels. New Zealand was wet, and in Ireland I had to buy an Aran sweater; but only in Manitoba did I have to resort to my thermal underwear or “long johns.”
At the 58th parallel we were also a couple of degrees latitude farther north than we’d ever been before (Riga, in Latvia, is north of the 56th parallel). But I didn’t have to wait until we got to Churchill, on the shore of Hudson Bay, to pull on the long johns. No, that honour went to the city we started in, Winnipeg, which was undergoing a cold snap of its own. It was freezing outside—0 C—and the hotel’s central heating was not working. What did people wear before they had central heating? Long johns.
Welcome to Winnipeg
The Marlborough Hotel’s boiler had not been inspected in time for the cold which, the manager told me genially, had caught them “with our pants down.” Well, they were asses, if that’s what he meant. A cold snap like this is not unheard of in Toronto in October, still less Winnipeg. We were offered a small but inadequate space heater—more, as we soon discovered, and the 1960 electrics would short out.
The Royal Canadian Legion was founded in this hotel.

Lobby letter box
It’s a shame about the Marlborough because, if they sorted out the basics like heat and light, it could have a sort of dated charm. I don’t mind historic buildings, but I can’t recommend this one. Except the hot breakfast. By the time we got back from Churchill the boiler was fixed; I wish I could say the same for the elevator or, for that matter, the attitude of the staff.

Ah well, we don’t normally do hotels. This whole trip to Manitoba, in fact, was very far out of our normal budget travel. Churchill at this particular time of year, i.e., polar bear season, is what’s called a “bucket list” item, even though we don’t do buckets lists either. Even so, domestic airline WestJet charges for checked bags, so we stuffed all we had into one backpack. It’s a friendly airline, though. The crew kept things light, like instructing us to put our seats into the “upright and uncomfortable position.” And we got complimentary drinks and snacks, which is more than I expected.

I sat next to a woman who immediately started chatting to me, a sure sign that she was from the U.S.A. Biloxi, Mississippi, as it turned out, though she didn’t sound like any other Mississippian I’ve met! I can relate because I’ve never had much of a Southern accent myself. She now lives in Manitoba, which must have come as a climatic shock. When I told her I was originally from Tennessee, she asked where; I never expect anyone to have heard of my hometown, but she knew it. “Oh yes, we used to drive past Elizabethton all the time,” she said. Her family used to vacation in Boone, North Carolina!

This lady had good things to say about Winnipeg so we did give it a chance. At least the hotel is in a central location. We were nearest to the Exchange District so had lunch there.
Snow flurries
And surely we couldn’t go wrong in Chinatown, right? Well, right and wrong. On our third try we found some good food (the first restaurant we were escorted to a party room where we didn’t know anybody, and the second didn’t have a liquor license, so T. wouldn’t even sit down). The problem is that if you order something here, say a small soup, it still comes out in a huge family-style bowl. We paled before the portion sizes, especially given that we couldn’t reheat leftovers—can you imagine what a microwave oven would do to the Marlborough's wiring? (Would have had no problem keeping leftovers cold, though.)
Soup: the size we thought we'd ordered (right) and what actually came out (left)!
Our full day in town was better. Here are some Winnipeg facts: It has the largest Indigenous population of any Canadian city. It also has the oldest French settlement outside Québec, Saint Boniface. We crossed the Red River to check it out. The St-Boniface Museum, a former convent, is the largest oak log structure in North America and the oldest building in Winnipeg.
I mentioned the Métis in my last post; now I have to say something about Louis Riel. Hanged as a traitor in 1885, Louis Riel is thought of by many today as the “father of Manitoba.” As with most of us, I suspect, the truth about Riel is probably somewhere between villain and hero. The land rights of the Métis came under threat from the Canadian government almost from the moment the nation was founded in 1867. Riel led a rebellion and people died, eventually including him. The positive contributions for which he is now given credit are standing up for the language (Francophone) and land rights of Métis who, like other Indigenous people, saw their treaties with the Crown broken over and over again. Hard to believe, I know.
Memorial to western French Canadians who served in the world wars

Building by Antoine Predock, right, and Provencher Bridge
Winnipeg, or Fort Garry as it was known then, is at the junction of the Assiniboine and Red Rivers. The name Winnipeg comes from a Cree word meaning “muddy waters” and that is certainly how the rivers appeared to us—not red at all. Adjacent to the Forks, as this millennia-old trading junction is known, stands Winnipeg’s finest attraction, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. It’s quite a new museum, and the first national museum established outside the capital region. 
To be honest, I was afraid it would be dreary, an endless litany of crimes against humanity in Canada and beyond. But that was not my experience at all. There was a special exhibit on Nelson Mandela, which had more significance for us because we’d been so near to Robben Island.
Visitors are invited to leave responses to the Mandela exhibit
Upstairs, the permanent exhibition starts with a striking timeline, all along one wall. Staggered by date are human rights developments good and bad, from the Code of Hammurabi and the life of Jesus to the rise of Adolf Hitler. 

Many of the exhibits rightly focus on human rights in Canada, including the generations of Indigenous children who, until shockingly recently, were systematically removed from their homes and communities and sent to residential schools, where abuse was widespread. A haunting work of art called REDress symbolizes the disproportionate numbers of Indigenous women who are murdered or simply go “missing.”
REDress by Jaime Black
And there was the Holodomor. I confess I was previously unfamiliar with this term for the 1932-33 famine in Ukraine. The famine was caused, or at least exacerbated, by Stalin’s Soviet government, and killed millions. To the descendants of Ukrainians in Canada (and many others), the Holodomor was a genocide.
Sculpture by Pedro Drozdovsky
This haunting monument stands outside the Manitoba Legislative Building. Its gardens are filled with statues of important figures in the history of the area. The building itself is of neoclassical beaux-arts design, reflecting a more optimistic time (1920).
Eternal Youth and the Spirit of Enterprise ("Golden Boy")

And so to Churchill at the 58th parallel. There are only a few miles of road in Churchill; like Juneau and other cities in Alaska, you can’t get there by road. In October, you couldn't get there by train either. A severe blizzard and the consequent flood washed out the rail line from Winnipeg last spring (2017), and ever since, the town has depended on planes for everything, which you can imagine is very limiting. I had thought of it as taking away an option for visitors but principally, the train is used for Churchillians themselves.

We were happy to learn that the Canadian government has come through with money and the railroad would be reopening soon. To be honest, I was okay with not being able to travel to Churchill by train ourselves. It takes two slow days, and we’d spent enough days on trains recently. So we hopped a regional airline, Calm Air, and it took about two hours.

You could fly to London from Vancouver for less than it cost to fly Winnipeg to Churchill. But you’d have to fly Air Transat, which has the absolute worst service I’ve received from an airline in my entire life (you read it here). Calm Air is expensive, but nice. You can check as many bags as you like, inclusive, which is important if you live up there and must transport a lot of stuff. As I mentioned, Churchill is an expensive trip, but if you want to see polar bears in the wild it’s the least expensive and most accessible place to do it. There are around 30,000 wild polar bears in the world, of which 15-20,000 live in Canada; the others are in Alaska, Greenland, Norway, and Siberia.

Polar bears are the largest and most predatory of all bears, so you really have to see them on an organized trip. Until the 1970s Fort Churchill, as it was, had lots of military buildings and a population of 6,000; when that dried up, the town had to do something, so the original Tundra Buggy company started operations later that decade. There are a few operators doing polar bear tours now, between September and November when the bears are in town (sometimes, as on our last day in Churchill, literally; a warning sounds and you need to get indoors).
It just so happens that the bears pass through here on their way back to the winter ice. For reasons to do with the counterclockwise current in Hudson Bay and the freshwater rivers feeding into it (fresh water freezes sooner than salt water), this is the spot where the bay starts to freeze up first. The bears have been on land during summer, but they don’t hibernate like other bears, since winter is their prime hunting time. They can hardly wait to get back on the ice and hunt seals.
Hudson Bay
Our guide, Koral, was originally from Saskatoon, but had fallen in love with Churchill. Literally—she was marrying a local a few days later, who also happened to be the owner of our inn (it’s a small town). Koral told us that Churchill is beautiful at all times of year: an extraordinary variety of birds migrate through in the spring, and the brief summer sees a carpet of gorgeously coloured wildflowers, not to mention a bay filled with beluga whales! Even in the dead of December or January, visitors bundle up in special viewing stations to see the northern lights. I was glad we’d caught the aurora borealis in Alaska, though; I’m not sure midwinter is when I’d choose to visit Churchill again.

Koral also told us that our “polar rover” was not actually roving on the tundra, which means treeless plain. It's actually called the taiga, which covers more of the earth than any other biome except the oceans. Taiga has trees, but they grow very, very slowly. These dwarf spruce, for example, are at least 125 years old.

You’ll also notice the “flag” feature, whereby branches aren’t growing on the north/northwest side of the tree. This is a direct result of the constant, chilling wind. Oh, and there's a polar bear on the left.

We went out for two days straight and saw at least a dozen different polar bears. It was stunning. I don’t have the type of lens to capture some of the bears, like the first (huge!) male we saw from a distance, but Koral had binoculars so I didn’t miss anything. T’s camera caught the most amazing bear sighting from a distance: a mother with two cubs.
Photo courtesy of T.
I’ve noticed that anywhere in the northern hemisphere, people regard those who live south of them as “wimps” with regard to cold temperatures. Tennesseans say it about Floridians, and people from Sudbury say it about people from southern Ontario. To the people of Canada’s north, all of us are “southerners.” A woman on our tour from New Jersey was wearing a big heavy parka, the type with coyote fur around the hood. “I can’t wear my parka yet,” Koral said to me while we stood on the open deck. “What would I wear when it gets really cold?” “Really cold” in Churchill is -30 C or even -40. Fun fact: Forty degrees below zero is where the Celsius and Fahrenheit scales meet.
Nanuq in the Inuit language

Wapusk in Cree
Both day trips were good, but our second day was exceptional, and not just because we saw more bears. Our driver on day 2 was the aptly named Stew (that’s also what they served us for lunch). Stew was a storyteller. His father was Dené and his mother was from another First Nations group in York Factory. Traditionally, Dené were nomadic hunters of caribou in the Arctic, and didn’t get along with other First Nations that traded with Europeans, as at York Factory. Obviously, Stew’s parents worked it out. 
Rolling over! (at the temporary lodge)

Banging its nose into the ground for something

One unexpected wildlife sighting was a snowy owl that some of us saw, perched right next to the vehicle. In an attempt to get a better view, someone opened their bus-like window, and the clattering caused the snowy to fly away. I got one picture that only shows its wings, but I’ll never forget its owl face. It was beautiful.
Owl on the wing, bottom right
The polar bears were awesome, but you know what else struck me, out on the taiga? Awe of the Inuit. The people Europeans called “Eskimos” have inhabited the environment north of here—the real tundra—for over four thousand years. They call themselves Inuit meaning “people”; for all they knew for most of their history, they were the only people in the world. The Inuit have the distinction of having made a way of life in a place so harsh that no one colonized it. At least, not until the Cold War, when Canada started wanting a presence in the far north as part of the U.S.-Soviet rivalry. Inuit were relocated, some by force, others by deception. See also uranium found on Native peoples’ land.

Anyway, you have to hand it to these people. They figured out igloos and dogsleds and how to live on whale and seal meat and fat, and managed to survive in an environment that would kill most of us in a very short time. Nowadays they have houses and snowmobiles, but the temperatures up there are still just as brutal. If you’re ever in Churchill, stop by the Itsanitaq (some signs still read Eskimo) Museum. It’s only one room, but it’s filled with Inuit carvings depicting everything from a whale hunt to the birth of Jesus. Amazing.
Inuit manger scene
When I stopped by the historic VIA Rail station I was surprised to find it open. The women there welcomed me, pointed out a little museum they have there, and expressed their delight that the train was almost ready to start up again. Everyone in Churchill came out to party yesterday, in fact, when the prime minister arrived to declare the rail link open!
Churchill train station
I can highly recommend the Bear Country Inn, where Koral’s new father-in-law takes care of things, and the Tundra Inn where everyone in town eats and drinks. I tried Arctic char, a salmon-like fish; Manitoba pickerel and chips; and the Borealis burger, which is vegan, contains berries, and comes with hummus. It was really delicious, but if you’re more carniverous you can also get bison stew or even elk meatloaf.

The flight out of Churchill was rescheduled for later on our departure day. The woman from New Jersey and a German family were waiting for it at the Bear Country Inn too. I was sorry to leave Churchill, especially when we had to fly through Thompson, Manitoba. Thompson airport is a tin can trailer in a hole in the trees; the town was built for mining in the 1950s. Based on the pamphlets in the airport, which are all about suicide, sexual assault, and drug abuse, it seemed like a pretty bleak place. And at the request of the “clan chiefs,” you can neither buy nor transport any alcohol. At least we weren’t there for long.

The Churchill airport is just a hangar too, but a cheerful and welcoming one. And it must be one of the only airports in the world with no security screening. There was a high-visibility vest hanging on the back of a chair; I could have put it on and walked out onto the tarmac, but of course, I didn’t. We just went through security, along with our baggage, when we got to Thompson. No one even scolds you for taking photographs of the plane or runway.

Churchill was once in a lifetime. Still, I’d love to go back there someday. During the "warm" season!