2015 Hudson Bay Expedition – End of the Trail

Canada, Manitoba, Churchill, Underwater view of young Beluga Whale calf swimming with mother and pod near mouth of Hudson Bay

At the end of it all, I’m back where I started.

Four summers ago, I loaded up the truck with 500 pounds of gear and set off for Hudson Bay, hoping to photograph the beluga whales here in Churchill, and maybe see a polar bear or two. More than two weeks of bashing myself stupid in a leaky zodiac only whet my appetite for more.

And now that’s all over, at least for now. I’m left feeling exhausted and a little empty at the end of a thousands mile long trail. I’ve worked as hard as I know how, but feel like I’ve come up short. I’m tormented by all the images I didn’t get. The long ordeal of getting to the arctic and clawing my way back in one piece left precious little time for actually accomplishing much of anything.

I spend my last fews days of the summer slowly motoring in my dinghy, photographing pods of beluga whales near the mouth of the Churchill River. Though the season is waning, hundreds of whales are still swimming in the river’s relatively warm water, raising young calves and socializing before swimming north toward the arctic and the polynyas where they overwinter. Fifty years ago, the whales were hunted and sold for a dollar a foot, their meat ground up and shipped out in 50 pound bags. Now they’re minor celebrities in Churchill, the source of a summer tourist boom. Intelligent and curious, the whales swim right up to kayaks and snorkelers.

They follow right behind mine, sometimes pressing their heads and mouths against my underwater camera. I can hear their voices through the hull, a chorus of otherworldly sonar clicks and whistles.

My last night, I stand out on the back deck, a whiskey in hand, and toast absent friends. I count them off out loud. It’s not like the list is all that long, but I want to see the faces of the people of my life. Make them real. And think of those who aren’t around any more, but who I carry with me all the same. The good thing about a long, hard time alone is that it makes you think, and remember.

I have a second glass, start to take a sip, then stop and slowly pour out an offering into the water, a small gesture of thanks for my safe passage.

In the morning, a little foggy, I motor a few hundred yards to the dock, where I scramble to sling two heavy straps beneath her hull, looping them onto steel chains. I marvel and laugh out loud as a huge crane effortlessly plucks the boat out of the water and deposits her onto a railroad freight car. She leaves the bay pointing backwards on a line of flat cars headed south. I follow a few hours later in the relative comfort of a Hudson Bay RR sleeper car. My berth isn’t any bigger than my bunk on the boat, but the clean sheets are a revelation after six weeks in the same damp sleeping bag.

The passenger cars buck and roll on the uneven tracks like the sea, and I lie awake for a long time, staring out my window at the darkening  sky. We roll south across tundra, back into the land of toothpick spruce. Sometime in the night, I wake to see faint bands of aurora shimmering overhead. They flicker across the sky, like pale ghosts dancing. I watch them fade, then disappear.

When I open my eyes again, it’s daylight and we’re traveling through boreal forest, the tall trees a revelation. There’s no going back now. I still have 1800 miles of driving to do, towing the boat halfway across the continent. But it begins to sink in finally.

I’m going home.

Canada, Manitoba, Churchill, Aerial view of C-Dory expedition boat loaded on Hudson Bay Railroad flat car during trip south.


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