September 25, 2020 | Written By Cayley Elcombe

My first introduction to the Canadian Arctic was in the town of Churchill, Manitoba. After several stops and flight delays, I arrived after 7pm, and it was already dark. I couldn’t see a thing as we drove to the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, my home for the next six weeks. I was excited and unsure of what I would awake to. Little did I know that this tiny town would shape the rest of my life.

I travelled to Churchill in October 2016 to begin a six-week volunteer position at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre. I knew I would be helping out around the centre, and hoped that I would be able to catch a glimpse of a polar bear up close – my dream as an undergraduate biology student. During the two and a half months I spent in Churchill during polar bear season, I learned a remarkable amount about myself and about life. I felt like I was on a different planet with the vast tundra landscape that bears roam freely. With only 900 year-round residents and over 400,000 annual tourists, the town of Churchill thrives on ecotourism. Viewing birds, Aurora borealis and beluga whales are all popular reasons to visit, but by far the main attraction is polar bear season.

Polar bear season in Churchill is when the bears that live in and around Northern Manitoba travel through Churchill to access Hudson Bay as it begins freezing. Bear season tends to happen around October/November each year. Tourists and scientists alike arrive from all over the world to witness these incredible animals, and hopefully to learn a bit about what we can do to protect them.

Admittedly, the primary reason I travelled to Churchill was to see a polar bear for myself and to learn more about them. However, I was surprised by almost everything else! Indeed, I learned some life lessons that I have carried with me ever since, and will continue to live by. Here are the top three life lessons that I learned during my time in Churchill.

Take It All In

The number one thing I learned was to stop and take it all in – the sights, smells, sounds, everything. Spending six weeks at the Northern Studies Centre means I spent six weeks inside the centre; being located in the middle of polar bear territory means that you’re not safe to go outside without the accompaniment of a bear guard. Surprisingly, this did not bother me much nor did it give me cabin fever. On the contrary, most of my favourite memories were at the centre, watching for polar bears on the tundra from my bedroom window, drinking a hot cup of coffee on the Observatory deck, or chatting with polar bear researchers in the cafeteria. One treasured memory just outside the centre was the first time I saw a polar bear. I was in a vehicle driving into town with several others when we suddenly pulled over and spotted a polar bear strolling parallel to the road, about 100 yards away. I grabbed my camera and quickly brought it up to my face, but then stopped. This was a momentous instant, and I realized that I would rather spend a quiet moment just watching and enjoying the bear’s presence. In the end, I did get a beautiful photo, but only after pausing to take it in for a moment.

Ask Questions!

While I was in Churchill, I had the privilege of meeting renowned polar bear scientists, as well as resident scientists at the Northern Studies Centre. I was nervous at first, and also in awe; these were people that devoted their time to studying some of the most majestic creatures on Earth, and dedicated their lives to protecting them. I felt that any question that I could form might sound dumb or silly. When my curiosity finally got the best of me and I got past being starstruck, I found that these people were not as intimidating as I had thought, and were actually extremely happy to answer the questions of an interested student. I was able to learn firsthand from some of the world’s leading polar bear experts, a rare opportunity that I will look back on for the rest of my life.

Keep An Open Mind

Entering this experience, I promised myself I would do my best to keep an open mind. As an undergraduate student studying biology, I was already in the habit of always being ready to learn new things and appreciate what others had to say, so it wasn’t hard to keep that mentality going to Churchill. However, I was unprepared for what exactly I would gain from this experience! What I was expecting was to (hopefully) see a few polar bears, meet some like-minded people and maybe catch the Aurora borealis if I was lucky. Instead, I met some of the most amazing, knowledgeable people I have had the pleasure of meeting in my life. I had over 50 polar bear sightings, as well as several sightings of Arctic fox and ptarmigan. I saw the Aurora borealis twice, and even managed to photograph it. I had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn traditional beading techniques from an elder from the Sayisi Dene nation. The food I ate was absolutely delicious (and I still dream about the cinnamon buns at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre!). Perhaps most importantly, I realized that becoming a polar bear biologist was not the only career direction that I could take to be involved in northern research and conservation. I feel lucky to have been open to all of these experiences to this day, as they helped shape the rest of my undergraduate degree and my life ever since.

About the writer

Cayley Elcombe has always been interested in the Canadian, in particular, as it relates to wildlife conservation. Now living in Vancouver, British Columbia, Cayley has previously spent time volunteering in Churchill, Manitoba. She completed her B.Sc. in Biology at Simon Fraser University and is currently an Ambassador for Ocean Bridge, creating environmental service projects from coast to coast. Cayley is a strong believer that education fosters passion, and that creating a platform to learn about an issue is the first step in creating change.

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