Being Beluga

Tundra-Trekking Cape Churchill

May 1, 2000
Outside Magazine

Ten minutes east of town, my companion and guide Paul Ratson, a tundraman from central casting, looking swarthy in a rust-colored flannel shirt, pulls his weathered van off the road and, as a matter of course, grabs his pachyderm-stopping .375 rifle.
We're here in Cape Churchill Wildlife Management Area for a morning trek from the wreck of a cargo airplane that crashed in 1979 just off the coastal road to the shore of Hudson Bay. As we head out, the flat, rocky vista looks benign, if not boring. It dawns on me that the terrain's subtleties demand an attentive eye. I squat and rest my palm beside a tiny flowering oyster plant. The tundra, which at first seemed dull, even desolate, is actually a finely woven carpet of lichen, peat moss, and plants in bloom, laid between stone and boulder. We try to walk weightlessly across the fragile, technicolor moonscape so as not to leave our Vibram-patterned footsteps for a millennium's time.

Reaching the water's edge, we give wide berth to a recently killed whale, keeping our boots clean of its dangerously bear-enticing scent. I ask Paul how he spends his holidays, expecting to hear about the usual trip to Florida.
"I go further north." A man in his element.
And why, years ago, did he come up for a visit and end up staying? "Just look around."
Out in the bay, a pod of arched white backs cuts through sunlit water. Beyond the point lies the Ithaca, a huge rusting freighter grounded in a 1961 storm, a reminder of just who has the final word up here.
It's answer enough. It really is.

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