Our guides wear holsters to stash bear repellents. On our first tundra walk, Andy MacPherson shows off, in order of escalating threats, noisemakers called Bangers and Screamers, pepper spray and a 12-gauge shotgun ready with birdshot.
"In winter, bears really freak out when you throw a snowball at them. They can't see them coming," he says with a chuckle. "It's important to show them immediately who's the alpha beast, and then they usually back off."
After the wind dies down, a dense fog moves in, and we trade parkas and gloves for net-hooded "bug burkas" to fend off a surreal onslaught of mosquitoes. We set off across boulder-strewn, muddy tidal flats that suck at our boots and at the tires of six-wheelers that tow passenger trailers.
The flats are a crisscross maze of tracks, the fur and sharp claws of wolves and dinner plate-sized polar bear paws clearly imprinted in the mud. Caribou graze in the distance and move in close for a look when Andy instructs us to wave our arms above our heads like antlers.
Normally, for this concentration of diverse wildlife, you must travel to the high Arctic. But, in the Churchill region, where there are several flights daily to Winnipeg, there is less chance of being stranded by inclement weather. Says Reimer: "It's easy Arctic here, a forgotten part of the North that people don't think of except for polar bears in the fall."
Each day, we can smell lunch and dinner wafting across the tundra as we finish our treks. Caribou bourguignon. Piping hot fish chowder. Cranberry cake with warm butter sauce. Jeanne's mum, Helen, is in the kitchen. Cooking at the family's three northern lodges for decades, she has been asked so often for recipes that she wrote four successful cookbooks, starting with "Blueberries and Polar Bears."
I'm flipping through the dessert section when Colin, an Australian vacationing from his job in a Russian gold mine, shouts, "Bear!" Cameras sprout, and everyone empties into the compound to gawk at a big bear, black to its knees with tidal mud. It is nicknamed "Boots." As it settles into a patch of grass to munch the remains of a dead goose we, by coincidence, head back inside for a goose pie dinner.
When the weather gods finally give us a break, we charge at high tide in Zodiacs across the waves, holding on as if we are riding bucking broncos. There are belugas all around, arching white out of the water. Guide Terry Elliott stops and drops a hydrophone over the side. We can hear the chirping, whistling and clicking that belugas use to echolocate and find food as deep as 1,800 feet beneath the ice.
I'm back in the water, this time choosing the deeper-toned "House of the Rising Sun," but there's no need. Within moments a spooky white shape appears out of the gloom. I chomp down on the snorkel mouthpiece until I recognize the bulbous forehead and trademark impish grin that make belugas resemble Casper the Friendly Ghost. I smile back.
Two more whales swim into my view. At first it's unnerving. Belugas may be among the smaller cetaceans, but it still takes your breath away when 3,000 pounds of whale glides so near that you can see scars from polar bear claws on its white hide.
"Hello there," I repeat over and over, praying I don't pass out from excitement. I can hear whistling and clicking. The water is cold, but not uncomfortably so, and I begin to relax as the whales, curious about this high-pitched creature resembling a floating garbage bag, crane their heads for a closer look. Only belugas and narwhal can do this because they lack fused neck vertebrae.
One fellow slowly drifts at arm's length from my face. I see his little flipper, his long body and then his tail. A baby beluga torpedoes past, leaving a path of bubbles. "You're so cute!" I find myself telling them.
Another approaches from below, rolling over to watch me from beneath; holding the gaze of that intelligent eye is surreal and strangely calming. Slowly, I reach out. They pirouette closer, keeping just out of reach. I laugh and swallow a mouthful of Hudson Bay.
During the eight years Reimer has been running his beluga program, he has seen these toothed whales, who eat fish and bivalves, harmlessly suck on snorkelers' fingers and dry suits and even come for a friendly belly-to-belly rub.
Through trial and error he devised the offbeat but effective backward-towing method to allow anyone -- even kids and non-swimmers -- to commune with belugas.
"Splashing frightens them off," he says. Towing creates a distance from the noisy Zodiac engine and leaves hands free for holding cameras. "You can relax and enjoy a Zen moment. It's a rare opportunity to connect with creatures in a marine environment," says Reimer, who has seen people moved to tears when they emerge from the water.
After drifting through this interactive whale soup for 20 minutes I feel myself being reeled in. Back in the Zodiac I sit, dripping wet, with a smile as wide as a beluga's.
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