Hey everybody, today I'm excited to share a post with you coming from Claudia (claudia.borealis on Instagram). I have thoroughly enjoyed seeing the photos and stories she's shared from Churchill in Northern Manitoba on her account, and was thrilled to hear she was interested in writing a post to share with Backcountry Women. So, without further ado, here's Claudia!
Thanks, Ashley, for giving me the opportunity to share my story here and with other “Backcountry Women”! Reading the stories on the blog so far and being part of the Instagram BCW community has been very inspiring and empowering, and I'm hoping to give something back.
My approach to being a Backcountry Woman is perhaps a little different. I am an immigrant to Canada, and while I come from a rural, mountainous (and gorgeous place), the outdoors has gained a completely new meaning for me ever since I arrived here. I came to Manitoba for the first time in 2010 and the original plan was to stay for a year and a half – doing research – and then leave. However, I quickly realized that this place would be more than a temporary home for me; I fell in love with the landscape, the community – and finally a man – and got the “Churchill fever”. It hasn't gone away since! I knew that relocating here would mean things would be very different from what I was used to, but looking back I can say that I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I became an adventurer and Backcountry Woman by 'accident' and I am so happy my life has taken this unexpected turn! I now live in Churchill permanently and I am lucky to have people around me that have introduced me to being 'on the land' and 'out in the bush' from whom I have learned a lot (and continue to do so). Moving from one country to another, one climate zone to another has required me to relearn some of the ways I move around in nature.
The north of Manitoba is a vast open and flat space with a fascinating diversity of landscape features, fauna, and flora. I always emphasize how flat it is, because it is such a big difference to the land of thousands of rolling hills that I come from. Some people feel restricted inbetween mountains, so I always assumed that this flatness had a liberating effect. Well, with the local fauna – more polar bears than humans inhabit the area – this notion of freedom was very restricted at first. My 'natural' reaction to arriving in a new place is to take a walk and slowly encounter the new world by foot. This approach may work in many places on this planet, but not in Churchill. I arrived here just before so-called bear season – the season when the polar bears start migrating from their summer/fall inland habitat to their winter hunting grounds, and thousands of tourists come to see them. Bear season and the weeks before that mean that leaving the town boundaries without proper protection – noise makers, maybe dogs or even firearms – is impossible for newcomers who “have no idea what it's like here”. Still to this day, I prefer the company of someone environmentally knowledgeable who has been in Churchill longer to venturing out alone. This is annoying and fascinating at the same time. In my original home, Austria, the most 'frightening' creatures one might encounter in the woods are other humans, but here in Churchill, chances of running into one of the largest carnivores on earth are real.
During my last visit in Austria, I realized how much I have embodied the polar bear alertness I was taught in Churchill. Leaving my parents' house after dark, I always screened the surroundings and was always ready to detect big, furry creatures. When I tell Europeans about the safety protocol in Churchill during bear season they are always mesmerized or can't quite believe me. That's the fascinating part. The annoying part is that one might feel a little cooped up during late summer and fall. Luckily, I have friends who are comfortable in "bear-y" surroundings that I can learn from, but at the same time, the closer we get to bear season, the more restricted my movements become. Going into the forest and picking berries all by myself, without bear protection – not a good idea. Going jogging off the main highway – maybe not. Thankfully, the weeks when the backcountry is a no-go zone are limited and the fact that polar bears roam it and seeing these magnificent creatures (sometimes) close compensates for everything. I should also add here, that not everyone feels restricted during bear season and some locals might strongly disagree with my opinion. I am still in the process of finding my own way and an approach between not leaving the house in fear of bears, and completely ignoring there is a potential threat out there. Making oneself at home is a constant process of making connections and engaging with one's surroundings – perhaps Ursus maritimus and I are not quite there yet, but I'm sure we'll get there at some time.
Another aspect of my new home that I had to adjust to was the climate. Even if you don't know where northern Manitoba is, I guess the last paragraphs have probably made you guessed that it's not exactly a place with mild temperatures. At last, polar bears rule here and they like it cold, very cold.
I am used to snow and temperatures below zero, but dealing with months of minus thirty and below was new to me. As I'm writing this, timelines and stories of friends and family are full of spring flowers, lush greenness and spending time in the warmth. Meanwhile, I am excited that today we had one digit temperatures – degrees Celsius and below zero. But, hey, I'll take it; at least we're over the minus 55 we had in January. Although I love the cold, the snow, and the ice, seven months of winter are enough for me. It's not only the length of the winter that I had to get used to, but the extreme temperatures, wind chill, and how to adapt every day life to it. Before I came to Canada I had never heard of block heaters or thought of frozen water or sewer pipes. I got to know better what this Arctic climate can mean and how unforgiving it is first-hand through (almost) hypothermia during a long, cold skidoo ride. Through that I have made a different kind of connection to this place, to the environment - one that was mediated through my body. Although this experience was certainly not a pleasant one, I think it has provided me with a deeper understanding of (sub)arctic conditions (and prepared me for future trips). Dressing properly for extreme temperatures is something that has to be learned: staying warm enough on a long snowmobile trip and being able to take off layers while moving around are essential.
Feeling at home in a certain place or a particular kind of environment means to engage with it and to continuously create connections. I consider myself very lucky having been able to do so in a fascinating place that not many get the chance to visit (if you do, however, let me know!). Some things I have figured out myself and learned the hard way; but most of what I have learned and embodied at my new home so far, has been due to another kind of connections: engaging with and listening to other backcountry people that let me be part of their worlds. For that I will be forever grateful and hope to be able to pass on some of my knowledge to other newcomers!
One of the most important things I have learned during the process of transplanting myself is to always follow your heart: be realistic about it and weigh your options, but listen to that feeling deep down inside of you. Where and how are you most happy, what are you striving for? The answers to those questions will be a great guideline to follow in achieving whichever big or smaller change you want to make. Ten years ago I – and probably most people who know me - would never have thought that one day I'd be living in a small town at the edge of the Canadian Arctic, but I made a bold decision and a plan and...here I am, happy and content!
If you want to learn more about my new life in northern Canada and how I perceive the world, follow me on Instagram: claudia.borealis