Charlie and Sandy Campbell headed north to see the polar bears, and despite some traveling nightmares that might make other tourists growl, it was well worth it, they say.
The Campbells, of Medford, planned the trip, in part, as way to temporarily distance themselves from Sandy's battle with breast cancer. It was a chance to get away from the doctor visits and uncertainty and focus on something fun.
Departing from the Medford airport in late October en route to Vancouver, B.C., they ran into obstacle after obstacle in their quest to catch a train to Winnepeg, Manitoba, where they would take the rail spur up to Churchill to see gathering polar bears on the shores of Hudson Bay.
Once they overcame delayed flights, a skeptical border guard ("We're going to Winnipeg because it's there," Sandy told him) and just barely making their train leaving from Vancouver, they settled in for what would be an unforgettable trip to Churchill.
"She's always liked polar bears," says Charlie, 60, the building maintenance manager at the Mail Tribune.
"Who doesn't like polar bears," Sandy, 62, quickly chimes in with an easy laugh. "I don't like to get close to them because they can rip your arm off, but I like them."
Many tourists arrive in Churchill, population 923, during a window from late October to mid-November, when the giant white beasts are in "walking hibernation" while waiting for ice to form on Hudson Bay, Charlie says.
Huge transport vehicles known as tundra buggies scatter across the landscape, following pothole-filled military roads to locations about 20 miles outside Churchill where the polar bears keep an eye on the ice. Once the ice forms, the bears are gone, out hunting for seals and other food sources. Until then, they are like inhabitants of a wildlife park, strolling, playing and occasionally fighting amid groups of tundra buggies that park in semi-circles to provide up-close views for visitors from all over the world.
"They have huge heaters inside the buggies because they let people open the windows to get a better look and take pictures," says Charlie, who himself took dozens of shots of the playful bears. Not to fear, the cabins of the buggies sit high enough off the ground to offer safe — if not cold — viewing. The temperature outside ranged from 5 to 20 degrees F during the Campbells' trip.
Their first sighting was a lone bear about an eighth of a mile away, but soon they had run-ins with bears that were literally right outside their window.
"Two bears were sparring," says Charlie, noting that no blood was ever drawn. "You can watch this over and over again and you never get bored. These are polar bears! It excites you."
Sandy says one of her favorite moments was watching a mother and her two cubs playing. The mother was constantly wary of males strolling nearby, even chasing away a couple of them.
Sandy's cancer is in remission, but that hasn't stopped her from planning another exotic trip this spring. She's going to Botswana with a couple of girlfriends, where they'll be on the lookout for elephants, lions, leopards and rhinos.
"I've checked polar bears off my life list," she says.