It was 7 a.m. as three men and I tugged on wetsuits and carefully scooted kayaks across rocky shallows of Manitoba's Churchill River. After four days in the rugged Hudson Bay town of Churchill, the wind, weather and tides finally cooperated.
We quietly paddled into the river's 40-foot-deep channel, where a red ship loomed in the distance. Then we sat. Waited. Watched.
Within minutes, a circle of bubbles boiled up and burst the surface so loudly I startled and yelped in surprise. I knew the beautifully white beluga whales would join us. It was just hard to spot them that August morning, with its muted sky and moody water.
The day before, a larger group of us had boated on the river in afternoon sunshine, losing track of how many whales we spotted. They kept coming in pods of three to 10, leaving us astonished at how close, how sleek, how absolutely undaunted they were with us among them.
They glided by like alabaster ghosts in blue-green water.
"Beluga" translates to "white one" in Russian. Friendly and curious, with mouths that curve like smiles, they are a key July and August attraction for this town of about 900 people. Churchill, in fact, is better known for its winter polar bear safaris than its summer spectacle of whales. But that could change.
No longer hunted for oil that once lit the streets of London, belugas are thriving. More than 3,000 of them seek warmer river water to give birth and feast on fish, says Wally Daudrich, who leads many adventure tours and owns Lazy Bear Lodge with his wife, Dawn.
Whales do occasionally get too close and tip kayakers or head-butt a paddle. Curious ones may nibble on hydrophones that boat guides drop overboard to capture the chirps and chatter of these so-called sea canaries.
"I've had them sucking on my toes," Daudrich said, adding that a 30- to 40-pound baby beluga once lunged across a woman's lap before sliding back out of her kayak.
The whales, which can be up to 15 feet long, surfaced around my kayak, huffing air from blowholes, then arcing gracefully back down into the water.
I eyed a gray-colored baby a few feet away and called out a greeting as it clung to its mother. I hummed and sang softly, which felt instinctual as waves gently rocked me side-to-side, the way a mother sways a child in her arms.
Suddenly, five whales crisscrossed beneath my kayak. The last one glided along my right side, tilting its melon-shaped head, seeming to smile right at me.
I wanted to whoop and yell to the others, "Did you see that?" but we were spread out, intently focused on the water below. So I sat quietly among the whales, feeling otherworldly and wonderful.
Beware the bears
The charm of belugas pulls visitors on a long journey north to this isolated gravel-road town. It's two days by train twice a week or two hours by plane from Winnipeg.
Fellow travelers converse in lilts from western Canada, Quebec, Australia, the Midwest and the East Coast. Two grandparents and their grandsons from the Twin Cities caught the Hudson Bay train at Thompson, the farthest north they could drive.
Churchill is most famous for close to 1,200 polar bears that congregate on the coast in October and November, eager for ice and winter's banquet of seals.
Summer is technically off-season for bears, but you can't shake the gnawing sense of danger. It requires a 24-hour bear patrol and guards at national historic sites armed with "bear bangers," which shoot firecrackers to scare them off. During check-in at Lazy Bear Lodge, I was told, "Don't go out after dark. Don't go behind the lodge."
It was an easy stroll through town to the Eskimo Museum, shops and the sprawling community center that houses a clinic, theater, gathering places and indoor play areas safe from bears and brutal weather. Out front an inukshuk, or large stone marker, stands like a guard at the beach, which is bordered by bright green signs that shout: "Stop! Alert! Polar bear area."
"They've had 21 bears in town in just the last week," said Brian Bruce, who had been our driver, guide and armed protector during a history and culture tour of Churchill. On our third day, he piled us back into a converted school bus for a spontaneous trek to the junkyard where a bear had been spotted.
We watched, enthralled by its immense size (up to 1,300 pounds) and thick white fur as it rooted through debris between clumps of purple fireweed before disappearing into the fir trees.
The bears can stand up to 10 feet tall, which explains the elevated fleet of winter tundra vehicles parked throughout town like albino monster trucks on furlough.
We heard scattered tales of wayward bears throughout our stay. One assaulted the kitchen door of Lazy Bear Lodge. Another knocked down Churchill's emergency room garage door the previous year.
"He's back now. We're keeping an eye on him," said Bruce during our junkyard tour. He added that it's usually teen bears causing all the trouble. "Remember junior high?" he asked with a knowing grin.
Boating with bears
Sub-Arctic weather can be infamously fickle. Whipping winds and pelting rain put tours on hold the second day of my stay. The third day, I stayed busy with a beluga boat tour and a trip across the river to the historic Prince of Wales Fort.
On the fourth and final day, kayaking kicked off what became an ultimate adventure. Barely an hour after hopping out of the kayak and peeling out of the wetsuit, I was back on the river dock with a larger group of travelers, each clumsily climbing into hunter-orange survival suits.
The suits are big, bulky -- and necessary. We were in a small boat on a large, icy sea. Fall overboard without one, and we'd last about 15 minutes, Daudrich told us. With the suit? Six hours.
The bulkiness offered warmth, too, which was welcome as Daudrich sped up to about 25 miles per hour. I hunkered down into the boat and closed my eyes until we reached the Seal River, about two hours later. We motored carefully through shallow water until someone spotted white. Sure enough, a polar bear was wandering across a rocky, shrubby strip of land.
We later saw another one paddling through the water. It hauled itself onto rocks, raising its nose toward the sky, posing like a calendar bear. Cameras clicked away. Arctic gulls circled above.
We idled and ate box lunches, marveling at whales that arrive like scheduled entertainment with synchronized swimming and the "phuff, phuff" chorus of blowholes.
On our trip back, Churchill's harbor had barely shown up as a smudge on the horizon when our guide spotted another white speck. We carefully drew close, getting within 10 feet of a polar bear as it churned through the water.
Daudrich assured us that the bears can swim for a hundred miles when ice melts in the spring, but it still seemed miraculous to see a creature weighing at least 800 pounds paddling steadily through an icy sea.
The bear huffed and chuffed, snorted and grumbled, twisting its head and keeping an eye on us. After a few minutes and hundreds of photos, we prepared to leave it in peace. As our boat slowly pulled away, the polar bear paused and bobbed up as if surprised. Then it shook its head and kept swimming.
As the town's 10 p.m. whistle blew on that final night, I wondered where the bear landed. The rocking of waves from six hours on the water still echoed in my body as I closed my eyes for the night. I relived visions of the swimming bear, took comfort in sturdy lodge walls, and felt a rush of gratitude for beautiful places where man has but a toehold in a sweeping wilderness.
Lisa Meyers McClintick wrote the iPhone travel app, Minnesota Lake Vacations. Her book, "Day Trips From the Twin Cities," will be available in July.