CHURCHILL: Polar Bears
October 25, 2014 Winnipeg, Manitoba
My first trip to Churchill and the mind is racing with possibilities. Having done little research on the area I am expectant and open for a great adventure. Winnipeg, located at the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers, is the portal for Churchill and the bears. Our hotel, Inn at the Forks, is riverfront to cafes and shops, including the newly opened Museum of Human Rights. A few guests gathered for a walk to find a spot for an early dinner before the tour orientation.
9:00pm First gathering of like-minded travelers braced to meet the naturalist guide and learn the ends and outs of polar bear spotting. When guide, Hayley Shephard, arrived all smiles and announcements, she easily held a captive audience. From New Zealand with energy to spare, she promised what we wanted to hear and sent us off to bed with great anticipation.
Sunday, October 26, 2014 Boarding the Hudson Bay Rail
It was a clear and brisk morning as we pulled our bags a block to the Winnipeg Union Station and boarded the Hudson Bay Rail. We were assigned our roomettes and waited for the call to the dining car. Seven of us in the singles with the rest in double compartments. Stunned at the tiny space but as we unpacked we discovered shelves, hangers for jackets and small cubbies for books. Much laughter as we practiced using the en suite sink and toilet and trying to get the bed arranged without falling out into the aisle.
With a jerk, a sputter and clackettey clatter, we are off.
Lunch was taken in two shifts with the dining car serving as the lounge car. Disappointed to learn that the latter had been removed. We visited with each other in passing and nearby roomettes. The landscape was dotted with wheat fields, rolled hay for winter, and grain elevators
Dinner and then off to bed. Clickety clack. With my window shade up for the night, the dark, boreal forest shapes came into view. During the night the Hudson Bay train curled around Manitoba’s many lakes and headed west from Winnipeg for a brief spite into Saskatchewan before heading north into Manitoba and the Hudson Bay.
Monday, October 27, 2014 Manitoba on the Train
Breakfast time and we are in the boreal forests: birches, aspens, spruce and pine. Open to any possibility such a journey can offer, mealtime brought surprises meeting other guests. There was a Korean family along with a Japanese student studying English. He was on his own and after each meal he left the attendant an origami bird formed from his napkin.
On an afternoon stop in Thompson, tapped as Canada’s most violent city, we walked to the Heritage North Museum. The museum housed two giant stuffed bears, Arctic foxes, along with clothing and artifacts of the area that had been occupied as early as 6000 B.C.
As the train rolled along I kept my eyes peeled out the window, searching. Not for anything particular, but just the search of what was there in the forest or ahead….. A train trip gives one moments to ponder. Our time together was going to be filled with discoveries of nature as well as ourselves. Nearing Churchill the train took a slower pace with stops and starts due to the tracks now on permafrost.
After dinner, Conductor Dave, let us have a private car for Dr. Shostak’s talk on the history of this wide land we were crossing. Fascinated to learn that in earlier times, the area was a huge lake. Now scattered water routes leave remnants of Arctic ‘s ancient past.
Tuesday, October 28, 2014 Arrival Churchill
Expectation doesn’t get any higher. 9:00am arrival Churchill, the portal for the polar bears. Picking up the monthly HUDSON BAY POST with a by-line ‘published occasionally’, gave a few insights of what to expect. You got to love a town that doesn’t take itself seriously.
Our group arrived after two nights on the rails ready for the ‘big boys’. Driver, Paul, proudly shared his living on the edge as he gave us our first tour of Churchill. His house is out in the countryside and often visited by the bears. As we were driving along he spotted a helicopter and knew from the location it was picking up a mischievous polar bear to be brought to the Polar Bear Rehabilitation Center or as the locals call it, the Polar Bear Jail. Paul said that we would be at the jail about the same time as the rescuers.
Indeed we were but they brought the bear in on the opposite side. Here the bears are kept for thirty days then transported out to the north. The bears are painted with different colors each time they are picked up for mischief or venturing too close to town. The bears do outnumber the locals.
We climbed to an outcrop overlooking Prince of Wales Fort and passed St. Paul’s Anglican Church, the first pre-fab building in Canada and where the memorial Franklin window is located. The Franklin window is in memory of Sir John Franklin and the forty men who lost their lives in 1847 in the Arctic Expedition for the Northwest Passage. Lady Franklin gave the window to St. John’s York Factory but in 1967 the window was air lifted by Pan Am Airways to St. Paul’s in Churchill.
After checking-in at the Tundra Inn, our home for the next three nights, we crossed the street for lunch at the Tundra Café.
This afternoon was exhilarating with dog sledding. We first met Big Dog Dave Daley, heard his personal stories of dog sledding and learned about the special breed of dogs, Dave’s breed, and how the dogs were treated and trained. Then outside to the anxious barking ready to run. Due to lack of snow, two at a time, we rode on a wheeled-cart for our Ididamile. Great, great fun as our musher raced through the boreal. Hot chocolate after to warm up.
Following dinner we returned to the Tundra Inn where Dr. Seth Shostak entertained with science.
It was Tuesday Night Plaid and Country at the Tundra watering hole. All the locals gathered for social and song. Our two twenty-somethings represented the USA group in favorable style.
Wednesday, October 29, 2014 Tundra Buggy
Early up and out. This was the day! Like astronauts readying a launch we rode out to the tundra buggies in silence. These white buggies with four giant wheels lifted us above the bears and facilitated easy access to good viewing across the tundra. Driver, Eric, proudly announced that his buggy now offered flush facilities along with a heater. Hayley gave instructions about riding and viewing on the tundra. She’s a brillant spotter and had us early camera ready with bears. We watched as the bears slept, rolled over, did their morning yoga and cuddled their little ones. Not bothered by human intrusion they walked right up to the buggy and stood a full ten feet tall.
And, there was the Snowy Owl and Ptarmigan, with a silent P., a beautiful sight and easy to find as there was little snow. We tried to behave calmly but the experience was more than just a check off your list.
A slide show after dinner by noted Arctic north photographer, Mike Macri, raised the envy level.
Thursday, October 30, 2014 A Day in Churchill
Breakfast today was at the Gypsy Café. Delicious and hearty with real oatmeal. Afterwards we visited the Eskimo Museum, which housed an excellent collection of artifacts including arrowheads, implements and beautiful Inuit art of bone, ivory and stone to present day serpentine sculptures. The family images, much like sub-Sahara African sculptures, are predominant in both old and new pieces.
Walked around the town and visited the Town Center which encompassed the school, hospital and library. We stopped at the Anglican Church to get a close up of the Franklin window. The doors were locked but immediately the husband of the priest came out and invited us inside. He regaled with stories of how the church had been moved three times across town as the town morphed from one side to the other. Shared with us the story of the Reverend Joseph Lofthouse, the first priest who arrived in 1882. Lofthouse wrote back to England that he would stay and set up a church community if they sent him a wife. All was arranged and he walked for eight days through swamp and insects to meet the ship. On arrival, the captain informed him that there were no accommodations for a female and she was not on board. On the second attempt, bride-to-be arrived but announced that unless they were legally married (oh those Victorians) she would return to England. As he was the only priest, a new dilemma arose; however, the captain came to the rescue. They returned to Churchill the Reverend and Mrs. Lofthouse. In 1902 Lofthouse was appointed bishop of Canada.
Back at the Tundra Inn after dinner, Dr. Shostak expanded our science with the expansion of the universe.
One more day on the tundra tomorrow and then homeward.
Friday, October 31, 2014 Churchill – Halloween
A good snowfall last night. The spruces are Christmas snow laden; the town is alight with Halloween. Our day on the tundra buggy and what a day! Bears, bears, and bears, a gyrfalcon, five Ptarmigan but now white-on-white. At 3:00pm the sun came out and those on the helicopter had a great ride. A pink and orange sunset brought our trip in the subarctic into perspective. It is true. Don’t search for one thing particular; just search and the extraordinary will be found.
The group’s camaraderie and intense single mindedness with the polar bears and birds elevated each of our special moments.
Dizzy with the joy of all! Till next time,
**Photos provided courtesy of Seth Shostak & Melita Thorpe