Belugas, Bears and Blooms: Summer in Churchill

Hey friends! I’m jumping out of my typical chronologically-based coverage to skip ahead and share my recent trip to Canada. We’ll be back to Thailand soon!

“How do human survive here?”

We’d taken off before the sunrise and watched as the view out the window turned more and more harsh and inhospitable. There were no roads snaking below, only lakes and rivers. Our destination, Churchill, could be reached only by plane or by a forty-eight hour train journey from Winnipeg.

Sunset at Winnipeg Airport

Flying into Churchill Manitoba

I’d first heard of Churchill years before, at a travel-themed reading series in New York called Restless Legs. In a dark bar basement in the East Village, I heard a woman describe a Canadian frontier town in which, at certain times of year, bears outnumber people. I knew that someday, I had to go.

Later, when I began planning a journey of my own, I learned that the Arctic community of Churchill sits smack in the migratory path of polar bears, who flock here in the fall when the first of the Hudson Bay sea ice forms off its shores. The sea ice of the Hudson Bay is diluted by the fresh water of the Churchill River, meaning the water there to be the first to freeze and bears can get out on their icy winter hunting ground sooner than anywhere else. Long ago, an entrepreneurial sole in tourism industry dreamed up a nickname for Churchill: the polar bear capital of the world.

According to the tally of the 2011 census, Churchill has 813 residents — of the human variety, anyway. First passed through thousands of years ago by migratory Dorset and Inuit peoples, the area went on to host an important fort in the fur trade, a military rocket testing zone, and a scientific research station. Today, the economy relies primarily on the boutique tourism industry as well as the Port of Churchill, Canada’s only Arctic seaport and one which provides access to the prairies for shipping grain.

Churchill Manitoba Iceberg Inn

Polar Bear Crossing Churchill Manitoba

Long before we landed at Churchill’s hangar-like airport, the onslaught of safety information had already begun. Like many visitors to Churchill, I was traveling on a guided expedition. Frontiers North had been my perfect fit; a socially and environmentally responsible operator that aims to inspire its guests to go home and work towards a more sustainable world. I knew I’d be happy when we were warned in pre-trip correspondence to bring our own reusable water bottles — the company had done away with dispensing single-use plastics.

Our guide, Doug, was the Canadian uncle I’d never had. Affable and warm, he at first came off as overly cautious to me about the risk of bear encounters — until I started hearing the slow trickle of stories of the rare attacks that do occur, as well as the overwhelming precautions taken by locals who leave their homes and cars unlocked should they ever need emergency shelter. A complex bear alert system is in place, and armed bear officers patrol areas where bear and humans often meet. Suddenly, Doug’s vigilant measures seemed wise to heed.

Churchill Manitoba Plane Crash

Which brought me back to my original question — why here? With such a small population of humans taking such extreme measures to avoid deadly encounters with one of nature’s apex predators, wouldn’t it make sense to, you know, get out their way? Surely the bears were not consulted when humans inadvertently set up camp in the middle of their migratory path. Now that we know better, wouldn’t it make sense to relocate? It was a question I found myself coming back to often in my four days in Churchill.

After all, polar bears are not in reality cute, cuddly dispensers of cola products. They are powerful and agile predators motivated by a primal hunger.

Churchill Manitoba Polar Bear Jail

Churchill Manitoba Polar Bear Jail

October and November are peak season for spotting bears, though as a result of climate change they now appear as early as July. Though my primary goal for a summer trip to Churchill was spotting beluga whales — and let’s face it, avoiding the winter weather in Churchill — I did quietly hope that we’d spot bears as well.

Ten minutes off the plane, as we lumbered down one of  Churchill’s few roads — none of which connect to the outside world — we did.

Summer Polar Bear Churchill Manitoba

Summer Polar Bear Churchill Manitoba

Summer Polar Bear Churchill Manitoba

Summer Polar Bear Churchill Manitoba

My group cheered at whisper volume from within our van, thrilled by having spotted a bear so early in our itinerary and determined not to scare it off. No one seemed more enthusiastic than Doug and our local driver for the day, both of whom I assume were relieved to have some of the pressure of finding the first bear eased so quickly. We were perhaps overcautious in our hushed voices; the bear looked up a few times to sniff the air, stare boredly in our direction and yawn before going back to the all important task of sleeping. We vibrated with excitement at each micro-movement.

Finally, reluctantly, we continued our journey towards town.

Churchill Manitoba Summer

Churchill Manitoba Summer

Churchill Manitoba Community Garden

Churchill Manitoba

Weather Station Churchill Manitoba

For a town that can be traversed in twenty minutes — and that’s being generous — Churchill has an impressive number of attractions to distract visitors between wildlife spotting expeditions. On almost every visitor’s itinerary will be trips to the artifact-filled Itsanitaq Museum (formerly known as the Eskimo Museum), the Parks Canada Visitor Centre (housed pragmatically in the town train station), and the wreckages of wayward ships and planes, the latter of which you enter at your own risk due to — you guessed it — the possible presence of polar bears. Doug gently encouraged us to enjoy the wreckage of the “Miss Piggy” from the outside. The plane, allegedly overloaded with snow mobiles and sodas, went down in 1979 with no fatalities, and now serves as a reminder of the town’s remoteness.

Other stops on the way into town include a gander at the local dump — seriously — and a drive by the Polar Bear Holding Facility, also known as the “Polar Bear Jail,” where bears that repeatedly wander too close to town are taken until they can be safely air-lifted onto the ice or elsewhere. The facility is open for tours just one day a year — we arrived the day after.

Later, I took my first unaccompanied walk outside to the Community Garden, jittery as I looked over my shoulder every few moments. Upon arrival, I admired the ingenuity of whomever had repurposed the wheels of a retied tundra buddy into planters.

Churchill Manitoba

Weather Station Churchill Manitoba

Polar Bear Crossing Churchill Manitoba

Winters in Churchill are predictably brutal, though summers are surprisingly lovely. A sun-loving island girl, I packed for the frozen tundra and was pleasantly surprised to find that some afternoons I didn’t need a jacket (though in certain blustery moments I was grateful for my overpacking.) Temperatures in July and August typically linger in the Fahrenheit fifties, though have been known to hit the seventies on sunny days.

One thing that stood out to me from the promotional videos I watched on loop in preparation for my departure were the endless fields of colorful flowers, vegetation being a welcome sight this far above the tree line. The reality didn’t disappoint.

Churchill Manitoba Summer

Churchill Manitoba Summer

Churchill Manitoba Summer

Churchill Manitoba Summer

Churchill Manitoba Summer

Summer Churchill Manitoba

Mealtimes were when I got to know my fellow travelers. Our group was a diverse one. Families from as far as Luxembourg and Argentina and as wide reaching as a three generation clan from Texas. Couples from the United Kingdom and from the state of Georgia. Two friends from New York. Women who’d arrived alone from Australia and Washington DC, and with whom I quickly bonded with over our shared penchant for solo travels.

Dinner at Tundra Inn Churchill

Dinner at Tundra Inn Churchill

For a tiny, remote town in the far Northern reaches of Manitoba I hardly expected gourmet meals. And so I was wowed. From the beautiful creations of the Tundra Inn to the delicious bakery goods at Gypsy’s, Churchill does a lot with a little.

One evening, during our second group meal at Gypsy’s, the owner presented Tiffany, my new friend from Washington DC, with a birthday cake — and felt that by their second meeting they were certainly close enough for a face cake-smashing. It was true. Friends are made fast in Churchill.

Gypsy's Restaurant Churchill

Gypsy's Restaurant Churchill

Posters around town advertised a walking tour with a local historian and his dog named Polar, a jam night at a local pub, rifles and shotguns for sale, and an upcoming concert called Bear Fest scheduled for our final night in Churchill. I vowed to go.

At the last minute, the event was moved indoors to the Town Complex due to the threat of rain. The Town Complex is a modern multiplex home to almost every amenity in Churchill — the local school, the public library, a health center serving the residents of Churchill as well as the the communities of the Kivalliq Region of Nunavut, a day care, a swimming pool, ice hockey and curling rinks, a gym, basketball courts, an indoor playground, a cinema, a bowling alley, and for one cloudy night, a concert hall for Bear Fest. Tiffany agreed to join me, and so off we went to Churchill’s social event of the summer.

Churchill Manitoba Sunset

Churchill Manitoba Sunset

Inside, we found almost everyone we’d met in Churchill over the previous four days. Our friendly hosts, business owners and tour guides who had made us feel like we were honored guests. Some were Churchill natives, others had chosen it as their home. Four days on, I was no longer asking why. When we walked outside to watch the sun set around 10pm, there was nowhere I would have rather been.

As much as I’d come to Churchill thrilled to see wildlife, I’d also arrived curious to experience a taste of life in a far northern town, an interest piqued by my friends Dalene and Pete’s own fascinating journey (their post is a must read, if for the description of the town’s bizarre Halloween proceedings alone.)  I arrived asking myself of the local population, why stay? I left understanding that for some, there is simply nowhere else they’d consider.

Summer Polar Bear Churchill Manitoba

On my last morning in Churchill I felt at ease enough to go for an early morning run. I ran it by the ever-cautious Doug first, and he gave a hesitant nod of approval. “Don’t forget the Churchill shuffle,” he said with a smile, mimicking running while turning in a circle every few beats. Days earlier, I’d expressed an interest in returning to Manitoba to visit Riding Mountain National Park, and that morning he pulled out a much-loved paper map of the province and showed me his recommended route.

Headphones in, I hit the cool pavement, taking in the sharp Hudson Bay air. As I jogged I dreamed of returning to Churchill, and all the different ways I could make it happen. While my mind wandered my eyes stayed focused, scanning the horizon for tufts of white fur. I thought back to the exhilaration I’d felt coming face to face with belugas in the water, the joy of watching bears on the open tundra. The friendship I’d found in such a brief few days, and the connection I’d felt to the land crunching beneath my feet.

And I found myself asking, why leave?

Stay tuned for posts on my beluga encounters, as well as more bears!

This post was written by me and brought to you by Travel Manitoba. Many thanks for Frontiers North for hosting me.

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