CHILLY IN CHURCHILL
The wind whips around the side of the gigantic inukshuk and broadsides my face with a stinging cold. Despite the sunshine and blue sky, I shiver as blue waves and chunks of ice jostle in Hudson’s Bay.
I am on the shore of the Bay in Churchill, Manitoba. It is a town almost at the Arctic Circle, almost above the tree line, only reachable by air in the winter, the very definition of remote. Yet at the beginning of November, the population of this tiny outpost swells with visitors like me, hoping to see that iconic king of the north, a polar bear in the wild. My fellow polar adventurer Melanie and I have joined a tour group of like minded photographers to learn about Churchill and rumble about on the tundra in search of bears. As the snow and cold envelop the town, bears congregate at the edge of the Bay and wait for the ice to form. They are hungry, not having eaten much since the ice melted in early summer. Polar bears can only hunt for ringed seals, their main food, out on the ice floes. So the bears wait and conserve as much energy as possible until the ice is thick enough to support them. Then they can hunt.
We are told to stick to the town centre when out walking. Bears will venture into town and caution is a necessity. Humans are not ahead of these formidable predators in the food chain! When a bear wanders where it should not, it is captured and held in the polar bear jail for a month before being helicoptered far from town and released.
Keeping alert, we wander along the main street with the snow squeaking under our boots. When a blizzard reduces the visibility to nil, we rapidly change our minds about being out and head for warm safety.
For our bear watching out on the tundra, we have three trips in a tundra buggy. It is a huge bus on steroids with one and half meter tall wheels, lots of windows, a back deck open to the elements, and a driver with a ready smile and a wicked sense of humour.
He motors us slowly on the bumpy, meandering tracks as we scan the tundra for animals. The pale, wintry light of daybreak brightens and seeing a red fox streaking across the snow wakes us out of our morning stupor. Not long after that we see a black fox, sniffing along with lowered snout and pouncing on something in the snow.
A ptarmigan in its winter white feathers is almost totally camouflaged among the willow branches. Our naturalist guide tells us the bears are not pure white and to watch for “something moving the colour of a potato chip.”
Our first sighting of a bear brings a hush over the bus. The bear shakes off some snow, stretches, and then does a roly-poly yoga routine that has us all laughing. Farther along, a female and her cub paw into the frozen ground and eat some kelp.
It is a source of iodine for them and they both have dirty brown faces from the mushy food. Fortunately, we do not see any starving bears but the ever decreasing sea ice seasons threaten their very survival.
After wending our way through yet another blizzard back to Churchill, we toast to having seen nine bears on our first day. The cultural experiences on our tour are as edifying as seeing bears. The murals around town are most often of bears but are done in a wide range of colours and styles. Caroline, a residential school survivor, speaks openly of her painful experiences and how learning Dene traditions and crafts such as beading helped her recovery.
A Wapusk National Park ranger gives an overview of European explorers beginning with Henry Hudson and the establishment of the fur trade in the 1700s. The Itsanitaq Museum contains a head spinning array of artifacts and carvings by Pre-Dorset, Dorset and modern Inuit peoples. Jennifer, a jovial transplant from Newfoundland, patiently introduces us to the very Canadian sport of curling. When asked what is best about living in Churchill, she replies without missing a beat “the people!” Before a dog sled ride, the excited dogs yowl and bark in an incredibly loud cacophony as the harnesses are readied. But once the musher gets them running, they fall silent and I only hear the swishing sled runners on the snow.
The door sign in our hotel room reads “Please Disturb” over a picture of the northern lights. Our evening seminar covers photographing the aurora as there is a good possibility of seeing some tonight. Three things have to converge in order to see aurora: a solar storm two days prior, no clouds, and dark skies. Luck is with us and a small show of green shimmers over the inukshuk.
In the best Churchill tradition, our bus driver greets us with a smile each morning for our ride to the tundra buggy. Day two gives us fourteen bear sightings, some close up, some very distant.
Sometimes the light is eerily grey-green and other tundra buggies emerge out of the haze like a scene from a science fiction movie.
Day three is spent observing a magnificent male with the cutest face and enormous paws.
He hunkers down in a snow bank, snoozes for about forty-five minutes, then stands, stretches, shifts, scratches, sniffs or yawns for about five minutes then curls up and sleeps again. While he rests, we visit with our fellow travellers. Melanie and I are the only Canadians and with the exception of one Swiss, the rest are American. Six are from Texas and they are certainly feeling the temperature difference from their home, as it is about -35 degrees C with the windchill out on the back deck.
A huge sundog or rainbow halo rings the setting sun as we head back to town. A golden glow reflects off the snowwhich lays in sculpted ridges along the tundra track. The landscape has an empty, harsh, stark beauty. In just the five days since we arrived, the open water in the Bay has frozen over. The ice stretches as far as I can see and the bears can go hunting.
IF YOU GO:
• The western Hudson Bay bears are the southernmost of the world's nineteen populations of polar bears.
PHOTOS by Karoline Cullen:
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