For this Wildlife Canada post, we’re going to see Polar Bears Churchill
Guest post by Claudia Laroye.
EVEN THOUGH I’VE LIVED in Canada for most of my life, the size and scale of the second-largest country in the world continues to amaze me. That feeling of awe was never more apparent than during a recent trip to see polar bears in Churchill. Churchill is a place that elicits feelings of excitement from anyone who’s heard of this remote place in Manitoba, Canada, on the western shore of Hudson Bay.
I was practically giddy with anticipation as we descended into Churchill on a bright, clear day in mid-August, with summer temperatures still in the air. The flat, boreal forest of scrubby pine trees was dotted with glistening ponds of water, too many to count. The expanse of legendary Hudson Bay lay just to the east, its shoreline a few kilometers from our home for the next five days, the Churchill Northern Studies Centre (CNSC). An amazing place for wildlife Canada enthusiasts.
We were embarking upon a learning holiday that fit perfectly within one of my travel mantras, to be ever curious (the other mantra involves the restorative power of daily gelato). Through most of my adventures, I try to understand a place or culture on a deeper level: to be curious and learn about the world, in order to broaden my perspective and become a better traveller.
The polar bears Churchill experience
The citizen scientist experience at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre is perfectly suited to the curious-minded traveller, those seeking a transformative travel experience who want to know the how and the why. There is nothing like seeing magnificent creatures in the wild in Churchill, roaming the muskeg and playing in their natural habitat. Enjoying this opportunity while learning from scientists and knowledgeable guides in this subarctic home of polar bears and breeding beluga whales is certainly bucket list worthy, and it’s in reach of anyone with the resources and interest to do so.
Wildlife Canada: At the Churchill Northern Studies Centre
The Churchill Northern Studies Centre (CNSC) is an independent, non-profit research and education facility located 23 kilometres (14 miles) east of Churchill, Manitoba, where the northern reach of the boreal forest meets the southern extent of arctic tundra. Founded in 1976, the mission of the CNSC is to understand and sustain the north. Scientists from all over Canada travel here to study arctic animals and wildlife like belugas, polar bears and foxes, plants like crocus, reindeer lichen, the variety of berries, and the Aurora Borealis, the northern lights.
CNSC offers five to seven day Learning Vacations to intrepid travellers on a year-round basis. The busiest season is Polar Bear Season, from October to November. The Lords of the Arctic camp showcases the polar bears as they congregate in the Churchill area to await the return of the sea ice and access to their chief food source, the ringed seal. The darkness of February is the best time of year for those seeking the magic of the Northern Lights, though you can see them year-round if conditions are right. In summer, the Wild Planet course showcases the sub-arctic tundra and boreal forest through daily hikes, as well as the region’s stunning animal life, including kayaking alongside breeding beluga whales.
The Centre can accommodate 84 guests in comfortable, dormitory-style shared accommodation. Meals are included in the stay, and the quality of the food is the surprising secret bonus of the Centre. I shared my room with a naturalist from Washington State. Many of our fellow travellers were keen to embrace a learning holiday as part of their individual desire to learn more about Canada, particularly in its 150th year, and discover the natural world in the north.
As part of our Wild Planet course orientation, it was necessary to attend a briefing that included tips on how to stay safe in polar bear country. This included not venturing out on one’s own without an armed bear monitor. Post-dinner walks were definitely out. While our lead guide James had never had to fire his powerful 22-gauge shotgun, we did hear cracker shells (fired to frighten a roaming bear) on one memorable occasion. It resulted in a 29-year old female bear being pursued through downtown Churchill, darted, and transported to spend 30 days in the Polar Bear Holding Facility. Whenever we went out on our daily hikes, even near the CNSC buildings, our two guides were armed. Car doors and homes are always left unlocked so that in cases of polar bear alert, people can duck into the nearest shelter or home.
Wild Planet Learning Vacation
The mid-summer Wild Planet course showcases the sub-arctic tundra and boreal forest, as well as the region’s stunning animal life. Each day is filled with hikes and excursions that get participants up close and personal with Churchill’s wilderness and its human history.
The CNSC is on the former site of a rocket range property and launch pad facility that was run by NASA the Canadian National Research Council. For over twenty years, staff launched rockets for atmospheric tests in study of the aurora borealis.
A hike from the main CNSC facility to nearby Ramsey Lake took us past the launch buildings, which remain as ghostly relics, the tallest items in the landscape. The lake was busy with birds of prey such as bald eagles, as well as parasitic jaegers, Pacific Loons and a flock of white tundra swans. The soft muskeg along the trail made for an easy hike on the legs. The springy surface sits upon permafrost in this sub-arctic zone. However, as with so many climate changes, the nature of permafrost is changing as well.
On our Twin Lakes hike, we stopped to pick small, tasty wild blueberries that grew everywhere along the trail. They were a better find than the more bitter-tasting black crowberries. The variety of lichen in the boreal forest was incredible, from light-coloured reindeer lichen to bight orange elegant starburst variety, and the edible but not-so-appetizing rock tripe lichen.
Sloop Cove and Prince of Wales Fort
The European history of Churchill is tied to the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), and its exploration of the area on behalf of England in the 17th century. Though it didn’t own the land, the Company began establishing forts for the purposes of trading furs, specifically beaver pelts that were made into fashionable top hats. Sloop Cove was the small port on the Churchill River where HBC men would tie their ships. Many left graffiti markings in the soft granite stone from that time period as well. We traced the Company’s footsteps from the Cove to Prince of Wales Fort, now a Parks Canada site, which sits at the mouth of the Churchill River. The Fort took 40 years to build, and was never quite finished before the French partially destroyed it in 1782.
Spotting the Northern Lights
If conditions permit, you can see the Aurora in the summertime, though you’ll have to set your alarm clock. It’s worth getting up at 12:30 AM to walk up the spiral staircase of the Centre’s Aurora Dome for a 360 degree view of the night sky. I spotted some strange cloud formations at that early hour, and headed outside on the upper viewing deck in time to view the green light begin to shimmer and change shape above my head. It wasn’t the full-on light show that might appear on a cold winter night in February, but still, the Aurora! This was an incredible natural display that was well worth getting up for.
Kayaking with Beluga Whales
The subarctic in summer is the playground of the breeding beluga whale. Thousands of belugas and their calves congregate at the mouth of the Churchill River, growing big on kapelin before heading north to the Arctic and Lancaster Sound for winter. Their white backs are easy to spot from shore, accompanied by the grey forms of younger whales. On a cool grey morning, we paddled out past the abandoned Churchill Port in our Sea North kayaks to enjoy a truly playful encounter with these gentle sea creatures.
Belugas were very active in the surprisingly warm river, and loved the bubbles created by my kayak paddles. Absolutely no touching is allowed, of course. The feeling that comes when a beluga swims within one foot of you, or bumps your kayak from underneath is incredible. It leaves you simply awestruck and even a bit paralyzed. The opportunity to sit and contemplate such wild beauty in its own natural habitat is rare, and humbling. It reinforces the important message that humans are connected to the natural world, something we tend to forget at times.
Sea Walls: Artists for Oceans
Wild Planet includes human activities in its course curriculum too. In June 2017, the Pangeaseed Foundation’s Sea Walls project brought public artists from around the world to paint more than 16 colourful, large-scale murals in and around Churchill. The Foundation’s mission is to raise awareness through ARTivism about the world’s oceans and its animals, including polar bears which are considered marine mammals. One of the most unique murals is on “Miss Piggy,” a well intact plane that crashed near the town’s airport. The plane gets her name from her rumored cargo of snacks and junk food.
The murals bring fresh life to many buildings in Churchill, which is currently struggling with the loss of weekly rail service due to spring flood damage to the rail line, the town’s only ground link to the south. Churchill has essentially become a fly-in community for most of the year, and that has impacted affordable access and tourism to the region.
The remoteness of this place gives it an end-of-the-earth feeling. Though you’re not even above the Arctic Circle, you are most certainly in the North. And the North is an incredibly special place. It took me 40+ years to get here and realize that, but now like so many explorers and visitors before me, I’m gripped by its landscape, history, and the delicate balance of nature that exists in a difficult environment. And there’s no better way to dive deep into understanding this place then by channeling the inner scientist at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre.
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