Churchill, Manitoba, located 970 kilometers north of Winnipeg on the sub-arctic tundra, bills itself both as “the polar bear” and “beluga whale” capital of the world.
The province’s northern region, location of its initial inhabitants, had provided land for indigenous nomadic tribes who had hunted, fished seals and whales, and tracked the caribou herd migrations for thousands of years, using the interconnected waterways as their transportation means. Although the Europeans, such as Sir Thomas Button, had sailed to the mouth of the Churchill River as early as 1613 in search of the elusive Northwest Passage to China, it had been the secondary discovery, of fur-abundant animals, which had caused them to stay to satisfy the demand created by the cold-soaked European continent. In 1670, the Company of Adventures Trading into Hudson’s Bay had therefore been formed, the first such collaborative venture with the existing Aboriginals who, intimately familiar with their territory, had provided orientation and guidance, along with labor and sustenance. Animals were trapped and hided and their furs were transported over the rivers of the north by canoes and York boats to Hudson Bay, an extension of the Arctic Ocean, for transfer to trans-Atlantic, Europe-bound ships. Supplies, conversely, had been offloaded from arriving ships and were transported inland to the Hudson’s Bay Company’s (HBC) increasing number of outposts.
In 1912, the northern region became the last edition to the province of Manitoba.
Ore deposits, located below the forests, replaced fur trading as the modern-day resource, resulting in a multitude of mining camps, outgrowths of which were towns with swelling populations, while hydro-electric dams harnessed power in the region’s rivers.
Churchill itself, located just below the province line between Nunavut and Manitoba at the confluence of the Churchill River and Hudson Bay and boasting a population of little more than 1,000, only encompassed a few blocks, but attracted an increasing number of visitors in search of eco-tourism. The area itself had been inhabited for some 3,500 years, but the first permanent structure had been the Prince of Wales Fort constructed in 1732 across the river. In 1769, Britain’s Royal Society had observed the Venetian eclipse of the sun there, but it had not been until 1929, with completion of the Hudson Bay Railway, that the town site had been relocated to the current side and, in conjunction with the railroad, developed into a grain port. During World War II, the United States built a Strategic Air Command (SAC) base there and during the Cold War with the Soviet Union the Churchill Research Range, now the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, had been erected. The modern, 22,300-square-meter Churchill Town Centre Complex, the town’s latest construction project, contained an indoor playground, a daycare facility, a curling rink, an arena, a bowling alley, a gymnasium, a swimming pool, a library, a pizza parlor, a 300-seat theater, and a school for grades kindergarten to 12, and overlooked the too-cold-for-use beach on Hudson Bay.
Travel to Churchill can be circuitous at best. There are no roads in or out. Star Alliance partner Air Canada offers- multiple non-stop flights from Toronto and Montreal to Winnipeg, from where VIA Rail Canada offers thrice-weekly rail service on its appropriately-named Hudson Bay, which takes some 36 hours to cover the 1,700 ground kilometers, traversing three distinct topographical zones: farmland, boreal forest, and the austerely beautiful tundra. In order to reduce costs, many drive to Thompson, where the paved road terminates, or Gillam, where the dirt road ends, and transfer to the train. Calm Air offers twice-daily turboprop Saab 340 service from Winnipeg, which reduces to once per day on weekends.
Of the half-dozen or so motels, inclusive of the Seaport Hotel, the Churchill Motel, the Aurora Inn, the Iceberg Inn, the Tundra Inn, and the Lazy Bear Lodge, all average about 25 rooms and vary in rating by a half to a full star, but the latter, hand-crafted from fire-killed logs in the fur trade era style, is the largest log building in all of Manitoba. Although all fare is available, indigenous northern cuisine, such as arctic char, muskox, and caribou steak, can be ordered in most of the restaurants belonging to the motels.
Sights depend upon season: aurora borealis (northern lights) from January to March, seals from April to August, bird watching from May to June, wild flowers from June to August,, beluga whale watching from July to August, and polar bears from October to November.
On my first day in Churchill, I elected to take a half-day tundra buggy adventure. Following the main, paved road from town, the van crossed over its dirt extension, driving past the former Strategic Air Command Base and the current Churchill Northern Studies Centre, and arrived at the Tundra Buggy Depot, comprised of two rows of five vehicles backed into an elevated wooden boarding platform. The buggy itself, converted in Churchill, had featured a truck-cannibalized aluminum chassis, four massive, tubeless tires, and a diesel 466 engine, and contained school bus-like padded, bench seats, a furnace and a toilet in the rear, and an outdoor observation platform for wildlife viewing.
Negotiating gravel, dirt, rock, mud, muskeg, and stream, and traversing barren, treeless tundra, tundra buggy 11 lurched past the military observation tower and purple, fireweed wild flowers and green, velvet-like moss to the banks of Hudson Bay, encountering tundra swans, woodland caribou, and snow geese along the way to a polar bear siting. Drinks and snacks had been served while a lone bear, fasting on the tundra until autumn’s temperatures would once again permit the formation of ice sheets and the continuation of his daily seal hunt, moved round the pond and investigated the very high tundra buggy, animatedly maneuvering on both two and four paws, sniffing, looking, and cautiously approaching until he had come within only feet of the observation platform.
Polar bear life cycles revolve round seasonality. The 1,300 polar bears on Hudson Bay, the world’s largest land carnivores and the only “marine” bears, spend most of their time stalking seals from frozen seas, seeking breathing holes or hunting from the edges of ice sheets. When the ice breaks up in spring, they are forced on to land, where they fast for several months. Adult males, varying in length from 240 to 260 cm, can weigh between 400 and 600 kg, while females, at half these lengths, weigh between 150 and 250 kg.
A morning excursion to the Prince of Wales Fort and the whale-watching area of the Churchill River had been planned for the second day. The fort itself, accessed by a zodiac crossing of the river, is a National Historic Site of Canada and had been built by the British at the mouth of the Churchill River, at Eskimo Point, during the 40-year period between 1732 and 1772 for three primary reasons:
1. To establish a trade center with the Aboriginals-namely, the Cree, the Dene, and the Inuit.
2. To create a war-time refuge for Hudson’s Bay Company’s ships.
3. To construct a base from which northern exploration could be conducted.
The star-shaped fort, featuring 12-meter-thick walls and an upper bastion supporting 40 surrounding cannons, had featured, upon entrance, the men’s dual-level quarters on the left and the shops and services, including the carpenter, the tailor, the blacksmith, and the bakery, on the right.
In 1782, when the French Navy had sailed into Hudson Bay, the Prince of Wales Fort, which would have proved a paltry match to its opponent with a small, beleaguered crew and insufficient ammunition, had been surrendered to French Admiral Jean-Francois Galaup, although a treaty later returned it to British control.
The morning’s excursion, continuing by zodiac across the Churchill River, approached a 3- to 5-meter deep area at a slow pace, moving within the circle of beluga whales, which periodically arced skyward, sometimes four abreast, in order to inhale air. So high had two surfaced that they dove nose-first back toward the water, their fins momentarily poised vertically until they had disappeared. Babies, identifiable by their white skins, swam with their mothers, which sported darker gray coverings. The warmer waters of the Churchill River, now no longer ice bound, had been the source of abundant sea life, and the whales, targeting prey, surrounded it, tightening their circumference until they had moved in for their attacks.
Beluga whales, whose brains are larger than those of humans with greater surface areas, think with their upper, oily lobe and use sound as their principle sense, which enters through their jaws. Because water provides a more effective medium than air, sound waves travel five times faster. Beluga whales are among the few types which can move their necks. Typical food pursuit entails holding the breath, using depth perception to dive as low as 1,000 meters, and attacking the fish before returning to the surface.
The afternoon had been spent poking into Churchill’s Visitor Center, museums, gift shops, and restaurants, and by the following morning, separated from the previous day’s dusk by only four hours of darkness, it had already been time for the all-too-soon return journey to Winnipeg. Conducted by air, had been completed in under two-and-a-half hours by turboprop aircraft.
Winnipeg, hardly comparable to my native Manhattan, had nevertheless been a skyscraper metropolis with a growing population and traffic congestion, but my thoughts quickly returned to the clear, crisp air of Churchill; the tiny town; the warm people who seemed to know everyone living there; its surrounding barren, but somehow beautiful sub-arctic tundra; and its abundant wildlife, which lived in harmony with nature’s laws, not man’s. I had somehow already missed it.
I may go back there some day…
A graduate of Long Island University-C.W. Post Campus with a summa-cum-laude BA Degree in Comparative Languages and Journalism, I have subsequently earned the Continuing Community Education Teaching Certificate from the Nassau Association for Continuing Community Education (NACCE) at Molloy College, the Travel Career Development Certificate from the Institute of Certified Travel Agents (ICTA) at LIU, and the AAS Degree in Aerospace Technology at the State University of New York – College of Technology at Farmingdale. Having amassed almost three decades in the airline industry, I managed the New York-JFK and Washington-Dulles stations at Austrian Airlines, created the North American Station Training Program, served as an Aviation Advisor to Farmingdale State University of New York, and devised and taught the Airline Management Certificate Program at the Long Island Educational Opportunity Center. A freelance author, I have written some 70 books of the short story, novel, nonfiction, essay, poetry, article, log, curriculum, training manual, and textbook genre in English, German, and Spanish, having principally focused on aviation and travel, and I have been published in book, magazine, newsletter, and electronic Web site form. I am a writer for Cole Palen’s Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome in New York. I have made some 350 lifetime trips by air, sea, rail, and road.