BELUGA WHALES OF HUDSON BAY
Kay Gilmour, Photos
Lois Gray, Author
BOATING WITH THE BRILLIANT BOUNCY BELUGA WHALES OF CHURCHILL, MANITOBA, CANADA
All Arrangements: Natural Habitat Adventures
TABLE OF CONTENTS WINNIPEG ...................................................................................................................... 3 TRAINS, PLANES AND BUSES ................................................................................... 13 EXPLORING CHURCHILL ............................................................................................ 22 Cape Merry ................................................................................................................ 23 Tundra Rover Tour..................................................................................................... 24 Fort Prince & Belugas ................................................................................................ 27 Pattern of our Days .................................................................................................... 29 Itsanitaq Museum....................................................................................................... 29 Parcs Canada Wildflower & Plants Talk..................................................................... 32 St. James Anglican Church........................................................................................ 32 Jockville & The Flats .................................................................................................. 34 Radar Station ............................................................................................................. 36 Sled Dogs .................................................................................................................. 38 Birding........................................................................................................................ 39 Catholic Cathedral ..................................................................................................... 41 The Polar Bear Jail .................................................................................................... 43 New Murals In Churchill ............................................................................................. 45 Miss Piggy.................................................................................................................. 46 WHALE WATCHING.................................................................................................. 47 Whale Photos............................................................................................................. 52 Sunset on the Beach.................................................................................................. 55 CONCLUSION .............................................................................................................. 57
Porcelain white "bergie bits": dancing on the waves in front of the distant silvery-white wall of ice that still covers Hudson Bay in front of Churchill, Canada. Bright blue skies with linear and puffy and cottony clouds above. Wintry winds bleaching the faces of travelers unused to such cold temperatures in July. Arctic terns flying overhead with their white wings glowing and their black heads absorbing the sun rays. What a scene from this epic and magical visit to the subarctic port city of Churchill, Manitoba, Canada! Especially as it became clear that the "bergie bits" were the beautiful white Beluga Whales in their hundreds we had traveled such a long way to see! We were 13 eager whale-watchers from around the USA and western Canada, accompanied by two excellent trip guides from a company that neither Kay, Betsy nor Lois had ever traveled with before. We enjoyed eight fascinating and rewarding days reveling in all the new things we experienced from our beginning in Winnipeg, Canada, our travels on the train from that city almost 500 miles north to Thompson, Canada, and then a chartered flight another 1146 miles to Churchill. Each section gave us different and amazingly fun things to do. A fabulous journey for all of us! WINNIPEG We three Floridians spent one extra day in modern and historically interesting Winnipeg before several others in our group had even arrived and we were very glad we did. We explored as much of the city as we could during the time we had (on foot) and were impressed with such sights as the Union Railway Station, designed by the architect responsible for Grand Central Station in New York City.
We visited The Forks, a wonderfully repurposed railway station & light industrial area which now sports cafes, boutiques, fresh markets for veggies, fruits and prepared food. We walked past the Canadian Museum for Human Rights and over the splendid Esplanade Riel (pedestrian bridge) to reach the St. Boniface Heritage Gardens and St. Boniface Cathedral.
MUSEUM FOR HUMAN RIGHTS
ST. BONIFACE GARDENS
ST. BONIFACE CATHEDRAL
In the cemetery garden are memorials to Louis Riel, founder of the province of Manitoba and another statue commemorating those lost in the terrible flood of 1950 in the city. Later in the day we took a pleasant boat ride along the Assiniboine and Red Rivers at their confluence.
Even our hotel (The Fort Garry) was a historic monument to the glory days of the Canadian Pacific Railroad. Appearing very much in the style of Chateau Lake Louise and Banff Springs Hotels, this edifice was built in 1913 and has been a downtown tradition ever since. The lobby was elegant with marble floors, a high-domed ceiling, lots of brass features, lovely
woodwork details. Our room for three was comfortable if a bit dated.
Our group dinner later that day in one of the hotel restaurants was quite tasty and well- served. Free breakfast was also a bonus since it was a full-service buffet with an omelet maker present for special orders. Another fascinating experience in Winnipeg was our group visit to a wonderful preserve on the outskirts of the city called Fort Whyte Alive!
It’s a great center for children because there is so much that is hands on for them— touching hides and bones and fossils, and a great staff for education and entertaining.
But even adults can get much enjoyment from going on the bison safari through the 35 member herd right on the campus. The safari rides take folks right out in the spacious pasture for close up pictures of the great bull, the cows, and the young calves. It is a well-managed herd with excellent veterinary care and good nutrition provided. Participants are given an in depth education covering these magnificent and iconic North American creatures. Yet another special treat was the burrowing owl exhibit in the education center.
TRAINS, PLANES AND BUSES
Why Does Churchill Exist?
Churchill's existence is inextricably coiled around the Hudson Bay Company's fur trading business. The Company was chartered on May 2, 1670, after two Frenchmen convinced Prince Rupert, cousin of Charles II of England, that there was big money to be made from the small but growing trade in beaver pelts in what is now Canada. Charles II himself, plus Prince Rupert, several already successful British merchants and some other English nobles joined forces to create what is now the English-Speaking world's oldest incorporated joint-stock merchandising company. Trading with the aboriginal peoples went on amidst squabbling and fighting between the English and French over territory rights about who could trade with whom and where. By the early 1700s, Hudson Bay Company was the most successful in the trade and it was decided by the governors in London that permanent trading posts (called Factories) should be established with forts to protect them. In 1717, the first permanent settlement was Churchill (then called the Churchill River Post) and it was begun with a few log buildings. Sir John Churchill, the First Duke of Marlborough, was the first governor of the post which bears his name (he is a distant relative of Sir Winston). Through the intervening years, even though the popularity of felt hats waned (and of course beaver pelts were getting harder to harvest and more expensive), the Hudson Bay Company has continued to flourish by transforming itself into a huge general retailer. At present, the HBC also operates Lord & Taylor, Saks 5 th Avenue, OffSaks, and Home Outfitters. Its headquarters has moved from London to Toronto and operates stores all around Canada. Sadly, we learned that while the Hudson Bay Company has prospered mightily over the years, the town of Churchill has experienced a much different fate until today its very survival is hanging in the balance because its seaport has closed and it has no railway connection to the south. Ironically, it was built on the deaths of millions of beavers and now its destiny seems to rely on saving the polar bears, beluga whales and other arctic wildlife which bring in 70% of the town's income through eco-tourism centered on those creatures!
At noon, we trooped to Winnipeg's Union Station to catch our 24-hour train ride to Thompson. The train ride used to require 48 hours because it went all the way to Churchill. Due to recent severe flooding and melting permafrost with shifting of the rails, the train has to stop in Thompson where travelers must board flights into Churchill. The last train ran all the way to Churchill in May of this year. There were very few people on the train beside ourselves, and maybe 10 other passengers, in addition to the train staff. So it is easy to see why we were so catered to by the staff. Kay, Betsy & Lois shared a sleeping compartment for three and it was surprisingly roomy with a sofa and 2 comfy chairs as well as our ensuite bathroom (lavatory & commode only). The sofa turned into a bed for the night and two beds came down off the wall. We all got a pretty good night's sleep as well. The train whistle did sound every couple of hours though. Showers were located at the end of the car we were sleeping in. Two cars forward was the dining car and surprisingly good food emerged from the galley there. The chef was attentive and came by both supper and breakfast to make sure we were all happy with our meals. No complaints of any kind were heard. One car back from our "room" was a small card room with chairs and tables and further back in the same car was a lounge area with windows on all sides. A small steel staircase led upstairs into the domed area where many people preferred to ride because the view could be almost 360 degrees. Fun and comfortable ride but we were glad that we had only one night on the train.
The terrain we passed through was not spectacular, but it was interesting to see what the tundra areas and the muskeg fields look like in July. Since we traveled mostly at night, we probably missed any tiny villages also served by the railroad. We did observe several white-tailed deer who skedaddled away from the roar of the tracks. The most impressive sights were the fields riotously covered in the bright yellow flowers of the rapeseed (Canola oil) plants. These fields just glowed under the bright sunlight.
The following morning, we were told that the train was 5 hours behind schedule so we would be getting off in a tiny whistle stop called Wabowden where a bus would make the rest of the trip into Thompson. Well, why not? The train's galley again came through by providing each of us with a substantial bagged lunch as we left the train behind. They were under no obligation to do that, I am sure.
A surprise treat, rewarded us with a visit to a special natural reserve:
The Falls were approached via boardwalks because the ground is swampy and unstable most of the year. A Canadian lady from the area told us that the Falls were at the fullest she had seen in 30 years and indeed there was a tremendous amount of tannish water spilling over the 43-foot drop. An osprey and a couple of eagles flew by while we took & posed for pictures.
The train would have taken at least another 5 hours or more to reach Thompson whereas our bus ride, even with the
stop, required only a little over an hour. Our home that night was in a Best Western Hotel which was centrally located and clean and equipped with Wifi (WOW)! At dinner at the Paint View Lodge, we learned that Thompson is trying to identify itself as the "Wolf Capital of Canada" so that more tourists would want to visit the town of 15,000 people whose other reputation is much less savory--"Most Dangerous City in Canada" but NOT because of the wolves. It's human crime that creates the statistics. To that end, we saw wolf statues all over town and a wonderful mural of a beautiful white-grey wolf on the side of a prominent building on the way into town The original painting was by Robert Bateman, a famous wildlife artist in Canada. A student of his, with his permission, has recreated the picture as a mural to help the city achieve its vision.
"DA PLANE DA PLANE!"
Up early to catch our Charter Flight into Churchill (at last!). A small plane which inconvenienced some of the taller fellows, but it was a very smooth flight and we landed in Churchill with no fuss or bother. The flight was a little over an hour & a half to make that last 1100 miles.
EXPLORING CHURCHILL Before describing our exhilarating days in Churchill, I need to make a couple of salient points. First, we were blessed with so many hours of daylight that our time was greatly enhanced. Daylight streamed in the windows of the Polar Inn (where we comfortably slept, showered, and breakfasted) starting about 4 AM. The light in the skies did not fade until well after 10 PM. We did not want to waste a minute and we did not! Second, it was cold for us Floridians, mostly because of the wind—temps in the high 30s and 40s but with a significant wind chill factor. However, once I bought my very cozy jacket, I was always comfortable. Third, our biggest bugaboo (pun intended) was the myriad stealthy, viciously biting bugs as well as the annoying ones that just wanted to be in your face and hair and all over any exposed skin! We were told that the biters were mosquitos but they were so big and non-buzzing that we were puzzled. However, the welts they created remained with us even after we had returned home. Very itchy so we tried not to be bitchy about them.
Head Nets, which we had brought with us, did help (NatHab provided these necessities to folks who had not known to bring them).
And fourth, because Churchill is the Polar Bear Capital of the world, they can be in town and environs almost any time. Therefore, the precautions the town demands include very limited areas where a tourist can explore or walk about alone (meaning without a guide: townsperson or touring company personnel). Therefore we did very little walking, so it was an undemanding exploration physically. Two blocks of downtown were open to us and that's where the stores, restaurants, churches, museums, etc. were located. Our exploring was done from the bus which would take us to areas where we could get off and walk a bit and take pictures. Sounds confining, but we were so busy that it never really felt that way.
Our very own bus met us at the airport and we were immediately whisked off to the Parcs Canada site—Cape Merry, named after an early soldier stationed at the port town. Today there are 700 permanent residents down from about 3000 when the seaport and railroad were operational. This fact ties in very well with our first official sightseeing activity in our destination town. Cape Merry is the site of the battery erected by the Hudson's Bay Company to protect the mouth of the Churchill River from interlopers trying to horn in on their fur trading business with the indigenous peoples. The battery was begun in 1717 but had to be repositioned when Fort Prince of Wales was completed because the cannons were aimed right at the Fort. Today, the site contains the original powder magazine and both the original and the replacement battery with one cannon still in place. That cannon bears the insignia of Queen Anne of England who ruled from 1702 to 1717 when she died.
The geology of Cape Merry is actually more compelling than the meager role in history that the battery played. Since this area is in the subarctic tundra zone, most of the plans were definitely small and very slow-growing, with tiny flowers and leaves. These resilient and determined plants were scattered among huge flat, granite boulders, among the oldest rocks on the earth's surface, part of the Canadian Shield. In appearance, the area looks similar to Peggy's Cove in Nova Scotia on the Atlantic side of Canada. However, our very knowledgeable Park Ranger was quick to tell us that the resemblance was only "apparent" but not real. Why? Because Cape Merry's boulders are granite and much older than the limestone flat rocks of Peggy's Cove.
Tundra Rover Tour
Following a delicious lunch at Gypsy's, we went on our highly anticipated Tundra Tour. Marilyn, our friendly and cooperative bus driver, turned out to be the co-owner (along with her husband) of the Great White Bear Tours as well as a similarly named store in town. She became our tundra rover tour driver as well. Her husband had designed and modified the high-wheeled bus-like buggies with an open deck on the back. These buggies can be used in all seasons for exploring the outskirts of Churchill. Because we were about 2-3 weeks early for polar bear sighting (bears should be on the ice while there is still ice on Hudson Bay), we did not expect to see any on our tundra tour. We
were looking for the many kinds of birds that nest on the subarctic tundra with hopes of spotting perhaps a fox or other mammal, caribou, coyote, whatever showed up.
We saw birds in plenty: nesting, hunting, feeding chicks, & courting. Besides the expected Canada Geese, we also observed Pacific Loons, Tundra Swans with adorable fuzzy cygnets in tow, and Snow Geese with chicks (equally cute) as well. Only one mammal was spotted during our three hours on the tundra – the high point of the exploration was a very far distant polar bear—barely in range of cameras or my 8x42 binoculars, but fairly well observed when Moira, set her up spotting scope on the back deck!
Snoozing Polar Bear (Really)
Marilyn served our supper on the Tundra Rover which was a treat as well: hamburgers, potato salad, lettuce and tomatoes, and a Canadian favorite dessert—a Nanaimo Bar: see below and then try to imagine not liking this delicious and probably sinful dish!
Nanaimo Bar Recipe
6 oz. Baker's Semi-Sweet Chocolate, divided 3/4 cup plus 1 Tbsp. butter, softened, divided 1 egg 1 Tsp. vanilla 2 cups graham crumbs 1 cup flaked coconut 1/2 cup chopped walnuts 2 Tbsp. Bird's Custard Powder 3 Tbsp. milk 2 cups icing sugar
Rich, gooey, but easily hand-held for munching!
Fort Prince & Belugas
Later that same day, we rode the Zodiacs across the Churchill River to visit Fort Prince of Wales. Though we had seen several of the beautiful white belugas making half-moons of themselves as they swam and fed freely in the River from Cape Merry, this was our first time to be out with them so close to the boats that we were cautioned that it was forbidden to try to touch them (they are susceptible to diseases that can be transmitted from humans). The water in the river was choppy but we made it across relatively dry and exhilarated by the beautiful "bergie bits" cavorting in the rather turbid waters. The Fort is a partial ruin but construction was begun in 1717 and was never completed. Enough of the structure is extant to prove that it was a typical star-shaped European style fortress. It was captured once in 1782 (without a shot) by the French who were hoping to
force their way into the fur trade business but it was returned to the Hudson's Bay Company in 1783 when the fur trade had fallen off. Our visit was made more interesting by the appearance of a re-enactor playing the part of Samuel Hearne, the fort's governor during the French fracas. He had a very interesting life before and after the Fort's only battle.
As our tour continued, the trip's only rain began falling more and more heavily. By the time we re-boarded the Zodiacs most of us were pretty well soaked. Cameras and binoculars had been wrapped safely in whatever dry bags we had with us.
And then we proceeded to float along with the evening belugas. The temperature dropped and the rain kept slashing at us as well. We went around Eskimo Point which took the group into Hudson Bay where the waves were higher and the winds more biting. Of course, the belugas were totally oblivious of moisture coming from the skies and kept up with their fascinating antics, even flashing a fluke or two in the fading light. I was so miserably cold, as were others I am sure, that I really can't say it was my favorite outing. However, it taught me two important lessons: 1) I had not brought enough warm layers of clothing and would have to buy a jacket in town and 2) my rain pants were shot—no protection from sitting on the wet Zodiac rubber sides as the moisture accumulated. But the Fort and the belugas went a long way to compensate for the misery!
Pattern of our Days
This very busy first day starting early at the airport and ending during twilight set the pattern for the rest of our days in Churchill—very little down time unless one opted out of a planned adventure. The three of us were never willing to miss out on anything. Moira was never out of ideas for different places to explore, chances to talk with the locals, surprise picnics and even a meeting with a bird (tree swallow) researcher. That meant our 4 full days in Churchill seemed like many more!
The Itsanitaq or Eskimo Museum was the first site to visit on our 2 nd day in the Polar Bear Capital of the World. It is a one-room showplace for beautiful, authentic, and fascinating Inuit art and archeological pieces. Amanda, our young indigenous docent, is a student of First Nations Art and Archeology, so she was a perfect guide for the visit.
Walrus ivory and Narwhal horn figured in many of the carved figures, human and animal. The most outrageous was a bear hunting scene carved entirely from the enamel of the artist's tooth! There were 4 human hunter figures and a figure of the bear. So tiny it was hard to believe that such a thing could be done. There were a taxidermy polar bear and musk ox, full size. Animal hide covered kayaks and tents and lots of archeological findings as well. Soapstone and other natural materials were also on display: exquisite figures of animals, children, birds. Everyone wanted to go shopping for mementos from this wonderful museum, to support it and bring home memories of it.
Moira and Narwhal Horn
LOIS -- LOOK BEHIND YOU!
Parcs Canada Wildflower & Plants Talk
After a delicious lunch at the Seaport Restaurant, we walked over to the Parcs Canada headquarters for a spirited and amusing talk on the local plant life, centering on the many wildflowers in the area. Rhonda was a very entertaining and yet informative speaker. There are a plethora of wildflowers in the Churchill tundra area—with such a short growing season and such constant winds, it is amazing just how many of the delicate plants survive and reproduce themselves. In the afternoon, we were taken on a bus tour of various sights and sites around Churchill itself. Marilyn again provided very convenient times for us. Our first stop was at the Churchill Seaport with a talk by a local resident named Bill who had previously worked for the port before the closure about 18 months before. The main business of the seaport had been transporting wheat from the interiors of Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Many Churchillians were employed there so it was devastating when the port was closed down. Now the little town is in even deeper straits because the railroad had connected it to lower parts of the province but no longer functions either. Where will their supplies come from now—air delivery is very expensive. A USA company based in Denver (OmniTrax) bought the rails a few years ago and at present, the owners are not inclined to spend the 2,000,000 dollars it will take to put the tracks on solid footing. It appears that OmniTrax, Manitoba's Provincial government and the federal government in Ottawa are playing a game of chicken—who will cave first and agree to pay the necessary costs? Of course, the 700 beleaguered citizens of Churchill simply have no leverage in this game and no political power with either level of government. So they wait to see what will finally happen—as supplies dwindle and anxiety increases! A very unhappy situation for sure. A stopgap solution has been arranged wherein a barge will bring supplies to the town on a monthly basis, but what happens when the barge cannot get through the ice on Hudson Bay?
St. James Anglican Church
A happier visit was to the St. James Anglican Church, the oldest church constructed of iron in Canada. In 1890, when Reverend Lofthouse ordered the materials from England to build the church, the technology for pre-fabrication was new and even newer was the use of iron to create the frames. Only two other such structures made it to Canada from England. At any rate, the church was ready for use in 1892 and has been in service ever since, though it has been moved to different locations during the years. The church has some important artifacts and relics from its long history in Churchill and one of the most outstanding is the beautiful stained glass window donated to the church by the widow of Sir John Franklin who was lost on his last expedition. Only last year was evidence found of what became of the explorer and the crews of his two ships, the Erebus and the Terror. The ships have been found, much further south than searchers had ever looked, and it became known that Sir John actually died a few days before the Terror sank, presumably of scurvy. None of the members of the expedition which was searching for the Northwest Passage survived their desperate walk through the frozen wastelands between where their ice-bound ships were abandoned towards what they hoped would be safety.
The other important fact about this church is that their priest is a woman!
Jockville & The Flats
Our next goal was to visit Jockville and "the wrong side of the tracks" also called "The Flats"--two sorta suburbs of tiny Churchill. Jockville was the place most families lived in the l930s and today there are a few derelict shacks still standing or leaning or about to fall over. Those folks chose a prime place for their homes since there is a superb view of the Bay from their little hilltop and constant breezes to keep the mosquitoes at bay.
Talk about an interesting and maybe dubious way to "live off the grid"! That's what "The Flats" provide today.
This strange little development started along with the railroad construction and it is "across the tracks" from Churchill city. Larger than Jockville, it still looks a lot like that abandoned suburb because most of the houses are very basic, tentative even, constructed of various types of materials, like plywood, sheet metal, tar paper, and the like. What makes the place intriguing, however, is that the people who choose to live there have no plumbing, no water, no city services except for electricity, unpaved gravelly roads and of course no zoning regulations. Why do they choose to live there? Because they pay no taxes to the city of Churchill! Even the current Mayor of Churchill lives there by choice. Ironical? We thought so. After we explored "The Flats" where we did see some evidence of gardening, construction (or perhaps something better described as maintenance and repair), hunting and fishing. The bus then took us out to view another abandoned structure:
It had been part of an early warning system to protect Canada from attack during the Cold War. It was still largely intact with three huge broken globe-like structures atop the flat roof. The tracking technology was housed in the white "golf ball shaped" structure and then the other machinery, computers, etc, were housed inside the building. It is possible to enter the building but inside it is very dark and there are lots of broken items, wires, and hoses to trip up the unwary tourist. Graffiti (or art depending on your point of view) now covers the outer walls and some of it is very skillfully drawn and droll as well.
There is another part of this complex that is a distance away from this abandoned facility which functions as the home of the Churchill Northern Studies Institute. Though it primarily caters to serious scientists and hosts conferences on an aspect of the Northern regions like the auroras, the marine environment, and the tundra, visitors can take a tour, but we did not have enough time to schedule one. The complex does play an important role in Churchill, bringing in scientists and other interested parties as well as providing jobs for local people.
Kelly Turcotte, a local dog musher, was next on our list of local people to meet and learn about Churchill life. We were told that he is a breeder and runner of sled dogs and has his own "yard" for the dogs. He runs dog mushing trips in the winters for tourists and also uses his dogs and sleds to bring in supplies for himself during winter. He obviously loves his 18 dogs and prizes the life they allow him and his family He does not consider these dogs to be "pets" at all—they are working dogs just as a farmer would consider his mules not pets but workers on his land.
We met his daughter, Jasmine, who has a pet dog she calls Remy who runs free, even among the chained sled dogs. Kelly's sled dogs are not raced, but they could be since are the right breed and have the double coats and stamina necessary. We enjoyed watching him feed the dogs who eat only every other day; they were quite eager and began a chorus of excited barking when he broke out his feeding buckets—full this time of seal meat that Kelly had caught himself. Interesting, but difficult, lifestyle as far as I could tell.
We would look for birds whenever we went out in the bus and would usually see some avian activities. Our most interesting "birding" for me was the meeting with Dr. Kit, an ornithologist from Jamestown University in North Dakota. She worked in IT for Time- Warner for many years before she decided to earn a Ph.D. in biology so she could work in animal research, especially with birds. At present, she is running a study on Tree Swallows whose numbers have been declining in the Churchill environs due to an overabundance of House Sparrows, an invasive species from Europe. These innocent looking small birds are murderers in Dr. Kit's world. They do "home invasions" on the nests of the Tree Swallows, killing the chicks and their parents and then making a nest on the broken bodies for their own chicks. Sounds pretty macabre, doesn't it?
At present, Dr. Kit has 250 nest boxes all around Churchill and its environs. She checks each of them every other day for chicks that are old enough to be banded. If a House Sparrow has usurped the nest, she throws them out, calling herself a murderer. The Tree Swallow chicks have to be banded within a specific period of time because the size of their legs changes as they grow—oddly enough, the legs start out rather stout and slim down as they mature. The bands must be placed at the optimum time. At the time of our visit with her, she had three young female students from her university with her to both learn and help with the banding and with the recording of weights on each chick. Dr. Kit believes that she has been observing a rise in the Tree Swallow population since her study began. It is important that the townspeople are supportive of her project: some folks and businesses have donated materials to create the 250 next boxes, others have helped build them, and still, others have placed them in their own yards and neighborhoods. Another favorite birding experience was interacting with the Arctic Terns if being attacked by the very protective parent birds can be defined as "interacting." The terns make their nests on the ground and sometimes in the most exposed places. Then they
ferociously dive-bomb anyone or anything that dares to get too close to the nest. They don't just make false charges; they actually hit the intruder with their beaks very hard. They can & do draw blood on the unwary. Some Churchillians walk with sticks or umbrellas to fend off the parent birds—not to hit them but to dodge their attacks!
We went to a couple of ponds fairly close to the seaport complex a couple of times and saw some interesting birds: a Red-necked Phalarope in particular. His hunting and feeding technique is quite endearing. He does "whirly-gig" turns in the water to stir up whatever it is he wants for his meal. Of course, he is not successful at every turn, so he spins around until it's a wonder he doesn't get dizzy. Some teals on the same ponds had baby ducks following them along—always fun to see.
The Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Canadian Holy Martyrs
What an amazing thing to find a very small and simple "cathedral" in such a tiny town as Churchill. However, when one of the parishioners agreed to meet us and talk with us about the church, we began to understand how this edifice can be named a "cathedral." First of all, the church serves a diocese that covers a territory of 1,429,153 miles with 13 parishes, approximately 10,570 Catholics, and 8 missions. In addition, there are two bishops in residence (one retired) which automatically makes a church a cathedral. Ironically, the Churchill congregation has only 35 active members at present. But, by golly, those folks go to mass in a Cathedral! The bishops have to be traveling much of the time to cover such a huge territory, so the church is often served by a deacon. The Stations of the Cross are unusual in that they are made of metal in relief—very effective and very 50s & 60s in appearance.
The Polar Bear Jail
Churchillians have learned to live safely with the polar bears who enter the city and all around it when the ice disappears off Hudson Bay. While the Bay is ice-free, the bears pretty much fast since their food of choice is not available to them (seals, chiefly). Because the great white bear has now become a source of livelihood (through tourism) for many of the townspeople, they do not want to kill them but they also do not want human/bear conflicts since the bears usually win. So they have set up a Polar Bear Alert system which allows the officials to move the bears out of the town and areas surrounding it. Their first line of defense is to try to chase the bear away using loud noises; if the bear refuses to go away, their second effort is to bait a huge trap with seal meat and lure the bear inside.
The cage is on wheels and once the door snaps behind the bear, the cage can be hauled away by truck into a wild area. If the bear returns, it is trapped again and then put in the Polar Bear Jail for a cooling off period. After about a month (the bear doesn't have to be fed because he’d be fasting anyway), he’s netted taken by helicopter at least 70 miles north of the city and released there.
The holding area is a large 3 dome cover steel Quonset hut-like building with 28 individual cages. Last year, 2000 bears were incarcerated for varying lengths of time, due primarily to the very late arrival of the ice on Hudson Bay. This year, so far, there have been no incarcerations. The "jail" was built in 1982 and since then, there have been no human/polar bear encounters which ended in injury or death for either. There is a lovely mural on one outer wall of the jail which depicts a huge sleeping bear with his head down on the earth.
When tourists come into town, they are given brochures describing polar bear safety regulations and alerting them against walking out of the downtown area without a guide with a gun. They are also taught to call the Polar Bear Alert staff if they see a bear where it should not be!
New Murals In Churchill
After being inspired by the wonderful mural on the jail, we were driven around town to see the several new murals which were just completed a week or two before we came. A group of artists came from Winnipeg to decorate the walls of many building and they certainly added a colorful and happy spirit to this northern outpost. Many different subjects, styles, colors, and messages: some humorous and some with serious thoughts. All were wonderful!
In keeping with the theme of murals and graffiti, I must mention our visit to Miss Piggy, an airplane that crashed in November l979 right outside the city. Two of the crew of three were badly injured but survived and the third was relatively unhurt. The aircraft had earned its name because of the huge amount of cargo she could carry and also because she once carried a load of pigs to market. Today the plane has been painted gray but there is graffiti all over the plane's intact frame.
This is a good chance to tell you a little bit about our wonderful trip leader (and her intern, Eddie Savage). Moira Le Patourel has had more experience as a trip leader than her young face and high energy level would have you believe: Churchill's three kinds of trips (Beluga watching, Polar Bear sighting & Northern Lights photography), in British Columbia she has worked in the Spirit Bear Preserve for NatHab and is currently headed for Greenland to lead a trip, and a China trip for NatHab is also on her docket. In addition, she worked for several years before NatHab with another travel company. To say she is excellent is a woeful understatement. Moira is resourceful, clever, imaginative, patient and courteous under any circumstances, dedicatedly safety conscious, biology & history knowledgeable about where she leads, and also very important, she is just a lot of fun to be around! It's not surprising that our assistant EL, Eddie Savage, is also an excellent leader! Why wouldn’t he be? After all, Moira is his NatHab mentor and after this trip, he will graduate to leading on his own for the company. Besides his excellent training and education, he is highly personable, also fun to work with, eager to be helpful and yet reserved enough not to impinge on Moira's leadership style. Eddie will be a valuable addition to NatHab's roster of naturalists and guides. Moira's presentation on the Belugas was given at the Seaport Restaurant which has a convenient meeting room. We also learned later that it is also a very good restaurant. Beluga Whales are a fascinating species and we considered ourselves very lucky to be able to see them in such numbers at such an important stage in their life cycle: calving in the Churchill River. They are a threatened species worldwide, partly because of climate change. The citation above will show the work that World Wildlife Fund is currently conducting. This hyperlink is appropriate since our travel company Natural Habitats is associated with WWF. Suffice it to say for our trip, we had three Zodiac rides among the whales, both in the Churchill River and out in Hudson Bay. One ride has already been described, so I will just share the highlights of the other two early morning 2-hour rides under the most beautiful skies and chilly weather which was fine since now I was now prepared for cold as were Kay and Betsy. The Belugas are such a brilliant white that they look like small icebergs as they swim dolphin-like, rising for breaths and plunging back down again. Though they do spout through their single blowhole, the spray is very small & more like a mist than a towering column of air and water produced by larger whales such as humpbacks, right whales, and fin whales. They do spyhop (rise up headfirst to look around) but not nearly as high out of the water as the larger whales. They do show flukes (tails) as they dive back down but since their tails are small, the display is not as impressive. However, they (and Narwhals) have something the other whales lack: they can move their heads side to side and up and down. This ability produces an enjoyable behavior for the whale-
watching folks on the Zodiacs: they can swim up close to the boats and cock their heads for a better look at us. It makes them seem both curious and friendly. Their faces which sport a rather grumpy looking smile add to their seeming "human" traits. All whales and dolphins vocalize with one another—the songs of the humpbacks have been recorded many times. However, Belugas have been nicknamed the "Canaries of the Ocean" because they are so chatty and have so many different vocalizations. While we visited, there was a scientific team working the same waters recording the many songs and contributing to the effort to "understand" just what the belugas are saying to each other. Our Zodiacs were equipped with underwater microphones so we could hear the constant chatter going on beneath us too. Very exciting and even moving emotionally on some level. They sounded to me like a symphony orchestra tuning up for a performance. We learned that there is another researcher who goes out in a boat and plays his cello for the whales hoping he will find them beginning to mimic his sound. He has done this a couple of summers and has heard no sounds like his cello yet. Besides all this wonder around us, we were privy to another amazing activity of the female belugas. They are very social creatures and are some of the few animals that will adopt orphaned calves, assist mother belugas at birthing time, act as aunts for babysitting and even feeding. Baby belugas are born underwater, of course, and it was amazing to observe "aunt" belugas assisting the mother in bringing the newborn to the surface for its first breath of air. Newborn Belugas are a dusky gray with pinkish streaks so they are easy to recognize in the water. As they age, the calves become a lighter gray and lose the other colors, But it can take up to three years before the calf becomes the pure white of the adult. However, even the lighter gray juveniles occasionally breed and produce calves. So sexual maturity can be achieved before the white skin predominates.
READY TO ROCK AND ROLL
LOIS - LOOKIN' GOOD!
BETSY - LOOKIN' COLD!
CLOSE ENCOUNTER OF A WONDERFUL KIND
SEE NECK TURNING AND POINTY FACE
WHITE ADULT - DARK JUVENILE
PRETTY BABY FACE
READY TO DIVE
BYE - BYE
Sunset on the Beach
One evening we had a campfire with S'mores for supper. While the delicious treats filled our hungry stomachs and satisfied our taste buds, the gorgeous sunset with pinks, oranges, and yellows filled our spirits with awe at the beauty of the Hudson Bay. Even though rain threatened us, we were all reluctant to leave before the last ray of light had disappeared! Great idea that Moira had for us!
After our last full day's outing, we were taken to the Town Center Complex—a large structure which contains, an elementary school, library, curling rink, indoor swimming pool, health center, movie theater, cafe/restaurant all decorated with indigenous art work of many genres, paintings, wall hangings, sculptures, and a huge polar bear statue which doubles as a kids sliding board. Really cute. And to our surprise, there is also a 5 pin 4 lane bowling alley in the basement. This was where we spent our last evening in Churchill before going to the airport for our flight back to Winnipeg at 9 PM. We enjoyed an indoor picnic at the alley with food catered by Gypsy's (our favorite Churchill eatery). Our group divided itself into 4 teams and we proceeded to pass the time in a bowling contest. And guess who ran up the highest individual score? Our very own Betsy! Unfortunately, there was no monetary prize—just bragging rights! A fitting way to end a most wonderful sojourn in the Arctic, on Hudson Bay in Churchill, Manitoba! CONCLUSION There is no way to praise our Travel Company, Natural Habitat Adventures, or our excellent guides, Moira and Eddie, too highly. As described above, Moira and Eddie were simply the best guides we have ever traveled with and are expert in creating an amazing experience for every member of the group, whatever their primary goals and interests in this particular trip! I'd follow them anywhere! A special salute needs to be given to Natural Habitats—what a special company! Here's one example of why I make this claim. Kay, Betsy and I had booked this trip very far in advance. Only a few days before we were to start out from our hometown, we received a letter explaining what had happened to the railway and how the closure would alter our expected itinerary I am sure everyone else got the same info). we were assured that the trip would continue and that arrangements had been made to charter a plane to get us from Thompson to Churchill in a timely fashion. We were not asked to cover the cost of our seats even though the problem was not the fault of Natural Habitat either. The company just "ate" that increased cost and gave us the promised wonderful experience. No other company I know of has ever done such a generous thing. Even huge cruise ship companies reserve the right to increase your costs if the price of fuel rises between the time you book your cruise and the date of sailing. More signs of the company's willingness to pick up extra costs? Despite the increased costs and the added difficulties in logistics, NatHab has not canceled any of their scheduled tours to Churchill: not the summer beluga watching, not the fall polar bear expeditions and not the northern lights trips! Speaking with people in town more dependent than ever on tourism, we saw the gratitude that these people felt to NatHab. Other companies have cancelled all their previously scheduled trips leaving everyone involved in tourism in a really bad way: from the owners of the tundra tour companies, the local restaurants and stores of all kinds, the concessionaires running the zodiac
accommodations and all the employees of these tourist dependent businesses.
No wonder everyone we met had nothing but praise for NatHab and all of them went out of his/her way to make sure all of us had a wonderful visit and experience in this remote part of the world! Three cheers and many thanks to the owners and operators of Natural Habitat Adventures!
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