"Aaahhh" (this is one of the NatHab operations guys)...it was full sunshine and just a few degrees below zero as we boarded our private charter plane in Winnipeg for our 3-hour flight north to our destination: Churchill, Manitoba.
Churchill is a small town of less than 900 year-round residents, but because it draws many tourists it does have a decent little airport.
Churchill is the Polar Bear Capital of the World...there are more polar bears than people living in Churchill during November and December.
Churchill is located just north of 58 degrees latitude, several degrees south of the Arctic Circle but in a geographical area known as the arctic tundra.
Right on the shores of the Hudson Bay, Churchill's strategic location makes it a perfect destination for anyone wanting to see polar bears (early winter), the aurora borealis (mid-winter), and beluga whales (summer). While there are 3 tourist seasons in Churchill, one local told us that if you come the third week of August you have a really good chance of seeing all three natural spectacles! The belugas are still in the bay, the bears would be just now arriving, and if there's a clear night and the timing is right, you might get to see the northern lights as well.
We were there in February, with our goal to see and photograph the aurora (aka Northern Lights). The bay (blue ice in background) was clearly frozen over...with an average winter temperature of -30, that doesn't take long...with the belugas having long since swam out of the sheltered bay and into the warmer Arctic Sea waters. Once the bay freezes, the polar bears head out onto the sea ice to hunt for seals, so by mid-January all of the bears are gone except perhaps a few females with cubs still slowly making their way out of the dens. Although it was possible, we did not encounter any bears this time of year.
If you Google "Churchill," you will find this is one of the iconic images of the town. Structures like this, called an inukshuk, are scattered throughout the area. Inukshuks are generally built with stones placed in such a way as to look like a human being. In ancient times, inukshuks were used by native peoples as landmarks on the flat snowy landscape, to point out a direction for travel, or sometimes to identify a cache of stored food. In modern times, inukshuks have become symbols of brotherhood and goodwill.
Our photo group of 15 stayed at the Polar Inn. I think there were just enough rooms to accommodate us.
Nothing fancy, but certainly adequate.
The view out the breakfast room window. It really doesn't snow all that often, but with those sub-zero temperatures each snowfall just keeps piling up.
This was our mode of transportation most of the time in Churchill.
Except we did walk to the Dancing Bear Restaurant across the street for some of our meals...a very COLD walk!
But extreme COLD is to be expected during Aurora Season!
The first evening, we visited the town's small Itsanitaq Museum...
In case you've never seen a narwhal horn (it's actually an overgrown tooth!), they have some on display. But narwhals are found further north than Churchill.
This is Churchill's hardware/grocery/clothing/whatever-you-might-need store.
Churchill's historic train station, which they still use today.
There are no roads to Churchill. To get to this remote place in the winter, you have to either fly or go by train.
Inside the train station is a nice little natural history museum, park of the Canada national park system.
This is a diorama of a polar bear den with cub...they make their dens under snow-covered tree root systems in the boreal forest.
A Cree (First Nation) Bible translation...
Furs from this area that were once very popular items for trading back in the old days...
Our guide Eddy with a beaver pelt, which was made to make hats.
Churchill has lots of beautiful murals to brighten up the monotonous landscape.
We were blessed to meet several colorful people as well. Most of the residents are descendants of First Nation peoples. This sweet lady Georgina Oman, who is now 70 years old, told us about her life as a young Cree girl surviving the horrific residential Indian school that she (and all native children) was forced to attend...a dark chapter in Canadian (and also American) history that is just now finally coming to light.
And then there was Dave Daley, who made a huge impression on all of us. He is passionate about his own ancestral roots as part of the Meti people and very active politically protecting the rights of his people.
Dave is quite the storyteller and character, a man of the land. And he is also a famous dog-musher...more on Dave in tomorrow's post.
Most people are not suited to live in a place like Churchill...it takes a special "something." Not quite sure what that "something" is...a survivalist mentality? A deep connection to the land? A "can-do" spirit? With perhaps a little craziness thrown in just for fun! It certainly is not a place for the weak or wimpy.
Churchill, Manitoba...a remote but charming outpost in one of the harshest environments on the planet.
Just north of the 58th.