Wednesday August 23, 2017 (Canada)
We're getting woefully behind on updates, but that's because we're just filling our days with a bunch of awesome stuff! It's been tough to find time to work on photos and write blog entries, especially when we're staying in a bunch of National Parks that are distinctly light on the Internet and AC power fronts.
So here's the not-so-secret secret – we went to Churchill for our special little side trip! As part of a birthday present to Sandra I planned a visit to the far north of Manitoba. Churchill is a place where you can snorkel with beluga whales and spot polar bears, which we thought was pretty darn cool! We had initially planned to take the train from Winnipeg (a mere 46 hour one-way train ride), but several large sections of the track were washed away in spring flooding, which meant we had to find other means of getting ourselves there. We ended up flying instead, and although the prices for flights from Winnipeg to Churchill are generally exorbitant, we found a neat trick to bring the cost down. I'll write about that in a separate post at some point in the future. It'll be called "One neat trick that pilots don't want you to know about! The airline industry hates it!". Something like that.
Without further ado, here's the daily breakdown of our trip north! The flight from Winnipeg was an early morning deal – 7:30am departure. We pre-booked a taxi in Winnipeg, and lo and behold the driver showed up precisely on time! Perfect! We arrived at the airport, picked up some small snacks in preparation for the flight, and hopped aboard.
On the plane I was seated in row 1A, which, on a normal aircraft, would mean that I was sitting pretty in first class. But not on First Air. Seat 1A means you're the seat closest to the start of the extra cargo hold that occupies the front half of the plane. You're just sitting up there staring at a big wall. I'd never witnessed a passenger plane with so much allocated cargo space before.
Seated next to us was Lois. We got to talking, and it turns out she's the pharmacist for Churchill. As in the only one. Actually, she's 1/2 of the pharmacist – the position is traded off between her and a colleague! She gave us all sorts of tips on things to see in Manitoba, and also let us know that we could drop off the extra supplies we'd brought with her in the pharmacy. You see, the lack of train service to Churchill has caused a lot of hardship for the locals. We had predicted that grocery prices would be inflated bigtime, and with the start of the school year just around the corner we thought it would be nice to bring some school supplies and non-perishable goods for the locals. Now that we had a local contact we didn't need to worry about distribution, so we were thrilled!
If the lack of a full-time pharmacist in town didn't send you back mentally a few decades, how about the fact that we were served a meal on the plane. Everybody got one! What is this, 1994? Are people going to start clapping when we land? We're back in the golden age of flight, and I couldn't be happier. The meal was an egg omelette, but it was pretty darn tasty, especially given the fact that it was included in the price of the flight!
Upon arrival at the airport, we met our contact for our accommodations at the Churchill Hotel and Guest House. The airport isn't too far out of town, but most places provide a pickup as standard. We were whisked to the hotel, checked in quickly, and then arrived in the room. Our first order of business once we unpacked was to… take a nap. We were pretty exhausted from the early morning wakeup, so a big sleep was well deserved.
After waking up we spent the afternoon just wandering around town. Churchill has a population of less than a thousand people, so it doesn't take a crazy long time to walk around the majority of the town. We went down to the beach, noticing the dire warnings of the dangers of polar bears. And they're not messing around. It's a real threat! Especially near the beach, where the bears can hide behind large rocks. You walk over the top of a boulder: boom, polar bear relaxing. Relaxing, that is, until it decides to eat you. Anyway, don't mess with the bears. So we tried to stick around other people and keep our eyes out.
More on the polar bear threat. It's law in Churchill to leave your house and car unlocked. Why? So that if you are surprised by a polar bear encounter you can hop into the nearest vehicle or household to escape. Pretty crazy, huh? There's also an old military air raid siren that goes off at 10pm to signal the unofficial curfew. You don't have to be indoors after that time. But you really should be. You may also be awoken throughout the night by the sound of "bear bangers" – loud, explosive noisemakers triggered to stop bears from approaching too close to the town. Serious business! It feels a bit like a town under siege, but really it's just an abundance of caution. Don't mess with the bears and they generally won't mess with you. Good deal.
We stopped by the train station on our walk to have a chat with the Parks Canada staff that are manning the mostly-unused train station. Remember: there's no functioning train to Churchill anymore. The Parks staff were amazing, and told us all sorts of history and facts about the area, as well as information about parks all around the country. We were thoroughly impressed, and talked their ears off!
We took some pictures around the train station itself. There's still a "Canada 150" train that is marooned at the station. Apparently it's still moved along the tracks to and fro periodically to make sure the train wheels don't warp from the weight of the train. The cars are scheduled to be taken away via a barge within a month or so, and there's talk of a symbolic protest to indicate how important the train is to the economy and livelihood of those living in Churchill. Our first full day in town was scheduled to be a day tour with Frontier North and their Tundra Buggy Adventure. The Tundra Buggy is a giant vehicle that's built to navigate shallow waterways and drive over rough terrain while also being tall enough to stop polar bears from interfering with operations. It also has on open deck on the back for windowless viewing of the surroundings.
Sandra and I stopped into a local gift shop which is associated with the day tour. We spoke at length with Erin, a staff member there who gave us the story of when and why she moved to Churchill. She lives in the town year-round, which is a bit of a rarity in an area who's big attractions are so seasonal in nature. In nature. I didn't even mean to make that pun. My skills are elevating.
Once we started the tour, our guide Jim Baldwin was super-friendly and very knowledgeable about the area and its wildlife. We spotted bald eagles, caribou… and eventually a mother and two polar bear cubs! They were not especially close, but amazing to have seen these creatures in the wild. We were thrilled! Not bad for our first full day in Churchill. The end of summer is not particularly polar bear season, but if you're lucky you'll catch one. So it looks like we got lucky!
Crazy story time. Sandra had long ago listened to a CBC story about a person who'd been attacked by a polar bear in Churchill. This was back in 2013. As we drove along in the tour, we passed an older gentleman cycling along the road. Our guide said, "That guy's a hero. He's the one who fended off the polar bear with a shovel and saved somebody's life back in 2013." Sandra and I were flabbergasted: we just drove past the guy she'd heard about in the story. "Who's the person who got attacked?", somebody asked. "You already met her", said Jim. "She's the girl in the gift shop." Whaaat? We were blown away. We'd been talking to Erin for a really long time and this hadn't come up at all! That's one of the crazy things about Churchill: it's a very small town. You walk around town a few times and suddenly you know a bunch of the major players. "Oh, Fred? From Gypsy's Bakery? Yeah, I know Fred." That's how it goes. Our second full day in Churchill was focused around a smaller guided group tour with Nature 1st. Our guide was Paul, and he did an excellent job of bringing us to many of the major tourist sites in the area. We visited Miss Piggy: a cargo plane that skidded off the runway many years ago and was left to slowly decompose. The painting you see on it is not graffiti. Very recently, a large group of artists descended upon Churchill to paint murals on many of the iconic locations around the town. Exact numbers seem to vary a bit, but it seems like there are somewhere around nineteen separate murals. You'll see them feature in many photographs!
We stopped by the Polar Bear Jail, where problem polar bears who enter the town are kept for a short period in hopes of deterring them from coming back in the future. We were shown some polar bear traps that are used to hold and transport the bears. After a short stay in the jail they're returned out into the wild, hopefully never to return again. The general public are not allowed into the jail itself (especially if there are bears present), because habituating bears to people is considered a very bad idea. Can't argue with that.
Another stop was to "The Balls" – a set of large geodesic domes atop a historic radar installation that was part of the DEW (Distant Early Warning) system intended to detect incoming Soviet bombers during the cold war.
From there we gazed upon the Ithaka – a ship that was wrecked just off the coast in Hudson Bay in 1960. It was carrying cargo to Churchill from Rankin Inlet when it was caught in a gale and lost its rudder. The captain dropped anchor, but the anchor failed to hold and the ship was cast onto the gravel shore of Bird Cove. The ship is close enough to shore that you can walk to it at low tide. Apparently it was a popular party spot for quite a while!
We stopped by the Northern Studies Centre that facilitates student research projects in the area. Right next to that is the Rocket Research Range National Historic Site. This was much more interesting to me. It's an area formerly used to test sub-orbital rockets from the mid 1950s onward! It was mostly abandoned by the early 1990s, and like many many things around Churchill it costs more to dismantle and move than anybody is willing to pay, so the structures just… sit there. For better or worse. They do make very interesting time capsules, but some parts of the Churchill area definitely feel like an eery ghost town as a result of the rotting, unused buildings slowly falling apart.
We ended our afternoon overlooking a beach upon which a mother and two polar bear cubs were resting. What luck! Two days in a row with polar bear sightings. Our guess is that this group of bears was the same group from the day previous. But no complaints on seeing them again! Our last full day in Churchill! And this one was very special, because we had booked ourselves in for some snorkelling with beluga whales. Need I repeat that?! Snorkelling with freakin' beluga whales! Until I read about the fact that this was possible online, I had no idea that this type of thing was doable in Canada. After further reading revealed that high season for belugas was during the summer that we planned on heading out west, it was settled. This was the centrepiece of our whole trip out west!
The tour itself didn't take place until the afternoon, so we started off by checking out the local grocery store deals. 4kg of frozen chicken wings for $115? Yes, please! Needless to say we didn't do much grocery shopping in the area.
We also dropped into "The Complex", which is a massive building that stores… well, basically everything the town needs. The hospital is there. Lois the pharmacist is there. The school is there. The gym is there. The indoor playground is there. The school is there. The theatre was there (asbestos… out of commission). The hockey rink is there. You get the point. Although it was pretty empty when we visited (it's the summer – everybody's outside!), apparently it's a hub of activity during the winter when there's not much else to do and nowhere else to go. Pretty amazing to see!
I also grabbed a picture of the grain elevators. Although they look long-deserted, they were actually used up until 2015 when it was decided that they were no longer economically viable. Coupled with the lack of train transport, the loss of the grain elevator dealt a huge blow to the local economy. Many jobs were lost when it shut down. Here's hoping Churchill can get the train back, if not the grain shipping!
And then it was snorkel time! The weather was lovely. The first two days in town had been fairly hazy due to smoke coming from a large forest fire in the area. But the fires were gone and we were left with beautiful blue skies. Our boat exited the Churchill River, past the Prince of Wales Fort, which is one of the earliest forts built by the Hudson's Bay Company. There are tours that visit the fort, but we were focused solely on the wildlife!
It doesn't take a lot of driving in a zodiac to spot beluga whales. The day we arrived, we spotted dozens from the shoreline of the beach! They're everywhere in the summer season. The trickier part is finding clear waters and curious pods of whales. Our driver Alex took us out into Hudson Bay itself. Which is ultra cool for several reasons. The first is that Hudson Bay is part of the Arctic Ocean, so we'd be snorkelling in the Arctic Ocean! Not bad! The second reason is that all water in Hudson Bay below the high tide line belongs to Nunavut, so we'd also be snorkelling in Nunavut! Double whammy!
We spotted some whales and hopped into the predictably frigid waters. We'll get a video up here at some point to show you the whales themselves (I didn't bring my DSLR underwater!), but they're pretty amazing. They have unfused cervical vertebrae, which means that they'll swim by you and then turn their heads to look at you while they continue swimming away. They also have a constant goofy smile on their faces. They're frequently referred to as "sea canaries" because of how often and intensely they vocalize and communicate. You can actually hear it in the GoPro footage! Incredible stuff.
Our second snorkel site was actually just offshore from a relaxing polar bear. A bit freaky hanging out in the water while a marine mammal that could easily destroy you looks on with disinterest. I tried to capture the number of whales surfacing all the time, but it's a bit hard to do. Suffice it to say they're all over the dang place. If you get the chance, you should do this. Hang out with beluga whales. They're awesome.
We didn't have much time after the tour to pack up our stuff and prepare for departure. In the airport we taught some kids how to play Jaipur – the two-player trading game that Sandra and I have been carting around. They enjoyed it immensely. After we let them play their first round against each other, one turned around to her father and said, "Dad, we have to get this game". Success. Oh, and I realized I'd misinterpreted the rules a bit, and in this new version of the rules I've actually started to win a few games from Sandra. Double success!
We departed Churchill with huge smiles on our faces. What an absolutely incredible place! We'll be telling stories about it for years to come. Thank you, Churchill!