The plane droned due north from Winnipeg for three long hours, crossing endless forests and thousands of lakes that gave no hint of the nature experience that was to come. My destination was Churchill, Manitoba, nestled on the edge of the Arctic on the western rim of Hudson Bay. This remarkable town is not only a thriving seaport but, as I was to discover, is also a nature-watching wonderland, providing an experience that can only be matched by a big-game safari in deepest Africa.
The plane descended into a desolate terrain of tundra composed of rocky outcrops and marshy land lying just past the edge of the boreal forest where the cold ice of permafrost lies only a few feet below the surface. Soon we were in Churchill, home to about 1100 inhabitants. The town is dominated by the railway with long lines of freight cars constantly shuttling back and forth unloading wheat into the large grain elevator by the dock. All-terrain vehicles, the favourite means of travel (in winter it's the snowmobile), scoot everywhere raising clouds of dust.
The largest concentration of polar bears on the globe has brought fame to Churchill, and earned it the unofficial title of The Polar Bear Capital of the World. In the late fall the bears, the mightiest carnivores on earth, gather along the coast as they await freeze-up so they can move onto the ice of Hudson Bay to live and catch seal, their favourite food. They often pass right through the town, where patrols keep watch and issue warnings. Particularly troublesome bears are captured and put into a special polar-bear jail. Even in summer bears frequently enter the town searching for food; I was advised to take care when walking, especially after dark.
The towering tundra buggy, with wheels almost the height of a person, is a safe and unusual way of observing polar bears has been devised:. Although it was mid-summer and bear sightings were not expected, we clambered aboard and rumbled into the tundra, dotted with scrubby black spruce, rocky outcrops, and many small shallow lakes.
The Churchill area is one of the best birding places in North America and from our lofty platform we saw numerous flocks of snow geese and Canada geese, a family of ptarmigans almost invisible in their camouflage colouring, northern shrikes, Hudsonian godwits, old squaw ducks, mergansers, gulls, three large sandhill cranes lumbering into flight with their enormous wings, and arctic terns that migrate each year from the southern tip of South America. Then a caribou adorned with enormous antlers loomed out of the mist, posing majestically on a rise. The guide explained that two caribou herds numbering almost 800,000 animals live to the northwest migrating each fall and spring in a thundering mass.
As we lumbered back to town, I was humbled by the stark beauty, but also saddened, for even this remote place is feeling the heavy hand of humans. Scientists have shown that global warming is causing the ice of Hudson Bay to break up earlier and earlier. Since the polar bears hunt for ringed seals, their primary food source, from the ice they are getting less food each year. As a result the weight of both male and female polar bears is declining and female bears are having fewer cubs.
The following day, a jet-boat carried us out into the river estuary dotted with Beluga whales. The Belugas are not much bigger than dolphins, white in colour, and remarkable talkers, they are called the canaries of the sea. Every summer about 3000 whales live here until freeze-up and we saw hundreds of them. We listened to them chattering via a hydrophone lowered into the water. Some inspected the hydrophone, looked us in the eye, and spouted water at us from about two metres away. You could not help but feel a deep empathy for these large and intelligent creatures. They are so plentiful and gentle that you can swim amongst them in the warm waters of the estuary, a once in a life-time experience.
On our return the sun was low in the west with golden light glistening on the water and illuminating the grain elevator that towers over the town like a fortress. Although darkness comes late in the summer, it is worth staying up to witness the northern lights dancing overhead in shimmering curtains of green. Churchill is one of the prime locations in the world to view this magnificent show, which are especially resplendent in winter.
Churchill is also blessed with a rich history dating to the 1600s. Across the river lies Fort Prince of Wales, where I was again reminded that this is the domain of the polar bear. As we strolled from the dock to the fort, a Parks Canada guide armed with a shotgun and a starter's pistol patrolled around our group in an all-terrain vehicle. Once inside, the massive wooden gates were drawn shut and locked to ensure no polar bear would wander in to disturb our visit. The British built this impressive fort with 5-metre thick walls in the mid 1700s to protect the fur trade, but then surrendered it to the French in 1782 without a shot being fired. Now the fort and its rusting cannons lie in lonely isolation in their setting of moor-like tundra.
All too soon it was over, and the plane droned back toward civilization over the lake-speckled tundra leaving behind a very special place, for where else can you swim with whales, see mighty polar bears up close, hear the thunder of thousands of caribou migrating, and enjoy a glass of wine under a night sky filled with shimmering sheets of brilliant colour?
Hans Tammemagi has written two travel books: Exploring Niagara - The Complete Guide to Niagara Falls & Vicinity and Exploring the Hill - A Guide to Canada's
Parliament Past & Present. His work is often featured in Osprey and CANWEST papers.
Transportation, visas, health, maps and temperature
Airlines (Wikipedia): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_airlines
Embassies/Consulates (Embassy World): http://www.embassyworld.com/
Health precautions (WHO): http://www.who.int/ith/en/
Google interactive map: http://maps.google.com/
Temperature (Temperature World): http://www.temperatureworld.com/