Polar Bear Capital of the World – Churchill

My west to east trip was about to take a detour north.  2 days north by rail to Churchill which sits on Hudson Bay, Manitoba.  To get there the train begun west, back into Saskatchewan, avoiding the wetlands of Lake Winnipeg and supplying the once significant industrial centres.  The trainline got flooded out and was closed for a long time, isolating the town, only reopening in December 2018, so it was a route I felt privileged to take. Every time an announcement came over the tannoy it started “Hello Trainland” and that was exactly how it felt, like a parallel land with familiar characters. 

Within an hour we lost cell service and began to gain trees in exchange.  By evening of the first day we made it to Canora, Saskatchewan named after CAnada NOrthern RAilway.  That evening, I marked an item off my Canadian Bucket list as I learned to play Crib.  I feel this is truly Canadian as I haven’t been in a thrift store yet which doesn’t have a stack of Crib boards for sale.  Shannon, Kandi and I played well into the evening, before dining together in the dining carriage, so it seemed like a sophisticated way to travel, watching the sunset over the scenery turn a beautiful burnt orange.  

 

Once I awoke in the morning, there was a marked change in the scenery.  For much of the route, the train was hemmed in by the dense tree cover of the boreal forest.  Late in the 2nd day we had a longer break in Thompson.  This is the 2nd biggest population in Manitoba and is a hub for the many sparse settlements around.  It has a hospital and a university, and many people from the towns further north joined the train, stocked up with goods they had purchased in town.  One town we unloaded at has a population of 106 people.  60 of its residents were onboard the train.  At each small settlement we stopped, we got a peak into a different way of life.  There would be no platform, just overgrown grass and the purple fireweed.  Dogs and quads would greet the train to meet people or drop them off, then disappear down dirt tracks to the few houses that were congregated together.

After 48 hours we pulled into Churchill.  The main high street was a stones throw from the beautiful train station as the town had been moved across from the other side of the Churchill river where it originated when the trainline was completed in 1936.  Once it was much fought over by the English originated Hudson Bay company and the French who both wanted to capitalise on the “soft gold” of the fur trade.  The Hudson Bay company traded with the Inuit people for pelts to sell back to the European Fashion industry for use in hats and clothing.  Many of the relics of Churchill’s History lay across the river on its original site.  The Prince of Whales Fort took over 40 years to complete, defending the interests of the Hudson’s Bay Company and their huge wealth.  It was surrendered to the French 10 years later and destroyed in a matter of hours of its siege.  

Now its main draws are Polar Bears and Beluga Whales. 

In July and August, up to 3000 Beluga Whales return to Churchill River to have their young in the waters.  The adult whales are bright white and 3-4 metres long whilst the young are grey and 1.5 metres.  They have no dorsal fin, said to have evolved from life under ice, however they are communicative and playful.  In the early evening I got on the water with them in a kayak and already you could see many groups of them swimming around playfully and breaking the surface of the water.  Once in the boats, they seemed to pop up unexpectedly with little pattern to their movements.  One swam up, his smiling face angled up to examine me, gave my kayak a nudge and swam off.  It was exhilarating because their bright white bodies showed up well even in the murky water and I could see he far outstretched my kayak, however their playful curiosity seemed unthreatening.   As our large group spread out, there was whales in every direction and it was possible to sit and let them pass you by.  They seem to love surfing the wake behind the kayak and several times I got one of two to join me if I paddled fast enough, getting them to swim in circle behind me, butting me on.  It was exhausting work playing tag with a whale as they were tireless in their pursuit, but short in their attention spans.  I took no photos out on the water, so I will always remember them by their cheeky faces smiling up as they gave me a bump along.

To end an adrenaline filled evening, there was open mic night at the pub.  This isolated town clearly had an international community drawn in for the season.  The possibility for Polar Bears was more present than I had considered and even though the town was tightly drawn, you weren’t recommended to walk around certain areas, or at night.  It is the law that you must leave your car unlocked so that an unlucky passer by who may encounter a bear can use it for refuge, and it was reccomended that if you encounter a bear, you remove items of clothing which they will chose to sniff as you back away.  Adding to the drama, a big news story had just broken in Canada.  Two young boys had been named as suspects for 3 murders in BC and were using vehicles and burning them out in their wake.  They had crossed from BC into Alberta, Saskatchewan and were last seen where the road ends in Gillam, Manitoba, the last town we had passed through on the train, merely hours before our train had been through at 1am Monday morning.  It was surreal to be on the look out for polar bears and suspects, while enjoying the delights of this happy little town.  

The next morning I was trying not to get my hopes up as we boarded the Tundra Buggy to go and explore the surroundings in the hope of finding Polar Bears.  The buggies are made in Churchill and are a high, hardy and comfortable vehicle for driving across the landscapes of this wilderness.  The polar bears live on the ice from November to March, whilst the pregnant females nest on land in Waspusk National Park preparing to give birth in December time.  Bear viewing season is considered October and November as the bears prepare to go back on the ice, this area being the first part of the bay to freeze.  The tundra was flat mossy grasslands with lots of beautiful purple fireweed.  We spotted Tundra Swans, Cranes, Bald eagles and Ptarmigans as we drove closer to the national park following the coast.  Our first polar bear was spotted on a spit leading out to the water, moving quickly towards the ocean to go for a swim. It turned out to be a mother and 2 young.  She swam around in the ocean cooling off, lifting her head to sniff the air to keep her young safe.  Luckily she did as a male was on her way over from the next spit of land, pursuing her.  She climbed onto land then continued east away from him.  He sniffed around where she had been and pursued her further.  We followed in pursuit and stumbled across a young male polar bear sleeping in the kelp, unfortunately startling him.  He moved with great ease and speed toward the water, eyeing us up as he paddled around.  

 

The wind picked up.  As the polar bear do not like to mess up their fur they prefer to take shelter behind the low willow tree cover and we found a bear hunkered down low here.  We finally found another bear who had found his own island for a bit of peace and quiet and was resting in an opening.   They were majestic creatures and despite knowing of their agression, it was moving to watch their every movement as the flicked their heads around sensing their surroundings.  I couldn’t quite believe I had seen one, let alone seven of these amazing creatures.  

That evening, it was back to the pub where you were guaranteed to see everyone you were familiar with from the train and swap adventure stories from the day. 

On my final day in Churchill, I stayed close to town exploring the cafes and gift shops of the town.  As food was all imported large distances it was expensive to eat.  The most affordable place was the hospital cafeteria.  The temperature was back down to its 12 degrees average but with a harsh wind.  In amongst the white caps of the ocean, belugas could still be seen surfacing and spy hopping, as long as you kept one eye out behind you for Polar bears (and murder suspects.). Conservation continued to do their rounds, patrolling the perimeters.  During the years that Churchill had been cut off by the washed out train line, the sea walls project was born and many artists were flown to Churchill for 10 days to complete a series of colourful murals.  

 

That evening we boarded the train to head south again.  It was a slow line, sometimes crawling along at 15mph and even slower if warm weather struck, but picturesque in its vast emptiness and with good enough Bananagrams company to pass a couple of days onboard.

5 comments

  1. Such an amazing and colourful outpost of a place. It seems people and nature dwell in harmony here. I love that the law states car are not to be locked, what a simple, straightforward and sensible solution.

  2. Looks like you are having quite the adventure Lauren, we don’t have polar bears here in Charlottetown but hopefully I will be able to provide you with an experience worthy of your blog; perhaps hauling in lobster traps and having a meal right there on the boat, seal watching just outside Charlottetown harbour or kayaking along our calm southern shores.
    See you next week.

  3. What an interesting and informative post Lauren. Your pictures are excellent as well, you got some nice close ups of the polar bears! It was great to meet you and get introduced to bananagrams by you.

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