The Great White North

The Great White North

Why in the world would we go to one of the coldest towns in the Western Hemisphere in late Fall? Bears, man! Polar bears to be exact.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

We got up at 3:30 AM and drove up to RDU for our three-leg flight to Winnipeg, Manitoba. Each leg of the flight was about two hours long, so we weren’t having to sit for too long at a stretch. When we reached Minneapolis/St. Paul we had enough of a layover that we worked on getting our steps in for the day. One thing we haven’t let go is getting our 10,000 (me) and 12,000 (Alan) steps in every day. By the time we reached our hotel in Winnipeg, we were set.

The temperature in Winnipeg was about 15 degrees Fahrenheit, with a real-feel temperature around 7 degrees. A lot colder than I can remember being when growing up in Michigan.

This day was Remembrance Day in Canada – the same as our Veteran’s Day – and a lot of places were closed, so we were lucky to find a nice place to eat dinner at later on.

Once checked into the hotel, we took it pretty easy, then near 5:00 PM we walked a few blocks to have dinner at Earl’s. I had sushi – I’ve been obsessed with it lately – and Alan had the Yucatan Chicken Tacos. We slept well that night.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Today was another day of observance (and bank closings) for Remembrance Day. We started out by going to the gym and walking, and then we decided to brave the cold, now down to 12 with a real-feel of 5 degrees, and check out what looked like some sort of mall on Google Maps. We lucked out. We found a building that housed a bunch of small eateries, and a few shops – most notably a book store – and so after poking around a bit, we had lunch. Again, I had sushi. Alan had a burger. Then we walked over to another shop-filled building and looked at souvenirs and a toy store with some really unique toys. From there we walked back to the hotel and just took it easy. Around 2:00 we went upstairs to get outfitted with a parka and some boots. Holy cow those things are heavy! Later, Alan decided to walk about a half-mile to an outdoor clothing store and look for some warmer gloves. He returned triumphant and showered to get ready for the welcome dinner with our NatHab naturalist and guide and the other 14 travelers we’d be joining on our trip to Churchill.

Hollie, our guide, talked to us through dinner and filled us in on a lot of things – most important of all, how to dress for the cold! Layers, layers, layers. It’s going to be 0 or below while we are there. Brrr!

Upon returning to our room we switched up our packing to get everything into one bag, and then turn the other one in for storage with the things we wouldn’t be needing. We are as ready to go as we can be. Churchill, here we come!

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Today we flew in to Churchill. The flight to was on a good-sized chartered 2-prop plane (by NatHab). The trip took about 35 minutes longer than expected because of 27 knot headwinds, but we made it with no other issues. The runway in Churchill is a former military base runway and able to handle all aircraft, even the older space shuttles! It can’t handle the newer space shuttles now though.

It looked so cold from way up in the air, and we weren’t disappointed when we walked off the plane onto the tarmac to the awaiting bus. The blast of below-0 Fahrenheit air hit us and took our breath away. We were whisked away to the Churchill Hotel by our bus driver, Chris. We couldn’t see much out of the bus windows; with 18 bodies (16 photographers, a driver and a guide), they frosted up immediately.

Hollie handed out keys before we got to the hotel, so we knew where we were going before we got to the hotel. The Churchill Hotel is a very comfortable little hotel, in town, and would be our home for the next four days.

That evening, before dinner, we went to the Itsanitaq Museum, formerly “Eskimo” Museum, and learned a bit about the culture and heritage of the First Peoples of the Churchill area.

Interesting facts about Churchill: you have to leave your car/truck and houses unlocked – this is so that if a Polar bear shows up unexpectedly, you have someplace safe to run into and hide. There is a siren that goes off at 10:00 PM every night in the summer to signal everyone to go inside and be safe. During migration especially, there is a constant patrol around the main area of town for Polar bears. If you hear several blast from a gun, you know one is in the area. You are also obligated to call the Bear Alert number if you spot a bear in town. Churchill is also a unique point where three different ecospheres converge: the Hudson Bay, boreal forest and the sub-arctic tundra.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

We set our alarms and got up at 6:00 AM to get ready for our day. While we got ready, Alan looked out our window and saw an Arctic fox down the street across from our room. He tried to get a picture of it, but it was too dark outside. We got our layers on and had a good breakfast at our hotel. Later, we grabbed parkas and gear and got on the bus with the other 14 travelers/photographers to head to the polar rover launch where we boarded and headed out.

Our driver, Bill, was such a character, wearing a different costume each day, and welcoming us with a polar bear paw (mitten) high-five each morning. He told us that the Polar Rovers are about 50-55 feet long and 14 feet wide from tire to tire. They measure 14 feet high from the top to the ground and weigh approximately 30,000 pounds. The tires, made for the tundra, are 5 feet tall and 3 feet wide each. The most important things are that they are warm and have a flush toilet – a very good thing when you’re out on the tundra for eight-hour days.

This is us by a Tundra Buggy – a smaller version of the Polar Rover.

After a bit of time out on the tundra we found a big male bear sleeping. He was old and sadly, he was also (we think) dying. So sad. But the next day I was told by Elizabeth, a naturalist with NatHab, that it was a privilege to see this because most bears die out on the ice.

Later we found an Arctic Hare, which was very hard to see with the white fur on white snow.

Along the way I snuck this photo of Hollie. She’s very pretty and very photogenic.

We finished the day with a fascinating presentation by Kelly, a carpenter, a ranger, a coast guard member and sled dog runner.

Wednesday, November 15, 2018

Up again at 6:00 AM and once again we saw the fox across the road, and again, no good photos.

Today the first wildlife we saw were some Rock Ptarmigan, which Alan spotted first, and we all got good shots, even if it was a little hard to keep spotting them.

Soon after that we saw a Cross Fox – very exciting and fun to watch.

And after that we saw Willow Ptarmigan. All before 10AM.

We had hot cocoa with some Bailey’s and a chocolate cookie for mid morning snack, and by noon we were in whiteout conditions. So Bill, our wonderful driver, set up a nice lunch for us. As we were just starting to finish up our lunch, we got word of a momma Polar bear and cub so we put stuff away as quickly as we could and headed out to join a bunch of other rovers and buggies. This sighting proved to be a GREAT photo op! It was awesome watching the two of them as they moved around. We sat on this location for a long time before she and the cub hunkered down for the storm. Once in a while they picked their heads up and we all snapped away.

Going back we were in a severe whiteout and it was -19 outside.  However, as the hour passed, a beautiful sunset unfolded for us and our bus driver, Chris, stopped to give us a chance for some nice sunset photos.

That evening we went to see the Anglican church in town that had been moved across the ice of the Churchill River, on sleds, to put it in the town’s new location. This church has a special stained glass window inside which was donated by Franklin’s widow in gratitude for all the people who helped search for her husband, who was lost at sea.

Next we went to Town Center Complex, a building with an ice rink, bowling alley, basketball court, school, pool, play area for little kids – all interconnected so you didn’t have to go outside. The only time the Center would close, would be when it get below -50 C outside. This building is also connected to the town’s Health Center and nursing home.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Clear skies this morning! And we got lucky and saw a pretty sunrise with “sun dogs”; little rainbows formed by ice crystals in the air.

The only animal we saw today was an Arctic fox curled up at a large boulder. We stayed on her for almost an hour. She really gave us a show too – she got up, stretched, then rolled around playfully before going away.

Just before breaking for lunch a mother bear and cub were spotted out on ice – but they were about a half mile out and couldn’t be spotted with the cameras. Hollie, God bless her, managed to get her in a spotting scope, but that was as much as we could see – a small blonde smudge out on the ice.

Lunch included Mimosas with roasted yam soup, sandwiches and lemon bars for dessert. Bill drove us back to look for the Arctic hare but we came up empty.

Snow drifts.

We were taken to look at the beached SS Ithaca and Hollie told us the story behind the beaching. Then we heard from Cort, NatHab’s Director of Conservation & Sustainable Travel – he’s been EVERYWHERE.

As we were leaving, Bill got us positioned to get a beautiful shot of the sun as it was setting.

At the end of the day we took a picture of the whole group in front of a tundra buggy (similar to the polar rover but smaller with only 4 wheels), then we returned to the hotel and went to dinner.

After dinner we heard a presentation by a Metis native, and park ranger, who told us of the sordid and sad details surrounding the First Nations in Churchill and how the government is trying to remedy past injustices.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Today we got to sleep in, but of course we woke up at 5:30 AM.  We had a hearty breakfast and then went for a dog sled ride (FUN!). Prior to going out, David, the musher/owner of Wapusk Adventures, told us about his tribe’s heritage in Canada. His tribe is a blend of French and Cree, called Metis (May-tees). It took decades for Canada to recognize them as their own nation, but they did and now they have the same rights as other indigenous tribes.

Alan and I were the first to volunteer to get on a sled to do the “Ididamile” (haha – yes, that’s really what they call it). They hooked the dogs up and once the other sleds were ready, we were off like a bolt with a hard jerk (you can hear me at the beginning exclaiming a loud, “Uhg!” as they started out). We rode with me in the front, Alan standing on the skids, and a musher positioned behind him, and were taken on a one-mile loop through Churchill’s boreal forest. It was so much fun! We found out that three of our sled dogs were named Chewy, Yoda and Obi-Wan. What a hoot! Perfect for us nerds.

We went to lunch, then had time for a bunch of opportunities to take photos around Churchill.

We even got to visit, but not go inside of, the Polar bear jail – a location for bears that habitually go into town. When the ice is good they are then flown out and released onto the ice. This helps to give them a bad idea of being around humans and prevent them from repeating the offense.

Around 3:00 PM we were all flown back to Winnipeg and the Fort Garry Hotel to rest up then go to dinner.

Dinner was a great time to talk travel with our fellow frozen friends, and Hollie gave us each a mug and pin to remember the trip by.

I have to give a big shout out to Hollie – she really made our trip memorable and oh-so-easy. She’s an amazing young lady with a beautiful spirit who will go far in this world.

A shout out to Natural Habitat Adventures too – the price of the trip was VERY much worth it. We were so well taken care of – we didn’t have to worry about a thing, and the trip was one we will never forget. Thank you NatHab and Hollie!