Days 57 – 65 (July 24th – 1st August). Churchill and farewell to Winnipeg

The rail journey from Winnipeg to Churchill is 1697 km in length, takes 45 hours and requires 2 nights on the train. The only other option is to fly from Winnipeg, a 2.5 hour flight. There are no roads after Thompson. Churchill is located at 58.7679° N (approximately the same latitude as Orkney) on the southern-most tip of Hudson Bay, a bay large enough to accommodate the whole of Germany as an island.

Hudson Bay

The history of Churchill includes the usual English vs French argey-bargey and there is a fort which was originally designed to protect the lucrative trade in furs. Less well-known is the long history of the different tribes which lived in the area prior to westerners arriving on the scene and who continue to do so today (the majority of Churchillians are of First Nation origin). As one might imagine this is a continued source of friction even to this day (see below).

Churchill and the isolated lands to the south lie on permafrost, a potentially tricky material upon which to build a railway. Although most people are aware of Churchill in the context of tourism, this wasn’t the reason to build a hazardous and expensive train line back in the 1920s, so why was it built at all?

As the journey progresses the scenery changes from crops and herds of cattle to a much wilder mixture of trees, water and marsh land, with beaver lodges seen in virtually every lake and the occasional moose sighting to spice up the journey.

Rarely, the train stops and passengers can disembark for a few minutes and some of these places are of interest for their history, wildlife or industry

As we approached Churchill the track became much less stable as the train rocks widely from side-to-side and crawls over some of the more dodgy sections. And the weather deteriorated so that by the time we arrived it was 8C, windy and wet

Welcome to Churchill

Churchill is situated on a peninsula next to the estuary of the Churchill river which flows into Hudson bay, so on one side is fresh water and on the other, the sea.

We booked on 2 tours; firstly a boat tour which took us out to the fort situated at the mouth of the river on Eskimo Point and then went up river to find some of the thousands of Beluga Whales which congregate in the outflow of the river to give birth in the relatively warm and rich waters. Having crossed the river we disembarked and walked up to the fort accompanied by a guide and monitored at distance by a number of bear monitors whose job is to track the polar bears in the area and ensure tourists are kept a safe distance away. This was our introduction to the impact polar bears have on the life of everyone who lives in the area. Unlike the other bear species in Canada, polar bears actively hunt human beings and although many of the bears in the area stick to the coastal areas occasionally a young bear may wander into town, causing havoc before it is either encouraged to leave or is captured and placed in bear jail (more later). It is deliberate policy in Churchill that no-one locks their car or house, in case someone needs refuge from a marauding bear. All round the town the bear alert phone number is advertised and on the outskirts of the town there are signs discouraging people from proceeding any further.

For many of the people on our boat the fort was simply a good viewpoint over Eskimo Point where bears had been reported over the past week.

The front door

Our luck was in, despite the freezing cold wind and occasional squalls, a bear was seen to stand up and walk across a grassy area in the middle of the point. Others were seen nearer the rocks along the coast but blended in well to the background making a positive id difficult. Leaving the fort the skipper was persuaded to head out round Eskimo point where a mother bear and young were found.

Bird-wise the trip was also eventful as a Parasitic Jaeger, otherwise known as an arctic skua in the UK (the American name far better reflects the lifestyle of this species), was seen over Eskimo Point. Jaegers don’t bother finding their own food, they simply steal it from other birds, primarily Arctic terns, pursuing them remorselessly until they drop it, to the advantage of the skua. To do this they need to be incredibly fast and resourceful flyers and this, plus their dark and sinister plumage, makes them look the part of a piratical bird.

Arctic tern. Courtesy of K.Hyndman

Heading to the river, Beluga Whales were everywhere, the adults are white and when they come up for air it looks like a white rock appearing from the ocean before gracefully curving back under water. Some were accompanied by grey immature whales. The water was very silty so it was impossible to see where the whales were until they actually surfaced so getting a good head shot proved to be a matter of luck rather than judgement and, combined with the choppy conditions it made photography challenging at best.

Returning to land we raced back to the Tundra Inn restaurant to warm up, celebrate our first bear and whale sightings and enjoy the local cuisine. The place was crammed, with both locals and tour groups, as it was “music” night and a local guitar maestro was giving it his all throughout the evening. It was a good way to end our 2 days of travelling.

Day 2 was worse, weather-wise, freezing cold and very wet but luckily we were booked on a tour led by a legend of Churchill tourism, the redoubtable Rhonda and her prehistoric bus.

The not so magic bus

We were to be shown many of the local sites and, hopefully, some wildlife along the way. Rhonda lives in Churchill and has strong views on, well, everything but particularly on how the indigenous peoples have been and are treated. Our 3 hour trip lasted 4.5 hours, primarily because she enjoys taking about all things local. En route to Cape Merry, where we could see but weren’t allowed (for bear reasons) to access two more red chairs, we stopped to learn more about the shipping of grain from Churchill, see below.

Cape Merry and the inaccessible red chairs

She told us about lichens, ice ages, local politics, the Caribou Fly season, the horror of which alone would be enough to never consider moving to Churchill!

Art is big thing in Churchill, partially through the influence of indigenous peoples..

…and a more recent explosion of murals, linked to beliefs of the local tribes but stimulated by recent events, described below.

Then we saw a crashed plane, called Miss Piggy because of the size of cargoes she flew, a remarkably lucky escape for the crew who all survived. Since then the plane has also been subjected to the local artists.

Stopping at the airport and the disused US military base where the Polar Bear Jail is now located. This is a disused hangar in which Polar Bears are housed during the summer when pack ice isn’t present in the bay. During this period young bears can’t access seals and so effectively starve until the ice returns and seal hunting can recommence. Young bears often roam the town and if they can’t be persuaded to leave then they are imprisoned until the ice returns. Polar bears weren’t common around Churchill until the US Air Force closed their facility in the town. That may have something to do with many ex-servicemen having polar bear pelts on their walls….

We visited the rocket launch site where research was carried out into the military implications of the aurora borealis, the arctic marine research centre and visited the Churchill Northern Study Centre, located out on the tundra in the Wildlife Management Area.

Tundra: the Wildlife Management Area

Within the town there is widespread mistrust of the government. Poverty is high, incomes are low and 80% of the population live in housing provided by the province of Manitoba. Despite promises to the contrary the establishment of research labs doesn’t benefit the town, tourism doesn’t really make much of a difference except to a handful of local families and the loss of the military base was a big blow to the local economy but it was the events of 2017 which really caused a huge international uproar primarily due to the hardship caused over the ensuing years.

In 2017 the railway was washed out south of Churchill. This meant the shipping of grain stopped, the jobs at the processing plant went, the plant was mothballed and declared unsustainable by the US owners. Food prices went through the roof and the town was in crisis. The government did nothing to help and in response the art community reacted by creating huge murals on buildings across the town to advertise their plight. The cry from the people was “know I’m here”, they felt neglected and discarded by government.

In the end 2 Canadian companies bought up the grain plant and invested in fixing the railway and grain shipments are due to recommence next year. The town is on the mend and, hopefully lessons have been learnt by the Canadian politicians as when the Prime Minister came to open the renovated grain plant he started his speech with the words: “I knew you were here”. Time will tell.

Churchill is also well-known for hosting a wide range of bird species most often associated with the arctic in contrast to the rest of Manitoba. That afternoon I went out birding with 2 people from the bus trip, Kathryn & David from Brandon. For bear reasons we were only allowed to walk round the ponds at the grain facility but found some nice birds.

Red-necked phalarope

The Tundra Inn restaurant was closed so we ended up at the Lazy Bear Cafe, a teetotal establishment located in the Lazy Bear Lodge, a recently built hotel / shop / restaurant complex built specifically to host organised groups coming up by air from Winnipeg. Flights, a few days accommodation and a few trips thrown in for good measure can leave each participant short by CAN$ 5,000 or more. Nothing is cheap in Churchill except liquor.

On our way to the Lazy Bear we got talking to a local who was originally from Newfoundland. His cousin was the blacksmith in the Viking Village referred to in a previous blog.

Our final day in Churchill. Sunny, calm and hot. We walked to the beach where the capelin were out and the gulls and terns were frenziedly diving in and taking advantage of this huge food source. As we were leaving the Belugas started arriving on the scene, powering across the bay to join in the party.

May require some imagination…

Back on the train for the 2 day marathon to Winnipeg.

At one of the scheduled stops Helen was asked if she wanted to call “All aboard!” when the train was ready to depart. This consisted of standing on a step, twirling an arm around your head and shouting as loud as possible. I don’t think we left anyone behind!

Arriving in Winnipeg only 3 1/2 hours late, we caught a taxi to Louise and Gary’s who kindly lent us their home (they were at the lake for the long weekend) for a couple of days on solid ground.

We also got the chance to see the family again and to say our goodbyes before heading West.