Homer's Travels: Canada By Rail: A Side Trip To Churchill, MB

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Canada By Rail: A Side Trip To Churchill, MB

There once was a train that would take you to Churchill, MB from Winnipeg but the undermining of the track due to melting and shifting permafrost has cut the remote town off for at least a year now.  The only way to get to Churchill today is by air or sea.  We flew in with Lazy Bear Expeditions.

Along with bears and whales, the flowers were everywhere.
We were picked up at the airport and started our bus tour of Churchill.  Our guide was a photojournalist chock full of information and a sense of humor.  He made the tours a fun experience.  This was important since Churchill is a small, gritty town of homes, apartments, and a few double-wide trailers.  There is a layer of sand and grit on just about everywhere.  There are no stop lights - there is a four way stop sign that nearly ended in disaster when three vehicles arrived at the same time.

The land and shores around Churchill are rocky and ruggedly beautiful.
After our town tour we arrived at our log cabin style Lodge where we had lunch.  The Wife and I walked down to see if we could find some insect repellent (the airline security confiscated her spray can).  We were unsuccessful but we did explored some of the town.  The lodge offered bug head nets that we should have purchased the first day.  We didn't and learned our lesson soon afterward.

Bears sometimes get too close to town.  They are trapped, kept in a bear holding
facility (bear jail) and eventually flown fifty km or more away from town.
The first afternoon we got back on the bus and explored more of the town and the surrounding areas.  We learned about the history of the area and we visited the park interpretive center for a history of the First Nation's people in the area.  During a visit to the beach the Wife dropped her phone in the Hudson Bay.  Salt water is not good for phones.  It did not survive.  The Wife was bummed.

Our boat for the day.  Landing to look for polar bears.
On Monday we had a slow morning for self guided exploration followed by an awesome boat ride in the afternoon.  The boat was a landing craft with the fold down bow for hitting the beach.  As we went out we slowed down a bit to see the beluga whales feeding.  This time of year there are as many as sixty thousand belugas in the area.  The whales (actually a relative to the dolphin) were friendly and a bit curious approaching the boat many times.

A few beluga whales near our boat as we head up the coast.
We finished loitering around the belugas before heading up the West coast of Hudson Bay to a small peninsula.  The way North was rough and our flat bottomed boat slapped the water hard.  It was not the most comfortable ride I've had.

A polar bear way off in the distance.
We pulled up to the shore and the bow was lowered so we could walk on the shore.  Our guide went ahead of us carrying a shotgun just in case.  He would wave us ahead once he checked everything was safe.  After a short walk we saw our first polar bear.  It was just a white spot on the horizon (even through my camera) but the polar bear is the biggest predators in this region and getting too close was not a wise thing to do.  We crept as close as we could safely and we all watched the bears through our cameras and binoculars.  We saw four bears on our walk.

A polar bear way up close.
We got back on the boat and began following the coast until we saw another bear - a juvenile.  It was wandering among the glacier dropped boulders along the shore.  We thought it had walked over the ridge of the peninsula and the boat was about to turn and head home when the bear came back over the ridge and headed to the shore.  The boat was floating about ten to twenty feet off the shore.  The bear came all the way down to the water before standing on submerged stones.  It finally got in the water and was about fifteen feet away from the boat before it decided to go back up on the shore.  It was an incredible experience seeing this large animal up close.

We headed back for the hour or so long trip back to Churchill stopping briefly for some more belugas.  We ended up being out on the water for eight hours.  During that eight hours we both lost several pints of blood to the mosquitoes that were everywhere.  The mosquitoes were joined by huge biting horseflies (known as bulldogs in Churchill).  We ate late dinners, bought mosquito head nets, and went to bed.

We had most of the Tuesday off so I went walking around town.  I bought some magnets, got stamps in our passports at the post office, and took pictures of things we'd passed in the bus tour.

I can just see the smile of the beluga's face.
Tuesday evening we went out on zodiacs to get up close and personal with the beluga whales.  It's really hard to get pictures of animals in the water.  Twice during this trip I saw a beluga stick its entire head above water and twice I did not get a picture.  All I got mostly is pictures of grey humps in the water.

An interesting learning experience from our fort guide at the Prince of Wales fort.
We landed on the shore opposite the town to visit the Prince of Wales fort.  A gentleman in period costume interpreted the fort with its forty cannons which housed forty men.  It never held soldiers and mainly served a part in the area's fur trade.

The polar bear jail decorated with one of the SeaWall murals.
Thursday was also mostly free.  We'd signed up to snorkeled with the whales and many of the water related activities were held during high tide which was early evening.  We were told to put on as many layers as we could since the water was cold and the dry suits we would be wearing would not be warm enough by themselves.  It was in the upper 80's Fahrenheit (nearly 32 Celsius) so once we put on all our layers and the dry suits we began sweating buckets.  That changed rapidly once we got in the water.  The water was around 40℉ (5℃).  We were tethered to the zodiac and slowly towed through the water.  I had my small waterproof camera on me but ... it failed soon after I tried to use it.  Olympus will be getting a letter from me.  No pictures this day for me.

The brilliant orange lichen that brightens most of the landscape near Churchill.
We got in and out of the water three times searching for curious belugas but many of the belugas seemed more interested in eating than us.  I saw maybe a half dozen over the three attempts with only one getting anywhere near me.  This would have been find but I was cold ... I mean COLD.  The low number of belugas did not justify the cold for me ... especially when I started to shiver involuntarily.  I tapped out and was the first back in the boat.  While this excursion was not totally successful, it's easy to understand that these animals are not tame and you can't predict what you are going to get.

Back on the beach after a ride on the cold Hudson Bay waters.
The sun barely sets this time of year.
We were exhausted when we got back to the lodge.  We ate another late dinner and then rolled and tossed in our beds sweating and, frankly, not getting a good night's sleep.  Fortunately this was our last day and we would have time later to catch up on our sleep.

Our tundra crawler.
On Thursday, our last day , we took a short Summer tundra tour in a massive tundra crawler.  Wildlife was a bit rare this time of year and we only saw a bald eagle but it was still cool to see the tundra landscape.  We also saw the shipwreck of the SS Ithaka which was a bonus.

The SS Ithaka shipwreck.
The holes at the bottom are big enough to drive the tundra crawler through.
Our flight was late so we went back to the lodge for lunch and went out for another bus tour to see the SeaWalls public art around the town.  The murals added some meaning and a lot of color to Churchill.

An arctic Fox bounces around looking for lunch. 
Our charter flight finally arrived and we winged our way back to Winnipeg.

Except for the bugs I enjoyed Churchill.  At times the town felt like the most remote place I have ever been.  I'm not sure why.  We had all the amenities.  We even had cable.  But there was something that made it feel like we were on the edge of the Earth.  No matter how much we enjoyed the whales and bears, we were ready to get back to civilization.

Pictures can be found in my 2018-06 Canada By Rail Google Photos album.

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