It’s the final days of October, and I’m flying from Southern California and its mid -70s F degrees mild beach weather to sub-zero freezing temps just south of the Arctic Circle in Churchill, located in the Manitoba Province of Canada. How crazy can one be to leave blue skies and beach strolls, transfer planes in my quest, and not even have an assurance of spotting what I wish to see? And the journey itself is no cake walk. I will transfer planes, have a six hour layover in Calgary with airport snack bars closed shut for the night, and then onward to Winnipeg for two days before meeting up with my group for a private plane two hours northward to reach Churchill. Oh, did I mention that the cost is pretty significant as well? For sure, it’s not an easy trip; it’s a time consuming trip; it’s an expensive trip; and it’s all worthwhile.Much of the shore along the Hudson Bay, at the outskirts of Churchill, looks like a barren out-of-this-world planet. Residents fondly nickname the sparse trees as flag trees because most have branches only on one side due to the prevailing winds whipping away those from the other side. Rocks, potholes and mud decorate the roads. Pools of water collect ever so often that the vehicles slip and slide. And whiteouts pop up regularly for the driver patiently to endure. Out on the tundra, our mode of transportation is called a tundra buggy. It sits about nine feet above the ground. Our group of 22 from Frontiers North Adventures can comfortably sit inside the large vehicle; sip on cups of coffee, hot chocolate or soup; munch on sandwiches, and every so often open some windows or venture to the back platform to snap photos of what we came to see.
To claim that it is cold is an understatement. The wind whips at about 80 km an hour. The temp surfaces below zero. The snow gusts target one’s face and deposit flakes on eyelashes and cheeks. As if trying to soothe us, Duane, our guide, and PJ, our driver, reassure us, “Oh, it gets worse than this. Frankly, this is a pretty nice day.” Nonetheless, it is thrilling to submerge oneself into this foreign environment. Somehow or other, the reminder that we are guests, lucky to be there and even welcomed into this alien world, leaves one in silence and awe, or maybe we’re simply too cold to talk and chattering teeth replace words.
Describing the town of Churchill as rustic is a bit complimentary. The hotels are, indeed, simple motels. Billboards are notices of what to do if one spots a bear roaming the streets or seemingly stalking prey. Walking a block or so to sit down for breakfast or dinner makes one wonder if food is truly worth the effort in fighting off the elements. Nine hundred residents, mainly Chipewyan, Inuit and Cree First Nation people along with seasonal tourist employees and port workers, make their homes in Churchill. Trappers, environmentalists, and those operating mushing husky runs make up the remainder. They readily flip from one season to the next: polar bear migration expeditions in the fall of approximately 1000 bears, Northern Lights tours beckon many in the winter, and viewing its 4000 beluga whales flavor the summer. Although birdwatching is prevalent in every season, it is particularly popular in the spring with avid birders coming to view more than 250 species. Indeed, the elements are miserable on one hand and spectacular on the other.
If travel is to relax you, pamper you, and massage you, then Churchill is not for you. However, if travel is to challenge you, teach you, motivate you, and inspire you, then it’s hard to beat Churchill. And nothing is better at doing this than Ursus maritimus, popularly known as the Polar Bear. The bear is one of the largest land carnivores. He will challenge his visitors to survive. Wolves, melting pack ice or ice floes, climate change, lack of substantial food source, and poaching present risks to the bears’ survival.
Knowing a bit about a mom polar bear gives a keen insight into a focus of survival. Pregnant females must eat a great deal throughout the summer and autumn to prepare for semi-hibernation. A pregnant female needs to gain around 441 pounds to sustain both herself and her cubs throughout her pregnancy. Cubs are born while the females are hibernating. Their litter size can range from 1 to 4, but is typically 2. They are born blind, hairless, and deaf. Within the first month of life, their eyes open, and within two months, they grow teeth and fur and begin to walk. Cubs weigh around one pound at birth but are nursed to a weight of 20-30 pounds by the time they leave the den in March or April. A mom’s duty is to prepare her cub(s) to survive. She will prepare the den for birth, wake up only slightly for the birth, nurse for more than two years, teach her young to fish and hunt even though she is thin, hungry and tired, and then scoot her offspring off after 24-28 months so she can breed again and repeat this cycle of devotion. Upon learning this, I could not help but recall a number of years ago when I journeyed to San Ignacio in Baja Mexico for the birthing of the grey whales. There, I was mesmerized by their mother-child relationships. Protecting and teaching their young was their focus, their 24/7 duty. The polar bear rivals this connection. It challenges us to be better, more dedicated mothers in this cherished relationship.
If you travel to be taught, Churchill is bound to fulfill your wishes. I learned about the Inuit stone, along with stone and ivory art, that depicts the spirituality and life of the people deeply rooted in the Hudson Bay region while visiting the Itsanitaq Museum. I poked my head in the Polar Bear Holding Facility, fondly nicknamed Polar Bear Jail, glad to see that it was empty of any roaming bear that made its way into the residential area of the town. While there, I learned about the relocation of wandering bears and programs to alert visitors of possible dangers. Polar Bears International House welcomed our Frontiers North Adventures group to educate us about the bears, climate change, and the urgent need to take action in preserving the species and the surroundings. We were doused with numerous facts about polar bears. A few of my favorite tidbits are these: their skin is black, their fur is translucent though it appears white because it reflects visible light, they can swim consistently for days, less than 2% of their hunts are successful, scientists can extract DNA from their footprints, they are the largest living carnivores on land, their sense of smell is incredibly strong as they can sniff out a seal on the ice up to twenty miles away or half a mile underwater, and they do not worry about cholesterol as they devour the blubber and liver of the hunted seals and often discard the lean parts. Learning comes alive when one sees a polar bear, especially a large male that can weigh in excess of 1700 pounds (though the average is 600-1200 pounds) and is 8-10 feet in length. To think that he started off as a 1 pound infant is absolutely mind boggling. Churchill is hands-on in the field of education, and visitors feel like college students eagerly soaking up knowledge and experience.
Definitely, learning leads to motivation to protect this vulnerable sea bear. Polar bears use sea ice as a platform to hunt their seal prey—and to travel, find mates, and raise their cubs. However, climate warming is melting the polar bear’s sea ice home. Research shows that unless we greatly reduce the carbon emissions that are causing the planet to warm and the sea ice to melt, only a few polar bear populations will remain by the end of the century. Their population has decreased 27% in the last five years; they weigh less than a decade ago; females are having fewer cubs, and many cubs are not surviving. The longer the melting season of the ice, the more advanced the survival problem of polar bears becomes. Significantly, the melting of the ice caps affects much of our ecosystem. Simply put, the fish need the algae, the seals need the fish, and the polar bears need the seals. Visiting Churchill motivates people to work with others to address the overreaching threat of climate change. I became more motivated to support an energy shift from fossil fuels with clean energy sources such as solar and wind and to research renewable available energy options. Additionally, I am now more prone to support clean transportation, car-sharing, mass transit programs, and a shift to electric and hybrid cars. When I hear news of companies that are furthering research and clean energy changes, I perk up attentively and choose to discover more and, in turn, buy their products. I returned from Churchill with a hope that we can and will do more for our planet.
Churchill inspires! Being only a few feet away from a sub-adult polar bear who snuggled up against a tree trunk to gather a bit of warmth, welcoming another as he meandered by half a dozen tundra buggies as if to say “hi” to all inside, and viewing others in the distance as they camouflaged against snow banks and hid among flag trees is quite a moving experience. Their deep brown eyes pierce into the viewer’s soul. Other residents of the tundra likewise inspire. We cheered an Arctic wolf as he wholeheartedly sprinted his marathon. A red fox splashed in heaps of snow, shaking himself off, only to venture a bit further and repeat the antics. The beautiful ptarmigan birds blanketed a few areas with their lush white feathers that only a few months before were brown. Yes, all seemed to be eager for winter. The day I left Churchill the polar bears had gone 139 days without food. They eagerly wait for the ice caps to form, for their beckoning call to venture forth, plop their bodies, and end their fast. Oh, the blubber of a ringed seal will beat any prime rib feast! With our help, Churchill can remain a magical (and miserably beautiful) place.