||LORDS OF THE ARCTIC A CANADIAN ADVENTURE!
Wind driven ice pellets exfoliate my face. I tighten my grip on the suitcase handle to avoid an unplanned pirouette. I am not in Winnipeg to apply for a lead with The Royal Ballet. I am here to fulfil a dream, and I am pumped!
I push open the door into century old Union Station and step back in time. The grand domed foyer is a Victorian stage set for feather boas, fedoras, steamer trunks and Hollywood farewells. The perfect place to launch an adventure!
“Passengers are permitted 3 suitcases for the baggage car and a carry-on for overnight essentials” reads the helpful Via Rail brochure. Hmmm! Westjet officials were already a tad sniffy at the size of my only case. (Admittedly a week’s supply of winter woollies and medicinal Scotch are not without bulk!)
Smartly cushioned oak benches gradually fill with folks geared for sub-arctic weather in fur-trimmed parkas, toques and serious snow-boots.
“If you are travelling north to Churchill on The Hudson Bay, expect delays of up to 7 hours,” comes a voice through the PA system. Ah, this just reflects the remoteness of my quest!
7pm. “The Hudson Bay is now ready for boarding.”
Scarlett, armed with a decisive air and a clipboard, is obviously in charge. I am shown directly to my single bedroom of masterful design. Seat, toilet and a pull-down tin basin cunningly concealed in the wall. Everything a chap needs for two days and 1700 kilometres on the rails in a sub-compact 61/2 by 31/2 feet according to the literature! Plus a giant window onto the changing scene outside.
I have travelled the world on trains. They are my passion, and for me, Via Rail takes The Oscar. Often a lifeline for remote communities and forever contending with nature’s vilest moods, Via is unfailingly comfortable, leisurely, and a great place to make new friends.
I find Rupert Pilkington, my friend of 20 years, in the dining car. His lifetime passion for bears has made him an expert. Brown bears, black bears, kermode bears and his favourites Polar bears.
“You must come to Churchill,” he once said over a glass or two in town. “In November/December 15000 polar bears wait for the ice to form before heading out to hunt seals. It’s an extraordinary sight. I lecture at The Churchill Northern Studies Centre as part of a 4 day package.” I listened!
Tonight it is late and the chef is not to be tested. Sandwiches and little $6 bottles of wine fill the void as we catch up on a missed year of gossip. Scarlett promises pot roast for tomorrow! The place is buzzing with excitement as passengers bond and compare travel plans.
Later, a quick tug on the lever turns my room into a bed!
The morning scenery is a tad bleak. Bare aspens. Struggling firs. An Osprey nest crowns the abandoned telephone pole. We creep along beside a stream as the train lurches from side to side on uneven tundra. Prairie grain shipments have taken their toll.
Breakfast in the dining car. Rupert and I share a table with a Cree woman and her daughter. They have travelled to Winnipeg for dental work. “Are you a Swampy or a York Factory Cree?” he asks with the assurance of a local. There’s lots to learn. Frozen lakes. A caribou sighting. “Was that an Arctic fox?”
Things change in Thompson. Aboriginal families fill the cars. Cards, beer and laughter. No one likes the road to Gillam in winter.
4am Gillam. The platform outside my window is packed with people getting off. I wonder how late we are running. You’ve got to be patient to catch a train in these parts!
We arrive in Churchill 4 hours early Which means we are only 3 hours late! Our van driver’s cell phone chimes into life. The rest of our group of 34 have arrived at the airport. Their flight from Winnipeg was delayed 4 hours by bad weather. Scheduling in the Sub-Arctic is tricky!
The Churchill Northern Studies Centre, an old rocket launching station, is now a non-profit research establishment shared with polar bear enthusiasts during that magical 5-week window.
Accommodation is seriously adult summer camp. Bunk beds and wall hooks. I wonder if my roommates Boris, a dogsled photographer with a wicked grin and Ian, a keen young amateur, are snorers? I already have “lens-envy” from checking their camera equipment!
We assemble around 5 refectory tables in the canteen. “Polar bears are dangerous. No one is allowed out without an armed guard. Transgressors will be sent home and billed,” announces Marie, an attractive strawberry blonde, with the firmness of a school marm! “A dishwashing schedule will be posted on the fridge by tomorrow’s breakfast.”
“Helicopters will take the first group at 7.30am.”
Anticipation kicks in: “Brought the wife last year” says Bobby from Texas attacking a mountain of spare-ribs and fried chicken. “Loved it so much I brought the grand-kids this time.”
We are a disparate lot from England, Holland, Sweden, and The US.
“Time to look in our own backyard. Who knows how long the polar bears will be around eh?” came from a well-travelled Ottawa couple. Nods of agreement from the Canadian contingent, which makes up half our number.
The first full day is action-packed. Two “desert storm” type helicopters, lights blazing, rotors whirring, emerge through the clouds. I’ve drawn second tour and have to endure “best experience ever” from the first group to emerge from under the blades. They are right. Seeing an overview of Hudson’s Bay, The Churchill River and Polar bears with their cubs filling in time on the tundra until the ice forms, is nature in the raw. Tomorrow we are to get up close and personal but our life is not to stand still!
Gerald Azure is a Metis dog musher, born with a streak of madness, according to Jenafor Ollander his common-law wife. He co-founded the Hudson Bay Quest, a brutal 400-kilometre race running between Churchill and Arviat, Nunavut. His dogs at Bluesky Expeditions are already tugging at their leashes when we pull up in the bus. Today they will haul a two-person sled 17 times around the circuit to give 34 “students” a taste of adventure!
The highlight of the evening, every evening in fact, is a lecture from Rupert. His passion for the “Lords of The Arctic” holds everyone riveted to their seats. How do they breed? Why is Churchill the capital of Polar bear watching? What do they eat? It is refreshing to hear first hand knowledge of the effects of global warming and hunting permits on these magnificent animals. “Tomorrow you will see them for yourselves!”
The school has rented a giant tundra buggy. A kind of Atco trailer on super-fat tires! Bob our driver “lights the touch-paper” at international firework competitions between seasons. He worked at The Winnipeg zoo in a past life!
It should be a good day. The ice that was forming has melted, due to warmer temperatures, so departing bears beat a hasty retreat. Some headed for town. “Nuisance bears” are tranquillised and wind up in “Polar bear Jail” A metal barn of a place, then flown up the coast by helicopter. Expensive, but before tourists arrived they would likely have been shot.
We follow paths built by the military years ago. A mother and her two cubs are ahead. Bob stops the buggy. Cameras with long lenses are poked through windows as everyone jostles for position. We must look like an over armed tank!
The mother saunters past, occasionally checking behind for dawdlers.
“Year old cubs,” Rupert whispers. “Mother’s moving slowly because she hasn’t eaten for 3 to 4 months. When the ice freezes and the seals start nesting she’ll eat again!”
The bears are far from shy. Some even approach our buggy. We see jousting males. Polar bears with black markings have tracking devices implanted in their ears, we are told. A female stands to a full 11 feet on her hind legs and checks the ground ahead. Most are in family groupings scattered all over the tundra. They don’t travel in packs.
Tundra buggies may sound crass but they are the least intrusive way for 8000/10,000 people a year to view the animals. To view them is to love them and helps bring awareness of their plight to the world.
On our last night we are to meet Caroline, a Denee lady, whose people have lived in these parts for centuries. She has already laid out artefacts from a lost way of life. She speaks slowly in a quiet monotone that draws everyone to the edge of their seats.
She is a victim of residential schooling. No, she was not physically abused but years of being denied use of her own language and customs left her ill prepared to return home. Expected tasks such as making bannock, preparing and roasting a duck or curing a salmon are usually learned at a mother’s knee not in a classroom. She felt displaced hit the booze, then faced the awful journey back. Her words left an indelible mark and we applaud her spirit.
In 4 days at the college we have learned so much about polar bears from Rupert’s lectures and from outings on the tundra. We have learned about the tough founders of The Hudson’s Bay Company and the bloody history of the area from keen Parks Canada employees. We have touched on dogsledding and local folklore. We have been looked after by volunteers from around the world whose only reward is a day on the tundra with the polar bears. The Lords of The Arctic.
As an admitted adventurer, I am constantly stunned by this wonderful country of ours. This trip rated a ten from the start. Don’t be disappointed. Mortgage the cat if you must, but make the reservation early! Space on the train and at the College fills up months ahead. Expect to make lasting friendships and experience the trip of a lifetime!
IF YOU GO:
By Train: Departs Winnipeg: Tuesday/Thursday/Sunday
Departs Churchill: Tues/Thurs/Saturday
By Air: From Winnipeg: Calm Air or Keewatin Air
CHURCHILL NORTHERN STUDIES CENTRE:
Lords of The Arctic is offered from November 7th 12th and November 12th - 17th
Cost $2200 all-inclusive. Maximum number of students 34 per session.