We went to Churchill Manitoba Canada to see polar bears in their natural habitat. This 900-person frontier town is one of the true polar bear and beluga whale capitals of the world. Cloud cover permitting, it also provides a great opportunity to experience the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights.
Churchill is located in a transitional zone between boreal forests, tiaga (with small trees and bushes) and tundra. The subarctic climate can be a quite chilly in the winter (often around -16 degrees Fahrenheit (-27 degrees Celsius). When we visited in late November 2018, it was a relatively balmy 25-30 degrees F (down to about -5 C), compared with an average of a toasty 54 degrees (12 C) in the summer.
Churchill’s Modern History
The English and later the French came to the region in which the Inuit people lived primarily for animal fur and pelts. The British came first, with the Hudson Bay Company (HBC) establishing a trading post and the area’s first fort (York Fort) and trading settlement (which gradually grew into a complex of 50 buildings). The British crown formalized the arrangement by granting a charter and much of the area’s land to the company in 1670. The English traded metal pots, guns and yes, even beads with the natives for furs and pelts. Both sides felt this was a fair and favorable arrangement.
This arrangement, however, didn’t work for the French who were excluded from the relationship. In 1780, they placed the state-of-the-art, but under-defended fort under seize. The British commander, realizing the futility of resisting, surrendered and all were allowed to return to England. The French, however, never created the formal, systematic trading structure of the English and, therefore, never managed to establish the same type of synergistic relationship with the Inuit. This eventually left the English to rebuilt their relationship. By 1862, however, this relationship drew to a close and HBC gave its charter to the Dominion of Canada.
While the town currently has a population of fewer than 1,000 people, it was home to about 6,000 people during World War II, when the town served as a transfer point for U.S.-produced war planes on their way to the European Front. During this time, they built a runway of more than 8,000 feet in length, the longest in Canada at the time and still one of the longest.
In the 1950s, the Americans and Canadians established the Rocket Research Center outside of town, using it to develop and launch rockets for both defense and high-altitude atmospheric research. Although the research facility closed in 1985, remnants, including an enclosed launch tower, remains.
The combination of the town’s location (near the Great Circle route for flights between Europe and North America) and its long airstrip have made it an emergency landing site for large jets. It, however, takes more than a runway to accommodate these jets. On the one such landing, the airport didn’t have a stairway tall enough to reach the passengers to evacuate them. Although it was, lucky, not a true emergency, they ended up using a forklift to deplane four people at a time. The facility is also used as a Strategic Air Command base. A legacy of the war effort—a 10:00 air raid siren that was used to signal curfew—has been maintained for a very different reason. It is now used as warning signal to alert people to stay off the dark, increasingly deserted streets in which bears are more difficult to detect.
Churchill sits on the Hudson Bay. The 470,000 square-mile bay provides an ideal habitat for polar bears. First it has an inflow of fresh water. The large network of river, combined with the currents, spreads fresh water. Fresh water has a higher freezing temperature, and therefore freezes sooner than the saltier water near the shore. This provides the very hungry bears with earlier access to the ice, and therefore seals, than would otherwise be the case. Meanwhile, since the bay is so shallow, with an average depth of only about 100 feet, much of the bay freezes over, providing more room to accommodate more bears.
The bay experiences tides up to 14 feet and exposes up to a kilometer of land and tidal flats at low tide. It has more than enough fish, cephalopods and shellfish to feed sufficient numbers of seals that, in turn, support the bay’s large (roughly 1,000) polar bear population with enough left over to feed the roughly 3,000 beluga whales that feed and give birth in the bay in the summers. There are not, however, sufficient concentrations of the right type of fish to support commercial fishing.
While most of the area around the bay consists of 1.8 to 2.0 billion year-old greywacke sandstone, some of the rock is about 4.28 billion years, among the oldest on earth. The character of the landscape was fundamentally altered during the last ice age, when the ground was covered by more than 8,000 feet of ice, which compressed the land by about 1,000 feet and scraped out the bay.
The bay area is at the northern edge of a boreal forest and the tundra. Many of the remaining trees are stunted and, due to fierce northerly winds, have limbs only on leeward side. Beyond the forest is tundra, with occasional patches of scrub and large, flat fields that consist of rocky, bare land, patches of lichen and small, half-frozen ponds atop peat bogs created by the slow decay of ancient vegetation.
Although the region supports a range of wildlife, different cultures value different animals in different ways. The Inuit, for example, hunted all animals, but particularly valued caribou. They found uses for virtually every part or the animal. These large antelope feed primarily on lichen. They survive in spruce forests in the winter, migrate to the tundra in spring, form into herds and migrate to calving grounds, where they give birth in June. The Europeans, meanwhile, were particularly enthralled by beavers (especially for hats) and muskrats and arctic foxes for their pelts. Tourists, meanwhile, come for, and are most interested in polar bears.
Churchill The Town
Although the town is not large, it does have its share of sights.
- Polar bear traps. Two different types of non-injurious traps are used to trap bears that routinely wander too close to town or feed at the trash dump.
- Polar Bear Holding Facility, or what, in less politically correct times, used to be called the Polar Bear Jail. This Quonset hut-like building has steel cells in which captured offending bears are held, without food (they wouldn’t normally feed at this time of year anyway) or the ability to see other bears or humans until the bay begins to freeze over. At this time, they are released onto the ice, where they go about their normal business of hunting seals. More dramatic approaches may be required for particularly bad repeat offenders and, worse of all, mothers that teach their cubs to feed at the dump. These bears may be shipped to zoos, to remote, distant locations or in some cases, even put down.
- A wrecked cargo plane that failed to gain enough altitude on takeoff and crashed into rocks. Amazingly, nobody was killed or even severely injured in the crash;
- Churchill Beach.This sand beach has very cold (about 38 degrees in late October) water. It has a beached fishing trawler that has been refashioned into a children’s play area and a large, petty Inukchuk (a decorate stone tower (like a very artistic cairn);
- Churchill Murals. A series of 18 murals dot the sides of buildings, from 18 artists that are intended to raise awareness for various types of conservation.
Churchill’s Itsanitaq Museum
The Itsanitaq Museum has a wonderful collection of stuffed indigenous animals (including polar bear, walrus and arctic fox), Inuit artifacts and especially, Inuit carvings that portray Inuit life and spiritual beliefs.
The Inuits have been making small carvings carvings for centuries, but most of these had been very small, and primarily as toys for children. Early Inuits were, after all, nomadic. Not surprisingly, they didn’t pack and carry large, heavy or fragile items unless they were absolutely necessary.
True Inuit carved art is actually only a few hundred years old. They were created not for their own use, but for trading, along with fur, with European traders. These sculptures were typically carved from three types of materials:
- Ivory, primarily walrus tusk and occasionally whale tusk;
- Bone and keratin, as from caribou antlers musk ox horn and whale bone, the later of which is has a hard exterior and a soft, porous interior that make for some fascinating carvings;
- Soft rocks such as white marble, green serpentine and grayish argillite.
The artistry of many of these pieces is superb and the images varied and striking. Some, such as walrus tusks have been carved into cribbage board-like platforms that portray elaborate village scenes and hunting and ice fishing adventures. Others portray animals and still others, spirits. A couple whale vertebrae sculptures, where the spurs are shaped like wings and the center is carved as an eerie face, are haunting and mystical. The range and variety of images is amazing and the artistry is inspired.
Parks Canada Visitors Center
The Parks Canada Visitors Center is located in the town’s train station. It contains displays, movies and very knowledgeable curators that provide overviews on the bay, the animals that inhabit the area, the lives of the First Nation people, the history of European entry into the area and the current and anticipated implications of global warming on the delicate tundra ecosystem.
Churchill Town Center Complex
This large building is a gathering spot in the town. It contains a community center, school, playground and health center/pharmacy in one place. And yes, Joyce did go down the slide.
Churchill Creative Collective Coop
Churchill’s artist coop ishoused in a retired tundra buggy. It displays a range of arts and crafts from local artists, sponsors regular and pop-up art shows and concerts, runs artist-led workshops for local students and stages “Paint Nights” in which artists teach and guide interested adults in the basics of painting.
The rest of our time in the town was spend exploring several other touristy art and souvenir shops—the only other things we could find to explore.
Our education, however, included information on a number of other issues. These included:
Three of our four Churchill meals, one breakfast, one lunch and a dinner were at the Tundra Inn. While the breakfast was a nondescript buffet, we selected among six options for lunch. We both selected bison burgers (which, unfortunately, weren’t remotely close to the medium rare that we requested). Tom had a corn chowder (which was more vegetable soup than corn chowder). Dinner was modestly better: wild boar and cranberry bangers (sausage) and mash (mashed red potatoes) and gravy, and pan-fried arctic char with herbed maple sauce and wild rice risotto cake.
The best of our Churchill meals was at the Seaport restaurant, where we had two nice dishes: mushroom ravioli and cod fish and chips.
And now a warning. This is a tourist town filled with tourist souvenirs and t-shirts. Most of the shops are very friendly and helpful. But one shop should have a buyer beware sign on their front door. Although they have no notices posted and don’t tell you when you buy something, they only offer exchanges. Get a t-shirt the wrong size and want a larger one? Well, if they don’t have it in stock, you are out of luck. You are told to buy a pair of socks as there are no refunds and everyone can use a pair of socks (with polar bears on them….not!). With all of the other shops in town, we suggest you avoid the Great White Bear Gift Shop. Or, take off your jackets, sweaters and shirts, your hat and gloves and try the articles on in their store. Because once you give them money, it is theirs forever. While the owner knows that we will never be back and could care less, we vow to tell as many people as we can to avoid this store.