We were supposed be taking this trip at the end of August 2020 for Dave’s 50th birthday. Given the year of Covid and all the disruptions that have come with that, Lazy Bear Lodge in Churchill had to make some adjustments. One of those was cancelling our dates and asking us to move back to late July / early August (or possibly giving us a credit for a trip in 2021). Kris madly switched shifts at work and Dave changed hotel reservations and flights. But we made it work.
So on 29 July we flew out to Winnipeg. Boy did that feel weird. Of course masks were highly desired if not quite required but we wanted to do the right thing. Only a few weeks ago the 14 day quarantine for western provinces was lifted for travel to Manitoba. We had a nice dinner with Dave’s co worker (who lives in Winnipeg).
We also enjoyed a nice afternoon at the Forks. The Forks is like Granville Island in Vancouver and has all sorts of interesting shops and restaurant kiosks. We just had some wine out by the river. Beautiful.
The morning of the 30th we headed back to the Winnipeg airport for our Calm Air Q400 (DASH8) turboprop plane ride. 2.5 hours later we made it to Churchill. Located on the shores of Hudson Bay, the Town of Churchill and the surrounding area are steeped in history as old as Canada. Archaeology in the area shows evidence of human presence dating back 4,000 years. For centuries, Churchill has been a meeting place for culture and trade.
The first European to explore “The Bay” was Henry Hudson in 1608. Jens Munck lead the ill- fated Danish expedition and they were the first Europeans to winter in the Churchill area in 1619 to 1620. Ill equipped for the harsh winter 62 of his 64-crew perished from effects of scurvy, trichinosis and exposure. We enjoyed ~24 degrees and sunny skies, although the fog rolled in later in the afternoon.
In 1670, The Hudson’s Bay Co. was formed, and the fur trade had begun. In 1689 the Hudson Bay Company established a trading post on the wintering site used by Jens Munck, the site was approximately 5 miles from the mouth of river, later that same year the post burned. It was rebuilt in 1717 and named Fort Churchill and serves as a solid reminder of the fur trade which first put Churchill on the map.
In 1713 a young Chipewyan woman named Thanadelthur was captured by the Cree where she was enslaved for a year. Thanadelthur escaped her captures and eventually came across the HBC York Factory Post where she worked with James Knight as a translator, with a wealth of local knowledge. Her knowledge and skills served her and the HBC well as she was instrumental in harbouring peace between the Cree and Chipewyan which has had lasting impact on all involved.
Churchill became the site of the first astronomical observations made in Canada in 1769. It also became the departure point for the first overland journey made by a European, Samuel Hearne, to the Arctic Ocean.Unrest between the English and French produced a military fort which was eventually turned over to a superior French force by Governor Samuel Hearne in 1782. Hearne re-established the original post one year later.
Fort Churchill, located five miles east of Churchill was first established in 1942 by the United States Air force as part of proposed overseas air operations to Europe. After the Second World War, Canada and the US jointly sponsored a training and experimental centre. The base was officially closed in August of 1980.
Between the two world wars, the railway was completed connecting Churchill to the rest of the province. A grain elevator was also constructed at this time and the town was then moved to the east side of the Churchill River. This helped Churchill grow from a remote outpost to a bustling seaport.
As the military pulled out and the population dropped there ended up being many abandoned buildings. In 2017 a muralist was brought in and now many abandoned buildings are beautifully painted up. Making a problem of old asbestos eyesores into art. It is really nicely done.
We stopped at Cape Merry which is a National Park, and therefore the Parks Canada red Adirondack chairs are there for poses. We took advantage.
Cape Merry is the ammunition dump across the Churchill River and a second defensive point for the fort. These apparently are excellent representation of British canons as most other ones got remelted down for other military use. These ones were apparently too remote to move back to England, and so were left in place.
We then visited a plane crash site from 1979. A mile to get to the airport and this overloaded cargo plane just couldn’t make it. Only injury? The pilot broke a toe! Score one for soft snow landing and some pilot skill! Nicknamed Miss Piggy (plane was stuff to overflowing) it remains now as a tourist stop. It is very well preserved, although you can no longer go inside as it’s starting to rust too much to be safe to be inside. But apparently a recent tour found a polar bear sleeping inside!
The last stop before checking in to the Lazy Bear Lodge was the Polar Bear Jail. Or more officially known as the Polar Bear Holding Facility.
Problem bears who return to town are typically retained inside for the summer and fed only water. This is actually more normal a diet for a summer bear as they hunt seals and usually don’t eat much in the summer. Kind of a walking hibernation. Once the sheet ice reforms they are released back out into the wild. No worse for wear. The upside here is that research into DNA, family trees, and other important knowledge can be gained with no more interference.
They used to use more traditional bear traps around town but now just tranquilize and move them to the jail. Here is Dave in a bear trap pretending to be sad.
Our guide for this trip is Sarah. From Vancouver no less. She’s been guiding in the arctic and Antarctic for 9 seasons. She loves her snow. In areas with high bear interaction, she will carry her Bear Gun. Yes that’s a fully loaded 12 gauge shotgun. Polar bears will come ashore to sleep and if you accidentally wake them they are cranky. Plus they are fast runners and we are tasty and slow……
Thankfully she’s never had to use the gun and thinks of it as very much last resort. Prevention vs remediation, we agree with that strategy.
The conservation officers in Churchill very hard to keep the bears out of the town. Bear bangers usually work, but the bears are so used to the noise of ice floes crashing into each other, so they are a bit inured to loud noises. Bear spray works as a deterrent sometimes, but you have to be really close to the bear to use it.
After a fantastic dinner at the lodge, we are off to bed. More adventures to follow tomorrow.