A Chur-chilly Reception

Monday 26 September 2022 – Last night’s briefing was, erm, brief and gave us one or two important bits of information and a chance to get a sense of the group of 12 people (mostly Australian) of which we will be part for most of the rest of this week (and also whether my ridiculously heavy backpack would be acceptable on a forthcoming flight).  As I said in my last entry, we had to be ready to leave the hotel at 0700, having breakfasted and tagged our bags so that Frontiers North, the organisation which will be shepherding us along, know what to do with them at the far end.

We trailed into the airport and checked in to flight MO144, scheduled to depart at 0900.  I had been advised that the best photo opportunities from the flight would be if I sat on the right hand side at the front.  Since it was open seating, I made jolly damn’ sure I was first on the plane, and selected my seat accordingly.

Photos from the plane shortly after take off emphasised how flat the Winnipeg landscape is.

We flew alongside lake Winnipeg

and this was pretty much the last even halfway decent picture I got until much later, for two reasons.  One is that the visibility (already visibly worsening in the photo above) didn’t improve; the other is that the bright sunshine, normally so welcome when trying for aerial shots, threw a distinct shadow on to my window through the aeroplane’s propellers.  This meant that I had a strobe effect in operation which conflicted with the shutter in my camera such that I had unwanted horizontal bars across any images I tried to capture.  I suppose it was a lesson learned, but actually I had no way of knowing that this would be a problem.  I amused myself by taking a photo of the aeroplane safety card, which was in no fewer than three languages.

The next opportunities I had for aerial photos came as the plane was on final approach.

when it became clear that the light yellowish/green things you can see on the landscape were actually trees.

Since these appear to be conifers but are changing colour this autumn, one can infer that they are larches.

Despite the captain’s warnings of a bumpy landing, we hit the deck quite smoothly and were soon in the terminal, awaiting our bags.

Not that we’re paranoid or anything, but I noticed that my bag was one of the last to come through, and the carousel stopped the instant Jane took her bag off it.  No matter – we handed them over to Frontiers North for them to deal with and went out into the biting cold wind  to the bus which was to be one of our main transports for the next three days.  The tour leader, Mark, carried on his briefing as we headed for downtown Churchill,

and our hotel, the Tundra Inn.

We had lunch at the associated Tundra Pub

with further briefing from Mark (right) with input from Jason (left) and driver Joe.

Joe then drove us around the area, giving us a chance to see some of the highlights of the Churchill area: a large scale inukshuk – an Inuit construction with a variety of possible meanings (landmark, signpost, waymark etc);

a Beluga Boat which has never actually been used for its intended purpose of watching Beluga whales but which is used by the locals as a gathering point for e.g. picnics;

the Complex – a 1976 construction which provides most of the municipal needs for this remote community – school, medical and dental facilities, kids playground, that kind of thing; the now unused grain elevator, which used to be a significant source of employment but is no longer economically viable for a variety of reasons;

and occasional reminders that Churchill is in Polar Bear territory, and the community needs to take care (the pickups are part of the Polar Bear Alert Program).

Yes, we’ve come here to see polar bears, but we want to do it in a planned way, rather than through an ad hoc encounter.  We were warned not to stray far from the bus and, if necessitated by an unexpected polar bear encounter, drop everything and make for the protection of the bus.  Frankly, it was so cold (just a couple of degrees above freezing) that the likelihood of straying far was limited anyway, but it’s a sobering thought that one could just walk around a corner here and be confronted by a polar bear.

The Churchill landscape is tundra, an environment where tree growth is hindered by frigid temperatures and short growing seasons.

Can you guess which way the prevailing wind blows?  Today’s wind was one of those lazy winds that doesn’t bother to go round you; it just goes straight through.  That said, we have been lucky in the timing of our visit, in that the rather scrubby vegetation here is changing into its fall colours.

The orange of the plants is matched by the orange of the lichen on the rocks, making for a richly coloured, if rather low-level, landscape.

Churchill is a frontier town, and its buildings show this very clearly. This is the high street, for example;

and the side roads show also very plain levels of construction.

It cannot be reached by road. The only ways in are by air or by rail; this is the train station building

which also houses the Parks Canada Visitor Centre.  The town has done a lot of work to brighten what might otherwise have been a very dull and workmanlike appearance with artworks, some commissioned from recognised artists.   Some artistic touches are light;

many are striking;

and some are wonderful large-scale adaptations of buildings.  For example, the town has a Polar Bear Holding  Facility, where bears that wander into the town, or are injured or become a nuisance are trapped

(on the left above is an old-fashioned type of trap) and held in separate rooms in this facility,

one end of which has been gloriously decorated by an artist specially invited for the task.

Another large-scale artwork was wrought on the wreckage of a cargo aeroplane which took off from the airport, but got into difficulties; the pilot crashed it safely (all the crew survived)

and, again, an invited artist has used it as a canvas.  The suspicion is that it was overloaded, hence it being called “Miss Piggy” – Too Fat To Fly?

There are stores, which tend to stock a wide variety of goods, from food to construction machinery;

there are churches and a post office and occasional other artworks;

and the whole place exudes a strong sense of community.  Fewer than 900 people call Churchill their home, but it’s clear from the number who have lived here for years that the town can exert a strong attraction.

It is home to Polar Bears International, a non-profit organisation dedicated to polar bear conservation.  Outside their building is a Tundra Buggy

another one of which will be taking us out to view the area’s wildlife over the next days.  Our final act of the day (dinner excepted) was to visit, and we were treated to an interesting and educational session from Kieran MacIver on the bears, their environment and the threat from climate change

which incidentally gave us a chance to understand how big a fully-grown male polar bear actually is.

Today has been our introduction to the area.  Tomorrow, we hope for an introduction to its polar bears (two of our group did a special helicopter flight and reported back that they saw bears in the area, so the prospects look good).  Will we get to see the bears we have come so far to seek?  Watch this space!


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