Tag Archives: Churchill

Going to the Dogs

Thursday 29 September 2022 – Until we finally boarded our flight out of Churchill, the schedule for the day was in a more or less perpetual state of flux, as in no-one knowing what the flux going on. The first spanner in the works was that our flight would now be at midday, much earlier than originally planned. So Mark had to make some last-minute changes, involving finding our group some packed lunches and squeezing today’s excursions into a smaller window.  Later on, we found out that the midday flight had been cancelled and we were now going to fly out at (the original time of) 17.45. This meant that Mark, having crammed everything in, now had to find other diversions for us.  He managed all of this with aplomb and many phone calls.

Our first port of call was something that I hadn’t very high expectations of – very wrongly, as it turned out.  It was a visit to a dog yard.  Dogs have long been used to haul sleds and since there was no snow on the ground I couldn’t quite see how it could be made interesting. I hadn’t reckoned with the passion, energy and sheer charisma of “Big Dog” Dave Daley, the owner of the yard

who was accompanied by two of his sled dogs.

Where I had expected a routine presentation about dog sledding, he treated us to a brilliant, impassioned and amusing exposition about the relationship between man and dog, between dog and dog and between man, dog and the race he created and runs every year he can, the Hudson Bay Quest, a 220-mile wilderness race which knocks the more-widely-known 80-mile Iditarod into a cocked hat. In the HBQ, one man, 10 dogs and a sled have to complete the race unsupported except for a half-way stop for a compulsory 6-hour rest (for the dogs, not the men) and a reload of the hay that is needed to create rest dens for the dogs en route.  Extraordinarily, this distance can be covered in 40 hours, by someone who knows what he’s doing.

Much of the substance of Dave’s presentation consisted of underlining what “knowing what you’re doing” means when it comes to running a dog team, and this involves having a deep relationship with every dog, knowing its strengths, weaknesses, health and preferences.  Some dogs make good lead dogs, but would be no good as “wheel dogs”, the raw muscle power that runs just ahead of the sled, for example. (There are also point dogs and swing dogs, each with a role in the team, and “knowing what you’re doing” involves understanding and exploiting this.) Some dogs prefer to run on the left, some on the right. Some prefer sprints, some are better at marathons.  “Knowing what you’re doing” involves being a planner, physiotherapist, psychotherapist, nutritionist, physician, breeder, salesman and trainer.  Dave currently has 47 dogs in his yard and every single one of them seemed to be bursting with energy and enthusiasm when it became clear that they would be working that morning,

because after talking about the theory behind running a dog team, we actually got the chance to get a tiny insight into the practice.  There was no snow on the ground, but the dogs still need to work to keep them healthy and happy, so outside winter they pull carts; we got the chance to ride the carts whilst they were being pulled – two guests and a driver per cart, with the dogs in teams of five, rather than 10.

The energy and enthusiasm that was bursting out of the dogs increased, if anything, when they were hitched up to a cart – which had to be anchored to a huge boulder to stop them immediately rocketing off into the forest.  Jane and I were lucky – Dave picked on us as his passengers, and his team had seemingly impossible amounts of energy waiting to be harnessed.

As you can see from the video, there was a choice of track, but each ride was about 1½km, and so Dave calls the outing on the carts the “Ididamile”, which is rather lovely.  It was huge fun being carted along by these bundles of energy – and because Big Dog was our driver, we went faster than the others which necessitated veering off onto a forest path, rather than staying on the main drag, so we didn’t run into the other teams!  All in all, it was an absorbing, entertaining and thought-provoking couple of hours.

The next item on the agenda was a visit to Churchill’s museum, but before we did that we called in at the Churchill Post Office to get our passports stamped.

On the door of the Post Office building is, erm, posted a summary of encounters with bears.

So even though we’d had to search high and low for a bear, it seems as though bears are finding people, even this early in Bear Season.

The museum we visited is called the Itsanitaq Museum and is dedicated to Inuit culture, with wonderful collections of carvings and artefacts which are among the finest and oldest in the world, dating from 1700 B.C.

It used to be called the Eskimo Museum, but Eskimo is a term which has fallen out of favour; itsanitaq is an Inuit word meaning “things from the past”. This was explained to us by Lorraine, the lady in charge, who gave us a short introductory spiel,

and included further information about the principal peoples of the area.

Among the exhibits in the museum was an explanation of the script that we found on the Calm Air aeroplane safety leaflet.

It turns out that the symbols weren’t in themselves a language, but rather a phonetic code enabling the various indigenous languages to be written down.  So our safety leaflet was probably in the Cree language, that being the largest of the populations in the area.

We had a lunch stop at the Churchill Northern Studies Center, a non-profit facility that promotes and facilitates research and education about many issues that affect the northern regions, with an emphasis on sustainability and climate change. They provide accommodation and facilities for visiting researchers as well as carrying out their own research and educational programmes.

They allowed us to have our (clearly rather hastily-assembled) packed lunches in their canteen, and also hosted a tour of the place, which is sustainably designed and ecologically and environmentally secured so as not to affect the area around it.

After this, having discovered that the rescheduling of the rescheduled flight left us with time on our hands, Joe drove us slowly around the back roads whilst we searched again for bears.  Unfortunately the bloody bears had buggered off again, so all we saw was another Arctic Hare

who was reasonably close and so a bit easier to spot among the rocks than our elusive ursines. The sun came out and so this one perked up a bit

before it started raining again, with a stiff and cold wind blowing, so it hunkered down again, looking distinctly unimpressed with the weather.

Mark gave us a final chance to get images of the town, starting at the Churchill sign

and we managed to catch a couple of grab shots of artwork we hadn’t recorded before

and also an Interesting Church (see our Iceland pages).

And, barring visits to a couple of gift shops, that was that for Churchill.  We went to the airport and bade farewell to the guys who had made the last three days so interesting and varied.

We duly arrived into Winnipeg just in time to crash into the hotel’s Sports Bar where the group got together for a final time to consume (in some cases rather inadvisable) quantities of drink.  It was a good way to end this section of our holiday which was great fun, excellently guided and shared with some nice people.

Tomorrow is just a travel day – Winnipeg to Halifax, Nova Scotia via Toronto.  It’s unlikely that I’ll have anything interesting to report about two flights, so the story is To Be Continued in a couple of days.  I hope to see you then; bye for now.

Can we bear the suspense?

Wednesday 28 September 2022 – The mood, as we got into the bus to go to the buggy to spend another day searching for polar bears, was a little muted; everyone was, I think, disappointed that the previous day’s searching, whilst it had shown us some wildlife, had been unsuccessful in its main objective.  Joe took us along a road where there was a possibility of seeing bears – indeed, there was a bear guard in evidence.

We passed the graveyard, which is really quite extensive (and the norm is three feet down rather than six feet, due to the permafrost)

and a site where there is extensive quarrying for stone to support the improvements being implemented to the railway leading to Churchill.

(The railway is one of only two ways to reach Churchill, the other being by air.  It currently takes 18 hours to reach the town by rail from where the road ends, at Thompson, 400k to the south, and the target is to halve that time, which requires a lot of current improvement and then maintenance work on the tracks.  The quarries in Churchill will be active for a while yet.)

All we got, though, was the by now customary opportunity for the more emotional among us to shriek with excitement at seeing some passing Belugas.

As we got to the buggy dock, one of our group, Theo, suggested that we exit the bus facing backwards, to leave the previous day’s bad luck on the bus.  For some strange reason, we all did this.

The buggy route, which of course is constrained by the network of available trails, was pretty much exactly as the day before – 26 miles in total.

I had got my gimbal working, so was able to record some better footage to give an idea of just how not smooth progress is.

However, the day perked up a bit when, just after 10am, one of the eagle-eyed people on the bus spotted a bear!

As you can see, it was quite a way away – my eyesight is not very good (it took Jane a few minutes of patient explanation to enable me to actually locate the bear in the surrounding landscape) and I am utterly impressed that Bob and Jason and Mark are quite so expert at seeing wildlife.  Zooming in, this is what I got out of the above.

Well, it’s identifiably a polar bear, at least.  It was doing what polar bears in the West Hudson Bay bear population do at this time of year, which is, well, not much, really.  The good times for them start when the ice freezes in Hudson Bay and they can get out on to it to catch and eat seals.  Unlike Grizzlies, which can subsist on berries and other such foods, polar bears really need the skin and blubber of seals to fatten up; they convert over 80% of such fat to their own adipose tissue.  Until the seals can be hunted, the bears are basically fasting.  Of course they’ll gorge on anything they can find, such as a Beluga carcass on the beach or some such, but basically they’re just waiting around for the freeze – and being careful not to expend too much energy.  So this bear did really not very much for quite a while.  On the other side of the buggy, we could just about make out a bald eagle, perched on a rock,

and there were some shore birds (Lesser Yellowlegs it seems) to keep us amused

whilst we waited to see what the bear did.  There was excitement when it stood up and walked a few paces

but then it lay down in the vegetation and basically disappeared from view.

We moved on, hoping to find more bears.  We passed the Frontiers North Lodge, by now expanded from yesterday and almost ready to receive guests

and we noted that the Tundra Swans had got a couple of other birds trying to get in on their act.

But, apart from a distant dot on some distant rocks which Bob declared to be a sleeping bear, that was it for the rest of the day on the buggy.  We got back to the dock just after 4pm having bagged just the one bear.  It was a lovely sunny day and the temperature was quite high – nearly 20°C, so there was some, erm, very scenic scenery. Jane caught this nice example of fall colours in the landscape.

At the buggy dock, Joe was on hand to take us back to town, on a route which took us past the rocket base that was once such an important part of Churchill’s military role.

It’s disused now, and the ugliest building – the concrete blast bunker – has, of course, been the recipient of a mural to try to pretty it up a bit.

As he drove us on a roundabout route towards the town, Joe actually spotted more bear!

At first, we thought it was a mother and a cub, but it turned out that there were actually two cubs with their mother, who seemingly just wanted a bit of peace and quiet but had to keep rounding up her boisterous cubs.

We watched them for a while and I recorded some video.

They’re quite a way away, but at least the bear quotient was rising.  Jason pointed out that visible on the other side of the bus was an arctic hare.

It’s a shame it didn’t move to give us a better look, but it was just resting in the shade – why would a sensible hare move under those circumstances?

The mother and cubs disappeared and Joe took the bus along a road which we hoped would take us a bit nearer.  I’m not sure he succeeded in that; but all of a sudden we saw yet another bear, quite a bit closer than the previous encounters.

The experts on the bus eventually came to the conclusion that this was a lone male, and he, like the others, was basically just mooching about.

I got some video of him, as well.

So by the time we got back to the hotel we were a much happier band of bear seekers. We were late for our appointed dinner slot, but since we were basically the only tour in town, I don’t think we inconvenienced people too much.  Had this been later in the season, with multiple tour groups going through the town, we would have had to have limited our time watching the bears, which would have been a shame.

After dinner, Jane went to a reportedly enjoyable presentation at the Parks Office (which, you’ll know because you’ve been paying attention, is housed in the Railway Station)

whilst I toiled away sorting through the vast number of substantially identical photos of bears in various places and combinations to decide what to include in this entry.  I hope you’ve enjoyed seeing and reading about the fruits of my labours and the group’s success in achieving the main objective of our visit to Churchill.

Our time here is almost over.  We have greatly enjoyed it, despite the initial disappointment of yesterday’s fruitless quest.  Things here are workmanlike rather than luxurious, but the hotel was comfortable, the food was good, hearty and well served, and the people we’ve met have been delightful.  There’s a real sense of community here, which has been a pleasure to see in action.

There are a couple of excursions organised for tomorrow before we leave Churchill to get back on our eastward journey and I will, of course write about them here.  Please keep in touch with these pages to see our final activities in this engaging place.


Tundra: birds are Go!

Tuesday 27 September 2022 – The plan for the day was simple – get out on a Tundra Buggy and find polar bears. So, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and breakfasted, we got on the bus and Joe took us for a half-hour drive to the Buggy Dock

where number 15 was to be our chariot for the day.

We were a small group, so there was plenty of room to spread out in a nice warm cabin.

Our driver was “Buggy Bob”, a man of great experience in driving these great big things across terrain which is tricky, but not impossible; we would go along old tracks originally created by the military in the 1940s and not deviate from them in order to minimise disturbance to the local wildlife. This is Buggy Bob.

I reckon he looks a lot like Sean Connery in The Hunt For Red October, but Jane disagrees.


The ride in these great beasts is not the smoothest, as it’s over very rough terrain, including places where water has covered the trail.

I want to give you some idea of how ungentle the ride is, but unfortunately “buggy” also applied to the software for my stabilising gimbal which I use with my mobile phone. I couldn’t get the two to co-operate and so this is the best I could do under the circumstances. I will try to get you a better impression during tomorrow’s ride.

We covered about 25 miles in 6 hours, so progress is barely above walking pace. But it’s a good way of seeing the wildlife without the risk of attack from a disconcerted bear, and it’s warm (the temperature outside was about 4°C and the brisk wind was once again of the lazy variety, so it gets my vote).

The scenery is at times quite striking, with fall colours becoming more and more established.

We passed near the accommodation buggies of a tundra lodge offered by another tour company

and were near the Churchill River when an excited cry went up as someone spotted what might have been a Beluga Whale swimming along. So we stopped for a closer look. Many people were delighted to have seen these Belugas, but frankly I found it difficult to be greatly moved, as this was the scene.

The Belugas are the white flecks towards the middle of the picture. Even zoomed in, they don’t, to me, present a scene to get excited about.

There were apparently some Eider ducks to be seen, too.

If you zoom in, they are the little black dots just above where the waves are breaking.

There was more excitement as we saw bear footprints – an adult and a cub, apparently.

The next excitement was the sighting of a bald eagle.

Yes, there it is.

But then it flew away.

Jason, one of the tour leaders reckoned he saw a beaver.

It turned out to be a muskrat.

We passed a site where Frontiers North are establishing their own residential lodge in the midst of all this tundra.

This will be fully commissioned and operational within a couple of days to receive the first guests of this year’s Bear Season (basically October and November).

There was even more excitement as we saw a Tundra Swan – the second largest bird in North America behind the Trumpeter Swan, Mark tells us. In the end, we saw it was a family of two adults and four cygnets, who took one look at us and moved away, slowly and with dignity.

Mark diverted us for a while with an explanation of why these Spruce trees have grown the way they have – clumped together, bushy at the base and scraggy at the top.

The weather is the driver of this. Ice particles driven by the wind strip the upper branches back; snow covers the ground to a depth of two feet on average and stops this happening for the lower branches. The short growing season and the snow also prevents the normal conifer reproduction method of dropping cones with seeds in them. Instead, the branches grow round and back down to the ground and “sucker” new growth before themselves dying back. Apparently beneath the little “skirt” of branches the temperature can be up to 10°C warmer, helping the trees establish an underground network for spreading through the permafrost and providing a congenial microenvironment for small creatures.

We saw some snow geese. They heard us coming and flew away.

Later, we came across an unusual sight, which was a single snow goose, just wandering around seeking food.

Then someone saw a Ptarmigan.

Bob confirmed it as a Willow Ptarmigan. Excitement mounted as we saw there were several,

all with the distinctive cute feathery leggings.

The scenery continued to be striking at times.

In the photo above, you can see that the path leads in to water, and so we relied on Bob’s skill and experience to get us through safely.

And then it was 4pm and we were back at the Buggy Dock.

This was an opportunity for a group photo (to be published when I can get my hands on it). Notably, there was an armed Bear Guard on duty (shown here chatting to Bob) whilst we were outside the Buggy.

I can’t imagine why, because there weren’t any fucking bears anywhere around. To prove this, Joe took us on a drive round the back roads in the bus, past various locations such as the “golf balls”,

that once housed radar tracking technology for the rockets that were tested hereabouts, and the shipwreck,

the rotting remains of a ship called the Ithaca which ran into trouble in the 1950s when ice crushed the rudder into the propeller and has been abandoned there ever since.

But no bears.

I took a couple more pictures of the town of Churchill as we headed back to the hotel, which add to its strong identity as a frontier town.

But no bears.

And that was it for the day, for me at least. After dinner, Jane went to a talk given by a trapper, but I stayed behind to deal with the recalcitrant gimbal and to see what photographs could be rescued from a day which had, apart from the bird life, featured a bear minimum of activity. We go out in the buggy again tomorrow, with our fingers firmly crossed for the polar opposite of today’s searching. I hope you will come back to find out how we got on.