Seeing Churchill Beyond the Polar Bears

If seeing the Aurora Borealis and Polar Bears were not enough, our trip to sub-Arctic Canada was so much more.

One benefit of traveling with Natural Habitat and their partnership with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is their focus on the environment and local culture. We learned a lot about the indigenous population and the manner in which they lived, saw examples of their art, and heard their voices. During one of our evening presentations, we had a chance to meet and listen to Georgina, a Cree elder who survived a childhood taken from her family and placed in one of the government’s regional schools to re-educate the native population. Her story was harrowing and very moving. These schools are the ones where many graves are now being discovered, creating a major shift in awareness among Canadians. The slogan “Every Child Matters” and the color orange have become emblematic of the awareness campaign.

Historically, we learned about exploration and fur trading in the area as Europeans came to search for the NW Passage. Representatives from multi-generational local families explained how the tourism industry came to be, from its almost accidental beginnings just a few decades ago.

Scientifically, the Polar Bear was demystified as we got the facts and figures about the worldwide population. And, not surprisingly, we saw the impact of climate warming first hand as we witnessed a Hudson Bay not yet frozen and bears enduring about six extra weeks without a major food source (Ringed Seals are their meal of choice).

Mural on the Polar Bear “jail” where misbehaving bears are taken before being taken back into the wild.

Art and culture were on display in Manitoba, from the massive museum in Winnipeg to the tiny museum packed with indigenous art in Churchill. And then there are the Churchill murals. Although my husband and I did not see them all, we enjoyed both the creativity and symbolism captured by each artist.

Religion and spirituality are intertwined with the indigenous cultures and the history of colonization. Priests and ministers were often on the ships from Europe that began exploring the area surrounding Churchill in 1619-20. By the 1700s, the Anglicans wanted to establish a church. So they built one in England, then took it apart and shipped it over. With no assembly directions. It took years and many more steps to construct the building, but St. Pauls’ Anglican Church managed to open for services in 1792. In 1936 it was moved across the frozen Churchill River to the other side, then moved twice again to its present location. Not much to look at on the outside, the star attraction is the beautiful stained glass window donated by Lady Jane Franklin, wife of lost explorer Sir John Franklin, who went missing during an expedition in 1848. The two-part window was shipped from England in barrels of molasses to keep them from breaking on the long, rough journey.

The people we met were candid, friendly, and honest. Life can be difficult here. The dog musher’s new 7-week old grandson returned to Churchill after a scheduled birth in Winnipeg. His mother had to be in Winnipeg 4 weeks prior to her due date and, after being 5 days late, the baby was kept in the hospital 5 days just to make sure everything was 100% before the 2.5-hour flight back to his very rural home.

Inuksuk imagery is everywhere. From tiny renderings to giant representations, these stone artifacts are very important practically and spirituality to the Inuit culture and other arctic-area indigenous groups. They are often used as “helpers” to mark something important like a food cache, hunting site, or navigational tool. The more human-like Inunnguag (also often referred to as Inuksuk) has a more spiritual connotation and is very commonly seen in the area.

They take COVID prevention seriously and are focused on protecting the indigenous population. People in the neighboring territory of Nunavuk who get sick would have to go to Churchill for care, where there are only 2 intensive care beds. We’ve had 3 COVID tests, and masks are required everywhere unless you are consuming food or drink.

This trip was wonderful. Getting there was not easy and we did experience canceled flights, which added a fourth leg to each portion of our travel and a long delay on our last flight home, but it was worth it. Once in Manitoba the logistics and weather worked out perfectly. To be able to travel again we are willing to accept our new flying reality (and just hope it eventually improves). Thanks to Katrina and Natural Habitat Adventures for keeping us on track and sharing these very special experiences!

Conditions that kept helicopters grounded for the prior two days changed just in time for our morning flight over Wapusk National Park, adjacent to Churchill. There are no official roads in the Park, you need to fly in. There are some research buildings in one area, but otherwise, the 7,100+ square mile Park is a pristine preserve for wildlife, including the migrating Polar Bears. Appropriately, Wapusk translates to “white bear” in Cree.

For an hour we zoomed over the boreal forest, ponds, over the river, and by Hudson Bay. A herd of moose was clearly visible among the trees and watching a mother bear with her two cavorting COYs was special. On what the pilot called the “lounge” we witnessed five big males hanging around waiting for the ice to freeze.

It was fascinating and obvious from the air to see the ice chunks were starting to firm and collect along the coast. The long, hungry summer season is coming to a close for the Polar Bears of Churchill.

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