Monday, 23 November 2015

Churchill Reflections

     As I sit in the Winnipeg airport waiting for the last leg of my journey home, I reflect upon another guiding season adventure. To get this far I rode the red-eye Via passenger rails 16 hours from Churchill to Thompson, Manitoba across frozen and snow covered muskeg and boreal forest. I then drove a company vehicle eight hours, 750 kilometers to Winnipeg arriving late last evening.

     I came to Churchill to work as a guide with Lazy Bear Lodge in June 2015. My goal was to spend time with Beluga whales, learn some of the history and culture of the region, study the landscape and most importantly spend time with polar bears. All of these goals have been accomplished to a certain degree. One can spend a lifetime in a place with its critters and still be amazed by what occurs at times. I feel for our guests who may have only a few hours to spend trying to absorb as much of this region as they can. They cannot have enough time but if they are lucky, as some were, they experienced magnificence.

   I first of all have to thank the owners of Lazy Bear Lodge, Wally and Dawn Daudrich, for allowing me the opportunity to enjoy this unique place in Canada. There is no other place like it.

     I next have to thank some of my co-workers who worked very hard to make our guests experiences top-notch and memorable. My two geezer amigos who worked diligently and often times beyond what we should have to complete some major projects and maintenance issues over the course of the season. Marcel Wellman, a wannabe Newfie from eastern Quebec kept us on track and on task with good humour, stories and ditties. Norm Jackson, the elder, had many great ideas pulled from the cobwebs of his life-experience memory bank. Only Mother Nature will tell us in the spring if our docking system will hold up after a winter of ice and storm battering.

     My senior guides, Jud Jones, Gerald Azure and Aaron Nagler proved to be great advisors and mentors with good humour and great guiding skills. Between them, they were able to teach an old dog some new tricks that helped to make our guiding season adventurous and fun for myself and our guests. I also enjoyed meeting an Inuit elder, Thomas Kutluk, who did his culture talks to our guests over the season. We all enjoy learning about new cultures when everyone is open-minded.

     We could not be successful in the field with our guests without the support of our lodge staff, from the front desk reception area to the cleaning, waiting and cooking staff. I am grateful to all of them, even though I may not have spent much more time than a fleeting “good morning” or “where’s our lunches?” Most of the staff came from many different destinations such as Ireland, Australia and across Canada. All have different life experiences and backgrounds as well as motivation to be here. Our common bond was the desire to experience the place and see the wildlife.

Churchill Polar Bear Marathon 2015 Sunrise
     One of the most amazing things I experienced was two of our waiting staff, an Englishman, Adam Mills, and a francophone lady, Tania Massicotte, from Whistler, both in their thirties, ran the full 4th annual, Churchill Polar Bear marathon. They had never run a marathon before, not even half marathons. It was minus 15 degrees Celsius with another 10 degrees of wind-chill and the road was solid ice. They could have worn skates rather than the crampons they strapped to their runners. They ran with and past polar bears. 
Real and Not so Real Polar Bears along the 42 Km.Route
 They were fourth and fifth in a field of 24 crazy, frost-bitten runners. I think this was an amazing accomplishment. I was proud to have taken photos and been part of the cheering section in their support van.

Tania Massicotte and Adam Mills, Proud Marathon Finishers
     These work-mates will be missed but I will watch and monitor their further adventures on Facebook. Others will be more personal contacts and hope to work with again one day.

     I always have to thank our guests who travel so far to visit this unique land. Their openness and sense of wonderment at experiencing the land and the wildlife that live here is refreshing and positive. With their help and understanding, awareness and support for the land is spread far and wide.

     I enjoyed seeing the countryside and its varied moods which often change very quickly. Mirrored water changed to standing whitecaps within minutes, brought on by sudden winds. Ice on the bay disappeared overnight by wind direction change and just as rapidly, the bay filled with ice, once again overnight by a wind direction change. How the power of the wind can change the landscape so quickly is amazing.

Anglican Church in Churchill, Manitoba
     I saw the sun emerge from behind dark storm clouds in time to produce spectacular sunsets. The sunset has moved about 90 degrees from where it set in June to where it is now setting at the end of November. Its sky arc has also changed dramatically since June. The colour and clarity of the sky and the light has been fabulous during this autumn season. I have never seen such dramatic skies or landscape lighting as I have here in the Churchill area. I watched northern lights flash on and off, then back on over a few minutes. They are amazing spectacles of colourful drama flashing across brilliantly star-studded night skies.
     I think of the dedication of the Churchill Bear Patrollers who monitor bear activity in the area around the town. They will chase the bears out of town if they will go and trap or tranquilize I they don't leave peaceably. This dedicated group of conservation officers have saved the lives of hundreds of bears over the past 30 years. Delinquent bears are held at the holding facility for up to a month before being flown out of town.

Delinquent Bear Being Incarcerated
      The landscape itself is as variable as the dramatic skies that cover it. The ruggedly shallow, bay coast is lined by the Pre-Cambrian shield rocky ridge, ground to deceptive smoothness by ancient glaciers. The landscape immediately stretches out into thousands of square kilometers of sub-arctic tundra, taiga, muskeg and boreal forest wilderness that has been utilized by Inuit and Cree for thousands of years before the Europeans arrived about 400 years ago. Colourful but tiny little orchids to emblazoned fireweed combine with tough clumps of hundred year old white-spruce and dwarf birch huddle together for protection from bitterly cold and harsh north-east winds paint the land with brilliant swatches like an abstract artist run amok.
Bee Working hard to Gather Nectar While Pollinating Flowers
       Hundreds of species of birds live or migrate along the western shore of Hudson Bay. They live and rear their families in tiny ponds, on rocky shorelines or out on the open tundra. I enjoyed watching the progress from eggs to tiny, cute-ugly fur-balls of helpless fluff, to the gangly, demanding fledglings growing into their gorgeous adult feathers ready to fly away on the world’s longest migrations. One morning, as if someone turned on a switch, every Arctic Tern had left including the youngsters. Gulls, geese, terns and ducks of many species all raised youngsters and got them off before the ponds froze over.

Arctic Tern Feeding Young
     In the Churchill River estuary, we all marvelled at the huge population of Beluga whales feeding and rearing their families. Everywhere we looked, we could see groups of white whales gliding up to breathe and then diving back down to feed. Graceful elegance could be enticed into playful charmers by the flick of a paddle or wake of a boat.

Polar Bear Mother Watches Carefully as Her Cub Swims Nearby
     The main object of all visitors to Churchill is to catch a glimpse of a polar bear. They do not disappoint. The polar bear is the supreme commander of its land. Just the possibility of their presence makes all of us aware of our own short comings. Watch a bear slip into the chilly water with no hesitation, no toe dip to test the water and no worry about the distance to paddle. Watch as the bear strolls along the beach following an invisible-to-us scent on his powerful nose. He can travel miles in a hurry with his deceptive ground covering gait. We witnessed the patience that the bear has. We watched one bear lay on the ice from daylight to dark; it never moved more than 50 meters all day. It was conserving valuable and dwindling fat reserves while waiting for the ice to form on the bay. It does not take long for antsy guests to want to move along in search for more active ursine.
Polar Bear Mom With Cubs Hiding in Rocky Seclusion
     I saw the desperate and sad side of polar bear life as a large hungry male killed a cub and ate it. The sad mother, helpless to save her cub, watched the hungry male consume her baby. Jud watched a polar bear hunt and capture geese in one of the small ponds. The bear snorkeled and dove, then, one by one, pulled three geese under and carried them to land to feed on. This action may help the polar bear survive as ice seasons become shorter.

     The Churchill region is a marvellous place, harsh and unforgiving at times, but refreshing and rejuvenating for the tough and aware. Long, hot summer days are alive with hordes of humming mosquitoes, feeding gulls and terns pursued by Parasitic Jaegers to bees busily pollinating short blooming flowers as whales feed and rear youngsters in the river. Cooler autumn days paint the land with colourfully lichens, leaves and spectacular sunsets. Wind sets thousands of tiny Mountain Aven skeletons to shaking as if the land is shivering. Storms blow in, the wind changes direction, clouds ramble as if a new destination has suddenly come to mind. Surf pounds the rocky beach and sea foam floats effortlessly up, filling rocky crevasses like snowdrifts. Smell the sea scents, the salt in the air and the rain.
Sea Foam Covers the Beach
Watch snowflakes glom onto everything as if hanging on, not wanting to leave, but the wind is insistent. As the season progresses into winter, snow and chill wind freezes exposed flesh quickly and snow drifts build up protecting everything they cover until warm spring sun releases winters powerful grip.

     Through the seasons the wildlife adapts and waits and works for survival. Only the strong and patient will survive. It is not a land for the unaware or careless.

     I do not know yet if I will be back. I will gauge the draw and temptations over the coming comfortable winter at home.

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