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Sunday, November 30, 2008

Passing Time in Churchill

Isn’t it hard to believe that Inverness, Scotland is at the same latitude (well almost, really close though) as Churchill, Manitoba? At 58 degrees latitude this rather unique Sub-Arctic town stands alone in regards to personality, character, fricken cool things to see and do and really the obscure Polar Bear season that radically infuses the town with a frantic but popular influx of tourists, for a mere 6 piddly weeks. For 5 years now, I have been arriving by plane or by train to this extremely friendly and welcoming community that houses about 800 people in the off season. Although the town is home to around 3500 Belugas in the summer town, 250 bird species in the spring time and 900 Polar Bears in the Autumn time, in the big scheme of things, it is still seldom visited and not so easy to get to. Sure, you can meander, amble - literally up by train, (permafrost and lack of VIA maintenance is causing huge delays with the public train system) or catch a fairly expensive plane ride (weather dependent) from Winnipeg. Please note that about 5% of Winnipegians have actually visited their cufflink, neighboring community of Churchill, kinda like the very few kiwis that have actually stopped by Stewart Island or the Vancouverites that have been daring enough to venture to Vancouver Island. Unlike some small, remote towns, visitors are made to feel very welcome, even us guides that spontaneously and briefly turn up for a mere month to guide guests out on Sub-Arctic terrain introducing them to the tactile tundra and the life and love of the Polar Bear. This curiously, distinctive town has a few odds and ends going for it. Most buses have mounted a 12 gage shotgun, a 10pm curfew siren goes off in the evenings, and instead of a police car patrolling the streets in search of unusual ‘human’ suspects, we have Polar Bear Alert Conservation Officers, keeping an eye out for off-white four legged and unwelcomed Ursa Major creatures. As well, a man is not judged by the size of his truck or the woman at his side, what makes a man a man in this gorgeous town is determined by how many dogs he owns, and how efficiently fast they can run. I doubt that there is any other town that disallows a Polar Bear outfit to be worn at Halloween, and how festive this celebration is. Churchill is a town that was built in the wrong place. It happens to be right in the vicinity where the Western Hudson Bay Polar Bear community gets dumbed off by melting ice in July and where the ice freezes first in mid to late November. And why is ice so important to Polar Bears? Well to us is determined by the air we breath and the water we drink, basically. And to a Polar Bear, it is all about ice! Sea ice is what gives the Polar Bear a platform to walk on and work from. It is ice that supplies the Polar Bear a means to hunt its favorite and most accessible food, the Ringed Seal. Without ice, a Polar Bear would simply starve to death. I have witnessed Churchill only in the fall season, where the willows are bare of catkins (petal-less flowers), the flowers, lichen and berries have been harvested by birds passing by and Caribou linger in the barren but luscious pastures. Animals like the Arctic Fox, Snowy Owl and Arctic Hair stand out like sore thumbs by their involuntary coat change from grey/off brown to snowy white. Eventually, like in the past 2 weeks, snow begins to fall like fire flavored leaves in autumn, blanketing the ground with a cushion of insulation and protection from the severe ice carrying northwest winds. At this time the bears are congregating closely to the inter-tidal edge, where ice is forming as the temperature drops and days are getting shorter, nights seeming longer. The pregnant females are all denned up and the feisty males are hanging around, as though at the local town mall, eager to socialize and play-up by sparring and testing their skills to work out rank amongst their testosterone peers. I am about to lead my final tour which departs from Winnipeg November 12th. By November 16th I shall be tucked up at home in Alert Bay, 2 months before my South Georgia Expedition begins. Until then, I will soak up the memorable moments where I have the opportunity to experience the intermit companionship of the most powerful land mammal that exists on the planet. The animal that walks about its Arctic kingdom in utter silence, with the intelligence and supremacy that gives me hope it will survive beyond the obstacles and challenges that perhaps man has created.

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