Sunday, December 25, 2011

Part VIII: Something about Winnipeg

(Please start with Part I, if you haven't already, and work your way up!) 
The United Airlines direct flight from Chicago to Winnipeg (aka, Winterpeg, and Windypeg, though you wouldn't know it from our couple of beautiful days there), jumping off city for Churchill and polar bears, is surprisingly easy from Chicago. Although from the perspective of that other Windy City, the one at the nadir of Lake Michigan, Winnipeg seems as though it should be much farther, in fact flying time is under two hours. We arrived in plenty of time to be summarily delivered by Natural Habitat Adventures to our hotel, the Fort Garry, dump our stuff, and head out to spend the afternoon with our friend, photographer Doug Dance, whose home Winnipeg is. I know him from years of travels to Yellowstone.
Doug has a day job but lives for weekends when he can get out of town with camera rigged for serious nature photography. In 2003, the year this photo of us was taken at Floating Island Lake, he had taken a year off from that day job to spend 365 days, 24/7, in Yellowstone The result was his wonderful first volume, Once Around the Sun in Yellowstone. Doug is the most accurate observer of wildlife, weather, seasons, and the impact of human beings on natural processes that I know, and his device of following selected sagas--especially the soap opera that is the lives of Yellowstone's wild wolves--is brilliant. What a treat that, on the beautiful mid-October day of our arrival, he took us out to Oak Hammock Marsh, a favorite birding spot less than a hour's drive from the center of the prairie city that is Winnipeg. We were a little early for snow geese, a little late for many other winged migrants, but just in time for loads of Canada geese, and a dozen northern harrier sightings as they worked the stubbled fields along the way. The major thing we learned from this lovely afternoon is that Manitoba, the population of which is in any sense dense only in the southern fourth of its geography, is resplendent with natural beauty and an abundant variety of major wildlife, much of it within a few hours drive time from Winnipeg, making "The Peg" a fine place to live for a nature-lover.
KLK and Doug looking for a rare bird, or even a common one, Oak Hammock Marsh
Another of Winnipeg's major claims to fame is its location at the "fork" of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers. In fact this hydrography, at the confluence of two major navigable rivers, was important in pre-Columbian times for the same reasons it made an ideal location for the early 18th century French fort and trading post that eventually matured into a modern city. 
Please click to enlarge for detail.
The red star is the felicitous location of our hotel, the Fort Garry, and the green star is where I was standing when I took this photo:

How often do you see a map that so precisely portrays such a small land form? The Winnipegians have sagely preserved this whole area for parkland and other public use. There are running and bike paths, and inviting pedestrian bridges, such as the Esplanade Real across the Red...
...which parallels the visually friendly Provencher Bridge for vehicular traffic, and beyond that (not  visible in this photo), the railroad bridge: 
Note that the etchings on the flanks of the bridge honoring the culture of the precolonial era. 
Just under construction at the Forks is the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. It's going to be an architectural destination if nothing else when it's done.
Another of Winnipeg's claims to fame is that it is extraordinarily multicultural, in large part due to its stable economy and good job market; the Human Rights Museum will doubtless hold much meaning to locals as well as visitors.
Also at the Forks, a little indoor shopping area with some nice restaurants and most appealing sculptures outdoors:
The Wisdom Owl, artist unknown
This is the view from the Forks looking back past Union Station (passengers and freight trains) to the copper wedding-cake roof of the historic Fort Garry Hotel, and to the left, a highrise newer section. 
Over the years, I've checked out the lobbies of, or stayed in, a number of historic hotels built in late 19th and early 20th century by Canadian railroads, including the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec, the Prince of Wales in Waterton, Banff Springs in Banff, the Chateau Lake Louise in Jasper, the Empress in Victoria, and the Hotel Vancouver in Vancouver. Winnipeg's Fort Garry (opened in 1913), was built within a block of the railroad station, and is still a thriving concern nearly 100 years later. It has its charms, though I would not say it is quite up to the standard of your average 21st century hotel, nor does it rank up there with the Canada's top historic railroad hostelry for charm or elegance. The rooms are small (we stayed in two of them, one going and one coming, with four nights in Churchill in between), lined with feminine rose-print wallpaper, furnished "granny" style, with big old cathode ray tube TVs (I haven't been in any sort of hotel room, including the ill-fated Northern Nights in Churchill, that didn't have a flat screen TV, in years), and sun-stained green velveteen drapes. Perhaps being a conveniently-located historic edifice with reliable contracts with tour companies makes the existence of competition moot! 
In any case, we ended our stay in Canada with a good night's sleep, and on the flight home caught one last good look at how this lovely city sits surrounded by rich productive agricultural land, the fruits of which keep the port of Churchill busy.


Sunday, December 18, 2011

Part VII: The people of Churchill

(Please start with Part I, if you haven't already, and work your way up!) One of the big advantages of staying in town, as opposed to a "lodge" on the tundra, is that after long days looking for bears from the vantage of our tundra rover, we were treated to dinner at one of several Churchill restaurants (Gypsy's, the Seaport, or at the  now burned-to-the-ground, Northern Nights Lodge) followed by a visit to hear a local raconteur. But one of my very favorite Churchillians was Stu, driver of our "in-town" van for Great White Bear Tours
Stu, raised in Churchill but now living with his wife, a nurse, in Saskatchewan, had returned to work polar bear season. Returning, for him, is a special pleasure because his mother and sister still live in Churchill. Stu told us his heritage is Cree and Dene, which are the two most prominent First Nations groups of the region. So typical of native peoples, he comes from an amazingly hospitable family. One day, after a drive around the docks along the Churchill River, Stu pulled the van into a parking lot of a building very like this one--a typical modern-day Churchill dwelling:
He left the engine running--we did need the heater on!--unbuckled his seat belt and said, "Wait just a minute, I'll be right back!" In flash, he was back with a cutting board and a large, foil-covered slab of still-hot-from-the-oven bannock bread, baked for us by his sister. Simple, fresh, refreshing, and accompanied by butter and locally-made jam, this was the ultimate hospitality from a woman too humble to come out to the bus for us to thank her. It was one of the highlights of the trip, thanks to Stu and his family.
Guide Sandra and van driver Stu with everybody's cameras taking a group picture.
Stu was not officially a guide, but he was quite knowledgeable about the area, the wildlife, local lifestyles and history. Of the caribou ragout at the Lazy Bear Lodge, when asked if he liked it, Stu said, graciously, "yes, it's good" and then, of course, "but it's not like my mother makes it." I'm sure that's true! 
Lunching on caribou and muskox dishes beyond the caribou skin at the Lazy Bear Lodge Cafe
One evening we visited the Churchill Métis Heritage Center where we were hosted by Métis elder, Myrtle Demeulles. In Canada, Métis is a demographic designation referring to people of mixed European and aboriginal heritage; in the United States such people were denigrated as "half-breeds." Like many such people around the once-colonial world, they suffered from a lack of acceptance by either parent's culture and doubtful treatment by the government. Today, the Métis of Canada are proud of their legacy, and have found strength in their numbers in large part due to the leadership of people like Myrtle. Of Scottish-Cree descent, she was married to a Frenchman. She has in fact been recognized as the recipient of the Order of Manitoba. Here's her certificate, displayed at the Heritage Center to remind the young of the importance of her work:
Myrtle spoke to us for about a half an hour about what it was like to grow up in a Cree community, how the Cree take care of their needy (especially, "skinny women"), and how inspiration comes to her in dreams. Myrtle is well-known for her wonderful tufted caribou fur "dimensional sculptures" charmingly depicting the natural boreal world. Here they are on display, with my apologies for not having a close-up to show you (click to enlarge for detail):
And here is Myrtle, ever friendly and interested chatting with her visitors at the Center:
On another evening, we found ourselves at St. Paul's Anglican Church, of which Churchill's official website, "Everything Churchill" has this to say:

St. Paul’s Anglican Church, the first prefabricated building in North America and a designated heritage site by the Province of Manitoba, is the oldest church in the North still in use. It originated as a kit of pre-fab components made in England, was assembled on the west bank of the Churchill River, then was moved in winter by sledge to the other side of the river followed by a final relocation to another street. St. Paul’s also has ties to the exploration era – Lady Franklin donated a stained-glass window in memory of her husband Sir John Franklin, the famous Arctic explorer. It can still be seen today.  

And here's a detail of the remarkable Franklin window housed at the St. Paul's (click to enlarge to fully enjoy its beauty):
The other prominent cultural legacy of Churchill is of course, that of the Inuit, celebrated and preserved by another religious organization, the Catholic Diocese of Churchill, in the Eskimo Museum. In a possibly uncharacteristic moment of foresight, in 1944 the mission determined that the artifacts of the Eskimo culture (now known by their name for themselves, Inuit) should be sheltered, studied, and appreciated. Today the museum remains very small, but replete with precious objects such as these fine walrus-tusk carvings:

and these larger icons of the Inuit, authentic hide-covered kayaks that look like they are well-used:
In the background the museum's excellent little shop is visible. It's full of brilliant carvings the Inuit are known for so well. I think the whimsey--amply visible in the ivory pieces too--and extreme precision of the work are perhaps what comes of very long northern winter nights with little else to do. To our pleasure and good fortune!

Go to Part VIII

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Part VI: When good bears go "bad"

(Please start with Part I, and work your way up, if you haven't already!) 
Living peaceably surrounded by hundreds of hungry, bored and curious bears can be a challenge for humans. The good people of Churchill set limits, but bears ignore the signs and sometimes--well, apparently, fairly often--wander into town, where there might be garbage, dog food, or other nutritious edibles, and where they can be entertained by antics, and destructible property, of humans. Needless to say, this is very problematic, so when a bear is spotted in the neighborhood, it's seriously discouraged with firecrackers and blanks. Some bears aren't impressed. Those that don't go away usually find themselves entrapped...
Polar bear traps waiting to be deployed around town from the Holding Facility
...and consigned to the Churchill Polar Bear Holding Facility, aka, the Polar Bear Jail, which consists of a huge quonset hut with 30 cinder-block cells inside, dim lighting for sensory deprivation, and only chunks of ice to gnaw on, with the intention of delivering a miserably aversive, but harmless, message. Sentences are 10-30 days long. When their sentence is up, the parolee gets a free helicopter lift to a remote location to await freeze-up of Hudson's Bay without human interference (or vice-versa).
One day, when we happened not to be out on the tundra, our guide got wind of an impending release, which our group and a few others were invited to observe.
Looks just like the roadside in Yellowstone, but in micro-miniature
We set up, the Manitoba Natural Resources officers set up, the jail door swings open, and out comes a four-wheeler with a well-sedated big white bear flopped on a flatbed trailer. The four-wheeler lines up with a net splayed on the ground, and next thing we know, the bear is ready to wrap. Although the day was very dull, since she had been kept in an unlighted cell for days, the kerchief over her eyes allows her to adapt slowly to the relative brightness of the outdoors:
As if this wasn't already plenty cool enough, the door swings open again, and out comes the four-wheeler again, this time with a good-sized cub on it:

Large cub, probably coming into its second winter
While a wildlife officer secures a tow rope to the bottom of the 'copter for Mom, Little Bear gets to ride in the back seat. Our guide Sandra tells us it will be seat-belted in.
The sedated cub looks like a toy polar bear
Baby on board, Mom well-secured, and without further ado, the helicopter lifts off and the slack comes out of the rope around her net:
Mom, who looks entirely relaxed and oblivious swinging up there in the cold air, has a big blob of green paint on her back. I have heard different explanations but understand this is a conventional way of marking bears that have been incarcerated. Although it's unlikely the Inuit would want to hunt and eat such a skinny bear (she's been nearly fasting, after all, since June), especially one with a cub, and what's more, I assume there is no hunting allowed in the Wildlife Management Area, in other regions and at other times of the year a hunter would surely want to know if the bloodstream and flesh of a bear contained a major sedative before shooting it for food.
Bye bears! Have a wonderful winter! See ya' next year! NOT.

Go to Part VII.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Part V. Tundra, tundra, tundra!

(Please start with Part I and work your way up, if you haven't already!)
"Alpine" tundra territory along the Beartooth Highway, Montana, in 2007
So what exactly is the tundra? (Doesn't the word itself have an appealing ring to it? "TUNDRA!") Having spent a week there makes me no expert, but according to Wikipedia (which knows everything, right?), tundra is an ecological region characterized by permafrost, vegetation (little of it in the form of trees) adapted to harsh conditions and a very short growing season, but lush with bird life, a variety of mammals, and even insects. As mentioned previously, the boreal tundra where Churchill is located reminds me very much of the alpine tundra along the Beartooth Highway (Montana), which is far lower in latitude (about 49N compared to Churchill at 58N) and far higher in elevation. The photo above was taken at about 8,500 or 9,000 feet, compared to Churchill, at 94 feet above sea level at its maximum. 
In mid-October, the tundra along the western shores of Hudson's Bay can be a dreary, windy, rainy place, but even the low visibility and wind-driven precipitation can't hide its unique beauty.  
Inukshuk in the tundra, taken in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area; click to enlarge.
Dotted with big, sheeting snowflakes, this scene reveals an inukshuk at the left--this one smaller and certainly more traditionally constructed than the two large, "official" ones in town--and stunted trees, probably black spruce, known as krumholtz. Some are flag trees, with branches growing mostly leeward.
The tundra is full of shallow depressions where water collects, and tundra rovers are fully equipped to ignore such impediments.

"Carry on!"

Tundra along Hudson's Bay
Soon to be frozen over, featureless, and bearless until spring thaw--the tundra is nonetheless not colorless.

Google satellite image, Churchill River and estuary (center), city of Churchill, edge of Hudson's Bay, and surrounding tundra; note the pock-mark like lakes, especially to the west.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Part IV Life and death on the tundra

(Please start with Part I, and work your way up, if you haven't already!) 
We spent two very full days on the tundra, learning more about it and its inhabitants each day. Polar bears thrive on a diet of ringed seals, which live in Hudson's Bay year 'round (and elsewhere where polar bears abound) but the bears can only access them from the ice surface, in other words, they can gorge themselves on this nutritious food source only from November through about June each year--unless a seal is serendipitously delivered up to them on the beach before ice-up. It does happen; given the windstorms we were experiencing, I would guess by the looks of it, this poor guy apparently had had a fatal head-on bash against a rock. 
Ringed seal, favorite polar bear food, named for the distinctive spots on its hide.
Polar bears, like other bears, are by no means averse to consuming a free meal, and this one had already started to investigate this gift from the sea.

A polar bear tests the air in an effort to locate the odoriferous seal carcass about 75 or
100 yards in our direction.

Same hungry bear, circling the source
Unfortunately, at that moment there were a three tundra vehicles surrounding the seal carcass, and I think, in spite of very strong off-shore winds blowing across it towards the bear, the large vehicles may have distorted the scent-line. He walked back and forth several times while we watched, stopping to point his nose in the air, clearly aware that a free meal awaited somewhere nearby. But he either wasn't quite able to accurately locate it, or he was not willing to pass between the rovers to get it. After a while he bedded down in the osiers for a nap. A friend who stayed in the Tundra Lodge later reported to me that the next day her rover excursion witnessed a bear consuming the last of the seal. It may have taken a while, but the bear(s) took full advantage of it after all.  
More bears out there, everywhere:

A nice big bear heads toward the fully liquid Hudson's Bay; less than a month later the Bay was frozen and the bears had left the tundra.
The nature preserves of Churchill are known for other wildlife besides polar bears, too. Everywhere we saw what looked like dozens of kleenex tissues fluttering in the wind, rising about 15 feet in the air, swooping, and landing on the ground. When the "tissues" did finally descend for a few seconds they were revealed to be snow buntings, like large sparrows with white breasts and undersides, black-tipped wing tops, and rusty nape, head, and "necklace," pecking at the remnant fruits of the summer's seed-bearing plants. We saw a raven or two, three or four lesser scaup lagging behind their migrated brethren, and maybe an occasional gull--forgive me if I know not what kind. We also saw a tiny herd of rock ptarmigan, all in winter white except for little black Zorro masks across their eyes. Most disappointingly, none of this birdlife was gracious enough to stand still for a photo. In other seasons, they say, it's birding paradise. 
Other critters we might have seen, but did not happen to: arctic fox, arctic hare, boreal woodland caribou, and moose. And very, very remotely possibly, wolves. What we did see, in town near the docks (on Cape Merry) rather than out on the tundra, was this stunning red fox, described as being "cross phase" meaning, I believe, that it combined red and silver fur patterns in one animal:

With apologies for the poor quality image (what a lost photo op!!) -- I wasn't allowed to get out of the van and shoot without a windshield between camera and critter because a polar bear was said to be in the vicinity. We didn't see the bear but in the distance we could see the trap that awaited it.

And of course, the presence of fox means a plenitude of small rodents year 'round. It gave me the feeling that there's so much more going on out there that I wanted to know about!
Go to Part V.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Part III: Where the bears are

(Please start with Part I, and work your way up, if you haven't already.)
Bears are not welcome in town (about that more later), but they have their own protected territory:  The Churchill Wildlife Management area (which also encompasses Wapusk National Park) is just adjacent to town. In the far distance to the left of the sign are the buildings of the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, where scientists conduct research on wildlife, botany, geophysics, climate, and everything else that is fascinating about the boreal tundra. 
Churchill Wildlife Management Area
From: Hudson Bay Lowlands Proposed Protected Areas (undated), Manitoba Conservation
The very top of the beige area on the map, along the shore of Hudson's Bay, is accessible to permitted organized tours. But accessible has a rather specific meaning on the tundra. Although the Canadian military once used the area for research and training, the "roads" in the protected area can only be referred to in quotes

What the military left behind was a small network of routes that require specialized vehicles to navigate. The vehicles used today, called tundra buggies or rovers, were locally designed and assembled to safely navigate the terrain (deep mud, water, ice, snow, rocks large and small), and to keep passengers warm and safe inside while allowing good viewing and photography. Early on our first morning in Churchill, Great White Bear Tours delivered us to the rear viewing deck of our rover to board.
The rovers are truly massive, and although they accommodate 30 or so people plus the guide and driver, NatHab limits the number of participants in each group to 14 or 15 so every one can have a window seat. Everyone wants a window seat! 
They heave along the tundra at maybe 3 to 5 miles an hour, affording plenty of time to keep a lookout for wildlife. We rolled along for almost an hour while Sandra talked about bears, the tundra, and the local culture. Then someone called out BEAR!! There she was, our first wild polar bear, rolled up against the willows, butt to the wind (of which there was plenty: it had not let up even in the slightest since our arrival). 
She momentarily looked up, sleepy and unconcerned--the bears have been living with rovers full of tourists in their midst for at least 20 years--conserving energy while waiting for the winter hunt to begin. Then she went back to sleep.
The reason they rest butt-windward, which we observed over and over again on our forays on the tundra, is that it enables them to utilize their acute sense of smell to monitor what is going on behind them; like humans, they have to squint when facing the wind, so thus oriented, they can then use their human-like vision to keep an eye on what is before them, even in blizzard conditions.
Facing the wind
Great White Bear Tours and one other company also have rights to park a train-like assembly of tundra vehicles that includes a kitchen car with staff quarters, dining car, lounge, and several sleeping cars, during polar bear season. Visitors can opt to stay out on the tundra in one of these lodges for the duration of their visit; they're probably not as comfortable as those of us in town, and they did not have the opportunity to enjoy the local culture and variety of restaurants (more on these later) like we in town did, but their bear sightings were nearly continuous as the bears, curious by nature and bored by circumstance, like to hang out near the lodges. Each time our rover stopped at the lodge we were amply rewarded.
Another snoozing polar bear, this one beneath the Tundra Lodge
This bear, hanging out by the lodge tires, was consuming a ball cap that had blown off of someone's head from the viewing platform above.

All bears use their noses, but polar bears are believed to have the most well-developed sense of smell among their kin. Reportedly, they can pick up the scent of seal breath 20 miles across the ice. This guy appears to be particularly enjoying the aroma of fresh tourists.

Go to Part IV.