Saturday, November 26, 2011

Part II: There are no roads to Chuchill

(Please start with Part I, if you haven't already, and work your way up!)
The next morning, we joined our group in a mini-van that delivered us, in caravan with other NatHab groups' vans, through the back gate of the Winnipeg airport, across the tarmac, to the foot of stairway to our Nolinor charter 737 that was to take us on a 1-1/2 hour flight to Churchill. The weather was gorgeous, but Sandra, our guide, cautioned that two prior flights to Churchill that morning had been cancelled due to turbulence, so we might expect our ride to be "a little bumpy." Well, whatever, it's a little late to back out just because of wintery weather up north, right? And besides, one can certainly not drive to Churchill, every single wheeled vehicle in town got there, in whole or in parts, on rails or on a ship. And in any case, I am here to tell you how fabulous it is not to need a boarding pass, to skip security, not to have to take shoes, watches, bracelets, and belts off, and not to empty water bottles before boarding. We lifted off expeditiously, but to my window-seat-loving disappointment, the scenery below, which I fully expected to be like nothing I'd ever seen before, was soon obscured by clouds. But the flight was perfectly ordinary, turbulently-speaking, from start to finish.
The territory below that I couldn't see was, initially, the flat cultivated surrounds of Winnipeg, then taiga (thick, boreal "Hansel-and-Gretel" forest), then tundra, which reminds one of nothing so much as being at 10,000 feet at, say, the 49th parallel (the north entrance to Yellowstone is at the 49th, but just a little under 6,000 feet in elevation) with a few scrawny trees (krumholtz) scattered here and there, osiers and even lower-to-the-ground vegetation, lots of exposed rock formations, rough terrain, and many places for water to pool and ice to form. This is exactly what the ground looked like as far as I could see when we finally poked down under the thick cloud cover at Churchill.
When we came to a stop on the runway, watching the folks seated ahead of us deplane we noted that they all walked across the rainy tarmac at a 45 degree angle. It turns out the wind was blasting at an unremitting 55 mph. The reason the landing was smooth is that the runway - originally built by the military - was aligned perfectly into the wind, and the wind was not gusting. But the irony of the name of the neighboring commercial aircraft, CalmAir, was not lost on me. 
Great White Bear Tours was our local transportation provider, and our  small bus was waiting as soon as our luggage was off-loaded. Our first stop was one of Churchill's two prominent inukshuk, this one overlooking Hudson's Bay.

An inukshuk is a sculptural assembly of rocks that is used by native peoples as a place marker, a cache, directional aid, memorial, and so on. They have great significance to the aboriginal peoples all across Canada. This one was easily 20 feet high. If you click on the image to enlarge it you can make out the enormous rollers heading onto shore from the Bay behind it. 
Our group was then taken to the Northern Nights Lodge, situated right behind another of Churchill's large inukshuk, also a gateway to the port. 
Churchill's other major inukshuk, with the marine fuel tanks of the port visible in the distance. To the right was the Northern Nights Lodge, where we bunked.
We rather liked the Northern Nights, in spite of its motel-like decor. It was cozy and quiet, had a very good restaurant, and made a good home for us for four wonderful nights. We could see from our window that someone had, probably weeks ago, left their fishing nets hanging to dry out back. In the unrelenting wind, the nets became gossamer, punctuated by little blue weights.
The tundra view from our window; polar bears sometimes wander out there.

I just learned that the Northern Nights Lodge burned to the ground the night of November  18. There was one minor injury, everyone else was safe (though their possessions like passports and cameras mostly destroyed), and I would guess the hotel not full as the bears had already left for the ice and there are few visitors in town now. It's nonetheless very frightening to think about, as it could so easily have happened to us. And although bear-watching season was over for 2011, Northern Nights is among few employers in town and numbers of jobs went up in flames too. Northern Nights, may you rebuild and flourish again next season!
Go to Part III

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