This past Saturday night the Northern Nights hotel in Churchill burnt down to the ground amid high winds and frigid cold temperatures. Miraculously, all occupants were evacuated safely. The fire started around 9pm and within just a few hours the entire structure of linked buildings was destroyed. The attached house, recently converted to guest suites was spared somewhat by the flames but had to be leveled due to structural damage.
Gord and Lynn Martens, the proprietors of the hotel, had recently completed nearly three years of extensive renovations to all phases of the facility and were looking forward to their first profitable year since taking over the business. They worked tirelessly, turning a run -down hotel into a fine tuned, upgraded inn that even served delicious food. The trials they went through and time dedicated to reach that point will never be factored into any monetary reimbursement. We can only send our prayers and thoughts to them and hope they will find some peace in the coming months.
Two Natural Habitat groups were staying at the hotel and were scheduled to leave on Sunday. Guides Brad Josephs and Brent Houston were the group leaders. Local staff and residents assisted in moving all people to the town complex for the evening for shelter and comfort. Everyone was cared for in the true Churchill style of one big family.The rest of the world could surely learn from the caring and hospitality Churchillians display.
The charter flight to Winnipeg scheduled for the following afternoon was pushed to the morning so travelers could get to the Fort Garry hotel to relax and secure lost travel documents. Many people did lose all their personal belongings in the fire and will leave with a tainted memory of what should have been an amazing experience. We wish them all the best and hope they will be able take some good thoughts and memories home as well. Again, we all take some solace in nobody being hurt in this tragedy. If the blaze had started just two hours later it could have been a much different outcome. Everyone is blessed that this did not occur.
The hotel itself was always a quirky mix of buildings spliced together to form one cohesive structure. From the rustic lounge at one end, attached to the the restaurant and kitchen, attached to the original rooms that felt like train cars, attached to the lobby and office, attached to the two-story “newer” rooms with “thin” walls, attached to the house at the other end, the hotel somehow felt like it all belonged. It all worked..well mostly. The people who owned the hotel throughout the years seemed to take on these same characteristics in order to make the business work. They belonged there as well. From Katie and Brett to “Big” Andy to Gord and Lynn…they all brought a natural feel to the hotel. This place was the quintessence of Churchill in how everyone and everything needs to embody many forms and possess multiple skills to survive. The hotel is gone though the memories will endure always.
The Northern Nights will be missed dearly by all who knew its’ spirit …though the spirit of the North will surely live on forever. Bears. belugas and beers forever!
Currently the weather in Churchill is Normal….for this time of year that is. With 50 mph winds and blizzard conditions pounding Churchill in the last couple of days, the rest of the season should be quite interesting with an Arctic feel to the region. Temperatures near 3F combining with the wind creates a chill more like -25F. Should the mercury hold steady in this range for another week or two, the Hudson Bay will start to catch up in sea ice volume. Every year just about this time things start to change dramatically.
This past week has been bountiful for travelers to the region seeking to take in true Arctic wildlife encounters and get a feel for the North. Guide Karen Walker and her group landed in Churchill and headed out to the tundra in the CWMA. Before even reaching the rover launch site a sow with two coys (cubs of the year) were spotted near the road out by mile 5..not a bad start to the afternoon. Another mom and two coy greeted them on the trail to Halfway Point and the group spent a good part of the afternoon with them. Lunch at halfway point overlooking the Hudson Bay and bear sightings on the way back later made for a stellar start to the trip.
Brad Josephs photo.
The following day the group headed out to Christmas Lake esker via the inland trails. Most of the other rovers were on the coastal road so Karen and her rover driver decided to take another approach to the area. Upon reaching the backside of some frozen ponds to the East of the esker, with hot coffee being served, another sow with two coys…third in two days, appeared in the distance. Walking away from the rover at first, they then turned back and tentatively approached before laying down near the road. As one of the cubs crept up closer to the rover, the entire group became still and quiet. Soon the other two bears rose up and came over to the rover as well sitting just off the front right window of the machine. Melting snow dripped from the rover onto to the nose of the smaller cub. For awhile time seemed to stop and then one cub moved around to the back grated observation deck and sniffed the shoes of the guests. This whole interaction went on for about two hours with almost half of that time up close and very personal. Karen stated that this was her personal “best sow and cubs encounter” in all of her guiding history. Pretty cool interactions. All in all, their 25 bear sightings throughout the day were very quality sightings.
On their final day in Churchill, the group was able to explore Cape Merry for a long time as the air was dead still and the air temperature was quite comfortable up on the rocky rise. As the group hiked out to the old stone battery looking out toward Fort prince of Wales, the Parcs Canada guide removed his government issued coat ..too warm for the day. Spending over a half hour out in the open where normally windy and frigid conditions prevail, the group was able to see numerous wildlife tracks in the windswept snow cover. The gorgeous crystals of the unblemished snow sparkled in the soft sunlight.
Helicopter flights lifted off in beautiful light …heading East along the coast and then flying into some clouds and light snow squalls. Skies cleared out as the trips continued and a wounded caribou was spotted down along the tundra…maybe the next bear prey and subsequent meal. Several bull moose and bears dotted the landscape in the amazing orange light reflecting off the coastal ice forming in the shallows.
Guide Colby Brokvist and group were enjoying a day on the tundra this same day and seeing amazing tracks in the three inches of fresh snow that accumulated over the previous two days. Interpreting the tracks and seeing what animals were moving around and why to some extent was a fascinating lesson on this sunny morning in the North. The bear viewing was “phenomenal” as Colby put it A giant male just near Halfway Point dwarfed many of the other bruins in the area. As they made it to “point proper”, Colby focused a white gyrfalcon in the scope. Purple dappled markings revealed themselves as the bird filled the lens. A long the coastal trail, a mother with her yearling cub out on the Hudson Bay ice moved slowly while testing the surface..teaching the safety technique to her cub. About 16 bears with a couple of sets of sparring sub-adults occupied the lodge area. The mock fighting went on for a good 20 minutes before settling down. Out in the bay the ice between the open leads was a platform for seals and the Arctic sea smoke floated in the breathless air.
Paul Brown photo.
Guide Elise Lockton and travelers didn’t have much action out at Gordon Point so they headed along the coast and then in to the area between first Tower and Christmas Lake esker. A beautiful sow and her two yearlings came right up to the rover and played with parts under the machine. Very curious bears down East. Elise and her group also saw multiple Arctic fox in this quiet lightly traveled corner of the CWMA.
On their night rover trip, guide Sue Zajac and her guests spotted a vibrant red fox against the white covered tundra on their way out to the tundra lodge. Once there, numerous sleeping bears greeted them with indifferent stares. One sat up and another three were soon sniffing at each others muzzles but decided not to tangle…rest time. The group was just off the back deck and they looked over at the visitors. The animal tracks held the shadows as the glowing sunset filled the chilled air.
That morning the group finished their breakfast at Gypsy’s deli and headed down to the bay to touch the frigid water behind the inukshuk in the Hudson Bay. As they looked around and took in the incredible scenery, a juvenile snowy owl flew over town and a raven perched in the steeple tower of the Anglican church…if they only knew.
Guide Sue Zajac reported “awesome sightings” from beginning to end in the Churchill wildlife Management Area (CWMA) this past week with over 70 polar bear sightings. One major highlight of the incredible day was a mother and cub on the coastal trail between First Tower and the point. This was the first such sighting for Sue and her travelers and they were awestruck watching the interactions in the willows close to the trail. Guide Brent and group actually saw a period of nursing behavior just prior to Sue’s group arrival. Both groups had lunch aboard their rovers as they enjoyed the serene setting and lone family unit. Up to just recently, very few sows with cubs had been seen in the CWMA. Now, more and more are wandering in each day.
Paul Brown photo.
After lunch, Sue’s travelers spotted four sub-adults sleeping in kelp beds as they wound along the coast and headed down Ptarmigan alley. Other bears were soon spotted out on the open tundra and a good number seemed to be young , fairly skiddish sub-adults. The animals would approach the rover but would be scared away with the slightest movement or sound on the rover. Odd bear behavior uncharacteristic of the CWMA.
As the rover continued along and came to the junction of Christmas Lake esker and the inland road from Gordon Point, the group came upon another smaller young polar bear..quite possibly the abandoned animal a few other groups have seen recently, running and moving at a rapid pace for about 10 minutes. A sow with a coy were also very close to the rover and the lone cub ‘s frantic movement reinforced the theory that the cub might just be abandoned. Abandoned cubs will often try to group up with a sow and another young cub or coy for safety and sustenance….this mom was having none of that. Although instinctively a sow may want to take in a cub, the severity of an Arctic Winter on the ice usually makes her decide otherwise.
Brad Josephs photo.
By far the highlight of a great day on the tundra for Sue and travelers was a sighting of the smallest animal around. On the way to Gordon Point, passing by the tundra lodge,a lemming scurried across the trail and landed on a rock jutting up from the ice in the middle of a icy covered pond. After resting there under cover from any nearby raptors, it made its’ way to an a crack of open water and took a swim. Guests watched as if they were watching a majestic polar bear not the main diet for gyrfalcons and snowy owls. As he emerged from the water he then seemingly blew across the ice with aid from a little gust. Once on land the lemming ran right in front of the rover and bedded down by a five-inch orange-lichen colored rock protruding from the snow cover. Occasionally digging down under the snow, while all in the group were watching, he eventually uncovered what appeared to be a tunnel opening. Under the snow and out of sight he went. Captivating.
Back in Churchill there has been a constant array of cracker shell action in and around town with bears being snuffed out of the rocky coast and even a few in town itself. It’s a feeling one cannot describe adequately though elicits ideas in the mind of what a war zone might be like. In some ways Churchill at night can be as scary as that when one is walking around in the wrong places. Even daytime can lead to one’s demise by wandering away from a door to duck into. Just last week a photographer was seen a good ways out of town outside his vehicle trying to photograph a bear bedded down in the willows across a frozen lake. He was observed being so intent on his camera equipment that he was not checking his surroundings. Another visitor was observed up at Bird Cove a couple of hundred feet from his rented car wandering toward the rocks on the rise. Dangerous endeavors and surely only a matter of time before an attack. Bearmeat!
Brad Josephs photo.
Longtime Natural Habitat naturalist guide Mike Bruscia returned to Churchill after being away a couple of seasons to guide a group around the tundra and this coastal sub -Arctic village. Mike currently is executive director of an kids environmental camp in Charlottesville, VA called the Green Adventure Project. Aside from incredible polar bear sightings, out in the CWMA, the thrill of the day was out at First Tower where a polar bear tried to pick a gyrfalcon off one of the cable supports half way up the structure. Up on his hind legs…the huge torso stretched skyward as Mike’s travelers gasped at the sight. A sow with two coys (cubs of the year) nursing, nine hundred- pound males sparring at the lodge and an Arctic fox finally revealing itself to the group completed an amazing tundra experience. Trifecta!
Brad Josephs photo.
Exploring around Churchill, Mike and his group went over to the Cape Merry area and spotted a bear in the rocks. The ice is starting to clog the outflow of the Churchill river around the mouth and getting pretty thick up -river near the weir. The group also spotted a red fox and plenty of fresh hare tracks at Cape Merry but no hare. With one last look on their final day the hare was spotted just North of the train tracks. Mikes skill for finding elusive animals is legendary. Bears, hares, foxes and birds..all in a day’s work in the Arctic.
The group had some amazing meals in Churchill topped off with a run on carrot cake for almost every dessert. Amazing how in a place where you couldn’t grow a carrot to save your life…damn that permafrost…the guests referred to the Churchill as the carrot cake capital of the world!
Colder temperatures dipping slightly below freezing and a scattering of snow squalls has provided an Arctic backdrop for more active polar bears and other wildlife sightings out on the tundra. While it has taken a long time this season to cool down temperature-wise, the action in the CWMA is heating up a little more each day.
paul Brown photo.
Natural Habitat guide Sandra Elvin and travelers had a “phenomenal day” out in the CWMA. In the early morning they headed a long way out East in their rover and spotted a white-morph colored gyrfalcon perched atop the highest point of first tower, an old military observation post for cold weather maneuvers during the “cold war”…how fitting. A majestic icon of the North, the gyrfalcon greets visitors with a stoic glance…more intent on locating a lemming or hare below. Shortly later, as the rover moved further North, a sow with two cubs of the year (coy’s) appeared on one side of the rover in the low willows. The scent of a large male just on the other side of the vehicle alerted mom and she corralled her two young and ran back toward the coast throwing cautious glances back toward the rover and lurking male.
Brad Josephs photo.
At Gordon Point the group settled in for lunch but were interrupted shortly before the main course by a beautiful, curious and very shy female investigating the guests and vehicle. For more than 30 minutes she would tentatively approach the machine and then quickly back away. Many in the group were moved to tears as her beauty and hesitancy touched indescribable emotions. These feelings took another turn as a small cub, perhaps nearly two-years of age, came running at a frantic pace. He was alone and frightened by many of the larger bears in the area..and there were a good many luring in the willows. Mom seemed to be nowhere in sight.
On their way back to launch, the group spotted many more bears in the willows and a few walking across the freshwater frozen thermakarsts. Bears were on the move ..wandering the tundra. The day finished as it had started with a magnificent raptor saluting them as they passed…this time a snowy owl on a rock across a pond.
Helicopter journey’s revealing a multitude of moose and bears out around Cape Churchill and feisty sled dogs ushering wheeled carts through trails concealed by willows highlighted the group’s final day …. an amazing Arctic experience for all.
Brad Josephs photo.
Meanwhile guide Sue Zajac and her folks journeyed to the tundra following a day of high winds that caused many polar bears to bed down and rest. As they headed out to Halfway Point in search of wildlife, they were happily distracted by three large bears walking in the vicinity of the tundra lodge. A gyrfalcon glided overhead while the group followed the bruins across the land. The raptor soared above the willows, along side of the rover and then landed on the trail resting on a rock directly in front of the group’s vehicle. A whirlwind of action all around.
Out near the lodge, a snowy owl balanced atop a black spruce swaying in the breeze while the guests took in about 12 bears taking turns sparring in pairs. A few sub-groups of three and four males sizing each other up before play- fighting commanded the attention of the guests. Sniffing each other seems to be a prelude to determining which bear will spar with which. Once paired off, the others in the area move away while two go at it. Almost like an age old custom passed on through generations.
Much like Sandra’s group, Sue’s travelers finished the final day of their trip with an exhilarating dogsled ride through the willows and frozen ponds about 10 minutes outside Churchill with Kelly and Earnest at Churchill River Mushing. After the ride, the mushers invite the guests into the warming tent for a hot chocolate and informal discussion about dog sledding and being out on the land. Thoroughly enjoyed by all.
Brad Josephs photo.
Amid the vast open landscape near the tundra lodge, guide Brad Josephs had his rover positioned right in the mix of the action. Sparring bears dotted the landscape in every direction. While enjoying the amazing photogenic behavior, Brad and group noticed a raven hovering over and then landing in the rocks on the spit that juts into the Hudson Bay. This rocky peninsula is normally a polar bear resting area but the resident bear the group was viewing through the spotting scope on the rover was certainly not resting. Covered with red blood on its’ face and shoulders, the polar bear was devouring some sort of animal carcass in the rocks. The rover was not able to get the angle necessary to aptly identify the animal. At one point four polar bears were all dividing the spoils and sharing fairly well without incident. Suddenly, a young two-year old cub ran over and grabbed a chunk of meat right out from under the bloody snouts of the older bears. Quite a daring maneuver…but thrilling to witness!
A bit later the original large, bloody boar wandered along the spit back toward the lodge appearing to be in a “food coma” as Brad put it. Brad also thought that the carcass was most likely that of a bearded seal with the slight possibility it might have been the mother of the wayward lone cub Sandra and a couple of other guides had noticed wandering the tundra. The ribbed chunk of meat the female cub was carrying lead to the stronger possibility that it was the seal.
The next day on the tundra in the CWMA the bears were everywhere…sparring, sleeping- using rocks as pillows-..and just spread across the land as snowflakes fell off and on. Three sets of sparring bears and a sow with two coys kept the travelers quite satisfied to stay in lodge area the whole day. Wandering bears were within sight all over the tundra. A final spectacular memory was forged when a gyrfalcon zoomed right past the front of the rover at about 75mph. Awestruck…it was time to head back to the launch and then to town for some night photography at the stone inukshuk on the town beach.
Although the wildlife sightings, including good numbers of healthy looking polar bears, continue to impress travelers to Churchill, the weather has been less than Arctic -like for this time of year. Until recently that is. Suddenly that old familiar chilly wind from the North is blowing off the Hudson Bay, up the beach and right through Churchill. The open tundra in the CWMA also is feeling the cold as the thermakarsts are freezing up and a little bit of snow covers the land. Polar bears are starting to become more active as well with sparring males all around. This feels more like Churchill in November.
Paul Brown photo.
One of those polar bears was on his way out of the area in a net just two days ago. Six or more groups of travelers..some arriving in Churchill, some leaving…were fortunate to witness a bear -lift from the compound just adjacent to the airport. The big male was moved, in a tranquilized state, out on a cart from the compound to the loading area where Manitoba Conservation workers placed the cargo net around him. then Hudson Bay helicopters whisked the 600 pound animal away to the North shore for relocation. Camera shutters reluctantly clicked away in the wind -chilled air as the rotor blades kicked up a little snow dust from the ground. In the distance the line holding the net dangling from the helicopter blurs into some strange looking bird morphing into a black dot on the horizon. Imax cameras were on scene to film with two different angles set up…look for it in some future feature near you.
Other tell -tale signs of Winter rapidly approaching are revealing themselves in Churchill. Churchill River ice is starting to pile up on the banks and soon will be slowly choking off the rapid flow of water in and out of the tributary. With such a strong current upon tidal change here, it will take some severe cold to finish the job of freezing the near mile of water clear to the far side.
Paul Brown photo.
A couple of bears have also been in town the last day or so with Conservation officers from the polar bear alert program giving chase through the streets. A rumor that some sled dogs outside of town have been killed by bears still has not been confirmed. The overall feel of frozen tundra prevails with heavy waves crashing on the beach close to the stone inukshuk behind the town complex. A sow with her cubs was spotted out by the airport by guides Justin and Sue’s groups just as the burnt orange sunset melted away behind the West bank of the Churchill River.
Guide Paul brown and group headed out to the CWMA on their first night in town and were lucky to spot a white morph gyrfalcon just off the trail on the way out to the lodge area. After a relaxing night on the tundra amid sleeping bears, the group returned the next morning to the same area and encountered most likely some of those same bears in sparring mode just near the lodge. The play fighting continued through the morning and the rover finally pulled out of the action -packed area heading toward halfway Point where a seal was basking on the rocks overlooking the bay. Some big male bears were seen in the willows near the point. On the coastal road heading to the East a “beautiful big scarred” male bear was sighted traveling over the snow -dusted land crossing over some frozen tundra ponds or thermakarsts as they are known in the North. Another gyrfalcon or perhaps the same one seen the prior evening floated on the cool wind crossing the landscape.A guest had dropped his hat on the way out to the tundra that morning and on the return trip he found it on the trail albeit torn to shreds by an angry bear..hopefully it was a NY cap. Grrrrrr!
Guide Brent Houston brought his World Wildlife Fund group to the lodge area with an idea to just stay for a short time on Wednesday. However, with incredible action around the area, the group spent a good part of the day there while bears roamed near and far. A huge male bear paced quite close to the machine while a couple of younger “bucks” came in from the willows behind the lodge. A female kept watch in the distance but kept away from the boys. Throughout the day the group saw eight or nine bears in close proximity with another five or so in the periphery. Many of the bears were tagged observed Brent.
The bird life seems to be reduced to a few raptors towards the coast. A gyrfalcon early in the day along the trail and a snowy owl perched on top of a small spruce in the soft low light were nice sightings though the songbirds and even ravens seem to have exited the region. Winter truly seems to be creeping in to the area.