If you thought that the frontier town of Churchill, Manitoba on the shores of the Hudson Bay shut down for the winter after polar bear season in November,……you were mistaken. In fact the winter season has become increasingly active over the past decade or so. With the increasing number of people having already made the visit to Churchill to be up close and personal with the polar bears, these same folks and first-timers are returning to see amazing aurora and get a feel for the Arctic winter.
Captivating aurora borealis in Churchill,MB. Brad Josephs photo.
Aurora domes provide cozy viewing in the heart of winter. Jeremy Pearson photo.
Aside from viewing “northern lights” over the Hudson Bay, other thrilling activities fill the days. Igloo building, dog sledding and nature photography highlight the schedule…all the while just being submerged in the feel of an Arctic village in the heart of winter.
Current temperature in Churchill is 0 F with a wind chill of -17 F….actually a warm -up from the past week. However, the right clothing and footwear makes for exhilarating experiences and ones that stick…for obvious reasons…in the mind forever. I still recall my experiences winter camping in the high peaks region of the Adirondacks back in upstate New York like they were just last week. Something about cold just locks those feelings in forever. And some amazing trips they were indeed. I think it’s the fact that you could make a mistake that absolutely could have dire consequences that really requires focus and determination of the mind. The present is all that can be considered at the time.
Sled dogs in training. Churchill,MB. Sandra Elvin photo.
Speaking of focus…our next blog will be a checkpoint of sorts on the upcoming Hudson Bay Quest dogsled race in March. This will be another scintillating race for sure…starting in Gillam and finishing in Churchill.
With a wind chill of -45 to -50 degrees in Churchill at the moment, I don’t want to hear anyone whining elsewhere about temps in the teens. After spending 12 Fall seasons in Churchill, even close to Winter, I’m a little more accustomed to cold at its’ peak. Nothing can compare to that kind of cold. I’ve experienced it a few times and trust me it’s a whole new world!
The Canadian Rangers are heading out on the land for some training maneuvers at this time ….they have to be some of the toughest humans on the planet.
Rangers ready to head out on their snow machines. Rhonda Reid photo.
As the town settles in to some quality “inside” time with self or families, the polar bears are out on the ice hunting seals in their frozen dens. Moms with cubs are nestled in their own dens in and around Wapusk National Parc..living the Winter out with anticipation of emerging into the world in March. Then they will head to the ice to gain the experience of hunting together on the ice pack.
Mom stays near her two cubs. Karen walker photo.
The cold is really a game in ones mind. If you really believe that the cold is going to take away your warmth and harm you..it will. If you adjust and develop a resistance ..or rather..a coexistence, you will come to enjoy the crisp air against your skin…things in life could be worse…you are alive in the cold. Just enjoy it…the warmth of Summer will be all the more gratifying.
Sled dogs in training for the Hudson Bay Quest. Brad Josephs photo.
The next post will be a preview of this years Hudson Bay Quest dogsled race coming in March. One of the most exhilarating races in North America has captured the imagination of many premier mushers hoping to take home the top prize. this year’s race promises to be the best yet. An in depth preview to come.
11 killer whales trapped in ice: Canadian villagers hope for rescue
Photo courtesy of Clement Rousseau
Eleven orcas, including one that appears to be nursing, are trapped in the ice in Quebec, Canada.
By Miranda Leitsinger, NBC News
Eleven killer whales are “locked in” by ice in a Canadian bay, with only a small area of open water for them to surface, the mayor of a nearby village said as he appealed for help to save the marine mammals.
A hunter found the killer whales, also known as orcas, on Wednesday morning in Hudson Bay, in northeastern Canada. Two of the orcas appear to be adults; the remaining nine are smaller in size, said Petah Inukpuk, mayor of Inukjuak, an Inuit village home to 1,800, in Quebec. Other reports said there were 12 orcas in the pod.
A video taken by villager Clement Rousseau showed the opening to be just large enough for one or two of the orcas to surface at a time. A team from Canada’s fisheries department is expected to arrive at the ice hole on Thursday, according to Canada’s CBC.ca.
“They are in a confined area,” Inukpuk told NBC News on Wednesday, noting that “there is no more open water.”
“From time to time, they are in a panic state and other times they are gone for a long period of time, probably looking for another open water (space) which they are unable to find,” Inukpuk said. “They keep going back to the same spot.”
Killer whales are highly social and typically travel in groups from two to 15, though there can be larger groups, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency. They are most numerous in colder waters, such as Antarctica, Alaska and Norway, although they can also be found in temperate and tropical waters.
Inukpuk said killer whales were not spotted in the area every summer, but every second or third one. But this is “the first time that they are locked in,” he said.
The winter was unusual this year in that the bay did not freeze up as it normally does at the end of November or beginning of December, the mayor said.
There was open water after Christmas but “about three days ago it got really cold and there is no more open water presently,” he said.
Deborah Giles, a graduate student researcher at the University of California, Davis, who has studied killer whales for eight years, said the main issue facing the orcas would be if the air hole remained open.
“It is absolutely tragic to think about this, you know, if that does close up,” she said. “That’s really what their biggest problem is right now.”
Among the ideas discussed to save the animals was using an icebreaker, she said, although Inukpuk said such equipment was in Antarctica at this time of year. A Canadian fisheries official told CBC.ca that some icebreakers were being used in the Saint Lawrence River, where three commercial ships got stuck this week.
Geoff Carroll, a wildlife biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game who helped release two California gray whales in a similar situation that made international headlines in 1988, said his experience in the effort known as “Operation Breakthrough” also showed the power of other methods.
“Our experience up here was that it seemed like the local knowledge and the low-tech approaches to working with the whales were the ones that worked best,” Carroll said. “It seemed like there were lots of high-tech efforts made to get those whales out and they kind of failed one after the other. What really worked was when we got local guys with chainsaws cutting one hole after another and we could kind of walk the whales out that way.”
Operation Breakthrough, which was chronicled in a 2012 movie “Big Miracle,” was a success because Eskimo whalers cut more than a half mile of holes for the whales to travel through on their way to open sea in Alaska. Two Soviet icebreakers helped by crushing a critical thick wall of ice that blocked their path, according to a story on the rescue by the Los Angeles Times. Oil workers and environmentalists also assisted in the rescue effort.
The two gray whales were released after 20 days, although a third, smaller whale drowned near one of the air holes. There have been reports of other whales getting stuck beneath the ice, Giles said, but she said it was an anomaly for killer whales – technically in the oceanic dolphin family – which tend to hunt around the ice.
However, one pod of orcas died in 2005 in the Japanese Arctic after an ice hole closed, according to CBC.ca. There have been some other cases, too, said Paul Wade, a research fisheries biologist at NOAA’s National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle.
Video courtesy of Clement Rousseau
Giles said food would likely not yet be a problem because the larger orcas should be able to survive on their fat stores for several weeks. But survival is less certain for the smaller mammals, including one that appeared to be nursing. She noted that the animals may not be in distress, as the adult males could be seen engaging in the normal behavior of “spyhopping” — or shooting straight out of the water.
“It’s possible that they are doing that not necessarily to get a bigger breath as somebody had indicated but rather to look around,” Giles said, adding that killer whales can see equally well above water as below.
“It’s also possible that they coming up as often as there is (is) a way to keep that ice open,” she said. “They certainly, I would say, are smart enough to recognize that this is their breathing hole and they … don’t want to have that close up.”
Wade, the fisheries biologist, said he watched videos of the killer whales and thought some were engaging in normal behavior while other appeared agitated. He said it looks like the pod includes two adult males, several juveniles and female adults or younger adult males.
“There are cases where whales have been able to keep holes open just by the continually coming up every minute or so,” he said. “It seemed like they could probably keep that open although it’s not something killer whales do a lot of.”
Wade also questioned how they got caught in the area.
“Why these whales hung around so long is a mystery,” he said. “Even the types of whales that live in the ice a lot or much closer to the ice more frequently than killer whales — they make mistakes as well.”
Mayor Inukpuk said they would like to create an opening for the animals to move out. He said he would be on a conference call Thursday with other parties to discuss the possibilities. Canada’s fisheries department said in an email that it was working closely with its partners and other experts to assess the situation.
Although the killer whales compete with human hunters for seal meat in an area where there are no supermarkets or grocery stores, Inukpuk said the villagers’ main concern was the orcas’ survival. Many residents have visited the area, which is 20 miles from the village and one mile from the coastline.
“They have a right to survive and hopefully someone will help us to get that (to) happen,” he said. “The weather today is not so cold, so they (the killer whales) may keep the open area as it is by their movements. …
Aboriginal leaders and their supporters joined together last month for a country -wide demonstration protesting native rights abuse by the federal government.
Dene elder Caroline Bjorklund at the Idle no more rally in Churchill. Katie DeMeulles photo.
The Idle No More movement has gained momentum in First Nations across Canada. In part, it’s a response to the federal government’s omnibus budget Bill C-45, which, among other things, removes environmental protections of numerous waterways and makes it easier to sell reserve lands to private corporations.
The movement also supports and has gained momentum from Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence ,who has been on a hunger strike for 25 days now , to force a meeting with Prime minister Stephen Harper over housing, education and other issues in Attawapiskat.
Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence on hunger strike in her tipi. Source ABC news.
We need to continue to encourage and stand in solidarity as Indigenous Nations,” Spence said in a statement Wednesday. “We are at a historical moment in time, and I ask that grassroots, chiefs and all community members come together in one voice.”
Protesters in Churchill town square support Idle No More cause. Katie Demeulles photo.
Spence launched her hunger strike on Dec. 11, days after the House of Commons passed the Conservative government’s omnibus budget legislation, Bill C-45, which organizers with Idle No More say violate treaty rights and weaken environmental laws.
Protests have been held in many Canadian communities, including Churchill, and outside the country since the movement began late last year, as a campaign by four women from Saskatchewan to oppose a number of bills before Parliament, including the omnibus budget legislation.
Idle No More has gained increased momentum, particularly with a new generation of young, social-media-savvy activists. Thousands have used the #idlenomore hashtag on Twitter to debate issues and spread information about upcoming protests.