Dene Village in Churchill is a forlorn place for the most part. There is a stone monument just off Goose Creek Road as you pull off into the vacant, silent,raised subdivision commemorating the 150 Dene people that died following their forced relocation by the government from the north country.
Back then was the beginning of the end for the Dene. They were living off the land as native people did when the Canadian government decided they were in need of “civilization”. Unfortunately “civilization” was not what the Dene needed nor wanted at the time and their endless shuffling from place to place around Churchill began.
The Dene relocation story will be explored in subsequent posts as this post is about what we discovered in the patch of forest adjacent to the village back in the days of guiding Churchill Arctic summer trips.
Round leaved orchid. Courtesy wikidmedia.org.
I don’t know how we came upon the majestic trove of incredible orchids hidden in the boreal forest just behind some of the burned or raised cottage foundations in the village but we did. With all the buildings gone as you meander through the sub-division, one goes from an erie feeling of trespassing on sacred ground to an amazing short walk through the forest with about five or six different stops to examine and photograph various orchids found in Churchill.
Hodded Lady’s – Tresses. Shelly Weedmark photo.
The orchids we found and returned time after time with groups to see in this sacred place were Hooded Lady’s – Tresses, Small Northern Bog Orchid, Round – leaved Orchid, Northern Lady’s – Slipper, Green Flowered Bog Orchid and Early Coralroot. When we would walk quietly through the soft grounded undercover of this particular spot I remember telling the people I felt like these beautiful orchids were the souls of the Dene people that had suffered and died in Churchill. That they were back in another form and that new reincarnated form was brought forth in these incredible flowers. That the pain the people had gone through was now somehow released and become beauty in the world.
I still think of these walks we took and I feel lucky to have had these experiences. The feelings from the powerful orchids….souls of the world are still with me today.
Karen Walker’s Natural Habitat travelers arrived into Churchill on a VERY mild day this past week. The temperatures have been in the 30’s, with very little wind. While making a traditional orientation stop at the Inukshuk, the smell of sea kelp was persistent without the breezes off the Hudson Bay. The group ventured up to Cape Merry and comfortably spent a half hour at the battery enjoying the panoramic views and interesting natural history from Ranger Heather.
Exploring the precambrian sheild in Churchill. Karen Walker photo.
Later, as the group headed out on the launch road, they spotted an Arctic hare tucked into some spruce branches right next to the road. “We went out to the lodge and spotted three white slivers of bears off in the willow bushes. Two of them sparred in the willows, then moved toward the lodge” stated Karen. “One big guy sat right under the lodge windows looking up at the lodge, while the other two sparred by the propane tanks. We were parked at the end of the lodge, splitting half of the rover looking into the back of the lodge and half in the front. Once the polar bears settled down in the willows, dinner was served and the polar rover headed back to launch.
Frosty white polar bear on the tundra. Brad Josephs photo.
The following day five helicopters with 15 people lifted off in search of a polar bear den. Overcast with a very light wind….the contingent flew over the fort and up the Churchill River. A couple of the helis spotted harbor seals on the rocks just below the weir a short ways up the river. “Further up river we spotted some moose. Some helicopter passengers saw sows with calves, some spotted bulls” reported Karen. The group landed at Deer River to look at an abandoned bear den. Many of the travelers went inside and snapped a photo. The surrounding tundra was spongy and covered with caribou moss (lichen), crowberries, lowbush cranberries and the fragrant Labrador tea and even some red cranberries above the den. “I love the smell of the Labrador tea as you walk across the tundra.” stated karen. The larch/tamarack trees were losing their last needles. These trees are unique in that they are one of the only coniferous trees to lose their needles in the winter.
A birds eye view from the helicopter above Churchill. Karen walker photo.
The helicopters set off again flying across the wide open space, over the ponds and wetlands across Wapusk National Park. “We spotted many more moose in the forest -moms and calves, bulls, and bulls with cows nearby.” On the return journey back to Churchill the helicopters flew along the coast to look for polar bears. “We spotted innumerable bears along the coast, walking, standing, and laying in the kelp. In one group there were seven bears right near each other, and 15 bears within our view. We also spotted a couple of moms with cubs. We flew over the CWMA and the finally the Ithaca shipwreck and into Churchill.” What a trip!
As the group landed and entered the Hudson Bay Helicopter base office, Karen spotted a Conservation officer. She sensed that something might be happening shortly out at the Polar Bear Compound and she was right. The group hurried by shuttle out to the facility to see a mom with two, two-year-old cubs lifted by net up the coast of Hudson Bay. “It was pretty exciting for the guests that had just ridden in that helicopter to see it used for the bear lift” offered Karen.
Conservation officers prepare an animal for a bear lift. Karen walker photo.
The group headed over to Kelly Turcotte’s Churchill River Mushing for an afternoon of dog mushing. Kelly provided interesting information on the dog hierarchy and expenses to feed dogs up in the north, then the guests went out to meet the dogs. It was “warm” out, so there was a lot of mud in the dog yard and many guests came back with muddy foot prints on their Natural Habitat parkas. After the bumpy and fun ride on the cart-sleds Kelly spoke about a bear that was nosing around his dog yard earlier this season. Conservation officers tranquilized the bear and took him away to the compound.
On the way back into town, the group stopped at the Dene Village monument and learned about the struggles of the Dene people through their government forced relocation. Winding along the RX Road, the travelers stopped to see the Canadian Eskimo Dogs that various owners hold in their kennel yards and then made a final stop at the Town of Churchill sign for a group photo. All in all an amazing trip so far in Churchill!