Jeff and Kathy Klofft from Boston continue their guest blog series documenting their trip to Churchill last fall with Natural Habitat Adventures. Enjoy!
Our Churchill Adventure Trip Report
Of course, our first flight was canceled…we didn’t even leave Boston before our plans were derailed! (see our blog post about our challenges getting to Canada from Boston) Go See it Travel
Luckily, we were supplied with contact numbers from both our travel agent Expeditions Trips and the Natural Habitat Adventures in Winnipeg. We called both to let them know our new arrival time- unfortunately 12:30 AM, meaning we’d miss our briefing dinner, but would be likely to make our Sunday AM charter with our group. The Expeditions Trips agent called as soon as the day started on the west coast where they were located, and we spoke to a super helpful representative at Nat Hab in Winnipeg, who assured us we would be picked up at the airport even with our late arrival and told us all of the details we need to know. The driver was there as promised, our guide, Katie, left us all the briefing information we needed for the next day, and vouchers for the dinner we missed (which we couldn’t use but appreciated!) An example of how seamless and proactive Natural Habitat was, was that our driver made a point of explaining that on our charter flight the next morning, we should take note of the changes in the ecosystems as we flew north; from the plains agricultural regions, to lakes region, to the boreal forest and icy tundra. While we had read about this in the pre – departure materials, had the shuttle driver not made a point to share that with us, we might have flown north and not thought to notice this phenomenon from the plane windows, and it turned out to be one of the many amazing experiences we had during our trip!
Checking into the Fort Garry hotel in Winnipeg. Jeff Klofft photo.
Upon our arrival in Churchill, our first excursion was to the Parks Canada Visitor Reception Centre, where we had the privilege of meeting park ranger, Rhonda Reid, who after taking a moment to remove her outer “non-issue” fleece, stepped into her official role as park ranger, where she regaled us with information about polar bears and stories about life living in in the north in polar bear country. The best stories were about the detention center for unruly juvenile polar bears, who like young drunk college students can sometimes act badly, and are kept a while till the ice freezes and then sent on their way out onto the frozen bay! We also saw many taxidermy specimens of other creatures we might see in the area. (All legally obtained by Parks Canada from wild life law enforcement seizures)
Parks Canada ranger Rhonda Reid interprets a polar bear den for travelers. Jeff Klofft photo.
After our stop at the Visitors Center, we made our way by bus with our driver for the trip, Stephanie, to the Rover Launch area for Great White Bear Tours, one of two outfitters permitted to run vehicles in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area.
Don Walkoski, founder of Great White Bear Tours and the Polar Rover vehicles and driver Stefanie, Jeff klofft photo.
We enjoyed some wildlife spotting from the bus on the way to the launch and on the tundra as the sun set.
A red fox prowls the tundra for lemmings under the snow. Jeff Klofft photo.
Stu, our steady Polar Rover driver. Jeff Klofft photo.
We were introduced to our Rover driver for the duration of our visit to Churchill, Stu, a retired RCMP and current polar river driver for Great White Bear. Stu, not only shared insight into life in Churchill, having grown up there, but was also very knowledgeable about the animals we saw and helping guests to spot them in the distance. When the rover was stopped for meals or snacks, he quickly transitioned to waiter extraordinaire, serving amazingly gourmet meals from coolers in the rear of the rover. We were also pleasantly surprised by the level Natural Habitat went to accommodate special diets. There were few vegetarians and others with religious diet restrictions, which were accommodated cheerfully and unobtrusively.
Replica polar bear den at Parcs Canada Visitor Center in Churchill. Jeff Klofft photo.
I had heard the rovers described as school buses on big wheels, but they are much more than that! The heated extra wide vehicle with a marine style toilet in the rear, comfortable coach bus style seating, a large mesh grate floor viewing platform in the back, made for a very comfortable day in the rover!
Polar rover with curious polar bear nearby. Brad Josephs photo.
Churchill sunset across the tundra of the Churchill Wildlife Management Area. Jeff Klofft photo.
A polar bear under the grated back observation deck on our Polar Rover. Jeff Klofft photo.
A scanned image of the HMS Terror submerged in Nunavut. Arctic Research Foundation image.
Just over a week ago the second piece of the 1845 ill – fated Franklin expedition was found in Terror Bay, Nunavut on the southern shore of King William Island. The illusive second grande puzzle piece of the expedition mystery was found in about 70 feet of water.
The Terror, abandoned in thick sea ice three years after it set sail from England in 1845, failed in its attempt to sail through the Northwest Passage. The wooden ship was discovered in “pristine condition” in a calm bay north of where the wreck of HMS Erebus was located in 2014.
Arctic Research Foundation’s Martin Bergmann research vessel located the shipwreck, with all three masts intact and standing while nearly all hatches closed.
“Resting proud on 24 metres of water, we found HMS Terror — 203 years old, it is perfectly preserved in the frigid waters of the Northwest Passage,” Arctic Research Foundation spokesman Adrian Schimnowski stated.
Location of the recently discovered HMS Terror. Google Maps image.
Trapped in ice somewhere between King William Island and Victoria Island the HMS Terror was found 92 kilometres south of that location. Bergmann’s crew decided to detour south to Terror Bay after an Inuk crew member, Sammy Kogvik from Gjoa Haven. Kogvik explained to the crew how during a fishing excursion about six years prior he sighted a rather large wood pillar extruding from the ice surface on Terror Bay.
“I was on my way to the lake to go put nets out,” Kogvik said in the Arctic Research Foundation’s video. “And when we got in the bay … as I was getting off the snowmobile, I looked up to my left, and there was something weird sticking out of the ocean on the ice.
HMS Erebus dive site in 2014. Parks Canada photo.
“This is tremendously exciting news,” said Geiger. “The nature of the find, as reported, underscores also the vital role of the Inuit then and now in the Franklin saga.
The doomed expedition of nearly 170 years ago, tragically culminated in 129 deaths of crewmen. The Terror and Erebus lay locked in ice and submerged in water undiscovered until a search team, led by Parks Canada, unveiled the Erebus two years ago.
Nunuvut’s government is staking claim to artifacts from the HMS Erebus – one of two ships from the ill – fated Sir John Franklin expedition of 1845. Nunavut is refusing to issue Parks Canada dive permits unless Parks Canada relinquishes rights to artifacts found and retrieved from the seabed at the wreck sight of the Erebus in the waters of Victoria Strait, just off the coast of King William Island where it was discovered in September 2014. The Erebus is thought to be the ship on which Franklin perished during the ill fated expedition. The other lost ship, HMS Terror has yet to be found.
Parks Canada finally relented to the Nunavut request after realizing their divers could face arrest by the RCMP. Permission from Nunavut’s director of heritage must now be consulted before retrieving any artifacts from the site.
One of the cannons from the HMS Erebu is lifted to the surface during last year’s artifact recovery mission in the Arctic. Thierry Boyer/Parks Canada photo.
In addition to Nunavut, other claimants to the Erebus’ artifacts include the Kitikmeot Inuit, who claim ownership under a land claims treaty, as well as the British, who, since the ships and expedition were of British origin, and based on an agreement drafted in 1997, possess rights to claim any artifacts of “outstanding significance” to their Royal Navy. The agreement between Canada and Britain recognize ownership of the wrecks and their contents by Britain, though it acknowledges Britain will ultimately gift ownership to Canada of everything, except gold, recovered from the wrecks.
Parks Canada diver surveys the HMS Erebus. Parks Canada photo.
“During the permit application process for the spring 2015 ice dive on HMS Erebus, the government of Nunavut included a condition that denied Parks Canada the authorization to recover artifacts from the wreck site,” says a briefing note for Leona Aglukkaq, who was then the environment minister.
The federal cabinet has subsequently declared the HMS Erebus wreck and surrounding waters a national historic site, which took precedence over Nunavut’s permit regulations. However the wreck of the Terror, Franklin’s second lost ship is presumed to be outside the historical site designation therefore creating the same issues and subject to Nunavut’s initial claim of jurisdiction for the HMS Erebus artifacts.
Diver inspects the hull of the HMS Erebus preserved by the Arctic waters. Parks Canada photo.
This summer Parks Canada will return to the Erebus wreck site to document artifacts and then continue nearby areas to the north to search for the elusive HMS Terror as well. Hopefully all the ownership and jurisdiction tug – of – wars will ease enough to allow divers to expedite the process before the artifacts are scattered.
A portion of the Erebus steering wheel found at the site. Parks Canada photo.
A crewman’s boot in good condition was found at the site of the Erebus. Parks Canada photo.
Another great first day for a Natural Habitat Adventures group of travelers lead by guide Drew Hamilton. While heading out to the Churchill Wildlife Management Area they stopped to admire a rough legged hawk when a guest called out from the back of the polar rover “what’s that running across the ice?” An Arctic fox was bounding along the tundra and the group was ecstatic to catch what seems to be a rare sighting this season so far.
This incident was a clear reminder that when searching out wildlife always remember to look behind you as never know what you might miss out on the land.
Polar bears sparring in the CWMA. Drew Hamilton photo.
When their polar rover neared the Tundra lodge, bear activity was already heating up. Large males polar bears were sparring in the willows just off the trail. When there was a break in the action and the males retreated into the willows to cool off, a female polar bear sneaked onto the scene to check out the rover. She seemed a bit nervous due to the presence of all the other bears around and soon departed when the sparring started back up. Quite the action packed scenes amid some drama out on the tundra!
Snowy owl on a rock in the Churchill wildlife Management Area. Drew Hamilton photo.
On the way back to town the travelers were treated to a snowy owl viewing just off the road. A little icing on a fantastic day of wildlife viewing.
Northern lights over the Hudson bay and Churchill inukshuk. Drew Hamilton photo.
In the evening the group had enjoyed a talk by Duane at Parks Canada learning about Pre-dorset art. Leaving the Parks Canada office Drew suggested swinging by the inukshuk at the rear of the town complex to check for northern lights and there they were in all their glory. Travelers spent an hour watching and photographing the aurora capping off an incredible Churchill day.
Natural Habitat Adventures group with the northern lights blazing in the sky. Drew Hamilton photo.
Researcher Doug Clark’s remote camera in Wapusk National Park captured all three bear species within a seven month time span in the same location. The camera’s are part of an ongoing research project supported by Parks Canada studying polar bear – human interactions in outlying field camps in the region. Since Churchill has three unique biomes that converge in one region, species can overlap. With climate change happening it becomes more feasible for species to roam from their natural range. Three bear species in Churchill are proof of this theory!