Churchill River Beluga whale

Beluga whales capture the wild imagination of travelers each summer in Churchill! Steve Selden photo.

The “Bears of Churchill” are not the only marquee draw to this mystical little town on the Hudson Bay in Manitoba, Canada. Once “Spring” -a loosely used term in these parts- arrives, a myriad of other life forms appear as well. As humans go, we tend to find the large animals most interesting and in Churchill’s case, the grande animal draw of the Spring and Summer is the…..drum dance, please….. Boreal Chickadee….uh not quite. Beluga whales take over the reign as the premier attraction and the main reason some travelers endure a 36 hour plus train voyage through the Boreal forest and across the tundra.

The train from Winnipeg has actually been only three hours late these days. A vast improvement from years prior. Unusually it’s been losing time going into Thompson and then gaining up to five hours between Gillam and Churchill. What used to take 13hrs is now down to about eight in that span. Cool weather again could be the determining factor as the track, which sits atop permafrost, tends to warp under the hot sun as the ground warms and shifts somewhat. “Slow orders” are given to the conductors and trains slow their speeds considerably. Omnitrax, a Denver based company that owns the Churchill Grainery and 100 miles of track from Churchill south, known as the Hudson Bay line, has also invested money in upgrading the line.

Summer in Churchill is unique and unmatched by any other place on earth. One can encounter a week of fog and chilly temps (35-50 F) or another week of sparkling blue skies reflecting off the vast Hudson Bay while winning the coveted and unexplainable prize of being the “hotspot” in Manitoba for a number of consecutive days. Usually, we find a mix of both but overall the cool Summer temps are a reprieve to visitors that endure sweltering Summer days of 90F for an extended time. I have guided 12 Summer seasons in Churchill for Natural Habitat Adventures and being “Polar bear”-like myself I have always felt quite comfortable in the mostly cool climate of Churchill. Exploring the Arctic environment of Churchill area in a fleece and winter hat in the middle of July or August has always brought a smile to my face.

Churchill Polar Bear

Polar bear in Churchill hunkered down in the willows. NHA photo.

This Summer has been no exception. The cooler days and nights have been perfect for observing the wildlife of the North. Beluga whales arrived in the thousands in the early Spring and have been in and out of the Churchill River with the changing tides in large and small groups.  Since the Spring rains have been infrequent this year the water level in the Churchill River is way down from its’ normal levels. Last year was the opposite. The water level was high from substantial runoff across the boggy land. When this happens the water appears to be tea- colored after filtering through tundra peat moss reducing visibility. However this year the water is crystal clear and snorkeling with the whales, as well as Kayaking and boat viewing, has provided optimal viewing possibilities. I was lucky enough to have the same conditions years ago when I snorkeled with the Beluga’s and it was surely an incredible life experience. Swimming so close to the ghostly white bodies of the whales in the river was intense. Another upside to the low water level is the annual maintenance of the Weir that crosses the river. About 19 kilometers up from the mouth work can be performed much more easily. The weir is made of huge rocks that contain the water to an extent that it backs up behind it and allows for local recreational fishing and boating to the South. When it was built in 1998  the engineers did not account for the enormous pressure placed upon it by winter pack ice. This stress has caused persistent damage that needs to be repaired every Summer so to keep the integrity of the structure. The levels of water in the river north of the weir were reduced when two-thirds of the Churchill River water was diverted in the late 1970s.  This season’s levels have been even lower due to little rainfall. While allowing for excellent water clarity, there are areas just below the weir that are inaccessible to boats because of rock danger. Beluga nursery areas have been, in the past, in this area known as Mosquito Point. This season many nursery areas for moms and calves are a bit farther in toward the mouth of the river.

Another effect of the cooler weather this Summer has been the abundance of Polar bears in and around Churchill. Mike Macri, owner/operator of Sea North Tours reports 10-15 bears out along Eskimo Point just North of Fort Prince of Whales. Travelers have had the amazing experience of viewing Polar bears from the confines of the Fort, a former Hudson Bay Company stronghold for fur trading in the early to the mid 18th century. Polar bear monitors provided by Parcs Canada use ATV’s to patrol the area in order to head off wandering bruins. The irony of Polar Bears meandering and Beluga whales swimming so close to what used to be the biggest fur trading/whaling post in the region is comical. I think the bears might have been able to wrest the fort from the undermanned English led by Samuel Hearne as easily as LaPerouse and the 300 Frenchmen in three ships did back in the day of 1782.

Finally, the thrill of the Summer so far was a brave Churchill River rescue by Sea North Tours zodiac driver and Churchill local Bill Ayotte. When two men borrowed an old Lund skiff to go do some freestyle whale watching, the engine stalled leaving them pinned against the Western River bank rocks.  Ayotte approached the men who were in the water at this point and shouted that they had about three minutes to get into his Zodiac or they all would be in big trouble in light of the ripping tidal currents sucking the water out of the river. This year’s tidal currents are magnified due to the low water levels in the river. The men didn’t seem to be responding as at this point they were borderline hypothermic from the 41-degree water. Finally, Ayotte was able to edge the zodiac close enough allowing the men to flop into the craft and head to the dock. Mike and Doreen Macri had been alerted by radio and were ready at the dock with a warm truck and whisked them off to the hospital. The men spent the night and were released to the land the next day. Truly a lucky day for the two…next time book with Sea North and leave the spitting Lund at the dock.

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