Report from Churchill: December 26, 2010

All quiet on the Western front…of the Hudson Bay that is… in Churchill, Manitoba. And, fairly warm for December for sure. Temperatures in the mid-teens persisted throughout the week. As the polar bear season becomes a distant memory for all, the town itself has slowed to a  crawl despite the heat wave of sorts.

Most of the restaurants and a good many hotels have shut their doors for the Winter. Gypsy’s Bakery closed on November 30th and will re-open in early Spring. While the local mainstay has stayed open much later in recent years, sometimes through Christmas, the DaSilva family opted to close slightly earlier this time around…maybe to head back to visit family in Portugal for the holiday’s. Really, the only larger establishment in town still open is the Seaport hotel and restaurant on Kelsey Boulevard in the center of town. Mayor Mike Spence and his wife Lawreen have made a commitment to remain open for townspeople and Winter travelers all year long….the hot coffee flows all day.

While the recent warmth has allowed local Churchillians to roam the land in the region without much discomfort, the polar bears are surely gone for now. The open water leads in the Hudson Bay are a product of the flowing river water emptying into the bay. However, the bay in general to the North, has supported enough ice to allow the bears to pursue their Winter diet of  ringed seals.  Open water on the Western half of the Churchill River has forced avid outdoors men and women to track further up-river to cross on snow machines. The increased current and tide flow nearer the port affect ice formation and thus passage across this time of year.  Some locals maintain rustic cabins across river scattered on the tundra…used as get-away respites from the hustle and bustle of metropolitan Churchill proper.  The old White Whale Lodge that used to be nestled in the sandy dune of the river bank almost directly across from the grain port, used to feel like a million miles away from civilization. Unfortunately flames reduced the structure to ashes some years ago.

While things are slow in Churchill over the next several weeks, I would like to give you all some characteristics of the “other” inhabitants of the region that don’t quite get the press that the majestic polar bears do. No..not the local people…although I will , from time to time, bring their stories to light as well. Their are a number of animal species that ride out the brutally cold Winter days either by choice or evolutionary ties. I’m sure describing some of their behavioral habits will open your eyes to their strength and perseverance.

Our first, the gray jay or whiskey jack,..from the family Corvidae, which includes ravens, jays,magpies and nutcrackers are widespread in the forested areas of Churchill. Anyone who has taken a dogsled excursion from one of the local operators has surely observed this bird flitting away and back around the base camp. Natural scavengers at heart, the name whiskey jack is derived from an Algonquin name -Wisakedjak- for a mischievous and disobedient mythical creature. One surely gets this feeling from the body language and vocalizations of this bird.

Gray jays mate for life and are territorial in feeding and nesting habits. Because they do not migrate or interbreed among their species, they are well adapted to specific local cold conditions as well as short growing seasons. They feed on a wide variation of insects, small animals such as frogs and moles as well as mushrooms, seeds and berries. Well adapted gray jays are able to reproduce at a relatively early point in the “season”. Between two and five eggs are laid as early as February when most if not all of their natural food source remains out of reach. What’s their secret?

Gray jayin Churchill, mb

Photo: Eric Rock

As a guide for over 15 years in the Churchill region, the word I spoke most often to travelers was “adaptability” or some form of it. Every living being, including humans, living in the North has to find ways to adapt to life there on a constant daily basis. The ones that cannot are forced to leave or die..the ones that can, find their spirit.

Gray jays spend most of the year preceding reproduction harvesting their food for Winter. They work countless beak-fulls of food into a sticky paste moistened by saliva. They cache these life giving treasures in a mentally mapped network of hidden places. Usually these spots are under flakes of spruce bark or amongst needles on evergreen branches safe from drifting snow or predators. These stored packets allow the jays a head start to life in the region before any of their migrant winged counterparts return from their warm Winter ranges much further South. Not everyone can afford a tropical home as you know. So instead of exhausting all that energy flying thousands of miles, gray jays opt for solace in the splendid boreal forests of the arctic landscape.

Report from Churchill: December 15, 2010

Snow accumulating up to 15cm (just over five inches) over the next few days will give the region a little more of a Winter look… contrary to the feel Churchillians are getting from the continued “warmer” air temperatures that have returned once more. Temperatures are now hovering just below the freezing mark with not a whole lot of existing snow- cover. Although the wind-chill surely won’t allow for tee shirts and shorts, nobody seems to be complaining about the October-like reprieve.

Local Dene elder Caroline Bjorklund was out riding around with a friend and they came across an arctic hare scampering around the outskirts of town. A few foxes, of the red and arctic variety, also were out looking to take advantage of the shallow snow cover and store up some last energy morsels before the inevitable turn to true Winter conditions.  Although polar bears have not been spotted recently, Caroline and friend saw some fresh paw tracks just near the grain elevator at the port.

The relationship between bears and people in Churchill is truly a strange, dichotomous one. Without polar bears the town would surely be quite different…..and, although locals by and large are not big polar bear lovers due to the safety risk, the bears seem to be the heart and soul of the town. When they are mostly gone in late November, stories of finding fresh tracks or hearing Manitoba Conservation cracker shells echo in the distance ring like forlorn tales of lost friends. After all, the two month focus on polar bears surely is exciting and once done the void seems great. The sensation one feels after losing a limb…feeling the appendage is still there…is probably not an apt analogy but I think you get the idea, eh?Churchill polar bear tracks.

The Churchill Northern Studies Center is nearing the completion of its’ massive reconstruction project way out East at the end of the highway. A new state of the art research and housing facility is hoped to be finished by Spring.The building looks like a grounded “Noah’s Arc” according to Caroline Bjorklund and other locals.  I guess if  global warming accelerates considerably in the future, Churchillians and the researchers will all be in the same “boat”. Now that would be some reality series.

The Northern Studies Center and Parcs Canada are conducting a science symposium in Winnipeg on January 19-21, 2011. Each year the Churchill Northern Studies Centre hosts a Research Symposium in southern Manitoba and every other year Parks Canada hosts a Wapusk National Park Research and Monitoring Meeting. This year the two have joined together to present a CNSC-PC two day science symposium. It will be a platform for researchers to present and discuss ongoing and completed projects worked on this past year. For more details go to the center’s website at

Report from Churchill: December 7,2010

Where else in the world do polar bears get freed from “jail” as soon as enough ice forms on a body of water bigger than Texas? Kind of crazy when you think about it, eh?

Well that’s what happened this past week as the last of the furry inmates were trucked down to the edge of the Hudson Bay by Manitoba Conservation  officers and released to go on their way and find lots and lots of yummy seals in snowy dens. The last five made there way onto the ice , disappearing out of sight as they blended into the gray and white of the horizon.

Some days the ice in the bay breaks from the land -fast ice and is pushed by the wind farther into the bay leaving a mammoth lead of open water. This will occur for some time until the majority of the bay succumbs to the frigid North winds filled with icy air. Then huge pressure ridges will rise and fall as ice – plates methodically collide with each other. These ridges, once formed allow for shelter for bears, foxes and seals when the going gets rough…

Random bears were still being sighted around town, perhaps just not quite ready to cut that final tie to Churchill…kind of a surrogate mother of sorts with all the interesting aromas and goodies…mostly around L5..otherwise known as the garbage …uh um…recycling center. A pesky smaller bear was sighted  almost every day for the last week behind the town complex….just hanging onto the last days of bear season. The season officially ends when local Churchillian’s can feel somewhat at ease when venturing from their homes without the prevalent feeling of danger nearby. Pretty much by that time it’s too cold to do much venturing anyway…in somewhat of an ironic twist, some locals have their own version of hibernation at that point.

Temperatures are right in the mid 30’s C  and Friday’s wind chill is expected to be about -52 C….hibernation sounds good to me!

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