Beluga’s Concentrated in Churchill River

Churchill beluga whales.Following a 48 hour train -ride from Winnipeg, Natural Habitat guide Sue Zajac and her 15 travellers pulled into the Churchill train depot to find beautiful 80F temperatures and clear skies. Quite the change from the group’s side-trip off the train to the Waboden/Thomson area where smoke blowing in from Ontario fires clouded the Summer air. Sasegew rapids and Pisew falls still provided great vistas and excellent birding in a little less visibility.

With the warm Summer progressing nicely, sweet vetch, saxifrage as well Arctic cotton-grass are all peaking. Many other prolific wildflowers are also on the cusp of blooming. Mosquitos are still fairly abundant as they pollinate a good number of these plants. They will start to wane soon as the dragonfly population increases and the feast begins. Hikes through the tundra and boreal forest are still worth a small blood donation however as one can see amazing rare orchids, animals such as foxes,and numerous bird species in nesting form.

Whale viewing remains spectacular out on the Churchill River as well as the Hudson Bay. And, although no polar bears were spotted out along Eskimo point North of Fort Prince of Wales, they still are in and around the region. The Lazy Bear lodge, complete with new roof, had a bear lurking outside for sometime now…though Sue thought they may have finally captured it in the culvert trap just behind the inn. As the group was near departure from Churchill, the trap was not seen…  good sign that a capture had taken place.Some of the group went snorkeling with the beluga’s in the river and had some amazing, once-in-a lifetime encounters. The 10 year – old birthday boy on the trip found this his most amazing experience of the entire trip. I’m with him on that one. Other travellers were content with kayaking in the calm, deep waters just beside the port docking area. Small pods of five – ten whales, swimming with amazing synchronicity, approached the kayaks from one side, submerged under the boats and dissapeared for up to 15 minutes at a time. The exhale of air the beluga takes through its’ blowhole is a sound one never tires of. An exhilerating feeling hearing that resounding off the surface of the water while watching the white leviathan submerge itself. Water-level is truly a special way to spend time with these creatures.

This time of the season also brings opportunities to experience sows training their calves following an initial nursing period. Although overlapping groups of mothers give birth throughout the Summer, the early-summer calves are just now learning life skills from mom that will allow them to survive in these challenging Arctic waters for the next 25-plus years.Feeding skills and diving deep takes months of practice for these young ones. All the time the steel -gray calves stay seemingly glued to their mother’s backs.

In other news, the port of Churchill is preparing for loading the first transport ship of the season. In what is quite possibly the final season of extensive grain -shipping, all port officials and workers are hopeful the attempt by the government to dissasemble the Canadian Wheat Board (CWB) falls to political resistance over the next few months.

Snow geese have been glaringly absent on the tundra so far this season..a stark contrast from years past. Extended hunting seasons and higher quotas down South have possibly impacted the population’s migration patterns as well as overall numbers. Another thought is that  food sources out along the Hudson Bay have been exhausted to the point that the geese have ventured elsewhere. La Peruse Bay, their traditional feeding ground, has shown clear signs of vegetation decimation over the past decade.

A musicfest was held over the past weekend in the town square as local Churchill musicians mixed with others from Winnipeg to create a festive atmosphere from mid-day to midnight. And when darkness finally did set in over those evenings, green -ribboned arcing auroura borealis awed all that ventured out late -night. Another unpredictable bonus the Churchill Summer always seems to provide!

Churchill Summer Off and Running

Summer in Churchill has officially begun as a group of travelers from Natural Habitat Adventures led by Guide Sue Zajac waded into the Hudson Bay off the beach behind the town complex just in the shadows of the giant stone inukshuk. The “water is warm” reports Sue as the weather has been balmy with temperatures in the eighties. The shallow water along shore has absorbed that heat for the time being.

Traveling along the northern train route through boreal forest, taiga and tundra the group disembarked in Wabowden while the train continued to Thompson for a four hour wait. Ongoing work along the tracks near Thompson is a good sign for continued running of the Hudson bay line.  While on a coach tour of the surrounding area, travelers viewed a mature bald eagle fly under the bridge and land in a black spruce on a tiny island in Sasakew rapids. The excellent bird spotting site provides varied species just off the main highway up to Thompson.  Bunchberry is in bloom here and near Pisew falls while the red breasted merganser ducks circled in the eddies amongst the little isles that spot the water.

Arriving in Churchill around noon..just a few hours late..not bad givin the high temperatures and how they tend to wreak havoc on railroad iron. In town the rain made it tough to get on the water to get up close with beluga whales. However, the group finally made it out in zodiacs and found whales chasing a early season capelin run. Capelin are smelt – sized fish that spawn this time of year and are a staple for belugas. Whales follow these fish for extended periods while they zig- zag across the Churchill River. Pods of whales seem disinterested in any humans in boats while feeding though still are majestic to watch as they move through the dark steel water.Beluga's in CHurchill River.

A busy third day of multiple trips out on the water brought a bonus for the patient travelers. As the group moved out into the Hudson bay along the spit of land that holds Fort Prince of Wales…Eskimo Point just to the North revealed  two of the reported four polar bears resting. Another bear was seen swimming in the chop just off land heading back to the shallows. Truly an amazing sight which i have witnessed myself over the years. That image will stay with you forever!

A final day on the water was again rainy with a warm Southerly breeze. This day however provided beluga’s with choppy waters. Beluga’s, curious by nature, approached the zodiacs and followed the boats by the dozens…coming near enough for some passengers to touch their melons just under the water.The whales also provided some unusual episodes of shiny heads protruding from the water. This rougher water often will allow for that. All in all fantastic whale watching on a true arctic-like Summer day.

Excursions out to the tundra provided some birding sightings that happened to be life-listers for a couple of folks. A pine grosbeak and common redpole earned the checks ….And later in the trip, the group headed out via rover and had a bbq on the land. A curious caribou crossed right through the trail before heading out East. A northern harrier, great blue herron and many yellow warblers flitting in and out of the willows capped off a marvelous afternoon.

Bonnie’s Churchill Report

June in Churchill is for the birds…..and bird watchers of course. Wildlife guide and ornithologist Bonnie Chartier wrote the book on the birds of Churchill..seriously…she really did. The Birds of Churchill, currently out of print, was a collective of Bonnie’s years and years of dedication studying all the birds that come and go throughout the year in Churchill,MB.Bonnie Chartier in Churchill.

I’ve worked with Bonnie for over ten years guiding Summer and Fall trips in Churchill. Without a doubt, almost all the bird knowledge I’ve accumulated over the years, comes from my first hand experiences with Bonnie as my co-guide, mostly in the early Summer month of June. This month is migration month when countless species arrive in Churchill and nest or feed or both. Bonapart’s gulls, Arctic terns, sandpipers of different varieties, Jaegers, Sandhill cranes, and on and on and on….the search and discovery of these creatures provides an endless treasure hunt of sorts in the sub-Arctic landscape.

My favorite anecdotal story of Bonnie comes from from when we were guiding a summer contingent of Natural Habitat clients in Churchill and we pulled our mini bus filled with travelers up by the port to scan the beach along the Churchill River for Ross’ Gulls…the elusive and rare species that resides in Churchill in the Spring. There was another couple there with a spotting scope set up..real birders…and they had a copy of Bonnie’s book in hand. They started asking Bonnie questions regarding the gull but didn’t have the faintest idea that Bonnie was the author of the book. They had a little bit of an attitude…as birders do…until I brought to their attention who they were speaking with. The change in their faces was priceless as they fumbled for a pen to get bonnie to sign the book. We all had a good laugh.

Bonnie filed a report from Churchill this Spring as she was there doing some atlasing…or searching for breeding bird evidence. She reported, much to everyone’s delight..especially the birds, that plenty was apparent.  A list of species she witnessed includes King Eider, Thayers Gull, California Gull, Iceland Gull, Glaucous Gull and Glaucous-winged Gull, Brown Thrasher, Trumpeter Swan. No report of the Ross’ Gull…but I’m sure many were searching in hand.

Tundra flowers were just getting going as the month lenghtened and the beluga whales were coming into the Churchill River while the ice was flowing out. A picturesque scene I know very well….pure beauty.Churchill wildflowers.

Since Bonnie has left Churchill, the polar bears have come off the ice and some have migrated into the area. One bear has been shot for chasing a tourist who was out alone on the beach photographing. Bonnie’s brother Jack, a manitoba Conservation officer, was not happy with the “fool” for putting himself in that position and in the end causing the bear’s demise. The bear was about half the weight that it should have been…probably the reason it was seeking out some prey. I have said for years now that it’s only a matter of time before somebody uninformed on bear safety finds themself in a position of extreme danger. This one was close and I’m sure not the last. At any rate this kind of human behavior will certainly put the animal in danger.  Too many people come to Churchill on their own and don’t know basic background information needed to be wandering around on the outskirts of town or in and around rocky beaches. This time of year can be more dangerous than the fall since only a few bears seem to be lurking…people get complacent.

Finally,the roof of the Lazy Bear Lodge blew off  in a Spring windstorm and about 150 people came out to help get the  large hole covered. All of the firemen and many Churchillians pitched in to get the inn back up and going. Living in a small tight-knit community really brings people to your roof…in times of need.

Always interesting up there it seems. Rumor has it that someone saw old Reverend Lofthouse lending a hand as well!

End of The Hudson Bay Line?

As the canadian government contemplates the future of the canadian Wheat Board (CWB)  and thus the future of the port of Churchill, another icon of the Northern frontier is at risk as well. In earlier reports I reported the attempts of the conservative goverment to dissolve the regulated CWB and allow grain farmers from across the praries of Canada to openly choose their preferred deep – water port to ship their products to the rest of the world. Currently, Churchill processes a huge amount of that product with more than 90% of their business deriving from CWB partners. If this agency is dissolved, many grain and wheat farmers will most likely choose other venues of distribution such as Vancouver, BC and Thunder Bay, Ontario. An open market in this case will prove crippling for Churchill’s port operation and 200 jobs could be lost. Another 600 or so jobs most likely will vanish as well across the tundra south all the way to Winnipeg where the CWB is based.

Aside from the jobs lost in railroad towns such as Gillam,Thompson and the Pas, the very lifeline of rails itself may suffer to the point of  shut-down. The rail line operated by VIA Rail of Canada, runs from Winnipeg to Churchill…its’ most Northerly point in the province. The 100 miles of track South of Churchill is maintained by the parent owners of the port of Churchill; Omnitrax out of Denver,CO. The company has spent some millions of dollars in recent years upgrading and maintaining the rails known as the Hudson Bay line in hopes to improve the grain transportation process from the South. The aging tracks have been plagued by the fluctuating tundra reacting to changes of seasons and more aptly temperatures. When the tundra thaws from the top down in warmer seasons, the rails tend to warp and bend slightly. When weathered box cars filled with tons of grain then put pressure on the rails, disaster is imminent. Reports of grain train derailments over the past decade are sketchy though I can personally attest to knowing first hand of at least five or more. While guiding Summer trips for Natural Habitat Adventures, our train excursion North from Winnipeg to Churchill was disrupted a few times. I heard of other occurences through my relationships with engineers and train employees as we passed time on the 36 hour plus trip. Engineers of both the grain and passenger trains were and still are givin strict “slow orders” in order to not place un-do pressure on the steel rails. These slow orders quite often turn the journey into a 40 hour or more adventure. Hey, what’s four more hours ..right?

The past few years have seen these happenings become more rare as the more Northerly tracks have been repaired and maintained. That realization brings me back to the point I alluded to in the headline for this story. If the grain goes away, will the Hudson Bay Line as well? Without the big business backing of Omnitrax maintaining  those crucial and fragile last 100 miles or so of rail-line, running the train North may be impossible. Tourism traffic alone will not support the line all the way to Churchill. Finding answers from Via rail and Omnitrax may be a topic for an upcoming post. Keep your ear to the rail!

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