Talking to Stones- Inukshuks Speak

The Inuit meaning of inukshuk is “in the likeness of a human”. Used as a communication beacon in traditional times, these unworked stones compiled in rough human form signaled to others that someone had been there or that followers were on the right path. These landmarks also were built to mark a place of respect or as memorials for loved ones. Churchill has some impressive inukshuks around the area that travelers gravitate to and often photograph in daytime or with dynamic northern lights in the sky over the Hudson Bay.

Inukshuk in Churchill, Manitoba

Northern lights over the Hudson Bay behind the Inukshuk in Churchill. Sean Beckett photo.

Hunters utilize them by marking migration paths or near water where fish are plentiful. Sometimes in these cases, inuksuit are arranged in sequences over short or long distances to better signify the trail. Spiritual meanings have also been associated with these stone sculptures by Inuit peoples. These rock forms are of the oldest and most iconic objects bonding the Arctic with the Inuit people and culture of the north. Inuit tradition does not allow the destruction of inuksuit as they are often thought of as symbolizing ancestors that learned the ways of surviving on the land.

In a land of vast emptiness and barren landscape, a familiar inukshuk is a welcome sight to a traveler on a featureless and forbidding landscape.

An inukshuk can be small or large, a single rock, several rocks balanced on each other, round boulders or flat. Built from whatever stones are at hand, each one is unique. The arrangement of stones indicates the purpose of the marker. The directions of arms or legs could indicate the direction of an open channel for navigation, or a valley for passage through the mountains. An inukshuk without arms, or with antlers affixed to it, would act as a marker for a cache of food.

Flag of Nunavut.

The Inukshuk was the basis of the 2010 Winter Olympics logo designed by Vancouver artist Elena Rivera MacGregor. The form also is featured as the centerpiece of the colorful flag of Nunuvut, the homeland of the Inuit.

Blizzard Weather and Action in Churchill

“What a trip! The action just kept coming and we seemed to always be in the right place at the right time”, reported Natural Habitat guide Colby Brokvist. Highlights included many cub sightings, including one curious guy right up on our rover. We had sparring males so close that some of the guests on the deck of the rover were hit with snow as the bears tussled! 
Polar bears sparring in Churchill,MB.

Polar bears in sparring mode. Colby Brokvist photo.

Other highlights included Manitoba Conservation chasing a large male polar bear out of town, and numerous fox sightings. Topping it off, the aurora borealis came out on Halloween night and the group of travelers and Colby journeyed down to the inukshuk behind the town complex to observe the amazing display around 1 am in the morning.  

Aurora above the boreal forest. Brad josephs photo.

Aurora shining in the Arctic sky above the boreal forest. Brad Josephs photo.

Shipping News: The last grain ship is out of port and the tug boat brought in the channel buoys this past week.
Manitoba Conservation Blotter: There are currently 13 polar bears in the polar bear compound as of yesterday, including a sow with a cub caught in a bear trap near the cemetery. 
A polar bear print in the soft snow of the Churchill Wildlife Management Area in Churchill, Manitoba.

Polar bear print in the snow. Karen Walker photo.

Guide Karen Walker and group had a male polar bear come very near their polar rover, on the spit past the lodge.  The temperature was hovering around freezing, so the snow was soft and left a fantastic foot print for photographs.  “At one point we had a very close bear on the right side of our rover and sparring to the left side of the rover,” added Karen.
An opening to a fox den on Christmas Lake esker in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area in Churchill, Manitoba.

A fox den on Christmas Lake esker in Churchill Wildlife Management Area. Karen Walker photo.

Out along Christmas Lake esker, the group discovered the entrance of a fox den. “We never saw the fox, but we saw lots of tracks,” stated Karen. That evening the wind really picked up and it has become quite evident that winter has set in. Over the last few days, two blizzard-like storms have descended on Churchill.


Tundra Days In Churchill With the Polar Bears

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.

Looking out over the tundra in Churchill from the precambrian sheild.

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.

On of the first polar bears of the season sports a frosty white coat in Churchill, Manitoba.

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.

Traveling by helicopter to a polar bear den the traveler gets a view above Churchill, Manitoba.

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.

A polar bear lift is prepared by Manitoba Conservation officers in Churchill, Manitoba.

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!

Churchill update

 A magnificent silver fox by the navy building on the way to the launch “wowed” the group led by Natural Habitat guide Elise Lockton. “such a beautiful color phase of the red fox”, explained Elise. While the arctic foxes are dominating the scene this year the cross and silver fox are adding splashes of color to the tundra’s ever increasing whiteness.

“Heading out to Gordon Point this morning…we came across Sparring bears just past first- tower followed by curious young bears near Ptramigan Alley…standing up on vehicles, under the grate…all around.” reported Elise just this past week. The bear quota for the CWMA is certainly filling up now.

Arctic fox combing the tundra. Brad Josephs photo.

Arctic fox combing the tundra. Brad Josephs photo.

Other sightings included a red breasted merganser in an open creek past the tundra lodge…a little late to be hanging around the north country. As it flew away the group noticed the duck had only one leg. Maybe a sign of it’s delayed migration to the south. Another thrill was spotted by a traveler as the group rumbled over the tundra trail in their rover. A mink running across a frozen pond surprised everyone, even the local Churchillian driving the machine. A rare sighting for sure!

Sow and cub polar bear walk along a frozen tundra pond. Brad Josephs photo.

Sow and cub polar bear walk along a frozen tundra pond. Brad Josephs photo.

All in all the season has been extremely full of amazing sightings…both polar bears and all the other amazing species that reside in the region in the winter.

Natural Habitat guide Sean Beckett returned to Winnipeg from a great week in Churchill with his group of hearty travelers! The action started just moments after landing in Churchill, when they came across conservation officers airlifting a 400-lb bear from the polar bear compound. What an amazing start..even though the group as there to see polar bears not watch them being flown away.

Polar bear airlift from compound. Sean Beckett photo.

Polar bear airlift from compound. Sean Beckett photo.

Closer to town, various red foxes were strolling along the road as they made their way to the hotel. All this before even getting their keys to their rooms! “We kept the great momentum up with a great bout of sparring by two younger males near the lodge during our first rover day, and a handful of bears walking the coast between town and the launch site.”, reported Sean. Not bad for his first year in Churchill. “Our second rover day was complete with a wonderful encounter with a sow and her cub relaxing on a coastal pond.”, he added.

Big polar bear along the Hudson Bay coast. Sean Beckett photo.

Big polar bear along the Hudson Bay coast. Sean Beckett photo.

After a long day on the tundra, the northern lights provided a spectacular show, so the group rallied to photograph the aurora at the edge of town by the inukshuk. An arctic fox scampered by  tripods to add the cherry on top of a busy day.

Northern lights over the Hudson Bay behind the Inukshuk in Churchill. Sean Beckett photo.

Northern lights over the Hudson Bay behind the Inukshuk in Churchill. Sean Beckett photo.

On the last morning traveling to the airport, just when Sean and his entourage had thought they had seen their last bear of the trip, they discovered a huge male sleeping in the junk yard next to the naval base. Polar Bear Alert was quick on the scene to “cracker-shell” him over to the coast and away from town. Hopefully he’ll stayed out of trouble…and out of jail. “The bear forecast looks favorable next week, and I’m looking forward to getting back up north with another group tomorrow!” extolled Sean.

Churchill embraces cold and snow

This might be the one time of the year -October and November- when just about everyone in Churchill, including the local Churchillians hope for snow and cold. The rest of winter nobody really needs to hope since both come  in ample portions. However, polar bear season really needs both. Polar bears just seem so much more…well, uh..polar when they are surrounded by the white stuff. And colder temperatures allow their heavy, fur insulated bodies to just let loose and move around without heating up and feeling lethargic. In fact most of the wildlife in the region tends to perk up a little whenever the “winter” feel arrives. This past week, the weather has changed dramatically with temperatures in the 20’s F and snow has arrived brought in by both northerly and easterly winds.

Inukshuk overlooking the Hudson Bay greets the north winds of winter. Shot in darkness with moonlight. Brad Josephs photo.

Natural Habitat guide Lynette and her group came face to face with Dancer, long time polar bear czar of the CWMA, behind their rover near the lodge. Indifferent to the travelers as he has been around so many over the years, he made a cameo appearance under the grated back deck to give thrills to people never imagining to get this near a polar bear. His foggy breath wafted up  through the ironwork and settled on guests sorrels. Soon after the willows beckoned and off he went. A few other bears were lounging around just starting to get some energy from the cooling winds.

Polar bear coming face to face with avid travelers. Brad Josephs photo.

“We headed out toward Gordon Point and were face to face with a snowy owl seeking some shelter from the howling wind.  Even though the wind was blowing, the sun was really shining…it was a gorgeous afternoon and we even saw a double rainbow. we all proceeded to do our best “double rainbow” impression.  Hilarious.  A whole rover of people yelling double rainbow.  Maybe you had to be there?” reported Lynnette. The magic of the tundra and the north!
“We also saw an arctic hare doing what they do, hunched up against a rock, pretending that they can’t be seen.  The funny thing was that this hare was only a few feet from the lapping waters of the bay.  The tide was going out, but still….it was a strange sight.  I think Elise’s group saw it first and gave us the head’s up about it.” continued Lynnette. the Arctic reveals all kinds of surprises if you give it enough time. Perhaps the hare was contemplating a swim….on the cusp of an evolutionary discovery.
Guide Brad Josephs and his Natural Habitat photography group was at Gordon Point the following day and discovered a white gyrfalcon guarding the coastal lowlands. Then a young curious, female bear spent some quality time quite close to the rover and allowed photographers ample views and opportunities for great shots. She  then cruised along the coast while stopping to eat kelp along the way.
Later, further out on the land..more inland .. a beautiful male snowy appeared near first tower atop a black dwarfed spruce tree then down on the land.
Gyr falcon surveys the tundra looking for prey. Brad Josephs photo.
Later on the group came upon a large, scarred up male crossing the newly frozen ponds, walking with a wide stance in areas of thin ice. Apparently some sparring became a little intense. Some bears take this ritual to another level and blood is drawn. Luckily this guys scars were able to heal up without causing much harm.
Back in town off the tundra, Brad led his guests down by the port along the Churchill River just in time to photograph an amazing sunset. As the sun sank across river an awesome beam of orange shot upward into the sky. Ice crystals suspended in the air are a common cause of these strange sunlight effects in the north.
 Amazing sunset across the Churchill River.  Brad Josephs Photo.
Not to be outdone, as darkness descended, a moody full moon rose through a purple sky above the shadowy curving outline of the precambrian shield beyond the vast Hudson Bay. A red fox weaving its’ way along the bluffs checked out the group to put a cap on an amazing day. As an encore everyone went behind the town complex and photographed the immense stone inukshuk in the moonlight overlooking the bay.
 Bonnie’s Bird Report
“The birds are leaving.  The past four days we saw, lots of Rock Ptarmigan, a snowy owl, a white phase and a grey gyrfalcon, black-bellied plovers, a white-rumped sandpiper, a few dunlin, there are still some snow buntings around.Cheers,Bonnie”


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