New synthetic turf in the Churchill town square. Alex De Vries – Magnifico photo.
Churchill is moving into the 21st Century with a new synthetic turf field for the town square behind the chamber of commerce information kiosk. Looking more like an artist’s depiction than the real thing, this image from Alex De Vries – Magnifico in Churchill shows the newly “mowed” field. The old field and town “green” was far from that with hard dirt and scattered rocks throughout. This will hopefully encourage the youth and adult population to participate in sports such as baseball and soccer throughout the summer months. The field will be finished just in time for Canada Day on July 1st and the annual ball tournament and other festivities!
I can’t help thinking of a funny Canada Day story that occurred when I was guiding Churchill Arctic Summer trips years ago. When I first started I would stay in Churchill and await the arrival of the group on the VIA Rail train with my Natural Habitat Adventures co-guide. Once they arrived we would guide travelers across the tundra in search of flowers and wildlife and over the waters of the Hudson Bay and Churchill River to see the beluga whales. The amazing biosphere of Churchill would be home for the next five days. At the end of the trip my co-guide would return to Winnipeg with the group by air and return a few days later by train. Not a bad gig!
Churchill’s Via rail station with a train at the dock. Cartan Tours photo.
Train arrivals in those days, much like train arrivals these days, were often three – four hours late. Due to the warm weather and shifting permafrost in the summer months, trains would be issued “slow” orders that would only permit them to travel at recommended slow speed so to not place undo stress on the steel rails. Unfortunately, overloaded grain cargo trains heading to the Port of Churchill often disregarded the slow orders and periodically derailed in front of the passenger trains. These accidents caused huge delays and sometimes the necessity to reroute travelers on flights to Churchill or bus to get to a bigger town to wait out the track repairs. Not much has changed there either. All part of the adventure.
Churchill was putting on its usual festivities and I was taking part in the annual town softball tournament. Teams from the Churchill Northern Studies Center, the hospital, restaurants, Parcs Canada and just friends putting a team together were all enjoying the friendly competition on the diamond. Throughout the morning of the tournament, the train’s late – arrival had been updated numerous times and last I heard estimated to arrive in Churchill at roughly 3:00 pm. I came to learn that “roughly” in Churchill is all part of a vernacular we often refer to as “tundra time”.
Our game was going on around 1:30 pm and I was in my softball attire of sweats and a t-shirt, up at bat with the softball at the apex of its arc when I heard the train’s horn blowing loudly across the square. After raking a base – hit to right field (actually the aforementioned dirt and rocks) I glanced over to see the train limping into the station and I ran. Not towards first base but instead toward the Seaport Hotel to my room to change into proper Nat Hab guide attire and then cruise over to the station and meet the arriving group! I received lots of ribbing from the team for that panicky though funny exit…still makes me laugh to this day. Never trust the train schedule or rumors to its arrival in Churchill. Tundra time indeed!
Canada Day is on July 1st. Here’s an itinerary of the events planned. Town of Churchill image.
You’ve heard the expression “Island time”. In fact you’ve probably uttered it once or twice yourself after experiencing the casual, slowed down lifestyle of people in places that seem to have figured out how to enjoy life…well at least vacation life…usually by the warm, blue water somewhere.
Sundogs in Churchill, Manitoba. Brad Josephs photo.
Well “tundra time” is a similar lifestyle but perhaps comes from the opposite end of the weather comfort spectrum. Churchill and the rest of the northern Arctic region of Canada moves at a pace most southerners would call…um…slow. And that’ s being generous. Maybe because the north exists in a cryogenic state of frozen time for a good part of the year there’s really no energy to go fast at any point. Tundra time.
When visiting Churchill, everything moves slower. Restaurant service is slower..hence meals take longer. Vehicles move slower…especially Polar Rovers looking for slow, ambling polar bears. Maybe that’s the key…polar bears set the pace for everything around the area. They are in no hurry to go anywhere…except out on the ice. However, they can’t make the ice form so they instinctively know to take it easy….cause it’s “tundra time” mon!
Polar bear cooling off in Churchill, MB. Natural Habitat Adventures photo.
The train….ha..well anyone that has traveled with Via rail along the Hudson Bay Railway knows the literal definition of “tundra time”. The train tracks often turn a 36 hour trip into a 42 hour trip or more. Why? Because the tracks wind across the tundra that contains permafrost….icy ground. When that icy permafrost heats up and melts a bit, especially in summer, the tracks move slightly and a speeding train has to slow down so to not exert too much force on the steel rails and then end up on ..er..the tundra…stopped in the middle of nowhere. Tundra time.
Most of all the people in Churchill move slower. Churchillian’s by and large are not going far. Well, they can’t drive far as there are no roads out of town unless you want to go to the Churchill Northern Studies Center or a bit further out to Twin Lakes. People in Churchill actually have time to talk with one another, not email or telephone. They actually meet at Gypsy’s or the Seaport Hotel and sit and talk for sometimes hours and enjoy multiple cups of coffee. There’s a “local table” at Gypsy’s up front that is just for that…talking….slowly … and in person. Tundra time.
Nearly everything in the north operates on tundra time. We should all experience it once in awhile.
Churchill’s summer is just around the corner….well, not really but it’s nice to think about on these frigid days and nights. With the temperatures averaging around -30 C for the next 10 days according to Environment Canada, thoughts of an Arctic summer in Churchill are almost like daydreaming of the Caribbean. Almost. Here are five good reasons to dream of summer in Churchill:
Beluga looking curiously up from the Churchill River. Steve Selden photo.
1.- Beluga Whales- Whether arriving by plane, train or ship, most summer travelers to Churchill come for the beluga whales. A few days out on the water, in and out of whale pods, can release any kind of stress from daily life. Add in the coarse summer fog and cool breezes blowing in across the Hudson Bay, and you have a unique wonderland evoking a feeling of transcendence from the modern technologically saturated world.
2.- Polar Bear Dip- Not talking about something you might find at Gypsy’s Deli in town…although it might be more enjoyable do jump into a vat of your favorite chip-dip then immersing yourself in the Hudson Bay in July. Canada Day falls on July 1st and the weekend closest to the date is filled with fun activities around the town of Churchill. One of the looniest, angst-packed endeavors is the annual Polar Bear Dip behind the town complex in the Hudson Bay. “Fun” might be an odd description for jumping and running into water around 40F or lower. Most legs turn to wood before ten seconds elapse and then the real fun begins. Watching people struggle to get back on shore after running out to a flag-line and back is great entertainment. This is a must try event if you happen to travel to Churchill in summertime.
3.- Ghost Town- Summer in Churchill gives you a chance to really feel the frontier lifestyle with considerably less fellow travelers. The majority of people see Churchill in October and November, which in its own right is amazing….though different. However, the weather during this time limits one’s ability to grasp the full feeling of living on the edge of the Earth. Getting out on the land and water to experience the full circle of life fills in gaps left from seeing mainly polar bears.
Churchill wildflowers on the tundra. Steve Selden Photo.
4.- Wildflowers- The diversity of flora in Churchill is the main reason I loved guiding the Arctic Summer groups. Hiking along tundra trails flooded with wildflowers, berry plants and orchids was a never ending adventure and classroom of biodiversity. Getting down and viewing the plants up close unveils a magical world that exists only a few short months. Each plant has a unique story of survival and propensity to propagate in opportunistic ways.
Dene elder Caroline Bjorklund giving a cultural talk. Steve Selden photo.
5.- Meeting Churchillians- When less travelers are in Churchill, businesses and the people in town have more time on their hands. This is the “normal” lifestyle locals are accustomed to and are more apt to take time to share stories about their lives in the north. After all, this is what “tundra time” is all about!
Some nice video from late polar bear season of a sow and cub near the Tundra lodge. Hudson Bay ice moved in around mid November aiding in thinning out the congregation of bears in the Churchill region. Another wave of bears came through after with a good concentration of mother’s with cubs. Overall the season provided incredible displays from polar bears, lots of sparring, and foxes everywhere. Bird life was plentiful and seal kills were discovered from time out on the coastline. With winter closing in fast now, current temp is -9 F, most of the action is slowing down. Polar bears are on ice and the town is back to normal, “tundra time.” Keep an eye out for more video and news from the north coming your way.