Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Oh, wow! Churchill

My super amazing adventure to Churchill, Canada
May 28 to June 27, 2016

The real 'juice' of life is...setting goals and the journey toward fulfilling the dream. That's the part where we get to truly experience feeling alive. ” – Shawn Anderson, Extra Mile America.

I've known about and been interested in Churchill – Polar Bear Capital of the World and Beluga Whale Capital of the World – since the 1980s! It is Canada's only sub-artic seaport.

I decided it was time to make this adventure happen.

The travel choice

There are two ways to get to tiny Churchill (located in Manitoba Province – on the southeast coast of Hudson Bay) – by airplane or by train. By air is boring to me – by train it is about the journey. You know I chose the train!

During the planning, I mentioned my trip to RV friends Essie and Richard MacCloskey. She called the next day asking if they could tag along. Of course – they are super to travel with.

Travel logistics
The trip does not start with boarding the train; it begins with the planning. Logistically it would be a challenge – while Amtrak runs daily, VIA Rail (Canada's train system) is less frequent. Between Vancouver and Winnipeg the train runs every three days; between Winnipeg and Churchill, the train runs twice a week. Armed with train schedules, I plotted the trip:

We would travel Flagstaff to Los Angeles, to Seattle, to the Canadian cities of Vancouver, Winnipeg, and Churchill. Then reverse to go back home. Total of 8,000+ miles by Amtrak and Canada's VIA Rail.

Timetables showed that due to VIA scheduling we would have an overnight stay in Vancouver and three nights in Winnipeg before we could go north to Churchill. Then once in Churchill it would be four days before the return trip to Winnipeg. No problem! This was an adventure after all! And we had a reservation at BlueSky Bed and Sled in Churchill!

Packing would not be simple
While it is early summer and pretty hot at home, Churchill is significantly colder and in fact was getting snow the week before the trip. So, warm scarf, gloves, down jacket, sweaters, and such would be needed. My clothing took up two small suitcases; a tote bag, backpack and a fanny-pack carried other must-have stuff, including Canadian cash. Knowing that trains are notorious for being cold at night and I would be traveling in the coach (sitting) cars, I also took a small travel pillow and an afghan.

Why coach travel and not sleeping car?
Those who know me well know I am a thrifty person and sleeping cars are costly. Besides, by traveling by coach, I could probably take three coach trips for the cost of one sleeping car trip. Coach is not the ideal for a good night's sleep – I think of it as a rolling camping trip – but that's OK with me.

I love train travel – no maps to read, no traffic to deal with – just sit back and enjoy the views from the large windows. It is a “social” ride - there are plenty of folks to chat with and train personnel are kind and helpful.

The first train-change was in Los Angeles' Union Station. In Seattle, we transferred to a bus for the drive across the border and through Customs to Vancouver, Canada. And after a night in a hotel, we boarded VIA Rail, traveling east. This route was a beautiful ride through the Rocky Mountains and a stop in Jasper to wander this small town before continuing on to Winnipeg.

Here we are having Happy Hour in VIA's observation car.

Three days in Winnipeg
This is a large, busy city – slightly more than 700,000 people. We had a three day stay in Winnipeg at the Fairmont Hotel before continuing north. Our hotel was in downtown, giving us lots of places to explore on foot. There was no problem filling these days. We took a boat tour of the city's riverfront and crossed the Assiniboine River to walk around Old St. Boniface, a French community.

Winnipeg to Churchill
VIA makes this trip twice a week. It is a three day/two night train trip to Churchill, stopping at La Pas and Thompson and also at other tiny towns as needed. There was a two-hour layover in Thompson (Wolf Capital of the World) and we got off to explore. Thompson is the closest shopping area for Churchill – it has a Safeway, a small Walmart and a small mall – about 500 miles reached only by train or airplane!

Churchill – Polar Bear Capital of the World and Beluga Whale Capital of the World!
This is a tiny town, about 2,000 population, on the barren, rocky coast of Hudson Bay. The area was first explored by Henry Hudson in 1668.

Churchill has been called “one of the world's most phenomenal settlements.”  There are 15 B&B's and small hotels for overnight stays, three churches and a few small restaurants. It has a sprawling huge community complex with library, high school, pharmacy, hospital, cafeteria, town offices, movie theater, curling rink, hockey arena, basketball courts, and indoor playground, all under one roof.

Churchill's economy is mostly driven by tourism, with most people coming August through October – polar bear and northern lights season. I was there for the "three Bs time - Belugas, bears and bugs!  By choosing to be in Churchill before the main tourist time, it was a more relaxing time for me. 

Across the river lies Fort Prince of Wales, a huge star-shaped stone fort built by the English in the 1700s to protect their interest in the fur trade.   

BlueSky Bed and Sled – breakfast, too

We had a four-day reservation at BlueSky Bed and Sled. The owners, Gerald and Jenafor Azure made our stay extra special.

Jenafor served super breakfasts that included her specialty – bannock. This a bread that she makes with wild cranberries and wild blueberries. Yum! (Also in the photo below is Nico, a young German who helps with the dogs.)

Jenafor and Gerald have 32 sled dogs. My words seem inadequate to describe them. Each dog has a dog house. Here are some of the many photos I took.

The dogs love to run!
Winter guests at BlueSky get to have a dog sled ride. But because there is no snow this time of the year, the sled ride becomes a cart ride. Six dogs pull the sled/cart.

It is a real kick when we drive up to the dogs' area – they are leaping, barking and running around their houses. It is like they are begging, “Pick me! Pick me!”

My cart ride

Gerald, the 'musher' only has voice control of the dogs - gee and haw. They need no encouraging to run!

My favorite parking sign

Churchill is more than dogs
The town is on Hudson Bay – and when I arrived it had lots of ice. Daytime temps were in the 40s and 50s, nights in 30s. And speaking of daytime – there was lots of it! Sunset was after 10 p.m. And sunrise was about 4 a.m. It never really got pitch dark – thus no Northern Light displays. During winter there is lots of darkness.

Nico and ice on Hudson Bay

Zodiak ride
One afternoon I took a two-hour Zodiak ride on Hudson Bay – wearing a warm flotation suit.

The ice had been melting/breaking up. Here is a photo of my favorite iceberg – look carefully to see icicles. 

Photos of vehicles taken on my walks around town

Eskimo Museum
This facility, established in the 1940s, includes historic and contemporary sculptures of stone, bone and ivory. And I appreciated the displays of local wildlife - a stuffed polar bear, musk ox, wolf, and caribou (aka reindeer).

Polar bears
It's OK that I didn't get to see any polar bears up close and personal. Bears come ashore in mid-to-late July when the ice on Hudson Bay melts - and they are very hungry! They are true predators and can view humans as a potential food! These extremely powerful, agile and fast critters can weigh as much as 1,500 pounds and can reach up to 13 feet when standing on hind feet. They are extremely powerful, agile and fast. They stay on land until the bay ices over in winter. It is said as many as 150 bears pass close to, and occasionally through, the town during their migration season.

The Bear Alert Line and members of the Alert Staff are available. When a bear is spotted within or near the town limits, outlying residential areas or businesses, the goal is to get the bear back to unpopulated areas. Officers use noisemakers: air horns, paint balls, pistol and pen-launched bear bangers. Stubborn bears are captured and placed in the Polar Bear Holding Facility (bear jail). After a time, they are either relocated by helicopter or released directly onto Hudson Bay once the ice has formed.

I was cautioned to be observant as I walked around Churchill and stay away from the coast - “the rogue bear just might have come to land sooner than expected” was the warning. These white bears are the only marine bears; most males weigh about 880 pounds. Reportedly, they have a strong navigational sense, an extremely good sense of smell and are unusually clever at solving problems in order to obtain food. They eat seals, walruses and white whales. They also feed on berries, mussels and kelp.

With no live polar bears to pose for me, I took a photo of the stuffed one at the Eskimo Museum.

Beluga whales
It is estimated that more than 3,000 whales congregate and feed in the Churchill River estuary. A friend drove me to the beach to watch them. They are much too quick to take any photos. I was there when these white, snub-nosed creatures first arrived to calf, feed and splash about.

Whiskey Jacks
A name given to the grey jays that live in the area. The ones living near BlueSky's dog compound would fly down to snatch hand-held dog kibble. And speaking of birds – the area is a birder's paradise! In addition to the birds that nest here, hundreds more pass through on annual migrations. 

Icelandic Horses
A Churchill resident has these horses stabled near the main street. 

Big Change in Plans

On Friday, the day before our scheduled Saturday morning departure from Churchill, VIA sent a text message saying their 'employees were threatening to strike at midnight on Saturday'. If we gambled and kept to our original plan and if there was a strike, we would be stranded in a small town between Churchill and Winnipeg until the strike was settled.

Jenafor and Gerald, owners of BlueSky, said we could stay there – at No charge! Hmmm – keep my original plan and risk being temporarily stranded along the way or stay longer at BlueSky...a no-brainer for me; I chose to stay. Friends Essie and Richard chose to gamble. I had a bonus week in Churchill. (Note, it turned out that the strike was averted.)

After my bonus week in Churchill, I rescheduled my return home - I would return to Winnipeg, spend one night there at historic Fort Garry Hotel, then go east on VIA to Toronto, then to Chicago and finally return to Flagstaff and home.

I happened to be in Winnipeg for Aboriginal Week - and wandered around the many pow-wow events. The dancers were dressed in their native costumes 

In all It was a 29-day adventure – 12 nights on trains, one night on a bus, 6 nights in hotels and the remaining at BlueSky Bed and Sled

Do take this trip! It is amazing. 

"Life does not come with a remote - 
get up and change it yourself!"