Journey to Churchill – Answering the call of the North

Wally estimates there are 3,500 whales in the waters surrounding us.

By Dorothy Dobbie

Wally at the wheel.

The airport waiting room is packed with excited people all going to Churchill, Man., the only deep-sea port on the prairies. I meet someone who has just arrived from a France that was still in shock from the senseless attack in Nice. Then there’s the couple from Oregon and the pair from England. A German girl with a broken foot, earned riding horseback at Riding Mountain, is here with her mother. There is a holiday feel in the air.

They are all on a charter organized by Wally Daudrich’s Lazy Bear Lodge. There is lots of talk about polar bears and whales. A few of the travellers have been to Churchill before, as have I. This does nothing to dim their excitement, nor mine. “It’s a different world,” proclaims Louise, an employee and friend of Wally’s who is going up with her whole family. I overhear her tell a passenger later, “I have been there many times, but I always look forward to it.”

I know what she means. There is something about the place that holds you and draws you back. This is my fifth trip and I am even more excited than on my first. Of course I am interested in the bears and belugas, but there is so much more: the fascinating plant life — from lichens and mosses to miniature birch trees — the flowers, the history and the open, outward-looking people.

We are in Wally’s 40-foot boat, heading out from the Churchill River into Hudson Bay. He is the captain in his wheelhouse. We are the audience, wrapped in warm, orange onesies because it is threatening rain and the wind off the Bay is cold; we are told there is still ice in some places further up the coast. It’s choppy and the boat slams against the waves. We are uncomfortable, bored. Then it happens. Wally points out some white humps far off in the water. “Whales,” he says. And suddenly we are surrounded; white bodies breaking the water everywhere around us, luminous under water, dancing and diving just beneath the surface, teasing us, testing us, rushing towards the boat and swooping under it, grey babies by their mothers’ sides, swimming so close you would think they were one. I am paying attention, trying to assimilate this, trying to live in the m

When it comes to belugas, being here is everything.

oment but wanting to preserve these images through the fickle lens of my always inadequate camera. No matter how much skill and technology are brought to bear on this scene, being there is everything.

After a surface count of 350, Wally estimates that there were probably more like 3,500 whales thickening the waters. He says that for every whale on the surface, there are 10 more under water.

We still the motors of the boat and listen to the whales sing. Sometimes they make a trumpeting sound as they break through the surface. Wally drops an underwater mic and we hear amplified clicks and musical squeals. They respond to the high-pitched voices of teenage girls, we are told, and some of the guys try to get their attention by whistling. The whales also respond to the sound of the boat and after a while, with the boat quiet, they lose interest and drift away. When the motors start up again, they return like torpedoes heading straight toward us.

Jud, our guide, sports an awesome set of dreadlocks.

Our guide, an intrepid girl named Jud, who carries an amazing head of dreadlocks threaded with seashells, dangles an orange jumpsuit near the water, convinced that the whales are curious about that colour. We whale watchers are talking to them — silly, perhaps, but still asking the whales to pose for our cameras. It’s as though they understand and they dance enticingly near the boat. I get an eye shot and I am thrilled.

We are 50 miles up the coast in the Lazy Bear boat again. In spite of shirt-sleeve warmth in Churchill, the air up here is chilled by the bits of ice still floating in the bay. The sun is shining and the warm onesies are welcome. After traveling at top speed across the calm water, eagle-eyed Wally announces a bear sighting off the point straight ahead. Gradually, a bear takes shape. Binoculars come up. Cameras click. The bear ambles off out of sight.

Wally moves the boat away from shore and suddenly there is another sighting: two very large males swimming in the water nearby. It is unusual to see two male polar bears together like this, says Wally.

From the boat, we can see these massive animals close up. We can hear their huffing as they swim past us at a speed of 10 km/h. Compare that to the record breaking swim of Mark Spitz at 8.1 km/h and you get some idea of the power of these beasts.

Two large males swimming together is an unusual sighting.

It’s July — an ideal time to spot bears as they come off the ice, fat and sleek, for their summer holidays on land where they will live on their fat until the ice forms and lets them go seal hunting again. Polar bears do hunt during the summer months in the tidal pools that sometimes contain stranded seals and whales, but this is a maintenance diet at best.

The media have done a great job touting the fall season, but there are just as many sightings in summer and the Lazy Bear’s big boat allows us to visit them in their natural element — the sea. Here, there is little chance of being attacked and you can get close to them in the water.

We are out on the tundra in the Lazy Bear’s Arctic Crawler, a massive machine large enough for a gala party. It has huge windows and a viewing platform on the rear end. Jud is driving down a rocky trail. This is where the bears come in the fall, but today, although there may be bears in the vicinity, it’s more of a chance for us to explore some of the seaside vegetation. Jud shows everyone the little red spiders that occupy the beach detritus and we gaze with wonder at the bearded stones washed up on shore, fans of seaweed growing on one side. The seaweed is lighter than the salt water so when the plant attaches itself to a pebble it buoys it up and allows the stone to float.

Fireweed.

You don’t need a guide to point out the thousands of wildflowers everywhere, but Jud is especially in love with the delicate arctic avens, the white, eight-petalled flowers arranged in parabolic fashion around intensely yellow centres. They bloom so briefly, says Jud, that even though the land was carpeted in white just a week ago, they have already moved to their next stage, standing naked of petals with only their wispy seed heads for cover. She sighs. “Summer is almost over.” The Inuit, she says, predict the season by watching this little flower.

Holding stoutly to centre stage right now is the beautiful purple Hedysarum boreale, or sweet vetch, which grows in little pin-cushion clumps that cover the land. This is the third burst of purple, says Jud. We see pink Indian paintbrush, and the purple fireweed is starting to bloom. Jud points out a lovely miniature orchid. The dandelion has made its way north, adding touches of yellow.

South of the tree line, which ends just before town, lonely white spruce trees cluster in clumps; their upper branches pointing bravely south; their lower branches, which are under snow in winter, spread around the skinny trunks like a skirt. The trees are much older than they look, but the thin layer of topsoil covering the stone will only support so much growth.

There are all sorts of edible berries and plants that once made the Hudson Bay area a breadbasket for people and it is still a land of plenty for animals.

Miss Piggy, a downed aircraft on the rocks.

Back at the Lazy Bear Lodge, people mingle in the lobby waiting for the next adventure — maybe a trip to see Miss Piggy, a downed aircraft that landed on the rocks, her cargo of goods and people unharmed. Perhaps a trip to see the MV Ithaca, a shipwreck that sits on the beach, high and dry during low tide. It was washed ashore at a period of very high tide that ripped open the hull of the boat.

The atmosphere is warm and friendly. There is always a pot of coffee brewing and tray of cookies waiting, as guests swap tales of their homelands and how many bears they saw that day. Some tell of their thrilling snorkelling with the belugas or their kayaking to get up close. The storytellers are from every corner of the world.

A big iron stove warms the room when the thermometer drops outside. The glow of the peeled logs and the comfort of leather couches make it a cozy place to curl up with your smartphone to review the day’s photos.

Wally built this two-storey, 38-room hotel with his bare hands, salvaging the logs from a forest fire in the boreal forest south of town. He hauled them out of the bush with his snowmobile, a few at a time, building and adding over a 10-year period. The newest part of the lodge is the dining room featuring a gigantic fireplace built from local rock surrounding an eco-friendly firebox. Wally also made the furniture in the dining room.

Wally, his wife Dawn and their five children live next door. Last year, they built a greenhouse that their only son is charged with managing, growing lettuce greens and a few other vegetables for the lodge. It is a work in progress with excellent promise.

The Port of Churchill, with grain elevators dominating the harbour.

Between adventures, I walk through the town, stopping at the Eskimo Museum and dream of the world gone by that is depicted through the remarkable carvings of the Inuit people. I visit the Arctic Trading Company to browse the many interesting gifts and other items, soaking up the local atmosphere. I wander through the museum at the Churchill Railway Station. A pretty station agent named Tessa tells me how her parents used to own a B&B nearby and now she is in town for the summer. She is drawn back to this northern home, where CBC’s Peter Mansbridge, labelled by Jud “the sexiest old guy in Canadian broadcasting”, got his start.

In the background, dominating everything on the bay stands the mighty Port of Churchill and its six-storey grain elevators, built in 1931 by the firm of Carter, Halls, Aldinger. Today it stands silent. There are no hungry grain ships in its berths waiting to be filled with tons of wheat from prairie fields.

This emptiness means little to eager visitors, whose focus is on the land and the sea rather than incongruous man-made objects. But the port, the railway and the grain elevators have been the constant in this changing landscape for the past 85 years. Now the current owner of all three has put a hold on the shipping and the future of the port is uncertain. The trains are now bringing products to town only once every seven days. Most people arrive by air.

Some day, perhaps, like the rocket launching pads, the military barracks or the radar station (now known as the “Golf Balls of Churchill”), the grain elevators will become a relic – perhaps a museum – charming tourists with the way things used to be as they soak up the clean northern air and enjoy encounters with the wilderness. No matter what happens though, the new constant, it seems clear, will be the endless flow of visitors, bringing wonder and wealth from all corners of the world.

This quirky little town on the edge of nowhere will carry on, as is has for eons, attracting life of every kind.