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Trip Report Churchill, Manitoba And Polar Bears

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A Warm Welcome

About two hours after leaving Winnipeg, I wake up and peer across an employee from the Denver Zoo. I get an expected disappointment at what I see. Although it has been in the low 30's the past few nights, I can tell from my peering that there is no snow on the ground as we make our descent into Churchill, Manitoba.

However, with temperatures still in the 30's, I hope the locals that I have come here to visit will still come out and hang with me.

Inside the quaint terminal building I learn a little bit about the town that is known as the Polar Bear Capital of The World. Like all of my experiences in Canada, except the Immigration and Custom officials in Winnipeg the local Canadians are friendly and welcoming. A phone call by one of them and I have a taxi arranged for my ride into the town. For CAD$25, I am dropped off at the Polar Inn and Suites, my Canadian home for the night.

Whatever disappointment I have about being here is quickly erased as I visit the Great White Bear Tour company office and gift shop. Here I meet two other visitors that will be with me on the tour tomorrow along with one energetic and super friendly GWBT employee. She introduces all of us and then proceeds to individually give us a huge welcome hug.

I feel like the prodigal son in her warm embrace. She is full of excitement from the minute I walk in and until I leave about twenty minutes later, gladly sharing all kinds of tour and local information with us.

Across the street from Great White is Gypsy's Restaurant and Bakery, The Place To Be In Churchill and for good reason. Owned and operated by a Portuguese family, this restaurant comes highly recommended not only by the taxi cab driver and Great White employees but now also by me.

As I enter Gypsy’s, I am not surprised to find fellow tour guests David and Victoria who prefer to be called Eric and Claire sitting at a nearby table. They invite me to join them which I immediately accept. We are all here for the same thing, The Thanksgiving Day dinner special that Gypsy’s is serving for CAD$20.95 in honor of the Canadian holiday.

Moist sliced turkey, steamed colorful vegetables, a scoop of mashed potatoes that looks like ice cream, stuffing which David/Eric is not familiar with, cranberry sauce and a fresh dinner roll followed by a slice of pumpkin pie which surprises Claire. She is accustomed to using pumpkin as a vegetable not a sweet. The waiter and I take the opportunity to give her a bit of our pumpkin cooking know how.

We enjoy all of this while sharing stories about our travels. Eric and Claire are retirees from Australia who have traveled the world with some interesting stories to tell. Eric breaks out a well worn and folded map from his wallet and we go over their 25,000 miles, five month RV journey across the United States and Canada. We share some common sites and memories of identical places we have visited. As Eric carefully folds his prized map up, Claire reminds him that he will have to get a new one the next time they visit a Cracker Barrel.

This is a meal and a time that one does not want to end. Of course there is no rush for us to leave but we want to explore a bit of Churchill although most places are closed because of the holiday.

A huge slice of pumpkin pie nicely decorated with criss cross stripes of whip cream signals the beginning of the end of our wonderful meal and time together. Eric and Claire share one slice and take the other to go.

No worries, I have my eyes on my own “to-go” selection from the bakery showcase. Since as Claire puts it, “You are a big boy”, I savory my whole slice at the table along with a warm cup of tea. With the right amount of cinnamon and other fall baking flavors, it is going to be hard to beat this slice of pumpkin pie anywhere else.

For CAD$20.95, we have had a feast that has me talking a new language. Gobble, gobble, gobble.

Happy Thanksgiving Day, Canada!

Walking from Gypsy’s I hear my named yelled from across street and “... are you just leaving Gypsy’s now?” Responding, “Yes”, my warm hugging, energetic, friendly and new Churchill BF is just as happy as I am that my dining experience has taken so long.

Not getting anything past her, she smiles as she notices that I have a nice “to go” bag.


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    Strolling Churchill

    From walking the streets of Churchill on a Thanksgiving Day afternoon, one would never imagine the underlying social problems that occur in small towns that exist in this type of environment. As a retired teacher from here told me, “this town is socially dysfunctional.”

    Knowing that I myself have been dysfunctional a few times in the past and knowing that I am not done, I don't think it is necessarily a bad thing.

    How boring would Thanksgiving family dinners be if there were not at least one dysfunctional family member at the table.

    All that aside, I enjoy my stroll through Churchill which is very quite on this holiday afternoon. Past the Tundra Inn, I wander the town streets finding a place I could play bingo on a Tuesday night.

    Next, I am cautiously walking the shores of Lake Hudson trying to avoid having moist polar air breathing down my back. In a few weeks this stretch of coastal real estate will be completely frozen and covered with snow and ice. For many here, this will be a welcoming sight. Burrrrrrrrr!

    Along the shores of Hudson Bay although Captain Kirk is nowhere to be found, I do come upon the Enterprise. A ship sailed here the long (wrong) way from New Foundland. Instead of going West, an eccentric sailor went North then West then East.

    A Maple Leaf is flapping in the wind as I approach another interesting spot in Churchill. I am standing where a slave woman arranged a peace settlement between her people and the Cree Indians. Her actions led to the establishment of the First Trading Post here in 1717.

    Interestingly, all of the town's major facilities are housed in one building that in January or February it is easy to understand why. You can go to school, stop at the post office, visit the doctor, go bowling or take a swim and do it all in one place.

    To experience all of this you might have to come to Churchill by train since flying here, the only other option is very expensive. By train you arrive here at the station which is pretty much in the center of town and I am told has nice displays and exhibitions of the area. Unfortunately, the station is closed today as the train only arrives here three days a week, on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

    Back in town, I am sitting at a bar and I over hear an American and a Canadian having a conversation over a few Standard Lagers.

    The American is puzzled, “I don't understand why the Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving Day since the Pilgrims did not land in Canada”.

    In response, the Canadian says “Well you see, Thanksgiving here is a time when Canadians gather around with family to thank God that we are not Americans!”


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    My Churchill Best Friends

    At home I have a unique if not strange relationship with a one Mr. Anderson. You see it is pretty much a one way relationship as I only see or hear from Mr. Anderson when he wants or needs something. Otherwise, he is nowhere to be found and I can almost certainly forget about him meeting my needs.

    It is amazing that in Churchill I meet and discover a new set of best friends. Although they are tied down at the moment, they are more than willing to share some playful time with me which most of us both enjoy.

    For one of them it is a caution and curious encounter. However, I have no doubt that unlike my relationship with Mr. Anderson, the more time we spend together the more mutual fun our relationship would become.

    Even from just a short visit, it is no wonder guys like these are man's best friend and Mr. Anderson is not. Meow.


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    I had never had any particular desire to go dog-sledding before, but back in April, I ended up going on a trip and having a blast. The dogs were really friendly and totally adorable. And it was fun to go whizzing over a glacier, relatively silently, with the dogs clearly loving to run.

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    Have not had the dog sledding experience but from your adventure I will have to add that to my bucket list.

    Probably sometime this December in Alaska when I go up to help a fat old guy make some toys :)

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    Churchill Polar Bear Tour

    Although my alarm goes off at 7am, I am startled awake at 7:30am by a banging on my hotel room door. All of this might have been avoided had I heard my name being called down the halls of the Polar Inn the night before around 9pm. However, expecting to see the Northern Lights from 1 to 4am, I was fast asleep at 9pm.

    As it turns out, I am the first one to be picked up for a day trip with Great White Bear Tour company and discover a sweet story.

    Not knowing exactly which room I was staying in, Sheila and her husband, Great Bear employees both of whom I had met earlier in the day had come by the Polar Inn looking for me. They had walked the halls of the Polar Inn whispering my name because the Northern Lights had shown up earlier than expected last night.

    By the time I went out on my own around 2am, the final curtain call was being made on the Northern skies. The lights were fading, the show was practically over. I am told I missed a brilliant performance.

    A few more hotel stops and we are traveling to the outskirts of town. We cross a lightly snow covered landscape as we are headed to the launching spot for our tundra buggy tour. This is only the second tour day of the season for Great White Bear and in some ways it turns out to be fortunate for us.

    We are on the maiden voyage of the newest buggy that just arrived here by train on Saturday. Since there is only about seven of us on a buggy designed to holds thirty six, it is going to be like having a private tour.

    Typically, Great White only runs about 18-19 passengers per tour to allow less crowded viewing. This buggy has two by two airline type seating, a huge slanted windshield and a rear open air platform available once the vehicle is stopped.

    Although the morning snow will be gone by afternoon it gives a cool dusting to the off road terrain we are now traveling across. We are told in a few weeks this area will be covered deep with snow. The small lakes which now have thin sheets of ice will begin to become frozen over.

    As the sun breaks through the morning clouds, its rays provide nice reflections on the shallow lakes. It is not long before we spot our first wildlife, a lonely caribou. Then someone in our group, not the driver, raises our excitement as she is confident she has just spotted two bears in the distance.

    We must cross a lake to get there and it is a very cool experience as our buggy does so. It has no problem navigating across the shallow and very clear waters.

    At a stop, we watch in awe as two male polar bears spar with each other. We are told this is more of a playful exercise as there is no real aggressive behavior.

    Exhausted, the play time comes to an end and the bears eventually go their separate ways. However, both of their paths passes close enough to us to give us a better view of these impressive animals.

    Although these ones are a bit dirty from playing around in mud, their true color is more yellow than Coca-Cola or Madison Ave would have you believe. Also, I am sure their preferred beverage is a Standard Larger.

    Even with temperatures in the mid thirties this weather is still considered warm for polar bears who are accustomed to temperatures in the minus thirty degree range. As we continue our tour we leave one of the sparing bears trying to cool down. He is camouflaged against a rock and bush plants.

    More puddles and small lakes to cross as we head North across the tundra in search of more bears and wildlife. Our lunch stop comes as we find another bear reflecting by a rock which often makes it difficult to spot them from a distance.

    Bill, our buggy driver and tour guide now becomes our host with the most as he dishes up bowls of vegetable beef stew accompanied by dinner rolls. Tasty and light enough to not be too filling. Bill gets compliments on the meal which he promises to past onto the chef.

    A pleasant surprise comes as we are driving along the Hudson Bay. Running almost besides us is an Arctic fox with a fresh kill that it is going to have for lunch. Extremely light on its feet as it trots along, we are told that these foxes are so light that they can be picked up and carried by the Arctic wind.

    Next, our drive takes us by Gordon's Point one of the bear sanctuaries off limits to any type of tours. It is here and a few other places that are set aside to allow the bears to rest without being disturbed.

    Soon we are at another point that marks the end of the road for our tour just beyond where we have been before. Still laying where we left him a few hours ago is one of the sparing bears. He raises his head to acknowledge our presence then goes back to sleep.

    In the coming weeks will be the peak of the season, end of October, for seeing the bears in Churchill migrate to the frozen ice in Hudson Bay. Once out on the ice they will remain there hunting seals and an occasional whale until probably sometime in June.

    Today, although we saw only four bears compared to 20-25 later in the season, we did see something that is uncommon to witness on tours like this, bears sparing. That alone made the trip worthwhile.

    Our tour comes to an end around 4pm and we are driven back into town by shuttle bus, the same way we came out to the buggy launching site. This time an interesting building is pointed out to us.

    It is the Polar Bear Jail which is believed to already have a few inmates. Incarceration normally amounts to at least 30 days in solitary confinement sometimes more for the really dysfunctional ones.

    And no, conjugal visits are not allowed.


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    Churchill Eskimo Museum

    With a few hours to spare before my flight back to Winnipeg, I wander over to the Eskimo Museum about 15 minutes before closing time. Opened in May 1944, this museum was established through the generosity and hard work of the Catholic community here. Admission is free although contributions are welcomed.

    Inside the museum I get a quick introduction to the Eskimo way of life and some of their history here in Northern Canada. On display are animals and different artifacts that enhance my knowledge of this area of the planet.

    One piece of artwork I find interesting is a polar bearing holding a large rock. Somewhere in Eskimo history or legend there is a story about a polar bear picking up a stone to kill a seal.

    In one corner of the museum I am drawn to what I think is a tropical connection. From a distance what seems to be a part of a coconut tree branch turns out to be baleen.

    Baleen is a filter feeder system inside the mouths of baleen whales that is used by Eskimos to make huts and other items. It is strong and has the consistency and color of a dried palm branch.

    I can see that a trip to the Eskimo Museum is definitely worth it. I just which I had more time to be here. At the museum you can also purchase souvenirs of the area at decent prices with the proceeds going to a good cause.


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    Tundra Lounge & Restaurant

    My visit to any place on the planet would not be complete unless I have at least a sampling of the local food and beer.

    In Churchill one place to do that is at the Tundra Lounge & Restaurant. Here from Bison to Elk and Caribou you can sample some of the local culinary delights.

    My choice a Bison Burger with yam fries and a Standard Lager. I am told that Standard Larger although it is labeled like a Budweiser was here first.

    It definitely taste better than Budweiser and maybe “This Larger And A Bison Burger Might Just Be Right For You.”

    I make two quick stops before hopping a taxi to the airport. One at Great White Bear gift shop to say goodbye to Sheila, who unfortunately is gone for the day.

    Two is at Gypsy's so I can take a part of Churchill home with me although I doubt it will make it though 10,000 feet.

    The cinnamon fry is gone long before the “Fasten Seat Belt” sign is turned off.

    Thanks, Churchill, Great White Bear, Gypsy's, Tundra and The Eskimo Museum for a great time :)


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    I have a Canon Rebel with a 55-250mm lens. However, we were lucky to get so close to the bears.

    Someone else on tour with us had another Canon camera with digital zoom and he got some amazing shots using that feature.

    A camera update is my near future and I'll post the reason why in a few days :)

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