Photo credit: Paul Wood
The second week of July, I had the pleasure of flying north to Churchill, Manitoba, where I set my debut novel Northern Deception. Churchill is a small town on the west shore of Hudson Bay, roughly 68 miles from the Manitoba-Nunavut border. It sits on the edge of the boreal forest as the land goes north into tundra and the arctic.
It’s called the “Polar Bear Capitol of the World” for a reason. Canada has about 15,000 known polar bears in i’s population across its arctic expanse. It’s estimated that there are only about 25,000 polar bears left in the wild. Churchill sits right on the bear’s migration route out to the sea ice on Hudson Bay.
Hundreds of bears come through the area/town during October/November each year on their way out to the ice where they’ll hunt ringed seals and store up the fat they need to survive back on land during the summer.
I went up to Churchill to experience it during July because my second book in my series “Heroes of the Tundra”, Northern Protector, is set during the summer. I wanted to see the landscape, the town, the wildlife, and meet the people who’d helped me with my earlier research for the first book.
The first thing we learned when we got there was that the first polar bear had been spotted two days before. The sea ice was broken up and the Bay was clear again. This meant the bears would be coming ashore to move north and northwest inland to survive on smaller prey, berries and even moldy seaweed thrown up by the tides.
We got a quick lecture from our hotel operator on NOT leaving our vehicle while we were out exploring, and how to keep our heads on a swivel now that the bears had returned.
Photo credit: Laurie Wood
We enjoyed a ride out to the Wildlife Management Area in a certified Tundra Buggy. These huge vehicles are built on fire truck chassis, with specially made tires that leave as small a mark as possible on the unique and delicate environment out on the tundra. The lines on the Buggy are to show how tall a bear can be when it stands on its hind legs and reaches up to the windows.
Here’s some of the “road” we followed along the way…
Photo credit: Laurie Wood
The whole area is permafrost but with global warming, parts will thaw and create ponds and small lakes that are two to three feet deep. The water is clear and free of pollution. Small fish called sticklebacks live in it and arctic terns, ducks, gulls, and swans all feed on them. These water areas freeze up again come the fall.
The best thing we saw all day was a mother bear and her two cubs, but they were about half a kilometer away. This photo was taken with a telephoto lens:
We saw a lone caribou feeding just before a native hunter caught up to it and shot it. Although it was upsetting for some of the people on our tour, native people are allowed unlimited hunting and fishing in the north, so he was within his rights to hunt the caribou. Our driver told us that caribou is delicious meat, less gamey then deer or moose.
Our second day we went out on a boat tour to see the beluga whales. These whales are white when they become adults and are grey as babies and adolescents. They’re friendly and curious animals, somewhat like dolphins. They come in from Hudson Bay annually to the Churchill River where it’s protected and give birth to their calves. It takes twenty-two months for a beluga to gestate a calf. We were fascinated by the small pods of whales swimming beside our boat. They’d come close and check us out, and then leave us behind. This went on for a couple of hours until they got bored and left us to feed.
The VIA Rail Train Station is not only a functioning train station for passengers and grain/supply trains, but it’s a Parks Canada Site as well. Inside there’s a small museum of historical exhibits showing the interactions between Europeans and the Indian (or as Canadians call them, First Nations Peoples), as well as some nature exhibits of polar bears and caribou.
After a tour of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Detachment and an interview with the Detachment Commander, my research trip was complete.