IT IS A STRANGE sensation; it feels not so much that we have lifted off, but that the ground has dropped away. The helicopter sweeps out across the tundra, over a land that is both barren and beautiful. Along the shores of Hudson Bay, slushy saline ice formations are taking hold. Winter is setting in, and on the expansive emptiness below, soft spectral shapes are on the move. Ursus maritimus. The world’s largest land carnivore. Wapusk to the Cree. The Great White Bear.
The flight path takes us above several oversized structures, odes to past follies and failed dreams, arranged like board game tokens: an abandoned radar station, looking like a giant pair of tattered golf balls; the rusting hull of the MV Ithaca, marooned in shallow waters just offshore; and a C-46 transport plane that has become lodged in the landscape. “It crash-landed almost 25 years ago,” says Scott deWindt, our impossibly young pilot, speaking through the headphones. “No one was killed or anything. Great place for parties in the summer.”
And now, coming in quickly are the clustered homes of Churchill, Man., a small gridwork of streets that looks almost suburban from afar, as incongruous an image as any marooned ship or crashed plane. And just beyond it, rising up in a slab of cement, sits the town’s imposing grain terminal. This is where one of Canada’s most northerly railways meets saltwater tides, and a suture line of train tracks runs to the terminal docks. Churchill is the narrow end of the funnel, through which flows western wheat via the shortcut that is Hudson Bay. “Last ship of the season,” says Scott, indicating a lonely vessel that is plowing its way towards harbour through the cold waters of the bay.
These three elements—the port, the railway and the grain terminal—converged in the 1930s to create the modern town of Churchill. The original settlement was on the other side of the Churchill River, but when the end-of-steel reached Hudson Bay on the more convenient eastern shore, the entire community decamped. Several buildings, including two churches, were taken apart and then skidded across the ice by dogsled and later reassembled.
Churchill’s massive grain terminal, visible for kilometres in all directions, is as ungainly as it is grand. This is Canada’s only Arctic seaport, and it is a constant source of debate, the most primary question being: What is it exactly? A northern boondoggle? A bastion? A bulwark? An elaborate make-work project? An artificial lifeline? A vital trade link? A declaration of Canada’s commitment to the North? Ask any three people in Churchill and you will get four different answers.
Across the river from the grain terminal, on an exposed windswept stretch of rocky terrain, lies an even greater folly—and the most incongruous icon of all: a sprawling stone fortress, its walls splayed out in the classic star formation of British imperial defence. Canada’s northern Louisbourg: Prince of Wales Fort. Constructed by the Hudson’s Bay Company in the 1700s to protect its fur-shipping routes from French attack, Prince of Wales Fort took 40 long years to build—only to fall without a shot being fired after French warships appeared in 1782. The fort’s governor, Samuel Hearne, took a quick tally—upwards of 400 seasoned French troops versus 39 HBC employees—and wisely decided against an Alamo-style last stand.
Hearne surrendered and was taken prisoner along with his men. The French then looted the post and blew up whole sections of the walls, leaving little food or shelter for the Cree who lived in the area and who had come to rely on HBC supplies. That winter, scores of Cree and Metis would starve to death, among them Hearne’s beloved wife, Mary Norton. Hearne had begged his French captors to leave supplies and ammunition behind for the Native population, and the French had complied, but it was not nearly enough. When Hearne returned to Churchill the following year, having been released by the French, he abandoned the crumbling stone fortress and built a replacement post several kilometres upriver instead, beyond the reach of salt tides, where the water would always be fresh.
Samuel Hearne was one of the most remarkable figures in early Canadian history. Prior to being named governor of Prince of Wales Fort, he had distinguished himself by walking to the Arctic Ocean and back, a distance of 5,600 km, across the Barren Lands through two howling Arctic winters. Hearne survived because he adopted Native techniques of travel, diet and dress. And more importantly, his expedition was headed by the legendary Dene tracker Matonabbee.
Hearne was searching for a fabled copper mine and an equally fabled passage to the Orient: he found neither and returned to Prince of Wales Fort wiser, but certainly no richer. The stone walls have since been repaired and the cannons remounted. It is a solid geometric presence in a stark and open land, and we circle it warily from the air. “We may not be landing after all,” Scott shouts. He points to the snow in front of the fortress. “Bear tracks.”
Every summer, as the ice melts on Hudson Bay, hundreds of polar bears are forced ashore to the east of Churchill, where they wait, hungry and ill-tempered, for the ice to freeze again in fall. (Given a choice, most polar bears would stay on the ice all year round, feasting on plump seals.) From mid- to late November, when the ice again begins to form, the area around Cape Churchill is the first to freeze over. The bears congregate here, and as soon as possible make their way back out onto the ice.
The town of Churchill lies smack dab in the middle of the polar bears’ migration path. Bear traps ring the townsite, bear patrols are on constant alert and children go trick-or-treating amid armed escorts. (“They can go as anything they like at Halloween,” one lady told me, “except polar bears.”)
Prince of Wales Fort is closed during polar bear season, and the river, ice-ridden and choppy, can’t be crossed by boat. So the only way to visit is by helicopter. Accompanying me is Stacey Jack, a Parks Canada communications manager, and Jackie Schollie, also with Parks Canada, who will be acting as our “polar bear monitor.” Jackie’s title makes me jumpy. Monitor? I would really have preferred “polar bear defender” or “polar bear fighter.” Monitor seems too passive, as in: “Here comes the polar bear. And there goes Mr. Ferguson. The bear has now caught up to Mr. Ferguson and appears to be eating him. We will continue to monitor this situation as it unfolds.”
Happily, Jackie is armed with a rifle. “A warning shot first. Then we run like hell for the chopper,” is how I interpret the Important Safety Information that I receive. After Scott spots bear tracks from the air, he dragonflies down to scan the area and makes sure no predators are lurking about. Only then does he land and let us out.
Jackie slings her rifle over her shoulder and we trudge through the snow toward the Fort. Stacey unlocks the heavy front doors. They open with a groan and we enter into history. Here are Samuel Hearne’s private quarters, here the blacksmith shop, here the cannons pointing outwards toward invisible enemies. Looking down the sight-line of one such cannon, I find that it is aimed directly at the grain terminal, the two fortifications squaring off across the mouth of the Churchill River.
Stacey is a wonderful guide—full of quips and quirky facts. And Jackie is steely-eyed and confident, just the sort of thing you want in a polar bear monitor. As we walk through the blueprint-like maze of the inner fortress, our talk turns to Sloop Cove, several kilometres to the south, where the HBC used to dock its boats. The glaciers that had once pushed the Hudson Bay lowlands down with such overwhelming mass retreated 8,000 years ago, but the land itself is still rebounding, rising slowly like a squashed sponge after a weight has been lifted. “It’s called isostatic rebound,” says Stacey. “The land is rising about half a centimetre a year. At Sloop Cove, the harbour is now a meadow and the iron mooring rings where they tied the boats are even higher up than that.” Samuel Hearne, along with other HBC employees, had carved his name in the rock there. And when, back in the helicopter, I mention this to Scott, he takes it as a personal challenge. “Hang on,” he says. And we lift off in a powder of flying snow. With Jackie giving directions, Scott finds the cove and we come in low along the water, pirouetting at the last moment to hover directly in front of the rock face. As we hang in mid-air, the chopper blades blow back the snow, revealing centuries-old graffiti below. And suddenly, there it is, right in front of us, painstakingly etched into the granite: “SL Hearne, July ye 1,1767.” It is a date ripe with meaning. Exactly 100 years later, to the day, a country named Canada would be called into existence.
The first polar bear I saw in Churchill was airborne: a distant tear-shaped drop of milky fur suspended in a net beneath a helicopter. When polar bears stray too close to town, and can’t be frightened away with loud noises, they are darted, tagged and placed in a holding cell until they can be airlifted to safety, farther along the coast.
Later, I spent three days out on the treeless tundra east of Churchill as part of a Frontiers North Adventure tour. Normally, when you put the words “frontier,” “north” and “adventure” in the same sentence, you are setting yourself up for disappointment. But no. Three days on the tundra and it still wasn’t enough. I want to go back.
I had been invited on this trip by Catherine Senecal, the author of a wonderful guidebook to Manitoba wildlife entitled Pelicans to Polar Bears. “We’re staying at a lodge,” Catherine lied, when I first arrived. Lodge conjures up images of fireplaces and marshmallows and outdoor hot tubs. The group I was with slept in bunk beds, linked up like train berths, with nary a hot tub in sight. No matter. We spent our days in buggies that rolled across the landscape on giant cartoon wheels, bobbing and bouncing. We were meeting the bears on their own turf. Real bears. In the wild.
There were a dozen or so people in our moon buggy. Other than Catherine and the driver, I was the only Canadian in the group—which may or may not say something about us as a country. The rest were mostly American or British; our buggy guide was from New Zealand and there was even someone from Mexico on board, shivering away with good cheer. We saw dozens of bears—sparring, playing, sleeping—and it never lost its magic. The bears moved across the tundra with a silence that was both unnerving and exhilarating, shoulders rolling, paws padding, heads low. They are utterly unimpressed by man. “This is their realm,” Catherine said. We are merely interlopers. “That, and a potential source of protein,” she added, with a laugh. Polar bears can weigh up to 800 kg—as much as a small car—and they have been known to hunt and kill whales. Whales, mind you.
It was on my second day with the buggy that I was plucked from the tundra by Scott and flown to the fort. On the flight back, over stranded ships and oversized radar ranges, I could see the ice forming on Hudson Bay—great green sheets of it. Bears were moving along the shore, restless, timeless, fearless. Like the landscape they inhabit, they too seemed larger than life.
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