Subarctic Summer

Forget the beach; Churchill, Manitoba is coastal wildlife viewer’s haven with fascination to spare. By Ned Morgan.

Three weeks before my trip to Churchill, Manitoba last August, I received bad news from organizer Travel Manitoba: due to forest fires, they’d canceled my kayak trip on the South Knife River in the wilderness southwest of Churchill. Did I still want to go, even though I’d have to stay (mostly) in the town for a week? I considered cancelling, but the more I read about the Hudson Bay seaport and ecotourism hub, the more I realized that though my mobility would be limited by the lack of roads and the threat of marauding polar bears, I would find no shortage of diversions there.

Abandoned Cold War–era military installations, an 18th-century fort, a shipwreck you can walk to at low tide, countless beluga whales, polar bear families hunting along the coast – these are some of the sights available on a summer visit. Midsummer is the time to go: fireweed brightens up the landscape for photos, the climate feels like southern Ontario in May, the bears are active (to view from the safety of a jet boat or truck) but the crowds are light compared to peak bear-viewing season in the fall.

A male Ursus maritimus roams the coast near Churchill. BRAND CANADA LIBRARY PHOTO.

Before I arrived, I pictured myself hiking and kayaking for hours along the coast. When I arrived, everyone warned me against it. In midsummer the polar bears start feeling restless and hungry, preparing for their migration north to hunt seal on the pack ice in the fall. The likelihood of an attack upon a human wandering in their habitat is just too great. Even if you’ve hired a guide with a high-powered rifle, you seldom venture far from a vehicle. However, Churchill has not seen a fatal polar bear-on-human attack in several decades.

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You often see Ursus maritimus along the coast, where they loll among the sun-warmed rocks and occasionally pick off unlucky beluga whales.


An underwater view of a beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas).
Beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas) in Hudson Bay. Photo by Paul Colangelo.

This small white whale’s peculiar facial physiognomy suggests that it is always smiling slightly; they do strike one as happy and carefree, even if three predators – polar bears, killer whales, and humans – prey on them. But here where they congregate in the bluegreen waters of the Churchill River estuary to calve, and feed on capelin, they’re relatively safe – it is too shallow for the orcas and too deep and far from land for the bears. And the First Nations who hunt belugas further north leave this population alone in recognition of its value to the tourism economy.

Churchill River estuary. BRAND CANADA LIBRARY PHOTO.
Churchill River estuary. BRAND CANADA LIBRARY PHOTO.

The wreck of the Ithaca. BRAND CANADA LIBRARY PHOTO.

The wreck of the Ithaca at low tide. BRAND CANADA LIBRARY PHOTO.

One day  I rented a truck and drove it onto an unserviced coastal road to this shipwreck, the rusted but intact ore freighter Ithaca, on the rocky, desolate Hudson Bay tidal flats where it ran aground over 50 years ago. At high tide (below) the bottom of the hull is awash and the ship looks like it might glide away under its own ghostly power.


The Ithaca at high tide. Photo by Ned Morgan.
The Ithaca at high tide. Photo by Ned Morgan.

After taking photos for an hour, I returned to the truck. While attempting to turn around, my rear wheels spun out and sank a foot into the sand. With no alternative, I armed myself with my aluminum tripod and jogged back out to the main road and was lucky to flag down a passing motorist.

Later that evening I returned in a tow truck, and the driver pulled my truck out of the sand after about five seconds of effort. After I paid him and he drove off, I noticed an SUV parked up on the high ground overlooking the wreck. I walked over to find four young guys frying steak over a camp stove. On the rocks beside them stood a half-constructed wakeboard ramp and a bunch of high-end video camera equipment.

At this lonely place I had found myself in the genial company of Revolution Wake, four Winnipeg wakeboarder–filmmakers shooting stunts in the tidal pools around the Ithaca wreck. They’d taken the train from Winnipeg with their gear, intent on using this photogenic wreck as a backdrop to one of the set pieces of their wakeboard action film. (Check out the above trailer at 2:30 for the Churchill sequences.)

Aerobee rocket launching station, Fort Churchill Station. Photo by Ned Morgan.
Aerobee rocket launching station, Fort Churchill complex. Photo by Ned Morgan.

Beginning in the mid-1950s, the Fort Churchill Rocket Research Range – jointly operated by the US and Canadian military – conducted experiments with sounding rockets to study the auroras and near-space atmosphere. The property lies roughly 20km east of the town of Churchill at the end of the only road. The Churchill Northern Studies Centre, a non-profit research and education facility, now occupies the old Operations Building. Several buildings of the former rocket range complex, empty for decades, lie behind the Centre on the edge of the taiga. Locals told me that the Canadian military can’t afford to restore the buildings as monuments, or demolish them and undertake the necessary remediation. Clearly the site, which is full of architectural and historical significance, should be preserved somehow. Rafael Gómez-Moriana of the School of Architecture at Carleton University commented:

The ensemble of structures could easily be mistaken for recent work by a number of contemporary architects, were it situated in the vicinity of Los Angeles or Berlin instead of Churchill….These idiosyncratic structures were designed without any architectural pretension whatsoever. Their forms are a straightforward result of functional and practical concerns, not the product of deconstructionist posturing. Here, form simply follows rocket science, not postmodern theory. Yet seen today, these architecturally “naïve” buildings nevertheless strike a chord – they are, after all, avant la lettre by nearly half a century.

The Nike launching station, Fort Churchill complex. Photo by Ned Morgan.
The Nike launching station, Fort Churchill complex. Photo by Ned Morgan.
The shadow of our De Havilland Beaver en route to Seal River Heritage Lodge
Travel Manitoba sent us on a flight to Seal River Heritage Lodge, about 60km up the coast from Churchill. Note the shadow of our De Havilland Beaver on the dry creek bed. Photo by Ned Morgan.