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Churchill - Wild

Boarding the plane for Winnipeg, the forecast was for clear skies and freezing temperatures. They were right about the temperature: they lied about the sunshine.

After checking into the Sheraton airport hotel, I took the bus into the city. Winnipeg is as flat as a shitcarter’s hat. It’s apparently city law for all girls to have bred by the time they reach puberty. There’s a reason I avoid public transport, and I was quickly reminded of it when a large crazy woman got on the bus and attempted to sit on my lap, ignoring a sea of vacant seats. I leapt for safety a nanosecond before her large arse made contact. She then proceeded to wipe her nose on her woolly glove, which just about put me into a blue funk.

Another old biddy got on with something in a papoose on her back. It might have been her house. Plus she had six carry-on bags that she proceeded to strew around the bus. Meanwhile, Miss New Mum (15-ish), wearing flip-flops on bare feet (it was only -3C) held the transiting captives enthralled with a running commentary on her texting dialogue. Apparently she’d scored a five-perfume set from Victoria’s Secret for $16. Some things are not bargains at any price. A couple of failed lumberjacks in army fatigues completed our mobile village.

But the bus driver was nice, and dropped me off as close as possible to the Winnipeg Art Gallery, which has a fine collection of Inuit sculpture. And it was very good, as was the rest of the WAG’s collection. Being November, it gets dark early in this neck of the prairies, so it was time to get back to the hotel and pack for the north. Needless to say, I took a taxi.

Getting to Dymond Lake is pretty much a ‘hurry up and wait’ experience. We’d met our group over dinner the previous evening, then it was an early night in preparation for the 5:15am departure.

With excess luggage stowed, we caught the Calm Air flight – a two prop job – to Churchill where it was 20C below, then transferred to a 9-seater blowfly. Luckily I’m not a nervous flyer, because from where I was sitting in this ‘work horse of the North’, I could see that the driver was using a Garmin portable GPS to get us to the lodge.

The former hunting lodge sits on a spit right by Hudson Bay and Dymond Lake – both now frozen thanks to a blizzard a few days ago. Wolverines (very rare), pine martens (weasely critters) and foxes had been sighted on the lake yesterday. A little white weasel lives under the lodge, which consists of two accommodation buildings with lounges (one with an observation tower) and the central dining room and kitchen. There are sixteen guests and eight staff. Maintaining and operating a remote lodge on the edge of the boreal takes serious commitment and effort.

After lunch we had our ‘walking in bearsville’ instructions (stick together, never get in front of, or behind, the guys with the gun etc.) and headed out on our first walk, onto the frozen bay, with our guides scanning the horizon for any sign of a real polar bear. There were plenty of bear tracks in the snow, but these chaps amble at 5 miles and hour, so they can travel vast distances in a relatively short time. They can smell food 30 miles away, and would be able to identify that a new group of would-be carcasses had arrived in their territory, so Terry took us on a walk along the coast in an attempt to encourage a bear to come inshore to check out the fresh contents of the fridge.

It was fun walking on the seaweed piles – seaweed decomposes under the ice, creating heat, so it’s a spongy sensation crunching through the frozen crust. We walked for two hours without spotting more than a couple of ravens and a faraway red fox.

Back on the ridge, we were heading for the lodge when the ‘bear’ call went out. I couldn’t spot the critter – it was way out on the ice, almost at the horizon. ‘We’re going back down’. Mentally, I was thinking “oh great, another half hour of hideous cold to see a speck on the ice”. But the bear and the guides knew what they were doing. We assembled on the edge of the ice and the bear turned and came towards us. It was spectacular and the speed with which it covered several hundred metres was a tad unsettling. He was a young male, probably 350kg, and he ambled up to within 10 metres of us. It was an eye-popping, ditch-the-camera-and-enjoy-the-sensation moment!

Close up and full-frontal (we could see the blacks of his eyes, and the small wound on his nose), Terry decided to stop him in his tracks. Throwing small rocks to kick up snowballs only vaguely slowed his progress, but ‘bear’ finally got the message and ambled off to the south and into the bushes to feast on something dead. Our first bear, and it was a fantastic, unique, experience – awesome in the true sense of the word.

Which was just as well, because we spent the whole of Saturday out on the ice spotting nothing except a flock of ptarmigan (aka tundra chickens) plus a couple of foxes running around in the far distance. And it was bitterly cold – minus 8C but with wind chill it was effectively 25 below. With double layers of thermals, face warmers, double socks, double gloves and full kit it was still only just bearable (except the bears had gone AWOL). ‘First day this season we haven’t had bears’. Thanks. Griet, who’s Belgian, living in Montreaux, Switzerland, and with her husband owns vineyards in Bordeaux, opined ‘I didn’t come here to see foxes and birds, I want bears’. She was speaking for we baddies in the group, including Uli and Margarete – lovely and funny Bavarians who live near Neuschwanstein.

Churchill Wild is proud of their cuisine. Frankly, mastering the logistics of providing anything edible in this wilderness is a remarkable feat. At dinner, the plat du jour was crusted caribou followed by ‘pavlova’. Sadly, the quaffable wine was in rather short supply.

Sunday, and we spent another six hours out on the ice in the bitter cold – our wildlife haul totalled three foxes (1 black, two red), two wolverine, a bear that was only just discernible with binoculars about three miles off, and a couple of ravens. And some fox scat. And Terry and Steve still insisted on taking us down on the ice along the shoreline, despite this trek having yielded nothing of value (to us) in two long days’ marches. Uli joked ‘it’s just like 1944, when I walked back from Moscow…..’.

Needless to say, we were by now a disconsolate crew. This is an expensive trip and the marketing blurb promises long, e.g. “in case of bad weather, you can stay in the warmth of the lodge and watch the bears amble past through the pictured windows”. Maybe sometimes, but not for us. Oh, and the Northern Lights hadn’t bothered to show up either.

Monday morning, and it was time to leave Dymond Lake lodge. Griet and I were on the first flight, having opted to go dog sledding. We walked out to the end of the runway and stood around in the freezing wind, looking at nothing on the shoreline, for over an hour, until the plane trundled down the runway. Churchill was looking really good, Winnipeg even better.

We were greeted in Churchill at the Polar Inn by the cheery and polite manager and shown to our rooms, which were perfectly adequate and clean as a whistle. Griet and I headed to the Seaport Lodge to use our $30 meal vouchers for lunch, then it was back to the Inn to be collected for our dog sledding adventure.

Blue Sky Mushing has their operation in the straggly boreal forest, where most of the conifers have branches on only the South-West side, thanks to the fierce prevailing Arctic winds. Gerald and Jennifer keep a fine mob of dogs – all in grand condition, each with its own raised and insulated kennel. The dogs were very excited to have we tourists turn up. Griet and I volunteered to be the first off the rank and settled into the sled with seven dog dots for close-up viewing (that old chestnut “unless you’re the lead dog, the view never changes” sprang to mind).

Gerald had given us instructions on how to brake the sled and the team in case a dog flight broke out (yikes)! Then he gave the dogs the go-ahead. They took off like bats out of hell. I haven’t laughed so much in years. It was absolutely hysterical. Dogs jumping, barking, skating, hooning around corners with the speed of gazelles. Gerald insisted I exit the sled and stand up with him to steer the dogs – fantastic good fun, and I don’t even like dogs! But these were working dogs, and when we returned to the compound after our 1.5mile trip over the trails through the boreal, all the ‘home’ dogs went crazy, trying to be selected next to run. Grand stuff. Griet and I swapped places and headed off for another circuit.

Back in Churchill, we went to a cultural presentation on Inuit traditional lifestyle. This was held in a giant teepee-like structure made of caribou skins by Mary, our presenter – she’d been born in an igloo about 80 years ago. Caribou skin tents stink to high heaven, but she was sweet, cheerful and informative and her husband did a drum dance for us, so it was a pleasant afternoon’s entertainment.

We’d decided to dine at the Tundra Inn on our free night. By this stage, Jannick and Herve, a brother and sister from Switzerland, had joined our team, so we hit the bar and restaurant and had a very funny evening recounting our adventures and generally letting off steam telling lies and stories.

Tuesday was Tundra Buggy Day. When Gary picked us up in the bus, he announced that, as a special surprise, Mike, the owner of Dymond Lake lodge, was joining us for the day. He’d obviously come along to check out the troublemakers! Griet has a boutique hotel in Bordeaux, so she and Mike had a good conversation about the trials and tribulations of running an inn.

As to the absence of bears, by this stage we’d gleaned enough information to work out that the Hudson Bay ice had been driven east last Spring, and the bears had therefore jumped off eastward and were late, having to hike back across the southern shores of Hudson Bay, so our chances were looking pretty slim. And the buggy tourists for the past three days had had very lean sightings.

At the tundra buggy site, Marc, our driver, briefed us on mandatory buggy behaviour and we piled aboard and headed out onto the tundra plain in search of bears. The buggies use the haphazard trails hewn by the British army in WW2 and it’s a slow and bumpy transit.

We stopped briefly for some further instructions when, holy toledo, a huge male ambled up from behind a snowdrift and proceeded to circumnavigate our buggy, and tried to paw the driver in his cabin, a good 3.5 metres (12”) above the ground!

Heading out to the point (Marc’s supposed ‘hot zone’), we stopped for coffee, and from then on, bear-Disneyland kicked into high gear. Walking bears, running bears, sleeping in the willows three metres away bears, two young bears wrestling, digging for kelp bears, skating on thin ice bears, a swimming bear who was being teased by a seal (‘ha -missed me again’), curious bears ambling around the buggy eyeballing us at close quarters. It was a fantastic show, and Marc had the knack of a) locating the quarry and b) positioning the buggy in the direction the bear chose to head and for the best shots. I think I took a couple of hundred photos and then some. A fabulous payback for our patience and good humour over the past three bear-barren days.

Griet and I headed back into town for some final souvenir shopping and then met up for final drinks before farewelling Uli, Margrete, Jannick and Herve and then jumped our Calm Air flight to Winnipeg before the snow settled in. By the time I’d repacked, it was midnight. Just enough time for a quick snooze before an early morning exit-stage-right for Melbourne.

When I checked in for my United (Air Canada codeshare) flight the following morning, I was informed that my ticket had been cancelled. The ‘customer service’ person I’d spoken to from Toronto had, despite assurances to the contrary, wiped out my entire booking. And all flights to Denver were overbooked. Ignoring the advice – ‘ring Air Canada, they’ll have to do something for you’, I knew the options were limited, so rang Amex with a ‘get me outa here and into LA, today’ plea and Maurice got me a seat on Delta into Minneapolis, then the last seat on the connecting plane into LA (pity about the cost -it was in first class). ‘Wait a few minutes, I’ll have it ticketed immediately.’

After 30 minutes, the booking still wasn’t on the system and cutoff time for check-in was looming, so I rang back and lucked into Maurice again, who had been about to call me. “The international ticketing system won’t let us issue the ticket for the 7th, because it’s already the 8th in Australia. We’ve tried issuing via London and the US and that won’t work either.” Some systems analyst somewhere needs to be shot. But it all turned out fine, and the insurance came to the party and paid up for the ticketing fiasco.

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