Travelogue Canada 2: Winnipeg & Churchill


23 – 27 October 2009

All fed and ready to go, headed to airport to meet (almost literally) Phillipa to go to Winnipeg & Churchill together to see the polar bears. Did a catch-up at the Toronto Airport (including me giving her a guided tour of Canadian sandwiches – they are EVERYWHERE here) and then hopped on plane, managing to swap seats to be next to each other.

Chatted and giggled like old friends and an indeterminate (thanks to changing time zones and the added complication of daylight savings) few short hours later we were in the booming metropolis of Winnipeg.

We caught a taxi to the Fort Gary Hotel and found that we were indeed the dowdiest people here. Tres chic digs indeed. Fortunately the Clan Cameron reunion – complete with freezing Canadians in kilts and acoustically-bold foyer and incessant bagpipe combo – meant we slipped through relatively unnoticed.

After our long planestrainsandautomobiles journey, the big poofy cloud-like beds almost caught us, but we resisted just long enough to get off to Pizza Hut to eat way too much. We didn’t last long on return though and again I wondered, post 23h00 to 07h45 sleep, if my bio-rhythms aren’t trying to tell me something…


Our lovely hotel delighted us with a big brekkie in the morning – Denver omelette with cheese, ham, spring onion and mushrooms + back bacon + some other pea-something bacon that’s crumbed and sort of like gammon. Running out of space to try everything I was forced to pocket all sort of little nibbly-bit cheesey things for the flight.

With Free Time to kill, we did a quick whip around Winnnipeg. There was not a whole lot going on and not much to report. We realised we wouldn’t need the extra day on the return journey so put in motion plans to get back to Toronto to try squeeze in a Niagara Falls tour instead.

And then it was time to get to the main event. Off to Churchill!

Shame man, Churchill Airport was so cute with the little almost conveyor belt they have. It doesn’t even loop or anything, just sort of crescenty grey smile-in-motion sort of thing. Anyway, did the trick, so I shouldn’t be condescending.

We checked into the Churchill Motel, Room #17. The motel was in the middle of the main <read: “only”> road in town and was lovely and clean and spartan and adequate. Not even a distant relative of the Fort Garry Hotel plushness of the night before! … but (again) did the trick, so I shouldn’t be condescending.

We ambled over the road to our welcome dinner at the Trader’s Table. The best restaurant in town, so we were told. We had tomato soup starter (was either that or something called ‘salad’, so opted for the safer, more familiar option), Filet Mignon wrapped in bacon with roast baby potatoes for main and something unfamiliar and (compulsory) unrecognisable for pudding, which was something fruity with something baked, so dabbled with the ice-cream and left the rest largely untouched. Phillipa had the salmon for main (served with a honey and soy sauce glazing) which was heavenly. I have never ordered salmon before, but should have adventured it this time seeing as my steak was overdone (well, ‘done’ seeing as I had ordered it rare and it was cooked).

We were home and in bed by 21h30! A new record! AND up (before alarm!) at 06h30! what is becoming of me?!


Fabulous ‘pancakes’ (flapjacks) and French (Canadian) toast with bacon and syrup for brekkers and then (uncharacteristically) on-time for 07h45 departure for polar bear expedition.

It was literally freezing cold.. but nothing a pair of tights, fleece trackie pants, socks, ski socks, thermal vest, jersey, ski suit, ski boots, scarf and gloves couldn’t solve!

We boarded the tundra buggy trading a seat in the middle, close to the actual fireplace in the vehicle (!!)  for the front seat for best vantage point.

We spent the day happily ogling polar bears, arctic hares and arctic foxes in the tundra, padding across frozen bodies of water, snoozing in the kelpy stuff by the water’s edge and just generally chilling and arbing about the place… and right up close to the buggies! Total Awesomeness!

We had a laugh early on in the morning when the tour guide was going on about how we should keep an eye out for Artesian Whales along the way. Of course he was pointing at a trickling streamlet no deeper than 10 or so cms at the time, so we were marvelling at what these could possibly be, considering the possiblities of miniature this and that, the sea creatures on the back of comic books etc etc… until we realised it’s a dialect thing and he was talking about Artesian WELLS! duh! *giggle* It became a running joke all day and never ceased to amuse :o)

The same guide redeemed himself with a useful factoid though: Eskimo is a derogatory term to the people we’ve always called Eskimo. They are actually the Innuit (which means ‘The People’) and got the name from the Cree Indians who called them that based on the words in their language ‘e ski mo’ which means “eats raw meat”. Tres interessant.

On the food front: delighted by another soup and sarmie combo for lunch. This time chicken noodle + turkey on Portuguese roll. Had to say it for these folk; they do understand the bread:filling ratios. Very nice.

Seeing the polar bears up close was incredible. They were so big and beautiful – and I STILL don’t think they’re as vicious as they’re accused of being, having seen them padding around and stretching curiously up against the buggy.

It was such a literally awesome day that we couldn’t wait to get back out there. But we would have town tour and dog sledding the next day before getting back into the tundra on Tuesday). Phillipa’s took a ton of really good pics with her new camera, so will bore whoever I can corner when I get the disk(s) from her.

On return to the motel, I made headway with Plan Niagara by befriending Doug, the dude at the front desk and (so we learned) owner of this place. And all the town’s school busses. And I say ‘all the town’s schoolbusses’ because all the tour busses are the traditional yellow schoolbusses – as well as the one which obviously transports the kids to school (189 kids in Churchill from nursery school to matric – Doug’s a veritable RainMan when it comes to this town).

So, Doug lent us his phone, his laptop, his internet, his best advice… and made Travelogue-ing and Plan Niagara a reality before dinner at Gypsy’s. Another surprisingly quality meal in this tiny town; a tastytasty chicken cordon bleu burger and poutine (chips with melted cheese and gravy on top) and a couple of beers (Lebatts Blue)


We pulled a (now) usual and got up before the alarm went off at a usually-alarming 06h30. Fortunately with the time difference with Toronto and the 24-hour Air Canada call centre, I was able to get started on Plan Niagara.

The results were a mixture of good and bad news. I could change my flights to skip the day in (dreadfully dull) Winnipeg in favour of a day in Toronto for a day trip to Niagara, but Phillipa couldn’t. Reason being that I had stop-overs on my journey already (whoop-whoop for Wales extension tour!) so my ticket was broken down into legs, but P’s ticket was essentially one ticket from Jhb-Winnipeg. Upgrading hers would be hundreds of $$$ so not economically viable, which is sad for both of us as we have turned out to be enormously compatible travel-buddies.I was brave and bold and soldiered forth with the excursion. A big step for me (and big thanks to Marian and the girls for accompanying me and taking some of the scary out of so much alone time).

Anyway, back to the Churchill experience…

We took a ‘city tour’ of the booming metropolis of Churchill, which somehow they managed to turn into a 2-and-a-half-hour affair despite the fact that it’s a 1.5 road town, with 700 odd (in both senses of the word) inhabitants and no roads in or out of the town (only access via train or plane!). They do have an ice-rink and curling rink (indoors because it’s TOO COLD outside), movies, bowling lanes, Eskimo museum (surprisingly not called ‘Inuit’ museum – see above), post office (which stamps your passport with a polar bear stamp – YAY) and some wheat silo thing which got waaaay too much time with talk of bushels and other (more)agri(than)cultural bollocks.

The highlight of the tour was the polar bear jail. They have to incarcerate bears that wander through town and do all sorts of menacing and scrimmaging things. They get locked up and given water – “no food, it’s not a hotel after all” – and tranquilised and airlifted to the great blue yonder. There were 15 bears in jail when we were there, but they wouldn’t let us see them. It’s not like we were going to give them cakes with keys in them or anything… 🙁

We went on a dogsled adventure in the afternoon. Those animals are really (p)awesome! The dude (Dave Daily) that hosted is some champion with accolades in all sorts of races I’ve neverever heard of. He had maybe 35-40 dogs and they were all well-groomed and well-adjusted despite the fact that they live outside all year round, chained to their individual kennel with a 2 or so metre chain. It sounds restrictive, but they are close enough to interact with their neighbours, and are clearly well taken care of and well-exercised – and it was heart-melting to see the way they interacted with their Alpha Male (Dave) who lavished them with affection while he took us on a tour of the set-up.

He hooked up 12 of them to a cart (there wasn’t enough snow to warrant a sled) and took us on rides in groups of 6 at a time. Crazycool that the dogs (all mixed breeds, but most with Husky influence) are so strong – and they seem to really get off on pulling the cart! It wasn’t as adrenalised as anticipated, nor as I would expect the sled would have been, but was still a good way to spend an afternoon.

We did dinner at Northern Nights on the last night; sharing a table with the tour guide and naturist, so on best behaviour. We gorged as usual with beef and rice soup starter (seems soup/salad option is included as standard), then shared (with Phillipa) a shrimp (big prawns, shelled but still with tails) fettucini and chicken parmesan with baked potato infused with garlic butter.

All the adventuring (and early mornings) had taken their toll and we we reached a new bedtime low, falling asleep watching TV sometime between 20h30 and 21h00. Eish.


We had an early start for another tundra day. It was worth it because we saw INCREDIBLE stuff. Sightings started with a mother and 2 babies – quite old cubs, estimated to be 18 – 20 months or so. Apparently this multi-cub thing is quite unique to Churchill; most polar bears only have 1 cub elsewhere, but here it’s quite common to have 2 or even 3 cubs! Also, the animals’ curiousity seems to outweigh their skittishness and they are relatively brave with coming to check out the weird 2-legged and 8-wheeled non-bear stuff.

We got some AMAZING photos of the bears right next to the buggy. Even with my camera, they were THAT CLOSE! We saw so many bears over the course of the day that we got to the point where we didn’t even get up for Binocular Bears (so far that only really worth checking out with binoculars) or the Boring Bears (the ones sleeping in the kelp), only making effort for the Bonus Bears (ones that did cool stuff worth photographing) and Baby Bears.

We kept ourselves entertained in between with people watching (and lunch of course – chicken noodle soup again and a brilliant sweet ham with smokey rind and strong yellow cheese white roll). We’ve been with these people (most of whom are around about mine and Phillipa’s combined age) for how many days now and only know one name. A yugoslavian old lady called Audrey (who has lived in Toronto for 40 years but still speaks like Borat), whose name actually isn’t Audrey, but it’s the easier English version of an otherwise unpronounceable name.

Highlights of the rest of the group were:

– Red Jacket Lady: a Canadian from Ottawa, a schoolteacher and a right eager-beaver. Eager to the point of selfish and rude though. Always at the front of everything, muscling her way to the photo vantage points, making space for the naturist to sit by her so she can ask lots of questions and giggle coyly at his anecdotes.
– Loud American and friends: started off as one American lady who stood out, but slowly her troupe have gotten to us too. Over time have figured out that it’s her and husband and her brother and his wife. There was a lengthy and heated debate today over ages when her and what turned out to be her brother were arguing over whether or not she is 68 and he 72. Argument was settled when calculating back from birthdays (Nov ’42 and Mar ’38 respectively). Interestingly, she is also a schoolteacher.
– Old Man and Young Boy: boy must be mid-teens, travelling with what we suspect to be his grandfather. Yet to hear boy speak – he sits in hoodie, head down and either snoozes or watches stuff on his iPod. Old Man made conversation with us several times today (in between avidly reading his copy of The Economist cover-to-cover).
– Mr and Mrs Painful: she’s built like Jabba and walks with a cane. He doesn’t get to speak for himself (right down to Mrs P asking if the people in the queue for the loo needed it badly because Mr P ‘needs to go’. Have you ever?!). Coup de gras tonight when we got stuck at dinner with them and he couldn’t have the potato and bacon chowder starter because he “can’t” eat potatoes. S8uhe sent her steak back twice, proudly exclaiming that it’s not unusual for her to send something back 3 or 4 times, but then ended up getting a take-away chicken strips instead… and couldn’t have the chocolate torte pudding because she’s lactose intolerant and couldn’t have the suggested peaches substitute because it ‘pains her gall stones’, so she ended up with apple pie and we ended up leaving early.
– Singapore couple: can’t work out what their story is. They seem to be playing married, we’re not so sure. Oh, and they seem to share and alternate a pair of disturbingly tight ski pants.
– The Walkers: a painful couple who are just too over-achieverish with this X-treme adventure thing. When we were just languishing in the being on land thing, they had already walked to the airport and back twice. They didn’t do the city tour on the bus, they walked from point to point. You know the type.
– German trio: Mr (male nurse) and Mrs (social worker) + her mentally disabled brother. They’re not too bad.
– Irish Chick: Typical middle aged woman. Trying desperately to be friends with Audrey, but Audrey keeps shaking her and trying to be friends with us
– Aging Hippy Chick: convinced she’s the only American on the trip. keeps exclaiming it loudly and with disbelief. That, and the oddest fitting pair of jeans of ever (sort of like denim Hammer pants, with unreasonably OTT ode to the elasticated waist).
– David, our tour-guide, ornithologist and naturist: he has long, delicate slender fingers with manicured enviably long nails, a bouffant silver grey hairdo, a whistling speech style with over-enunciated verbiage and jeans that always sit askew, with the Greenwich mean of the back-seam slicing his right butt cheek diagonally in half. That said, he really does seem to savour every sight and sound the tour has to offer… even getting excited – after a long day of awesome polar bear spotting – about the ‘lesser spotted Rock Ptarmigan and not the Willow Ptarmigan’ or of course yet another Artesian Whale (see above)
– Doug: not on the tour, owner of the Churchill Motel, driver of the school bus and who knows what else. He’s been our shining light. Lent us a laptop, sorted us out with what we needed for Plan Niagara, given us collectors’ 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics quarters, ordered 20 pounds of bacon in time for our farewell breakfast in the morning etc etc etc.

Anyway, as soon as we had ‘gotten to know’ these folk, we’re about to be parted. Had our farewell dinner (potato and bacon chowder, Arctic char and chips, chocolate torte) and had packed bags and ready to leave the next day. It would be more planes and trains with Churchill flight back to Winnipeg, booking luggage into storage then bus and train into town to the old faithful, The Canadiana Hostel.

The Polar Bear Tour was truly epic because I had seen and done everything (and more than) that was on the agenda. But it all went by so fast…