Travelogue Canada 4: Churchill

October 2009


monday morning we pulled a (now) usual and got up before the alarm went off. (ironically) an alarming 06h30 or something stupid. fortunately with the time difference with toronto and the 24-hour air canada call centre, we were able to get started on Plan Niagara.

am sorry to report that 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 tour!) so my ticket was broken down into legs, but P’s ticket was essentially one ticket from jhb-winnipeg. upgrading would be hundred of $$$ so not economically viable, which is sad for both of us as we have turned out to be enormously compatible travel-buddies. i’m being brave and bold and still going tho. 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…

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 previous travelogue), 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.

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 scrummaging 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 are 15 bears in jail at the moment, 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… 🙁

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 has maybe 35-40 dogs and they’re 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. 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! wasn’t as adrenalised as anticipated, nor as i would expect the sled would have been, but still a good way to spend an afternoon.

dinner at Northern Nights last night. we were sharing a table with the tour guide and naturist, so on best behaviour. 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.

new bedtime low, falling asleep watching tv sometime between 20h30 and 21h00. eish.

early start this morning for another tundra day. saw INCREDIBLE stuff today. 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 here 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. got some AMAZING photos of the bears right next to the buggy. even with my camera, they were THAT CLOSE! 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.

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 yearss but still speaks like Borat), who’s name actually isn’t Audrey, but it’s the easier english version of an otherwise unpronounceable name. highlights are:

– Red Jacket Lady: a Candian 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 conv with us several times today (in between avidly reading his copy of The Economist cover-to-cover). he seems pleasant enough; we don’t suspect him of kidnapping and/or paedophilia
– 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. she 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. PS she’s candian and the only thing we’ve heard him say thus far was all smugness about having dual american / canadian citizenship. apparently that’s quite rare for the USA. can’t blame them for getting him out of there, but can BLAME CANADA for accepting him!
– 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 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, winding down to granniness. 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), lead us to believe she’s still suffering backflashes from acid in the 60’s
– 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 backseam 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 previous travlogue)
– 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, order 20 pounds of bacon in time for our farewell breakfast in the morning etc etc etc.

anyway, as soon as we ‘get to know’ these folk, we’re about to be parted. had our farewell dinner tonight (potato and bacon chowder, Arctic char and chips, chocolate torte) and have packed bags and ready to leave tomorrow. it’s more planes and trains with churchill to winnipeg flight, booking luggage into storage then bus and train into town to the old faithful, The Canadiana hostel.

can’t complain because have seen and done everything (and more than) that was on the agenda. but it’s gone so fast…