FX Excursions

FX Excursions offers the chance for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in destinations around the world.

Northern Exposure

Jan 1, 2013
2013 / January 2013

Just before opening the plane’s cabin door, the flight attendant of my reassuringly named Calm Air flight suggests bundling up. Seconds later, a blast of wind-driven 44-below-zero air gusts through the cabin. At this point, it really doesn’t matter whether one’s talking Celsius or Fahrenheit; the scales meet at 40 below. Icy pellets sting my face as I cross the tarmac, and I reconsider the wisdom of visiting northern Manitoba, Canada, in winter.

Most people visit Churchill to see polar bears. Some come to kayak or snorkel with beluga whales. I’m here to view the northern lights, which put on their best show January into March. Over four days immersed in the brutal glory of winter in this Hudson Bay outpost on the edge of the Arctic Circle, I not only witness the natural Cirque du Soleil but also watch the Hudson Bay Quest Dog Sled Race, taste barbecued whale meat (not something I recommend, by the way) and share a breakfast table with a local who communicates with space people. Most memorably, I listen as an Inuit man shares the story of his 15-year-old son who became separated from a hunting party, was stranded on an ice floe during a storm and had to play “dead seal,” as he was taught, so a polar bear wouldn’t maul him. My adventure with Frontiers North isn’t just a trip to see the lights; it’s a cultural immersion.

Frontiers North has specialized in introducing small groups to authentic adventures in Canada’s North since 1986. It’s the only northern lights outfitter in Churchill and the only one to use purpose-designed vehicles to transport guests across the frozen Churchill River and into the tundra wilderness beyond. My tour, which originates in Winnipeg, covers everything from the science behind the phenomenon to aboriginal arts and lifestyles, from tips from a photographer about shooting the lights to tips from a musher about driving a dogsled.

Churchill, sited where tundra meets timber and the Churchill River flows into Hudson Bay, is the gateway to Canada’s North. Living here has never been easy; and even now, when permanent homes replaced igloos and snowmobiles have all but replaced dog teams, survival remains a struggle. No roads connect it to the rest of Canada; the only access is by plane or train. Locals say some health workers assigned here immediately leave, unable to take the brutal cold and wind, the isolation, the ever-present threat of polar bears.

But the town lies directly beneath the Northern Hemisphere’s Auroral Oval, where activity occurs on more than 300 nights each year, making Churchill ideal for viewing the aurora borealis, a term meaning “northern dawn” coined by Galileo Galilei. Since the celestial phenomenon doesn’t begin until late night, days are free for other adventures.

Upon arrival, my group transfers into a van for an introduction to Churchill. Once the site of a Cold War-era navy base decommissioned in 1969, Fort Churchill became a joint Canadian/U.S. military base for testing cold-weather weapons, equipment and tactics until 1979. It then morphed into a rocket research range, where the last rocket was fired in 1998. Greater Churchill is now home to only 813 residents who share the region with approximately 1,000 polar bears and 3,000 beluga whales.

Our guide, Rhonda Reid, shows us the town’s highlights: the polar bear jail; the wreck of “Miss Piggy,” a C46 freight plane; the Eskimo Museum; and the Town Centre Complex, which stretches two blocks and contains a pool, ice arena, curling rink, theater, library, health center, full-size gym, bowling lanes, café and indoor playground. “If you enter at one end and exit at the other, it’s possible to get from one end of the town to the other and stay warm,” Reid says.

Isolation, military history and aboriginal heritage created an intriguing population comprising Inuit, Dene and Métis peoples; civilization drop-outs; outdoor and subsistence-lifestyle enthusiasts; and dogsledders, hunters and fur traders. That becomes clear over breakfast at the Gypsy Bakery, where I sit down with a local. The conversation opens with the usual who, where and why, and then we mosey into murky areas. Slowly it dawns on me this guy believes he can communicate with aliens. A waiter later quips about meeting people in Churchill: “The odds are good, but the goods are odd.”

After breakfast, we board a Frontiers North Tundra Buggy, which resembles a doublewide bus on gigantic wheels. Inside, it’s tricked out with comfy couches and a stove. Frontiers North partner John Gunter steers the lumbering beast over hummocks and ice ridges as we cross the river to meet snowshoe guide Mike Macri at his remote cabin. We don snowshoes, and Mike, shouldering a 375 Ruger rifle as a defense against bears, leads us on a trek. We loop over a rise, sighting tracks of snowshoe and Arctic hare, red fox and even polar bear before returning for warming chili at his cabin.

That afternoon, I return to the soul of Churchill’s arts heritage, the Eskimo Museum, which is owned and operated by Churchill’s Roman Catholic mission. Over the centuries, aboriginal peoples have drawn from the land not only the tools and materials with which they create art — stone, ivory, bone and fur — but also the inspiration for it. Oblate missionaries began living among these native peoples in 1912; and over the years, they collected carvings of stone, bone and ivory as well as other artwork and artifacts that documented lifestyle, culture and spiritual beliefs.

“I think the collection tells the story of ingenuity in the face of harsh living conditions; the missionaries were very interested in that,” says curator Lorraine Brandson. “They encouraged people to explain their way of life by making carvings and bringing them to the missions as a way to open a conversation about something.”

The museum is neither large nor sophisticated, but it is, as Brandson says, a “treasure house.” Glass cases filled with ancient tools and carvings made from whalebone, antler, ivory, basalt, soapstone and walrus tusk line the walls. “The Inuit have an intimate knowledge of the land and what’s out there,” she says. “They had to, or they wouldn’t survive. They’re keen observers, and they take that to art.”

On the way back to the Tundra Inn, I take refuge from the bitter weather in the Town Complex. As I browse a wall of photos depicting Churchill over the years, a gentle Inuit man from Nunavut fills in the missing identities, punctuating explanations with tales of boyhood hijinks. He then shares his son’s harrowing hunting experience. The boy became separated from his grandfather during a storm and ended up on an ice floe. “Rescue teams asked me if my son could survive. I told them that he’s trained in Inuit ways, he’ll survive, we just have to find him.” They did, after the son, threatened by a bear, fired a shot, alerting searchers to his general whereabouts.

A dogsled © Frontiers North

A dogsled © Frontiers North

Another day, a chorus of yips and howls welcomes us to Gerald Azure’s Bluesky Expeditions dogsledding operation. We watch as he deftly corrals the eager dogs and snaps them into lines; and then we double up to mush a mile-long loop through snowy fields and woods, stopping midway to change sled drivers. The experience primes us for watching the start and finish of the dogsled race, which is where, while warming by a campfire, I’m offered that sample of barbecued whale meat.

I fall in love with quirky Churchill by day, but it’s the night sky that steals my heart. After dinner each evening, we relax for a few hours and then layer on the clothing. Around 10 p.m. we board the Tundra Buggy and bump across the frozen Churchill River estuary into the tundra-covered wilderness edging it. The meager town lights fade into a soft glow on the horizon and then disappear.

Our group is fortunate; we score three nights of clear — albeit cold — weather. The first night, bundled against the bitterness, I trudge across the tundra seeking a private pocket to observe Mother Nature’s celestial theater. At this temperature, silence is noisy. Snow squeaks, trees moan, ice creaks. I curse the cold, wondering just what foolishness I’ve gotten myself into. Then I see it. A glimmer of green races overhead, chased by a dash of white echoed in rose, and I’m smitten, held spellbound as green, rose and white streaks dance and swirl amid the stars, ethereal streaks tripping the light fantastic.

The opening act was merely a warm-up. During intermissions, I sip hot chocolate or wine in the buggy. Each time I’m ready to call it a night, there’s an encore. I swivel to catch where the lights will shimmy, whirl and waltz next. Like a masterfully choreographed modern dance, the show keeps surprising me. At 2 a.m., I’m still lying supine on the tundra, gazing skyward, unaware of the cold. I may have spent my first hours in Churchill plotting my escape, but I spend my last few planning my return.

INFO TO GO

Flights are available from the United States to Winnipeg’s James Armstrong Richardson International Airport (YWG). This year, Frontiers North is offering its Northern Lights & Winter Nights in Churchill package March 6–13. The program includes three nights in Winnipeg, four nights in Churchill, all meals, four Tundra Buggy excursions, round-trip Winnipeg–Churchill air transport and guides.

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FX Excursions

FX Excursions offers the chance for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in destinations around the world.

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