Saturday, August 24, 2013

Journey to the Edge: Forts & Fortitude

Saturday was scheduled to be our last day in Churchill, so there had been an extremely festive gathering at Parker and Belinda's cabin the night before.  The following morning saw us a little worse for wear, but not so much that we would be forego our last activities: Tara was to go snorkeling with the belugas (!), and the 4 of us were going to head across the river with Parker and Belinda to see Prince of Wales Fort.

Parks Canada maintains a small dock and shelter, as well as some toilets about 200 yards south of the fort proper.  Most people arrange their tour with the Parks Canada staff at the train station back in Churchill, and get boated across accordingly.  With Parker having his own boat, we pulled up on the gravel beach, and our guide, Heather, told us we could settle up back in town, since they didn't have any receipts or change on this side.

Heather was one of two Parks staff who accompanied us on our tour, and was very knowledgeable about the fort, it's history and it's restoration.  The other was Brian, our designated bear monitor; since the fort is located on something called Polar Bear Point, this seemed like an excellent use of resources.

Brian had a utilitarian looking 12 gauge pump-action shotgun slung over his shoulder, which prompted me to inquire of Parker as to why this made more sense than, say, a semi-automatic rifle.  (Or perhaps a railgun.)  I don't have much practical experience with guns, but the limited range of a shotgun made it a curious choice to me, despite the stopping power I know it to have at close quarters.  Parker patiently explained to me that they are not loaded with buckshot, but with a solid slug, like an enormous bullet.  He said they carry something in the range of 500-700 foot-pounds of force against a target, which even a polar bear would find hard to shrug off.  That made sense, but honestly, the concept had validity to me as soon as you replaced a bunch of smaller projectiles with a single, 18mm bullet...

At any rate, we didn't expect to see any bears inside the fort, and that was what we had come to see.  Heather explained that the stone, star-shaped fort took over 40 years to build in the 18th century, and how it was used as a headquarters and trading post by the Hudson's Bay Company.

Once inside, you can see how a central courtyard had once contained two, two-story blockhouses.  The bottom story was made of stone, the top of wood and other local materials, but only the stone remains.  A Freemason's symbol remains engraved on one of the walls, a testimonial to the lasting power of stone.

Imagining life, here,so close to the bay, in the dead of winter, is difficult for us soft 21st century Canadians.  Small wonder that a man was hanged for stealing a goose intended for Christmas dinner.

Considering how remote this fort was back in the day, and how thick the walls, plus the added firepower of the Cape Merry Battery across the river, you could see how residing here might lead one to feel lonely, but relatively safe.  This turned out to be anything but true, and the Prince of Wales Fort was surrendered without a shot in 1782.

3 ships approached the fort that year, flying the Royal Jack, the same flag that waved above the fort, but Samuel Hearne, the governor, had joined the Royal Navy as a midshipman at the age of 12 (in fact, he may have been the inspiration for Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner), and recognized French warships when he saw them.  The two frigates were bad enough, but the largest vessel, the Sceptre, under command of the Comte La PĂ©rouse, boasted more guns at 74 than the fort and battery combined.  Hearne exited the fort with a white flag and probably saved the lives of the 38 civilians under his command.

The French set to destroying the fort, and although the British and HBC returned the following year, it never returned to the same prominence, as the fur trade had already began to wane, the hunters and trappers having moved on to other posts.  He returned to England in 1787, writing his A Journey from Prince of Wales's Fort in Hudson's Bay to the Northern Ocean, which wouldn't be published until three years after his death in 1792, at age 47, my age as I write this.

What lessons does Fort Prince of Wales teach to us, a quarter-millennium later?  That Europeans hell bent on exploration can bring themselves to live just about anywhere on this planet? That even thick walls and good positioning are no match for determination and superior numbers?  That progress is almost always linked to commerce, and the company we now know best as an American-owned department store did the lion's share of the work?  That fate is fickle, and the rise of our nation is due to nothing quite so much as the fashion in 18th century men's hats is testimony to that?  It is tough to say.

While at the fort though, Audrey heard Brian's radio go off, asking if he had seen the bear by the beach.  She went to the west side of the fort and peered through the crenellations and sure enough, a now-familiar white shape was loping lazily along the shore perhaps 80-100 yards distant.  He disappeared behind a hill before I could snap a picture, but given how close we had gotten to two the day before, I hardly felt disappointed.  It did underscore the constant presence of these beasts, and the vigilance required to live here.

On our way back to the boat, Brian called out to Belinda.  "I hate to interrupt, but what's the special at the Tundra Inn tonight?"

Belinda smiled.  "Prime rib, sushi, live music, and a contortionist!"

The bear monitor's face lit up with a grin.  "I'm all over that!" 

UPDATED: I really miss these animated vignettes, so here is the one about the fort.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Journey to the Edge: Boats, Belugas, and Bylines

On Friday, Parker took 7 of us into the river on his outboard; Nan stayed behind because she is just not that much into boats, which is ironic for a Newfie.
Parker wasn't able to get 'on step' with the craft as laden as it was, but we were still able to get a good look at the beluga whales which stream into the Churchill river over the summer as they raise their calves and take shelter from the killer whales of Hudson's Bay.
Like a lot of maritime creatures in the wild, belugas are brutally uncooperative photographic subjects, especially with a digital camera. You see the shadow of one approaching the surface, you ready your finger in anticipation, and then they ever dive back below, or briefly surface and then submerge just before the 'click' of a successful image capture. You are left with cryptic images of the water itself, interspersed with what could be either the backs of whales or simply the crests of waves. It doesn't much help that the young belugas are born a relatively dark grey, only lightening as they get older.

No, video appears to be the preferred medium for depicting belugas in their environment, and since the camcorder packed it in, we are left with a handful of shakycam footage shot with the ol' point n shoot.

Thankfully, our enjoyment of the experience was only indirectly related to our inability to document it, and everyone was thrilled to see the playful cetaceans in Parker and Belinda's backyard.

Parker also took us across the river to Sloop Cove, a small inlet on the west bank of the river where the men of the Hudson's Bay Company would dry dock their ships over the winter. They also left their names carved into the rocks so you can still see their names today, two-and-a-half centuries later.

Samuel Hearns was the first Governor for the HBC in the region, oversaw much of the construction of the Prince of Wales fort, and also surrendered it to the French in 1782, losing a fort but saving a lot of lives.

There are lots of other names, but the thing that strikes me the most is the care that went into the letters; the weighting of the lines, the attention paid to the serifs, the careful kerning. It's strange to think that even when it comes to graffiti, they don't make it like they used to.

It's both encouraging and daunting to know that there is a way to let your voice carry on a quarter-millennia later, if you have the stone, tools and patience.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Journey to the Edge: Of Bears and Buggies

It is probably safe to assume that no one comes to Churchill, the polar bear capital of the world, without at least hoping they will get to see one these massive carnivores, and we were no exception.

Peak polar bear season is in October-November, just prior to the ice forming on Hudson's Bay. All the hotels are booked up, the flights and trains en route to Churchill are filled, and seasonal employees come in to help out. It is also a very expensive time to come, which is why we arrived in August instead. Even though peak sighting times are still months away, the bears are still inland, and can still be seen relatively regularly.

Living with the bears requires a constant state of vigilance, as they can wander into town with no fanfare or warning, either up the beach or just down the main road. Two weeks before we arrived, a local man walking with his dog and two children came face to face with a juvenile male (~300 lbs). He kept the bear at bay by whipping it across the snout with his dog leash while interposing himself between it and his children, and simultaneously dialing the 204-675-BEAR hotline so the conservation officers could get down to the beach and tranquilize the beast.

Belinda booked us in on a tundra buggy tour for Thursday morning with a driver named Neil we had met out at Parker's cabin. A nice fella with a quick wit and easy smile, he considers himself a tourist here because he spends the majority of the year at his home in BC, but has taught himself quite a bit about the local flora and fauna over the past few seasons.

The buggies themselves are amazing machines, built right here in Churchill, and are essentially an extra tall (enough to easily stand in), extra wide, 4-wheel drive school bus on monster truck tires, with an open platform built on to the back. After about a 20 minute drive by shuttle bus to the launch point and buggy #17 (which Neil would like to dedicate to Wendell Clark, by the way) we helped him load on the lunch and coffee supplied by the Tundra Inn, and we were on our way.

It is not quiet on the buggy, with the massive diesel engine sitting just under the floorboards aft of the driver's seat. When the prodigious rocking and bucking of the buggy threatened to flip the trap door open, Neil stamped it shut with a cry of "Shut up, Gramma!" While never taking his hands off the wheel.

Neil told us he had seen at least one bear on each trip he'd taken in the last week and a half, but that didn't guarantee we would see one today. It was almost an hour's drive to where he had seen the last one, close to the gutpile left from a hunted caribou. (I asked if it had been hunted or killed by an animal, and he said not only was he sure it was hunted, but he was pretty confident he'd eaten its tongue Saturday night.) Along the way he pointed out several birds and flag trees, and took the buggy across a full-on lake deep enough to crest the windows on a regular car. "The air intakes are at about 4 feet, so I get nervous at about 3 & 1/2," Neil explained.

"Keep an eye out for white rocks," he continued. "If it lifts its head, there is a chance it is a polar bear. It still could be a rock, because we get heat waves sometimes that will totally make it look as though the rock lifted its head, and that can be disappointing."

Not too long after crossing the lake, Neil pointed out a rock sitting besides another small body of water. "That might be him," Neil said, "that gutpile isn't too far from here." Sure enough, the rock got up and began to walk around. Seeing that the bear looked agitated, Neil, turned off the engine for a few minutes to let him get used to our presence, then started up and moved slowly up behind him.

We ended up maybe thirty yards behind the bear as he ate the caribou remnants. He was content to eat with his back to us for the most part, but would occasionally turn his head to gaze at us. We snapped photos furiously, and since the buggy was at less than half capacity, everyone was able to get to a window easily.

While we did this, Neil helpfully unlimbered the lunch containers, dramatically asking, "Hmm, I wonder what sort of soup they gave us today?" as he opened one and the smell of vegetable soup filled the buggy, the drifted out the open windows. It turned out to be a hearty scratch-made vegetable, but it was not enough to entice the bear from his own meal.

Neil put the soup away and brought out the containers full of coffee and hot water, and we drank hot chocolate and 'tundraccinos' for about 20 minutes while the bear went about his business. When he had either eaten his fill or gotten tired of being a spectacle, he laid down for a post meal siesta. He hadn't done a whole lot, but he was the first wild polar bear any of us had seen, so we were thrilled. Anything after this would be a bonus bear.

Neil next took us out east, towards Cape Churchill, and asked Glory if she had her Learner's Permit yet. When she said no, he grinned and said "Me neither! come take the wheel for a bit.". The kids took turns driving the tundra buggy, which is quite a challenge since it takes more than 18 complete revolutions of the truck-style steering wheel to turn from end to end. Happily, there were no incidents during this apprenticeship period, and Glory even had the correct answer to the tourist question Neil popped on her.

Some time after Neil returned to the driver's seat, I saw a suspect-looking white rock out towards the shore of Hudson's Bay. Was that a bit of light showing from beneath the centre of it? "Neil," I asked tentatively, "is that a bear out at about our nine o'clock, by the water?"

Neil peered through his field glasses. "I think it very well may be. Good eyes there." As we drew closer, he sat up straighter and said, "Holy crap, it is, and she's got a seal kill there; you don't see those very often."
"Really?" I asked.
He nodded. "I think I've seen the whole time I've been in Churchill."

As the tundra buggy approached, she became skittish and moved away a little bit, but Neil cut the engine and parked the buggy maybe 30 feet away from the skinless carcass of a good sized ringed seal, and eventually she returned.

This bear was a female, about the same size as the male we had seen earlier, say 600-700 pounds, but sleek and with a full belly that Neil pointed out as the sign of a healthy bear. Since they have no predators besides man, polar bears don't really grow old in the wild, they tend to starve to death instead, which Neil informed us is pretty tragic to watch since he'd had one give out in full view of the buggy one time. Seeing a well-fed female at this time of year, where the animals are pretty much in a state of 'waking hibernation', was a real treat for everyone, including our guide.

The female didn't do a whole lot while we were there, conserving her energy for the most part, but she did pace around a bit, always returning to the seal so the gulls wouldn't try to feed on it. We stayed on-site for over an hour, while Neil unpacked the soup and sandwiches for our lunch. I spent quite a bit of time on the platform watching the bear, snapping photos, and with the wind coming in off the bay, I was grateful for the bowl of hot soup Neil offered me when I came back into the buggy.
After lunch, Neil said he was going to move the buggy a little closer to the seal carcass in order to see what she would do. He brought us to within 6 or 8 feet of the seal, which prompted two behaviours; first, she lumbered around to the front of the buggy and began drinking from a puddle, which Neil said he had never seen, as the bears are thought to get most of their moisture from the blubber of their kills. After she had slaked her thirst, which makes sense when you consider how salty that seal probably was, she grabbed it by the tail and dragged it across the rocks towards the shore, assuming we wouldn't follow her.
After that, it was time to head for home, about an hour's drive as the buggy crawls. It was just as well; sitting down after the excitement of such a close encounter with Canada's apex predator made me realize how tired I was, and despite the bumpy ride, both Fenya and I managed to nod off on the return trip.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Journey to the Edge: Bus Stops

Parker and Belinda arranged for a tour bus to take the eight of us (plus some other guests) on a comprehensive excursion encompassing the townsite and surrounding area. Mark was a fantastic guide: a lifelong Churchillian, affable, knowledgeable, and able to give insights on all manner of topics, from history to biology.

Cape Merry Battery - our first stop was the Cape Merry Battery, an artillery position directly across the river from Fort Prince of Wales. Imagine what it must have been like to sit on this lonely spit of rock two and a half centuries ago, keeping one eye on the lookout for French ships and the other open for polar bears. Combining elements of history and scenery made this an ideal first stop, despite the fact it was about 9 degrees and raining. As a bonus, we got to see lots of beluga whales in the river.

St. Paul's Anglican Church - the neatest feature of this old church is the stained glass, much of which came from the military chapel when they closed the base back in the sixties. The pane featuring Saint Michael, "Captain of the Heavenly Hosts" was donated by the U.S. Strategic Air Command, which seems appropriate, if a little chilling. There is also a window donated by Lady Franklin, in thanks and recognition for those who attempted to find her husband's doomed expedition.

Miss Piggy - back in 1979, a twin engine cargo plane tried to return to the Churchill Airport after noticing a problem shortly after takeoff, but caught its tailwheel on a telephone line, and ended up pancaking on these rocks. The pilot and co-pilot both walked away from the wreck, qualifying it as a good landing. After the avionics were stripped out, the wreck was left in place, since it wasn't in the way of anything, removing it would require a lot of effort and resources.

Boreal Forest - we've all seen trees, but there some neat examples around Churchill, like the 'flag trees' with all the foliage stripped off the northern half of the tree by wind and ice crystals. Or the bendy conifer below.

Canadian Eskimo Dogs - when the government moved much of the Inuit population to the coasts and replaced their dog sleds with snowmobiles, many of their sled dogs were shot to prevent them from going feral. Now, the breed is in danger of becoming extinct, so a local man named Brian has taken a group of 70 pf them as breeding stock, and keeps them out of town, which is a necessity as they are a pretty vocal group. They are extremely friendly though, despite how fierce and lupine some of them look.

Permafrost - out at the Northern Studies Centre, Mark pulled over so we could walk on the squashy muskeg, and found a place where you can remove a few handfuls of peat and actually touch the permafrost beneath, which Mum did. Jerry and I were actually more interested in the rocket motor sticking out of the earth about 20 yards away, a remnant from the days when the Churchill Rocket Research Centre was still in operation. We also spied a ptarmigan on our way back out, which is frightfully hard to do since they are so well camouflaged.