Sunday, July 24, 2016

Lost On The River

Last week someone mentioned to me that my most recent post from our Churchill trip felt a little flat, as though my heart wasn't really in it. In point of fact, there is some truth to this.  It was actual very difficult - impossible, actually, as was noted - for me to write in my usual voice, due to a tragedy that occurred on the Churchill River shortly after we returned home.

Some friends of my cousin and his wife were visiting from 'Down South' (which is darned near everywhere relative to Churchill, but usually refers to southern Manitoba in general and Winnipeg in specific). They had brought their two young children with them, and as has become traditional, were relaxing in Parker & Belinda's cabin down on the Flats. On Tuesday afternoon, the father, his 5 year-old daughter, and four year-old son took out the canoe for a bit of a paddle. The two dogs, Ringo and Maggie, went with them, just as they had when my daughters and niece went out the Saturday before. Everyone wore lifejackets, but it turned out this was insufficient protection from the river when the canoe capsized.

The lifejackets kept the family afloat, but the frigid waters of the Churchill River were estimated to be about 5 degrees Celsius at the time; the same temperature of a cold (not cool) drink you might take from a refrigerator.

I don't know a lot of details, like how Parker and Belinda figured out things had gone so terribly wrong, but possibly by checking with binoculars from the cabin. There is no Coast Guard in Churchill, but somehow, tour operators with Zodiacs were alerted by radio about the people in the water, and sped to their rescue. They got the people out of the river, but the little girl, Danica, later succumbed to hypothermia; her brother Conner, was only saved by being put into a medically induced coma. In addition, Parker and Belinda's beloved border terrier, Ringo, never made it out of the water, but their labradoodle, Maggie, survived by treading water for over 40 minutes.

I don't know these poor parents who lost their daughter, but my heart goes out to them regardless; every mother and father's worst nightmare came to life for them, and now they are trying to balance their sadness at losing Danica with their joy at Conner having been saved.

Because they are family though, I worry most about my cousin and his wife. I can't imagine how they must feel. I know in my heart there is nothing else they could have done, but I also know they will always wonder. Their cabin at The Flats, a scene of so much joy and community, is now tainted by tragedy, but I hope they are able to find peace there again before too long. I'm so grateful that Maggie survived, but even I will miss Ringo, despite only having known him for a couple of weeks over three years; a whip-smart little fellow who loved the water.

Our Fenya is still up there, working with Belinda until November, and she says it is astonishing how quickly and fully the staff all came together for her and Parker, working extra shifts, taking extra responsibilities, and giving them the time and space that they needed.

With all that in my heart last week, I just couldn't find it in myself to complain about the bitter cold on the Churchill River while looking at playful belugas, knowing that same river had taken two lives not a week later, and altered countless others beyond reckoning.

But I am hopeful nonetheless. I know Parker and Belinda are beloved and respected by so many in Churchill, that they will have the support they need to move on, and to help their friends as they grieve the loss of their daughter. I'm confident that, in time, they will return to their cabin at The Flats and look out at the river without the pain of loss, and I hope they are able to do it before too long.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Battlements & Belugas

We booked a zodiac outing that would not only ferry us across the Churchill River estuary to Fort Prince of Wales, but also give us an opportunity to get up and close to the beluga whales that congregate in the inlet at that time of year.

The fort itself is a fascinating edifice whose thick walls of locally quarried rocks were no match for the excessive amount of men and guns that the French were prepared to apply to its destruction. Governor Samuel Hearne wisely elected to surrender the fort to save his men, and I hope he took some satisfaction in the fact that even without opposition, the French were unable to demolish the structure.

Armchair strategists considering likely places to wait out the zombie apocalypse should take note of the challenges faced by the fort's occupants before deciding on Churchill as a base of operations. While meat is not terribly hard to come by (fish, whales, hares, caribou, etc), the growing season is terribly short, and wood for cooking and heating must be dragged in from quite a distance. While the small population and remote location (coupled with a lack of direct roads) make the area desirable in some ways, an off-shore oil platform closer to the equator remains a superior choice in virtually every aspect.

On the trip back, our guide Jocelyn lead us to some promising areas to see the belugas. The whales themselves are amazing; playful, inquisitive and although not very fast, incredibly agile in the water. The brilliant white skin of the adults combined with the greenish tinge of the water gives them an almost ghostly appearance as they trailed behind our zodiacs, attracted to the noise or motion of the outboard's propellers.

Despite having been sun-roasted in the same area only 4 days earlier, we were bitterly cold on the water; this is, after all, the sub arctic.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Touring the Tundra (Plus a School and a Shipwreck)

I have a difficult time capturing good images of animals in a zoo, so wildlife photography continues to elude me as a skill. Thankfully others were with me on the tundra buggy to make up the difference. Glory got some good shots of a caribou she named Snoopy, because of the dark eyes.,

As well as these sand hill cranes, tundra swans and a young bald eagle:

I even managed to get a still shot of one of the cranes using our camcorder.

Our driver Jim also pointed out a nesting arctic tern for us.

The camcorder is a bit more forgiving in some ways, and less in others; I find the lack of a viewfinder makes it difficult to track small objects at a distance, which often makes my footage look like part of a CNIB make-work project. I had a couple of small successes though:

No mater what time of year it is, if you are in Churchill, you owe it to yourself to take a trip on a Tundra Buggy. Make sure it is the real deal though; there are some imitators that are not even allowed onto the tundra proper!

The next day, my cousin Parker had generously offered us the use of his truck, so we struck out to Cape Merry, across the harbour from Fort Prince of Wales.

Next, we made our way to the Churchill Northern Studies Centre at the old rocket range, and a summer program assistant named Evan gave us a tour of the facility, including their aurora dome. I love the northern lights, and find the idea of watching them from inside a warm, school-like environment in a part of the world that experiences the aurora borealis ~300 days a year to be especially appealing. (The CNSC gift shop also has the broadest spectrum of t-shirt and hoodie colours north of the 58th parallel.)

The CNSC building

The Hudson Bay aquarium; all creatures locally sourced

Even by piscine standards, the sculpin is not a handsome fish
On the way back, we stopped in at Bird Cove and walked out onto the tidal flats, and everyone except Fenya and myself walked all the way out to the wreckage of the MV Ithaca. We couldn't do this on our last visit due to the combination of tidal times and a polar bear in the vicinity, but this time there was no such impediment.

 Glory was especially pleased at catching a couple of what she called 'Firefly' lens flares, without aid of a J.J. Abrams filter.

I had an ingrown toenail giving me grief, so I opted out of the latter half of the hike, but on my return trip, I found a fossilized snail bed that I really wish I had kept!

Afterwards, we had just enough energy to hobble over to the large inukshuk in Churchill itself, right by Hudson's Bay, to get some group photos before heading on to the flats where my cousin was barbecuing dinner.