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Reflections 2011
Series 28
November 14
North Coast IV: Churchill - Tundra Flora - Polar Bears

 

Churchill   The geography around Churchill is quite straightforward, as shown on this Government of Manitoba Regional Map. The Churchill River here swings north, and forms an estuary. The west bank ends in a small peninsula bending northeast, which in turn ends in Eskimo Point with the Prince of Wales Fort, historically connected to the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC--more below). It may surprise, but is logical, that the original Churchill was a small community near the fort. The east bank also ends in a peninsula, but one that turns sharply northwest. It ends in Cape Merry (named after a military man), where a battery of cannon was put to protect the fort. In 1929, the railroad arrived, also coming due north. The railroaders had absolutely no reason to build a bridge across the river, and so, ran the route up the east bank, where, just south of the Cape Merry battery, a large grain elevator and silos were built, which still dominate the landscape, plus port facilities. Just south of that appeared a passenger station. It is logical, then, that, two years later, in 1931, the village of Churchill was moved to the east bank to join the railroad. Therefore, non-native human history in this area dates from two distinct periods: the 18C with the HBC fort and gun battery at the river’s mouth, and the 20C with the railroad and town just before them.

 
 

Note the dozen final stations shown on the rail line. These are apparently fiction, since we didn’t stop there; the schedule listing 84 stations up from Winnipeg marks some stops as “request only”, but in practice most of the infinitesimal places listed are apparently rarely stopped at at all.

 
 

The road leading from Cape Merry south past the silos, through the town, to the airport is Kelsey Boulevard, a wide street that I call the Champs-Élysées of Churchill, whose population is in the 800-1000 range). After the airport it’s no longer paved. (What did you expect?) The dirt portion goes somewhat further east along Hudson Bay, to the area where one goes polar bear watching. I wonder that there are as many cars as there are in Churchill, since they all have to come up by freight train. I won’t even think about gas prices.

 
 

[Speaking of the airport, I’d heard that the flights are very expensive. I just checked and find airfares are almost double what I paid for a sleeper. For the hardy types sitting up in coach, you can even travel for a song. Look air and rail prices up yourself if you’re curious.]

 
 

As for the history of the Churchill area, we’ve already talked about most 20C developments, except that in 1942 an American army base was set up at the edge of town for use by Canadian and US forces. (Bob Hope entertained four times here.) In addition, First Nation peoples were resettled around Churchill, bringing the local population up to 7,000, but in the 1970’s the base closed and most natives went back to their traditional homes. Since, then, a smaller Churchill plays a role as health center, since the government in 1972 in compensation built a town complex that includes a hospital, a school, town offices, a cinema, and a swimming pool.

 
 

We now need to go back to the 17C-18C. Hudson Bay was discovered by Europeans in 1610 and the importance of the fur trade was immediately recognized. However, it wasn’t until 1668 and the arrival of the Nonsuch that the European history of Hudson Bay and central Canada began to flourish. It was the Mayflower of this region, but with a very different history resulting from its arrival, fur trapping rather than settlement. (The name is an odd spelling of “none such”, meaning “unequalled”, as in “there is none such as this”.)

 
 

We’ll talk about the Nonsuch more in detail in a later posting, when I saw its replica in the Manitoba Museum in Winnipeg. For now, we’ll say that the English commissioned it (and another ship, that had to turn back off Ireland) to explore Hudson Bay. The ship arrived there, and continued down to James Bay, where the explorers founded Fort Rupert at the mouth of what they called the Rupert River, located in today’s Québec. They traded during the winter of 1668-1669, and then returned to England. This ship’s expedition resulted directly in the incorporation by English royal charter the next year, 1670, of the Hudson’s Bay Company. It’s for that reason that the HBC commissioned the building of the replica for its tercentenary in 1970, and donated it to the Manitoba Museum, where there are additional HBC artifacts in their own room. Over the entrance to the HBC room is posted the exciting original name of the company, “The Governor and Company of Adventurers of England trading into Hudson’s Bay”. Heady stuff, that.

 
 

As we know from earlier postings, the HBC functioned as the de facto government in Rupert’s Land, and was once the largest landowner in the world. It controlled the fur trade for several centuries, but today, the modern HBC owns and operates department stores throughout Canada, usually referred to as “The Bay” / “La Baie”. Still, HBC is the oldest commercial corporation in North America and one of the oldest in the world.

 
 

But more specifically to Churchill, the HBC first built a log fort and trading post upstream on what it called the Churchill River in 1717 to protect its interests in the fur trade. It was called the Churchill River Post, which now sounds charmingly quaint. The stone structure standing today at the point, built in a star shape, was started in 1731 and never really completed. It was captured by the French in 1782 and partially destroyed, before being returned to the HBC in 1783, after which its importance began to wane with the decline in the fur trade. When the railway arrived, the labor and equipment needed for the railroad construction was used to restore the fort in the 1930’s, plus some unfortunate work in the 1950’s. It still needs proper historical and archeological study, I’m told. The fort is usually visited only outside of the busy polar bear season, but we saw it across the river from Cape Merry.

 
 

We now come to two people, both HBC Governors. We’ve seen the importance of the Governor of the HBC, since the word even appears in its original name. We’ve also spoken in the past of Ruprecht von der Pfalz, known in English instead as Rupert of the Rhine, after which Rupert’s Land, Prince Rupert BC, and also the above Fort Rupert and Rupert River are named. Why? Well, he was the first Governor of the HBC, from 1670-1682, as well as and sponsor of the expedition. And the third Governor, from 1685-1692, was John Churchill, later the first Duke of Marlborough, who was an English general and statesman whose career spanned the reigns of five monarchs, and who became the richest man in the country. The Churchill River and its trading post were thus named after him. I’m sure there are a lot of people who go to Churchill with images of Winston in their mind. Granted, Winston was a descendant of John, but John’s dates are 1650-1722, and Winston’s are 1874-1965.

 
 

Day Seven The train’s arrival in Churchill was at 10 AM, only an hour late, on a bright, sunny, crisp day. Just before, the train had pulled into a wye to turn around, so that it was facing south for a return trip, as shown in the picture. (Again, all these pictures show snow; what we had was patchy snow at best.) In this picture, the river would be to the left, the grain elevator and silos are visible ahead to the north, and Kelsey Boulevard would run parallel to the train on the right. The dark roof is the landmarked station building.

 
 

Before looking at the town, let’s look first at the grain elevator at the Port of Churchill on the river’s estuary. This view is to the south; the road from town (to the left) crosses at the lower left on its way to Cape Merry behind us. In this snowless picture, even with the industrial overlay, notice we have a tundra landscape.

 
 

Finally, let me invite you into town. At this point, we’re looking roughly SW over the river. Note the (snowless) stark tundra landscape between the river and the rail line, which here runs NW (right) to SE (left). A freight train sits near the dark-roofed station. Walk with me the one block out the front of the station up to Kelsey Boulevard. We’ll turn left to see the north side of town, which means we’ll spot the grain elevators in the distance, and then walk to the next two streets, Franklin (center) and Bernier (right). You’ve now reached the upper part of town, with Bernier being the last street. That’s how compact Churchill is. These two blocks have some eight hotels, mostly rather simple, but comfortable-looking enough. That long, white building on Kelsey is the supermarket and there’s also the Arctic Trading Company for souvenirs. These side streets here are only one block long, and this picture was taken from above the hospital-community center complex, which has a street in front of it, the only one parallel to Kelsey, and which has at its back an area of boulders right on Hudson Bay, so narrow is the peninsula here towards its end. There are numerous warning signs on those boulders to keep away, particularly when walking on your own, because the boulders at the water’s edge behind the hospital complex are a favorite spot of the polar bears waiting for the ice to form on the Bay.

 
 

Come back with me now to where the station street meets Kelsey, and let’s now turn right to visit the south side of town, which would be maybe twice the width of this picture--just a short stroll. Buildings continue all the way, although less concentrated than earlier, up to the log-cabin Lazy Bear Inn on the river side, which was home for four nights. It was the last building on the river side of Kelsey, although there were a few more continuing across the street. My second-floor room had a view of the rail yards and the river, but that’s what it’s all about here. But by this point, the peninsula is a little wider, and leading away from Kelsey and up to the Bay is a wider residential area with several streets. This being tundra, private houses had few shrubs, and the “landscaping” of yards and driveways was usually gravel or crushed sand, if not bare dirt, giving a sere, stark, gray-brown appearance as in the picture above. Welcome to Churchill.

 
 

As we got off the train, there were hotel reps waiting for some people, while other passengers just walked to their destination. A couple I got to know had booked a bed-and-breakfast online; others were mentioning the Tundra Inn. I was met by a young man from Lazy Bear Lodge (LBL), and was the only one to be met that morning. There’s a reason--my schedule as an individual traveler didn’t fit their booking pattern, since I march to a different drummer. It was a short hop to the LBL, but on my asking about the town, he drove me in a circle around a few blocks (there really isn’t much choice of streets), and past the Hudson Bay side on the way, where he also reminded about being careful walking there.

 
 

After settling in and inspecting the premises, I walked around town. I looked at the other hotels there, and stepped inside the Tundra Inn, which was pleasant, but not particularly exceptional. I stopped at the small museum in the station dealing with northern life and polar bears, and particularly liked the life-size display of a birthing den with mother polar bear and cub. I went to the Eskimo Museum, which has various artifacts, including many carvings, and an illustration of the syllabary (alphabet) used for the Inuit and Cree languages. And, for the view, I walked up to the edge of the rocks on Hudson Bay with the bear warnings, but not onto them. In the evening, since I had completed writing up my notes on the train, I sent out the earlier posting on tundra and taiga from the LBL.

 
 

The Lazy Bear Lodge, I decided immediately, was the right choice for me. The polar bear season being so short, perhaps six weeks or so, it’s wisest to book accommodations a good year in advance. When I checked online, it was very difficult to find out much except for the LBL, which had a good package plan on its website. I suppose at the other hotels, you just book a room for a few days and then go shopping for polar bear and town tours, but I couldn’t even find information on tours. The LBL package was for the room, two full-day tundra buggy tours, one half-day “Cultural & Heritage” tour, breakfasts and one dinner. However, given the constraints of the short season, there was a 50% single supplement, but I got a discount for early payment.

 
 

Unfortunately to my way of thinking, most of their clients fly in and out. On that basis, they regiment their schedule to three-day cohorts of visitors, which I’m sure is necessary for business. The tour operator groups, who book half the lodge, can work that way, as well as clients who fly in on their own. But the train is biweekly, and a round trip would have either left me with only two nights in Churchill--not enough--or four, which I chose. Mavericks, such as myself, don’t fit their template. They wrote that we “are not an extreme rarity”, but that they cannot accommodate all who want a private schedule. However, an exception was made for me. My first tour was with the last of the previous cohort of guests and my other two tours with the following group. I asked about the nationality of visitors, and they have people from all over, but the US is highest and Canada second.

 
 

On the LBL website they point out that the National Geographic Traveler chose the LBL for its “2011 Stay List”, described as a list of “the most authentic and unique hotels in Canada”. The NGT says: “Built in the style of a Hudson Bay Company trading post with fire-killed timber; three miles above the tree line. Local greenhouse for produce, exotic wild meats from Inuit-owned cooperatives. [Rooms] . . . are woody burrows of warmth.” What could not be to like?

 
 

The LBL website also points out the visit--which turned out by chance to be extended--of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the Conservative Party Leader who’s been PM since 2006. The website reports:

 
 
 Prime Minister Stephen Harper paid a visit to the Lazy Bear Lodge on August 24 [2010] as part of his annual summer tour of the north. It was an honor to host the Prime Minister, even if the stop was to be brief, but when the winds kicked up and the Churchill airport was shut down, the quick stop turned into an two-night stay for Harper and his traveling party. It was quite a thrill to have Prime Minister Harper attending to the day-to-day business of running the country from our lodge. He even held a press conference in our main dining room. Mr. Harper also took advantage of his time in Churchill to visit the Cape Merry Historic Site and the Eskimo Museum.
 
 

The LBL has a compact 33 rooms, lobby, and restaurant. I’ll let Wally Daudrich, founder, builder, and owner, take you on this excellent tour of the LBL.

 
 

I would say he misspeaks when he says “suburb”, since the LBL is just a short stroll down Kelsey from the other cluster of businesses. Let me add that the exterior of the building and interior of the public rooms are all log-faced; the walls of the rooms consist of horizontal, cut planks from logs, but still with bark edges top and bottom, grouted with some sort of filler. On the free morning when I had a half-day afternoon tour, I asked the desk when Wally was around, since I wanted to interview him. They called me when he stopped in, and we met for about a half hour (he interviewed me, too).

 
 

He’s from Swan River in central-west Manitoba, near where the train passes. Yes, he has a German background; his mother’s people are from the Pfalz (“Palatinate”; Rheinland-Pfalz is a state of Germany; also remember Ruprecht von der Pfalz), but his father’s family’s story is “more complicated”. He started to explain, and the story suddenly became familiar. They were Krimdeutsche, Germans from the Crimea, and I’d just read about the climatologist Köppen, who had the same background. Wally’s family’s, however, was tragic, because of Stalin’s purges.

 
 

Wally moved to Churchill in 1980, and started as a tour operator. He then conceived, designed (with an architect), and built, largely on his own, the LBL between 1995 and 2005, so the completed building is only six years old. That now explains why the hotel is so tour-oriented.

 
 

As to “fire-killed timber”, there had been a forest fire a short distance south of town, and he used only those logs, a thousand of them, for construction. I asked him about the National Geographic recommendation, and he said they didn’t submit the LBL’s name, a satisfied guest had. I had also read that he was the Conservative party candidate for the riding (electoral district) of Churchill. It turns out he came in second, but his was the highest showing ever for his party. I asked about his political future, and he, of course, was cagey and kept his options open.

 
 

I had read how expensive daily life was in Churchill. In the supermarket I saw a large bag of flour for C$ 8.29 (C$ are very close to US$); a large jar of mayonnaise for $ 10.85; Smucker’s strawberry jam for $ 6.25. He explained that people in the North do get an extra break on their income taxes. It was a fun half-hour with him, and he now also knows about my life in Battery Park.

 
 

In the video, he mentions “feature logs”, and there is one in each room, with a burl or an interesting twist. For instance, the main staircase has a banister that has a natural hook at the end, and that is apparently local Krummholz. Krummholz is a German word used in English from German krumm, “crooked, bent”, and Holz, “wood”. It’s a particular feature of subarctic tree-line landscapes, where vegetation becomes stunted and deformed due to exposure of fierce, freezing winds. Trees can only survive where they are somehow sheltered by rocks or snow cover. Since the protected lower portion of these trees continues to grow, the trees tend to become more massive near the ground.

 
 

In the video, Wally shows the large fireplace in the restaurant, but the cozy lobby also has a wood stove. There are complimentary hot beverages and home-made pastries, including butter tarts, which were also served on the Tundra Buggies. Those of us (non-Canadians) unfamiliar with them found out they are highly regarded and considered one of English Canada’s quintessential desserts, one of only a few recipes of genuinely Canadian origin. It’s a small pastry cup that fits in the palm of your hand, and is filled with a mixture of butter, sugar, syrup and egg, which becomes semi-solid when baked. It’s similar to the French-Canadian sugar pie (tarte au sucre), Pennsylvania Dutch shoofly pie, English treacle tart, or (to my mind, mostly) American pecan pie filling without the actual pecans. However, nuts or raisins can be added, and the raisins in the ones we had made them particularly good.

 
 

Ah, the bears. People in town use electric fences and spikes to keep them away. One of the LBL waiters told me to go look at LBL’s back door, which faces the river. Apparently just last June, a large bear swam across the river and wanted to visit the lodge. Bears keep on pushing against a building until they find a soft spot, such as a door, and this one pushed the back door in. That same day, LBL had a steel-framed wooden door installed, but one that had many dozens of spikes nailed through it pointing outward like a huge pincushion, lest a bear try pushing again. This is life in Churchill.

 
 

Just what climate Churchill has had confused me. The maps we’d seen show that the entire lower half of the Hudson Bay area is Subarctic, with a taiga/Boreal forest landscape, yet Churchill, as we’ve seen in the pictures, has the tundra landscape of the Arctic. How can that be? It was when I found out about the aspen parklands of southern Manitoba being a transitional area, that I checked further. On a smaller scale, you can have an ecotone, a place where biomes overlap and clash with each other, as in the front line of a war. The eco- is for ecology and the -tone, as in “muscle tone”, means tension, so an ecotone is a transitional area where two different climatic systems are in “ecological tension”. An ecotone may have a sharp boundary line as in figure 1 (picture a forest on the edge of a field) or may appear on the ground as a gradual blending, as the other figures show. Figure three even shows an inclusion of a bit of each biome in the other, such as when a stand of evergreen trees (taiga) appears suddenly in an otherwise tundra landscape. I also think the salt-and-pepper blending in figure seven is of interest, and probably not uncommon.

 
 

I know we saw taiga on the train just up to Churchill, and Wally mentioned getting his fire-killed timber from not very far south of town. There was also the reference that the LBL was located “three miles above the tree line”. As it turns out, I found out that Churchill does stand at an ecotone at the juncture of not two, but three regions, the Subarctic boreal forest (taiga) to the south, the Arctic tundra to the northwest, and the Hudson Bay to the north. The Churchill landscape is influenced by shallow soils caused by both underlying rock and subsurface permafrost (frozen earth). Churchill does have a Subarctic climate, with long, very cold winters, and short, cool to mild summers. The winters are colder than you’d think, since the shallow Hudson Bay freezes (which is why the polar bears are here), and eliminates any maritime moderation. Northerly winds jet across the frozen Bay to chill Churchill. But in summer, when the Bay thaws, Churchill’s summer is indeed moderated, as you’d expect in a coastal community.

 
 

Tundra flora, as we’ve spotted in a couple of pictures of Churchill, seems to be more unique than that of other biomes, perhaps because it exists under such harsh conditions. It was pointed out that what we were seeing low on the ground was primarily willows and lichens.

 
 

Silly me, I’d always thought willows were larger trees, such as weeping willows, or maybe a smaller shrub, like a pussy willow. A bit of reading now lets me know that willows appear both as trees and shrubs in both temperate and cold northern climates, and that some arctic willows are low-growing or creeping shrubs, such as the dwarf willow, that rarely exceeds 6 cm (2 in) in height, while spreading widely across the ground. It has round, shiny green leaves 1-2 cm (0.4-0.8 in) long and wide. This tiny, creeping willow has adapted to survive in harsh Arctic and Subarctic climates. It is one of the smallest woody plants in the world. It grows in tundra and rocky moorland, which is right where we saw it on our excursions. While waiting for the sea ice to form, polar bears make nest-like “day beds” in these shrubs to lie in, which is where we often saw them.

 
 

Much of the rest of the plant life you see on the tundra are varieties of lichen (pronounced as in “to liken”), which can occur in the most extreme environments on Earth, including Arctic tundra. They grow on bare soil and on bare rock, and can be extremely long-lived, often hundreds of years, and in some cases, over 4500 years. Measurement of their growth has been used to date glacial rocks. On bare soil, lichens are the ultimate ground cover, as they are here in this pine forest. Picture this without the trees, and you have the Arctic tundra we saw.

 
 

Lichens are an example of symbiosis, the close interaction of two different species for the mutual benefit of both. It’s also been called “the living together of unlike organisms”. A lichen is a composite, a symbiotic organism composed of a fungus with a photosynthetic partner, usually a green alga. I’ve learned that they appear in three forms; I’ll list them in order of “height”.

 
 

Crustose lichens cover the host surface (rock, soil) with a crust, as the name indicates, such as these crustose lichens on a brick wall. Orange seems a very typical color for them, since spots of orange were visible in many places as we looked for bears out of town. At one place near Cape Merry, we stopped next to a rock outcropping the size of the bus that was orange covered with orange crustose lichens.

 
 

Foliose (leafy) lichens appear somewhat thicker, since they have the aspect of leaves. But by far the most visible are the fruticose lichens, fruticose meaning “branched” or “shrubby”. These are the lichens that grow up off the ground and look more like conventional, familiar plants. By far the most visible to us was the Reindeer lichen, which our guide regularly referred to by its other name of “Caribou moss”--some also say “Reindeer moss”--but it isn’t a moss any more than Spanish moss hanging from trees in Florida is a moss. Reindeer lichen is light-colored fruticose lichen found primarily in areas of tundra. It is extremely cold-hardy, and, as the name says, is an important food for reindeer/caribou. As is typical of many lichens, Reindeer lichen is slow growing--perhaps a miniscule 3-5 mm per year--and it may take decades to reestablish itself once it is overgrazed, trampled, or burned. It is extensively branched, and appears grayish: grayish green, grayish white, grayish brown. It forms extensive mats up to 10 cm (4 in) tall, which means it stands out on a tundra landscape only second to willows. It dominates open sites such as rocks and heaths, as well as the ground in boreal pine forests (see picture above). I was also quite surprised to find out that, in Scandinavia, this lichen can be used in the making of aquavit (2006/5). Finally, I’ve heard that in the off-season (when not on the ice), polar bears will occasionally eat seaweed and other greenery. Since we saw polar bears sitting among willows and Reindeer lichen, I suspect the latter is part of their off-season diet.

 
 

The tundra life is a difficult one for plants. They grow in shallow soil, with permafrost (frozen ground) underneath. They’re exposed to northeasterly storms off Hudson Bay and are subject to abrasion from ice crystals driven by winds across a treeless, freezing terrain. In the transitional tundra area of Churchill we did see some trees, and some were flag trees, also known as banner trees. (This phenomenon is not unique to the Arctic, and will also occur on any terrain with strong, abrasive winds.) A flag tree is a variation of the Krummholz (bent wood) formation we saw earlier. As an almost constant wind regularly strikes one side of a tree, sometimes with sand or ice crystals, it kills or deforms branches on that windward side only. But branches continue to grow on the leeward side, giving the tree a characteristic flag-like appearance. The phenomenon can affect the entire tree, or only the upper part if the lower part has some protection, such as from rocks or snow cover.

 
 

The bear, it would seem, fundamental as it might be, is under-recognized in Western culture. Ask any child to name wild animals, and he’ll start with “lions ‘n’ tigers”. If urged to continue, the result might be “elephants ‘n’ giraffes”. An Australian child might include kangaroos and emus. But these are all exotica from Africa and Asia (and Australia). Western culture started in Europe. What fearsome animals were there in Europe before Western culture became familiar with exotics? Bears. And wolves. But no lions ‘n’ tigers.

 
 

Let’s compare the three major groupings of Indo-European languages within Europe, both to review those groupings to see how closely they are related, but also to see how each has evolved its own word-type for the name of the animal. The animal we’re talking about was called “ursus” in Latin (“ursa” for a female, as in the constellations) and the Italic (“Romance”) languages descended from it show a direct similarity (all those names ending in O have a feminine in A, just like Latin did): Spanish oso; Italian orso; Portuguese urso; Catalán ós; Romanian urs; French ours (rhymes with “tour” + SS = tourss). The phenomenon that affected the other two groups did not affect this group.

 
 

Both the Germanic languages and the Russic (Slavic) languages have lost whatever the original word for “bear” was--perhaps related to ursus, perhaps not--and have replaced it, each differently. Why? Fear and superstition. There is an old superstition that, if you mention someone bad by name, he will appear, or if you mention something bad by name, it will happen. The most obvious example is avoiding mentioning the devil for fear he will appear on the spot. It’s for that reason that alternate references have developed, such as Mephistopheles, Satan, or Lucifer. In this case, though, the original word was never lost. This is the basis for saying in jest “speak of the devil” when someone walks into the room that you’ve been talking about, with the unspoken remainder “and he will appear”. Actors have the superstition that the play “Macbeth” is unlucky, and will refer to it as “the Scottish play”, believing that if you mention it by name in a theater, bad things will happen.

 
 

[An aside: two opposites to the above occur to me. (1) Tell an actor to break a leg, and the belief is that GOOD things will happen. (2) The queen calls the imp “Rumpelstiltskin” by name and he does just the opposite, he DISappears (the original German name is “Rumpelstilzchen”).]

 
 

Let’s look at a couple of names to see the Germanic words for “bear”. We have the tennis player Björn Borg; björn is “bear” in Swedish (spelled bjørn in Norwegian and Danish, but pronounced the same). We also have former boxer-actor Max Baer, whose name includes the standard variant spelling of German Bär. The Dutch word is “beer”, but sounds like the other two, forming a three-language rhyme: bear, Bär, beer.

 
 

So what happened in Northern Europe a few thousand years ago (or more)? Anyone venturing into the forest was wary of coming across a bear. Asking your companion “Did you just hear a bear?” would surely bring disaster face-to-face. So you don’t name it, you describe it: “Did you just hear a brown one?” That kind of oblique reference should surely keep them safe. In time, whatever the original word was, disappeared, and the oblique reference became standard instead, that is, the word for “brown” developed an alternate form that became the word for “bear”.

 
 

The North Germanic (Scandinavian) languages show it best, with a three-point match (have I been watching too much fingerprinting on CSI?): björn has the B-R-N of brun. The West Germanic languages have only a two-point match: bear/brown; Bär/braun; beer/bruin only show the B-R match and not the N.

 
 

Did something strike you about a Dutch word above? The Dutch word for “brown”, bruin (BRÖÜN)--the pronunciation of that spelling makes it sound even more like English--is instead pronounced in English BRU.in and has become the conventional English word for a bear’s name; like Leo the Lion, we have Bruin the Bear.

 
 

The very same thing happened in Eastern Europe with the Russic (Slavic) languages. But first let’s take a look at the names of American film critic Michael Medved and at the name of the present, third President of Russia, Дми́трий Анато́льевич Медве́дев / Dmitriy Anatol’yevich Medvedev (med.VYE.dyev).

 
 

Think this through like this: mead is an ancient alcoholic beverage made from honey, which helps us understand the Russian word for honey itself, мёд / myod. Now these adventurers millennia ago, instead of asking “Is that the track of a bear?” instead asked “Is that the track of a honey-eater?” This is how the Russian word for “bear”, медве́дь / medved’ (med.VYED’) developed. In Serbian it’s almost the same: медвед / medved; in Croatian it’s medvjed; and Ukrainian has a pleasant surprise: ведмідь / vedmid’, which reverses the syllables and alters the concept slightly from “honey-eater” to “eater (of) honey”. But in any case, THAT’s how central the bear was to the existence of these Northern and Eastern Europeans, so forget the lions ‘n’ tigers.

 
 

Now what about the name of the polar bear specifically? Silly me, as I child I misunderstood it. To me, “polar” had no more meaning than “grizzly”, and for a long time I made no association with the poles of the Earth. Of course, this in itself is inaccurate, since it’s only the North Pole that this bear is associated with. Even worse, the range of the bear doesn’t even reach the North Pole. The name “polar bear” is a disaster, but we’re stuck with it.

 
 

Look at the animal and its habits. It patrols (1) ice floes, which are located (2) at sea; it’s, quite startlingly, (3) (off-)white, and it’s (4) the most northern of bears. There are naming opportunities everywhere, and, while many languages do call it a polar bear, other languages have been more sensible. I’ve listed these concepts in the order of my personal preference.

 
 
 (1) Ice Bear is the concept used in all the Germanic languages except English: German Eisbär; Dutch: ijsbeer; Afrikaans (derived from Dutch): ysbeer; Swedish isbjörn; Norwegian and Danish isbjørn. Go “Ice Bear”!

(2) Sea Bear is seen a little less often. Whoever put the Latin phrase together, did get it right: ursus maritimus, literally “maritime bear” is best translated as “sea bear”. Russian has four possible names for this animal, one of which is морской медведь / morskoi medved’, or “sea bear”, from морe / morye (MOR.ye) “sea”. Yay “Sea Bear”!

(3) White Bear is so obviously descriptive and so very parallel to “brown bear” and “black bear” to make it very sensible. Many Italic and Russic languages can go this route (with alternate possibilities): French ours blanc; Spanish oso blanco; Italian orso bianco; Portuguese: urso-branco; Catalán ós blanc; Russian бе́лый медве́дь / byelyi medved’; Serbian бели медвед / beli medved; Ukrainian білий ведмідь / biliy vedmid’. Rah “White Bear”!

(4) Northern Bear is something I came across only in Russian, as северный медведь / sevyernyi medved’, from северь / sevyer’ “north”. Not as great as some of the above, but I like it. (5) Polar Bear, with all its inaccuracies mentioned above, is what many languages use, but often with alternatives (see duplicates above); French ours polaire; Spanish oso polar; Italian orso polare; Portuguese urso-polar; Romanian urs polar; Croatian polarni medvjed; and the fourth possibility for Russian, полярный медведь / polyarnyi medved’.
 
 

[Another aside: we’ve been talking about colors, and we mentioned the grizzly bear. Talk about a seemingly meaningless name! People don’t know what it means, and neither did I until I got one clue on a poster on the Canadian headed for Winnipeg that showed a picture of one, and, as happens in Canada, was bilingually named, in English, grizzly bear, and in French, ours gris. A revelation, I thought! Gray bear! Talk about discovering the Rosetta Stone! But what’s “grizzly” all about? I later got online and found out the original form of “grizzly”, and another use. To “grizzle”, a word that’s now hardly used, means to make gray, to fleck or spot with gray, and French gris can be spotted as an influence on the word. The other descriptions that come to mind are a “grizzled beard”, or a “grizzled head”. The only problem with all this is that a grizzly bear isn’t gray, it’s “typically brown . . . with white tips”. Maybe it’s those white tips that make people think it’s gray? Also, the color concept doesn’t seem to be universal, since I looked up the German name, which is Grizzly-Bär, and not *Graubär. A little further research actually shows that the name is all due to a spelling mistake between two homonyms, grizzly and grisly. The naturalist who formally named the bear in 1815 called it in Latin ursus arctos horribilis. He could have stated that in English as “horrible Arctic bear” (its range is Alaska and NW Canada), yet instead decided on “grisly Arctic bear”, but confused that spelling with “grizzly”, and hence the name today. It would therefore seem that the concept of gray is false and that the German name using “grizzly” is accurate. I also find online that in standard French it should be called le grizzli, so maybe that poster that started this whole inquiry was stretching the facts! Other languages do stick to “grizzly” although the occasional reference to “gray” does come up.]

 
 

We’ve been pussyfooting around the topic of polar bears for quite a while, but we’re finally here, and I’ve gathered a lot of information. This information comes from online (as usual), but also from guides on the tours (who have teased me about taking notes), the museum in the Churchill station, the interpretive pavilion at the Polar Bear Jail, and of course from own observation. Let’s start with the fact posted at the Polar Bear Jail that polar bears descended 250,000 years ago from the very grizzly bears we’ve just been talking about, whose range, in Alaska and NW Canada, remains adjacent to the range of the polar bear. Dark green is the polar bears’ land range, and you can understand from this the fact that 66% of all polar bears in the world are located in Canada, or two out of three--note that they surround Hudson Bay. In the mid-Atlantic to the right of huge Greenland is Svalbard, which includes Spitsbergen. In 2006/6, I described this warning sign, but didn’t have a picture to show, which I do now. Gjelder hele Svalbard is Norwegian for “Valid for all (of) Svalbard”. The signs in Churchill on the rocks in town on Hudson Bay were similar, with the same intent. Back on the map, note the water areas in blue. Although the bears are excellent swimmers (I did not see any swimming, as in this picture), there is a limit of how far out from land they can go. However, individuals have been seen in open Arctic waters as far as 200 mi (320 km) from shore. Its body fat provides buoyancy, and it swims in a dog paddle (bear paddle?) at speeds of up to 6 mph (9.7 km/h), using its large forepaws for propulsion. Please note that, despite all this, their range as shown on the map does NOT reach the North Pole in the center, which again puts the word “polar” to shame.

 
 

This is a loaded, two-part question: What color are polar bears? If you say their fur is white, you’re close. They’re really cream-colored, which becomes obvious when you see them on snow that really IS white. In other words, with the patchy snow we had, they stood out both in front of black rocks and white snow. Also, their hair can turn yellowish. And what about their skin? You’ll be as surprised as I was that the answer is black! And jet black at that! You can see it on the pads of their feet, on their lips, tongue and inside of their mouth when they yawn, and most obviously, right on their hairless nose. Also, you’ll notice on pictures that the hair usually seems thinner between the eyes and nose, so that some of the black shows through, giving the muzzle a darker appearance, like a person with a five-o’clock shadow needing a shave.

 
 

Given their descent from grizzly bears, polar bears have evolved to occupy a narrow ecological niche, having adapted to cold temperatures, for moving across snow, ice and open water, and for hunting the seals--ringed seals, a small variety about 1.5 meters/yards long--which make up most of their diet. They are the only marine bears, and can hunt only from sea ice. Because of the many months spent at sea, the polar bear can be regarded as a marine mammal.

 
 

The entire life cycle of the polar bear is unusual. Hundreds of polar bears are in the Churchill area starting in October waiting for the ice to form on Hudson Bay so that they can float out to sea on ice floes. So in the winter and the spring, the majority (males, non-pregnant females) are out on the sea ice. But winter is when bears hibernate, right? Not the polar bears, who do not hibernate. Nor do they estivate, that is, spend the summer in a dormant state, such as some snails and reptiles in hot, dry climates do. In late spring, June or July, the ice breaks and the bears are forced ashore, floating on huge floes moved by prevailing winds to the western shore. Their time on land during the summer and fall is referred to as a “walking hibernation”, where they take it easy, try to keep cool, and rest. And fast. When they don’t have seals to eat when hunting from the ice, they just don’t eat. It’s that winter blubber that sustains them. At most, they turn a bit vegetarian, and may eat some seaweed or lichens.

 
 

They mate in the spring, and when the ice forms in the fall (mid-October to mid-November), the pregnant females search for dens inland, so they are the only ones not out on the ice. The museum in the station had a remarkable life-size model of a maternity den, which is an elevated chamber that is sealed by snow, and helps retain body heat. Cubs are born in December, most often twins, often of two different fathers. Although no one said as much, I suppose it can be said that, while most polar bears do not hibernate, pregnant females with their cubs in a sense do.

 
 

Two remarkable things should be noted about pregnant females. While all polar bears fast in the warm weather, pregnant females in their maternity dens and not out on the ice fast in the winter, too. She and her cubs finally leave the den in March and go to sea, where she breaks her eight-month (!!!) fast. Given this unusually long fasting time, a fertilized egg will develop only if the female has enough body weight to support herself and the cubs. If not, the egg, even though fertilized, will automatically abort itself.

 
 

I have gathered from my various sources a collection of additional facts. There’s no good purpose in putting them in narrative form, so here they are in list form:

 
 
 The polar bear is about the same size, not as the grizzly bear, but as the Kodiak bear, found on the Kodiak islands just south of Alaska, and the two tie for being the world’s largest bear, and also the world’s largest land carnivore, being more than twice as big as the Siberian tiger.

Weight statistics vary, although all statistics agree that females are half the weight of males. We’ll go with these numbers: adult males at 600 kg (1300 lbs), adult females 300 kg (660 lbs). Males are 2.5-3 m (8-10 ft) long and females 1.8-2.5 m (6-8 ft).

They are superbly insulated with up to 10 cm (3.9 in) of blubber.

Walking, polar bears have a lumbering gait and average 5.6 km/h (3.5 mph). Sprinting, they can reach up to 40 km/h (25 mph), so stay off of those rocks.

At the Polar Bear Jail it was posted that Manitoba has 930 polar bears, and another statistic said that all of western Hudson Bay has 1300.

Polar bears live 15-18 years, and rarely beyond 25. They have an acute sense of smell, and their eyesight is comparable to humans’. On a tour it was said that polar bears have a gland in their mouth that allows them to taste the air, which would account for some of the periodic yawning.
 
 

Day Eight While the first day in Churchill was spent walking around the town and relaxing, the second day was the first serious effort to go find polar bears, as a “tundra tour” was scheduled, the first of two. I say “serious”, since one spends eight hours, from 8 to 4, out “in the field” on a so-called “tundra buggy”. I always like to know just what’s going on, and details were unfortunately not forthcoming. We boarded a school bus at the Lazy Bear Lodge. Why? Where would we be going on our “safari”? Would we be going as far as the national park to the south? Would we go just to any point in the countryside at random? This is what I dislike about organized tours--you’re being led around by the hand paternalistically with the assumption that what’s happening is obvious, since they do it every day--and it isn’t. So I asked my questions on the school bus, pieced together other facts during the day, and I can give an explanation here that should have been explained to us in the first place.

 
 

As for the school bus: tundra buggies are large, slow-moving, lumbering vehicles, which is why none was parked in front of the LBL. We needed a shuttle instead. We rode in the school bus for about twenty minutes, southeast on Kelsey Boulevard down the peninsula, past the airport, at which point the road surface ended (but it was a good dirt road) to a piece of terrain along Hudson Bay pretty much east of Churchill. Here we pulled up into a dirt parking lot later referred to as a “buggy launch”, where tundra buggies were waiting.

 
 

As to location: no, you can’t go just anywhere, since the tundra is protected, and no, we didn’t go all the way down to the national park. I managed to piece together during the course of the day that the terrain that all Churchill tundra buggies use is a marshy piece of tundra along Hudson Bay that the Canadian and American armies had used in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and it was already criss-crossed with dirt roads and trails from that era (some decent, some deliciously horrible). It made eminent sense that this would be a valid place to go bear watching, but it should have been explained up front why we were here and not somewhere else.

 
 

The guide came with us on the bus, but the driver was already at the “tundra vehicle”, which is the name they ask you to use, since “tundra buggy” is a proprietary name, but of course, no one listens. It’s an all-terrain vehicle for wildlife viewing, but given the ecological parameters, it doesn’t do “all terrain”, but some of the “dirt” (rock?) roads it does do are rather remarkable. This is a still shot of a tundra buggy (do click to enlarge for some details). As I’ve said before, we had only patchy snow, not the cover shown here, so you can’t tell the dirt road from any tundra, which frankly is in my mind a negative. Notice Hudson Bay before us. We did see bears as close as that, either walking in front or behind the vehicle. That door in front is for the driver only; others enter from the rear. The vehicle is high off the ground, to get through rough areas more easily, but also for better viewing. Note the tires, which are 20-ply (!!!), with 63.5 cm (25 in) rims. They are 1.7 m (5.5 ft) high, and 1.1 m (3.6 ft) wide and almost my height when I stood next to one. Standing next to one happened upon exiting the vehicle at the end of the day, back at the parking lot, otherwise, you’re within the vehicle the whole day. Actually, we’re the ones “in the cage”, with the bears roaming free. Back at the picture, note that the rear viewing platform has an access gate in the back, but a collapsible staircase on the close side, which is how we entered the vehicle. People would go outside on and off for viewing and picture-taking, but most of the time everyone was inside, frequently opening the side windows for viewing. People were inside a lot, not because of any cold weather, since the October-November Churchill temperature runs about from 0° to 10-15° C (32°-50’s° F), so it’s just like late-fall-early winter weather in temperate climates such as New York. As I said, I put the overpants and rubbers back in the suitcase after the first day and just stayed with the sweater, jacket, and hat from then on. In the picture, notice the extraordinary width of the vehicle. Upon entering from the viewing platform, there’s an enclosed toilet to the right, and to the left, a sink and propane stove, so it’s quite warm inside, and jackets come off. Beyond the back, the main part of our buses had, like any bus, two seats on either side, but with a huge center aisle, making it almost like a room. Up front, the two forward windows were as large as shop windows for easy bear spotting, by the driver, guide, or any passenger.

 
 

The vehicles lumbered slowly, like a dinosaur or an elephant. Some dirt roads/trails were decent, but most were very rocky, and the vehicle bounced so that you really had to hold on to the seats as you walked around while we were moving. All in all I can say it moved maybe a little faster than a tank would over rough terrain. At one place we drove to a rise on solid rock, and then had to back down. Once on each trip we actually forded a marsh--the trail went right into the water, and so did we. It was exhilarating to be surrounded by water, but I really need to de-romanticize it a bit: fun that it was to be looking for polar bears from mid-water, anyone who’s driven a car under an overpass on a parkway during a heavy rainstorm has had close to a similar experience.

 
 

That first day we saw five polar bears, some sitting in their day beds, some on rock outcroppings, some walking. Now divide that into eight hours, and you’ll realize that it isn’t constant fun. There were long periods without bears, and when we saw a bear sitting somewhere, we’d sit parked there for twenty minutes watching it and waiting for it to move. If it ever did. I did enjoy the experience, and I’m glad I did it, but did you ever watch your grandpa for twenty minutes while he was dozing in a rocking chair? Fun!

 
 

The saving grace was the chance to socialize with the perhaps 18 people on the bus. By 10:00 there was a coffee break, either coffee, tea, or hot chocolate, and pastries, including those wonderful butter tarts from the LBL. This is the point where the Canadians informed the rest of us of the importance of the tarts. At lunch time there was hot soup, sandwiches, chips, and soft drinks, all included. I was absolutely delighted that that first day, the soup was borscht, to follow up with the pierogis on the train. Actually, while periods dragged a bit, the eight hours really did fly by, and some of our close-up views were almost as good as this--but with patchy snow on tundra, with flora.

 
 

This is a short video of an apparently newly-purchased LBL Tundra Buggy, seemingly with Wally on it. Note how the speaker tries to avoid calling it a Tundra Buggy. It’s parked on the “buggy launch” parking lot, and the tundra in the background is much closer to the view that we saw. The buildings on the horizon are recycled remnants of the army days.

 
 

This is a tourist-office-prepared video from Tripfilms.com, giving a general introduction to buggy tours in Churchill. It’s called the Polar Bear Experience (it’s helpful to maximize the video using the button on the lower right). Remember, the snow and wind was NOT my experience, just pleasant tundra views.

 
 
 0:19 - These are bears in a day bed in the willows.
0:26 - The two bears are yawning; are they tired or tasting the air?
1:45 - This gives a better idea of the rockiness of the ground under that snow.
1:59 - Watch the buggy bounce on the rough road and boulders.
2:56 - What color is the polar bear surrounded by snow?
 
 

Day Nine My third day in town was less active, which was good, since eight hours in a bus the day before had been tiring, and I had the morning free. That’s when I asked the front desk when Wally Daudrich is around, and they later buzzed me and that’s when I interviewed him as we sat in the restaurant. But then the afternoon was set aside for the three-hour Cultural & Heritage Tour of Churchill from 1 to 4. I wondered what it would be like, and I almost have to say I ended up liking it more than the two buggy tours, since the latter involved so much down time waiting for something to happen, but this one had a series of interesting stops one right after the other. A lot of what I didn’t yet know about Churchill at this point, I learned here.

 
 

So it was back to the school bus, on a sunny day. We started going north on Kelsey, on the river side of the peninsula, passing that large rock outcropping covered with orange lichen, to the grain elevator. It seems that the resident population of Churchill is equally aboriginal and non-aboriginal, and most people work in shipping and in tourism. Churchill, Canada’s most northerly deep-sea port, is open only four months a year, mid-July to mid-November, because that’s the only time that both Hudson Bay and Hudson Strait (between Québec and Baffin Island) are ice-free and navigable (Manitoba is in purple, with the Nelson River to the south and Churchill River to the north). During that warm-weather period, freight trains and international ships moving grain are everywhere, but toward the end of that time, shippers have to be careful. Lloyd’s of London insures ships leaving Churchill only to November 15. Any ship wanting to leave later needs to make special insurance arrangements because of the greater likelihood of ice then. While we were at the grain elevator the last week of October, the last ship of the season was getting ready to leave. It takes 1800 rail cars of grain (!!!) to fill just one ship carrying 30-50 metric tons, and the grain elevators take two days to fill a ship. Filling has to stop when it rains or snows, since moisture would cause mould to form within the grain in the hold.

 
 

Just past the elevators we stopped at a small beach on the side of the river and walked about a bit. There was considerable ice on the sand on this brisk day, and frozen in the ice was some of the long seaweed that the bears eat. The tide was out, and we were informed that the two daily tides vary up to 5 m (16 ft) in Churchill.

 
 

I still have an image in my mind’s eye of the wintry afternoon sun shining on the river from the Fort on the other side toward us on the beach, surrounded by sand, rock, ice, and seaweed . . . . It was a trivial, but memorable experience in a special almost-top-of-the-world location.

 
 

But some of the most startling news still awaited us and was geological. That rocky land we were walking on was a puzzlement, a paradox, since it represented at the same time both the youngest and the oldest. This geological information was pointed out to us then, and I backed it up later when in the Manitoba Museum in Winnipeg, which I’ll discuss in the next posting. Let’s first go back to our discussions on glaciers and what is technically called isostatic rebound--a term clearer to technocrats--or more simply post-glacial rebound or even just glacial rebound. In the last ice age the huge weight of the ice cap had compressed the land it covered substantially, which, since the ice disappeared, has been assuming its older, original shape, such as a sponge would after you stop pressing your finger into it. We discussed glacial rebound in Skagway, Alaska (2005/13), where the whole area has experienced an incredible rebound of about 2.4 m (8 ft) per century, meaning the beaches the Klondikers landed on are now further inland than they were then. We discussed most completely the Laurentide Ice Sheet and rebound in 2010/25-26 and its effect on the east coast of the US. And, as it turns out, Churchill has also had substantial rebound of the ground’s surface. Later in the museum I found out it was about 1.2 m (4 ft) per century, half of Skagway’s but still substantial, but while in Churchill, the rebound was explained even more intriguingly. When construction began on the Fort in the 18C, ships were moored to rock outcroppings at the river’s edge by means of large metal rings that were embedded in the rock. Today, those rings (which we unfortunately couldn’t see) are too high for practical use, since in three centuries, they have risen some 3.6 m (12 ft) (!!!), along, of course, with the rock and the rest of Churchill! And as in Skagway, apparently beaches from those years are now inland.

 
 

So what is that youngest-oldest paradox? The area around Churchill contains some of the youngest land in Canada as a result of the retreating Hudson Bay shoreline in response to glacial rebound. And, at the same time, the bare rock that has been exposed is actually part of the mantle of the earth--and it doesn’t get older than that. Since the mantle is exposed here, it is used for seismic testing, since the best earthquake information comes right from the Earth’s mantle. When you stand on that black rock and hear this, it isn’t just the wind that takes your breath away.

 
 

It was also explained to us that summer wildflowers cover the tundra with color, which I could readily believe despite the wintry weather at the moment in Churchill, because I’ve experienced it elsewhere. In 1973 Beverly and I took the Hurtigruten coastal steamer up and down the Norwegian coast. The furthest it went before turning around was Kirkenes (the travel diary says it was 13 July), which was located so far along the coast that it faced Russia, and is part of that northern tundra region. The weather had cleared up and it was very sunny, and as we walked to the edge of Kirkenes we came across a field with a solid blaze of the yellowest flowers I’ve ever seen. I still remember taking a picture of Beverly sitting in that field of yellow, and that was tundra in July.

 
 

But in Churchill we went to the end of the river at Cape Merry, with the view of the Fort Prince of Wales on the other side at Eskimo Point. Both the Fort and Cape Merry battery are part of Canada Parks, and before we got out of the bus a ranger stepped aboard, shotgun over shoulder, to issue the usual bear warnings. We then walked around the sunny, but windy cape inspecting the ruins of the cannon emplacements. We really weren’t meant to encounter any bears there, and don’t worry, we didn’t. But you always keep an eye over your shoulder. The Cape and beach before it were really the only windy places we encountered, and the rest of the afternoon tour was in relatively calm air. We were informed though, that the temperature that day was 0° C (32° F), but the wind chill made it feel like -4°C (25°F), not too bad at all.

 
 

After the Cape we turned down the other side of the peninsula along Hudson Bay in what was turning out to be my favorite day in Churchill. Still in town, we passed a residence that a large hydroponic greenhouse attached, and were told that a couple there raise fruits and vegetables for the town. I understand LBL is one of their customers. A little bit further along the driver/guide stopped and looked out the entry door, got out and we did, too. He’d found, in the patchy snow right at the edge of the roadside, a series of tracks where a polar bear had been ambling along.

 
 

As for wrecks, we saw two, which brought me back to the first time I’d see a wrecked ship, rusting away. We were in Newfoundland in 1984, and as we were driving down the west coast (travel diary: 5 July) we saw the remains of a 1919 shipwreck on and just off the beach. We learned at the time that these things are just left where they are, since it’s too expensive to remove them, so I wasn’t surprised when we saw the rusting wreck in Churchill of the Ithaca, which had run aground in the 1960’s and was always visible in the area of the tundra tours. But the other wreck that was left in place was more of a surprise, because it was a plane. It had transported heavy cargo between northern communities, and was nicknamed Miss Piggy, and one day in the 1970’s it had the gentlest crash landing you could want, and both pilots just walked away (the story goes, they were found in a nearby bar). The cargo had been salvaged, but the mid-size plane was just resting on the rocks in the willows, right off the roadside. The guide took his shotgun, and we walked around, taking a closer look.

 
 

The final stop of the day was one everyone anticipates, and we pulled up to an attractive, rather large, metal, double-roofed Quonset hut, which displayed a large sign proclaiming it to be the “Polar Bear Holding Facility”. Of course, everyone smiled at the euphemism for what everybody always calls the Polar Bear Jail. Whenever bears become a nuisance, (dumb) adolescents more often than not, and loiter near or wander into town, local authorities capture and tranquilize them and bring them here. Mothers and cubs in summer are helicoptered out promptly. Others may stay in residence for a few weeks until a group repatriation into the wild takes place, once the Bay freezes over. There are 28 cinder-block holding cells with bars, and the first surprise was that we--or anyone else--didn’t get to go inside. It’s essential that the bears don’t get used to humans, since that could cause trouble in the future. Another surprise--the bears aren’t fed, not a bit. Of course not. Polar bears fast in the warm weather until they go to sea.

 
 

Next to an interpretive pavilion outside in the parking lot is a series of maybe a half-dozen bear traps on trailers, which look similar to this drum or barrel trap in Wyoming (disregard the American Rockies). The ones in Churchill differed in that they were not solid “tin cans”, but instead a series of bars in a circular drum shape, and both ends were made of bars as well. It was totally see-through. The traps are normally left at crucial points on the edge of town, unless there’s a specific problem in town, at which time one would be left at that location. Near the front of the trap inside is a rag soaked in seal oil, and the bear enters from the back. When he touches the rag the back door slams shut. The trap is then backed up right to the outdoor entrance of a given cell on the jail and the bear enters his new home. Stopping at the “jail” was the perfect ending to a nice day.

 
 

Day Ten My fourth day in Churchill was filled with the second tundra tour, also eight hours long. Frankly, I’d say one was enough, but there’s always the possibility that you might not see enough on an unlucky day. Instead of five, this second day we saw only three bears, one in the distance, two others close by, with one walking behind the buggy. Fortunately, there was all the conversation, coffee break, and lunch break, so the time didn’t drag too badly. The only odd thing--it actually enlivened the day--was that the other LBL tundra vehicle suffered a frozen toilet, so those passengers had to use ours. Now how to you manage that when you can’t set foot on the ground? Remember that little door on the BACK end of the observation deck? The two vehicles backed up to each other, the doors were opened on each deck, and a gangway was placed between the two for the others to visit our bus. Still, from a distance, I’m sure it must have looked like two tundra buggies mating.

 
 

Day Eleven My fifth and final day in Churchill turned out to be different from what I’d planned, and yet all worked out for the best. The train left in the evening, and the plan was for me to check out after breakfast and spend the entire day writing in the cozy LBL lobby near the wood stove, with tea and pastries at hand. That did happen, but only for an hour or so at the beginning and then again at the end, before leaving. The time in between turned into a bit more adventurous experience.

 
 

I’d been having some trouble with a rash on my left leg, and the day before in the tundra buggy a black-and-blue mark with considerable redness and some swelling appeared on my shin. If it had to happen, it couldn’t have happened at a better time, since I essentially had a free day. When on the first day I’d passed the Churchill hospital and community center complex, who’d have thought I’d have reason to visit it?

 
 

It was Wally himself who gave me a lift over there on a very quiet Saturday morning. It seemed to be a fine facility, and seemed deserted, but I finally found a nurse. (I later found out it has ten beds, only three of which were currently in use, even though it’s a regional hospital.) She examined me and said the doctor on duty would be in at 1:00, so I walked back and spent time in the lounge typing. At 1:00 Wally was good enough to drive me a second time to the hospital. It became a long afternoon, with endless waits in between. Not being Canadian, I had to fill out forms for foreign billing to submit myself to my insurance. The doctor checked me and said it was probably an infection, but to be safe, she wanted a sonogram to be sure there was no blood clot. She said I was in luck. This being Churchill, the man who gives sonograms is in town only a few days a month, commuting otherwise all around the underpopulated region around Hudson Bay. But he was in today, and could see me. Experiencing this sort of medical treatment in such an underpopulated area was an interesting experience.

 
 

The sign in the sonogram office was in English, French, and what was apparently Inuit, given what I’d seen of their syllabary (like an alphabet) at the Eskimo museum. It said a translator could be available if necessary. I asked the tech while he was checking me if he needed to know Inuit for his work or if he needed translators, but the answer was quite simple: no. He gives sonograms usually to pregnant young women, and the younger generation now speaks English. Of course. All was OK with my sonogram.

 
 

The doctor checked me she finally gave me antibiotics to take on the train home, advising me to see my doctor (I did, and all is improved and well), but then it took them forever to open the pharmacy on a Saturday and to get me my pills. I don’t often quote dollar amounts, but since the emergency room visit, which was more expensive on a weekend, plus sonogram and pills, was something unusual, I will mention that the total bill came to C$ 917.20, which is roughly the same in US$. While US Medicare doesn’t cover foreign medical bills, fortunately my secondary coverage does.

 
 

Back at the lodge, I’m glad I had some time before dinner to work in the lounge. I could see that there were this time two couples waiting for the train with me. The shuttle brought us to the station in the dark Churchill night for the train departure at 7:30 PM. As we boarded the train, there may have been a few appropriate flurries falling. If there weren’t, I prefer to remember it that way, anyway.

 
 
 
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