The Deer River – Manitoba, Canada
June 26, 2007 - July 2, 2007
Planning the trip:
I do not remember when I first heard of the Deer River, a tributary of the Churchill River in Northern Manitoba. But I do remember being intrigue by the thoughts of paddling a sub-Arctic river from the edge of the Boreal Forrest to the Land of Little Sticks. Every winter while dreaming of places to paddle I would reacquaint myself with this river that few have paddled. I came to learn that this river, only accessible by train, is home to moose, black bear, caribou, wolves, and an incredible array of waterfowl and shorebirds. The Deer twists and turns through muskeg, taiga and tundra. And, around every bend is a small class I or II rapid. Upon entering the Churchill estuary 3,000 beluga whales are waiting to greet you, give birth or nurse their young. Not only does the Churchill have whales, but the town of Churchill is smack-dab in the migratory path of about 1,000 polar bears, “Polar Bear Capital of the World”. History abounds in Churchill. Remnants of the fur trade, Cold War and a rocket research range can easily be found and seen.
I continued to surf the internet searching for more information on the Deer River but find little that I am not already aware of. Thus fully armed and almost knowledgeable, I approach my wilderness white water mentor Jose Joven and ask if he wants to join me on the Deer this summer. Jose responds, “Too much time on the road and not enough time on the water for me”. I argue the merits of the trip and highlight its geography, wildlife, history and costs. With each new lead of information, I contact him and ask if he would like to join me on the Deer. “Too much time on the road and not enough time on the water for me” becomes his mantra. After one too many rejections I send Jim Shaw and Larry Alsop, past paddling partners on the Bloodvein, Pipestone and French Rivers, an email asking if they would like to accompany me on the Deer. Fearing that Jose is correct, only a fool would drive 3 days and ride a train for another 12 hours to paddle a river for six and a half days, I reluctantly contact Northern Soul Wilderness Adventures requesting information on their guided trip. Too my surprise, Jim calls me that evening all excited and tells me he has always wanted to visit Churchill, Manitoba. He and Larry are ready to go. Matter of fact, they know of another fool who wants to come along, 72 year old Don Layman
I test their resolve and commitment with harsh words of discouragement. I tell them that several groups have had to abort their trips due to low water levels. One group even had to walk out. I share historical weather data that paints a cold, wet, bleak picture. I remind them that the wind usually comes out of the north off the Bay. We may have to battle high winds and strong 15 foot tides on a six and a half kilometer wide river in order to arrive in Churchill. And if we dally too much, we could become stranded on the mud flats, hundreds of yards from shore. I remind them that if the polar bears do not get us then the mosquitoes definitely will. My words of persuasion only strengthen their resolve and conviction. I am told, “We are going to Churchill even if we have to drag our canoes all the way”, and with those words of encouragement I begin to plan our trip.
Paddling, portaging and lining solo canoes requires us to be fully responsible for ourselves. Once in the wilderness, we live in a self-contained and isolated world where our primary senses are used to make decisions regarding our route, gear, meals, shelter, safety and contingencies. Good decisions are rewarded with an exhilarating ride down the rapids and a comfortable night. Bad ones are punished with a broken limb, hypothermia, or even death. The longer and more remote the trips are, the more challenging and greater the potential for something to go amiss. Thus, planning for a remote wilderness trip is a serious undertaking for me. Almost over shadowing but lurking beneath the excitement and anticipation of planning a trip is a little bit anxiety or apprehension. Maybe this uneasiness comes from the recognition that heading into wilderness leaves us exposed to the vagaries of Mother Nature and considerably more dependent upon ourselves in the event of disaster than, say, sitting at home watching the evening news or spending a Saturday morning shopping at the local mall. But if this recognition is the cause of my anxiety and apprehension then it is also a significant part of the extraordinary appeal of wilderness paddling.
My biggest concern was whether there would be a sufficient volume of water flowing down the Deer River to take us to the Churchill River. My second concern was polar bears. Black bears do not worry me. But polar bears, I hear they will patiently wait and stalk their prey for hours, only to seize their prey when least expected. They are on top of the food chain and do not fear man. They hunt man. With these two concerns I became, what one could say, a highly motivated student to discover what we would encounter.
I corresponded and spoke with Dave Pancoe, one of the owners of Northern Soul Wilderness Adventures, and also had the opportunity of dining with him and his brother Chris at Canoecopia this past spring. Dave told me which maps we would need to purchase. Our egress is McClintock. He warned me that the shrubs are too small to hang the food packs from and the mud flats can be quite extensive during low tide. You can walk them but you got to keep moving. If we are lucky, we may catch grayling and artic char; however, the fishing is poor. Do not plan on catching pike or pickerel. A few days prior to our departure he tells me that the Deer began flowing way before the snow melted and had also washed out the railroad tracks. We had one last discussion regarding the polar bears.
Networking through Canadian Canoe Routes and Paddle Manitoba and I was able to contact a few individuals familiar with the area. JKruger told me that if the winter is mild, the summer is hot and the ice melts early we should be prepared to handle a polar bear. Thus, I begin watching the weekly snow cover and sea ice reports along with the daily weather and water level reports.
Snow Cover Reports:
Sea Ice Reports:
Sea Ice Reports:
I contact Jack Batsone and ask if he can pick us up on the Churchill River in the event that something goes amiss. He owns a charter boat service in Churchill and routinely picks up canoeists off the Caribou, Seal and Knife Rivers. He tells me the river is too shallow for his boat. Not knowing where we would encounter brackish water necessitating the need to stock up on fresh water I inquire about the tide. He tells me there is a weir that crosses the river about 13 kilometers from the mouth of the river that stops the tide. I am surprised. The weir is not on my map. I also learn that it is possible to pull out above the weir at a road that ends at the water pumping station. After our discussion, I zoomed in on satellite images from Google Maps and marked our maps accordingly. Before ending the phone call and knowing that Jack is also a seasonal warden for Parks Canada I seek his opinion regarding the polar bears.
Paddlenorth informed me that the small lakes that dot the landscape along the Deer River are mostly thaw ponds, or thermokarst ponds, created by localized melting of the permafrost. They are too shallow to support fish. Fishing on the Deer is probably poor because its discharge can get terribly low during the summer but the fishing on the Churchill might be good because the seals do go above the weir. However, the belugas probably have destroyed the sport fishing on the Churchill estuary.
Jerry R puts me in touch with Hydro Manitoba. Hydro Manitoba flies the power lines along the Deer River in the Spring and Fall looking for maintenance problems. As crazy as it sounds, I give them my departure date and ask for a report on water levels and bear sightings. After hanging up the phone I chuckle for I doubt my local electric company would take a request like this seriously. Matter of fact, they would probably hang the telephone up on me laughing hysterically. Hours before our departure I check my email and discover I have a response. Darryill reports, “We flew the air patrol yesterday to Churchill, the Deer River is the fullest it’s been in 10 years. You will have no trouble canoing the river. The rapids are barely visible. I have attached a couple of photos for you”. Those photographs showed washed out rapids and some snow on the river bank. Great news!
Over the course of speaking and corresponding with numerous individuals, studying polar bear behavior and safety, I quickly realized that the discussion of carrying a shotgun to protect oneself from the polar bears is very opinionated and highly emotional. Our group decides to leave the shotgun at home and instead; rely on air horns, bear bangers shot from a flare pen and bear spray. My last phone call is to Parks Canada. I had already spoken with them a couple of times but wanted to get one last report on polar bear sightings just in case I needed to exercise my veto power and bring a shotgun.
The Adventure Starts:
The drive northward was almost non-eventful. Stopping in Rockville, IL for the night, a scout master from a Georgian Boy Scout troop spies our top-heavy van loaded with four solo canoes and asks if we are going to Canada.
I tell him that we are going to the tundra and learn that they are going to Quetico. In the morning while eating breakfast we are joined by the scout masters. We learn that they have never been to Quetico. Jim and Don study their route and give them a few suggestions. Shortly thereafter, we are introduced to the troop. The young men treat us like celebrities when they hear of our exploits and our plan to paddle the Barren Lands.
Stopping for lunch in Eau Claire, WI we hear a horrible screeching, grinding sound coming from the rear end of the van. Searching for a brake shop, we stop at Good Year and the van is lifted on a rack for semi trucks so that we do not have to off load the canoes. We eventually learn that in a freak act of nature, the right rear brake pad has become detached and is riding around loose inside the brake drum. Five hours later we are back on the road.
The following afternoon, we arrive at Canadian customs in Pembina. The officer asks the usual questions, “Where are we going? Where are we from? How long will we be in Canada? Will we be leaving anything behind? Do we have any weapons in the van? Do we have tobacco? Alcohol? Switchblades? Beef”. Just when we thought we passed with flying colors and are about to gain entry into the country, the officer asks, “Do you have any bear spray”? Jim tells them we have one can but in reality I have two cans. The officer asks if it is readily retrievable. I tell her, “No, it is inside my pack”. She gives us a card and tells us to park beneath the canopy and present the card to an officer inside the building. Upon entering the building we give the card to an officer and take a seat. Others come in presenting cards and join us. Several officers come out donning rubber gloves and escort those who came in behind us to their vehicles and begin their search. In disbelief we watch a church bus full of youth being searched. We continue to patiently wait but start to become concern when they continue searching other vehicles that came in behind us. This causes us to start to fear that we are about to have another lengthy delay associated with some form of very special treatment reserved for canoeists. Eventually a male officer approaches us, stops and talks with a female officer and then points towards us. The female officer approaches and asks if we would please go outside and retrieve the can of bear spray. We unload the van searching for the lost can of spray I loaned Larry and retrieve the other can of spray from my pack. Entering the building I surrender both cans of spray. She tells us she just wants to read the label to make sure it says, “Not For Use on Humans. To Deter Bears From Attacking Humans”. Afterwards she thanks us for declaring the bear spray. At this time, Larry decides it is a good opportunity to tell her that we had contemplated bringing in a shotgun but decided not to. He asks if it would have been ok. She politely tells Larry how to declare a shotgun and what forms would be required. Now Larry likes to talk; thus, he begins to ask her questions about polar bears. She is unfamiliar with polar bears, grants us passage into her country and wishes us safe passage into the land of Little Sticks inhabited by polar bears.
Upon entering Canada we hastily exchange our currency and get back onto the road. It is still a long drive to Thompson, Manitoba where we need to catch tomorrow evening’s train. By late afternoon we arrived at the highway that will take us north into Thompson. It is semi- remote with only a handful of small First Nation communities along its route. What few gas stations we spy have small licensed restaurants. However, the majority of motels are boarded up or look like they have seen better days. It is 10:00 pm and not even dusk. Continuing onward we see small children playing outside and adults walking along the road. Jim begins hinting that maybe we need to pull over and pitch our tents beside the road. An hour later we arrive at a motel partially boarded up with trash strewn around an empty parking lot. Thinking it is closed; Don relieves himself in the parking lot. I find an unlock door and learn that the going rate is $125 a night. A few hundred yards down the road and off the highway are cabins going at $150 per night. It is more than what we want to pay. Canoeists have the reputation of being cheap and I am traveling with the stingiest. The proprietor mentions that there is a motel nearby. However, we would not save much money and it is not as nice or secure. Thompson is four hours away so we reluctantly decide to get a cabin.
We arrived in Thompson around noon the next day and find the railroad station closed until 4 pm. It is cold and wintry. I begin to second doubt my choice of clothing and purchase another layer of long johns for my legs. Driving around, we see a 10 story wolf mural on the side of a building and several howling wolf statues carved in stone throughout the city. We also see signs of poverty and addiction. After eating an excellent lunch at Grapes restaurant we go visit the Heritage North Museum. The museum consists of two log structures. On display in the main building are a variety of mounted animals native to the area, a Boreal Forest diorama which includes an authentic caribou hide tipi, a woolly mammoth tusk, fossils, and assorted Thompsonite artifacts. The second building is dedicated to Inco and mining related artifacts. Here we learn that nickel ore was found in the area in February 1956. During the winter of 1956 through 1957, 300,000 tons of supplies and equipment were hauled by 24 diesel powered tractor trains dubbed the “Snowball Express” to build this mining town named in honor of Inco’s chairman John F. Thompson. Unfortunately we do not have enough time to take advantage of the free walking surface tours at Inco. We need to get back to the railroad station to unload the van and give Jim enough time to drive the van to and get back from McCreedy Campground were we were advised to leave the van.
Our canoes and packs draw much attention while we wait for the train. Just like the Boy Scouts we met in Illinois, we are held in awe and treated like celebrities when they hear of our plans of disembarking from the train in the tundra and paddling the rest of the way to Churchill. It feels strange and yet welcoming to be amongst so many fellow adventurers who understand our passion for the wilderness. In the dining car Jim, Don and I eat dinner with Monte Taylor who is a professional wildlife photographer who has work for National Geographic and the National Audubon Society.
Between bites of pasta and chicken we share our love of the outdoors and talk of places that are both magical and special to us. We tell him of our desire to paddle with the belugas and become envious when we learn that he plans on swimming with the belugas while taking their picture.
While we eat, Larry introduces himself to a young Meti couple with an infant. Larry and the father talk about hunting, fishing, wildlife and who knows what else. Larry is a talker and is always asking questions about moose hunting and how to get a tribe number; thus, enabling him to hunt for moose and avoid the red tape. Eventually the conversation returns to the subject of polar bears, at which point the father offers to retrieve and loan us his shotgun.
Dave Pancoe warned me that the train ride was an adventure in itself. At the time I did not fully grasp nor understand what he was saying. I thought there was nothing between Thompson and Churchill; however, there are several small Meti communities only reachable by train along our route. Sometime during the evening we see the conductor running down the aisle yelling, “Smoke”. The train is slowing down and we are unsure what is happening. Is there a fire? Do we need to evacuate? Are we in danger? To our surprise and amusement we quickly learn that the train is stopping for a smoking break. Those who need to smoke disembark the train and stand along the tracks inhaling and swatting mosquitoes.
As we headed slowly northward the train moaned, groaned, creaked and rocked along. Reclining in our seats wrapped in our sleeping bags all warm and cozy we would sleep until a loud bang and a lurch would slightly awaken us. Looking through heavy eyelids, we would watch the brown, barren landscape almost void of trees pass by at the pace of a snail.
Occasionally one of us would rise and go to the restroom. The restroom sat directly above the train wheels and every lurch of the train was amplified 10-fold. Once inside it was liked riding a roller coaster, possibly more like a bucking bronco. Holding onto the railing, we attempted to hit the center of the toilet bowel and not the side of the wall, door or ourselves. Afterwards, grabbing hold of the swaying recliners trying not to wake anyone, we would slowly make our way back to our seats and watch the bleak landscape slide by every so slowly until we drifted back off to sleep. Sometime during the early morning hours the cold began to make its presence known. We have lost heat and Larry struggles all night long to stay warm without a sleeping bag or quilt. Throughout the night the conductor monitors and remedies the situation. It is a fitful sleep.
On the Deer River:
Day 1: Tuesday, June 26, 2007
Around 6:30 am we are informed that our whistle stop is coming up and we need to move to the baggage car. Once in the baggage car the railroad men slide open the door allowing the cold, damp morning air to rush in. We screech to a halt beside some empty barrels and pallets only yards away from the 100 yard long portage. Quickly we unload our canoes and packs and place them beside the tracks.
As the train pulls away we see familiar smiling faces and waving hands behind the glass windows bidding us farewell and bon voyage. We waste no time searching for our long johns, rain gear and mukluks once the train is gone. It is cold, drab and lightly misting, the type of morning where you see your breath and keep moving in order to stay warm. Jim hands us all a liquid breakfast drink mix and it is then, standing alone beside the railroad tracks, we realize just how crooked and unleveled the train rails are. If we had not experienced it, we would not have believed a train could travel down tracks such as these wrecked with so much damaged caused by the freeze and thaw process. Amazing!
Once on the river we find ourselves almost immediately in swifts with one huge obstacle. There is a metal wall, fence or dam that spans the river. The center section has collapsed and we can not quite tell if it is now a man made ledge or waterfall. The banks are steep and there is nowhere to easily pull out and take a look. Clinging to willow branches we carefully approach and assess the situation. Appearing runnable, we ferry up river and make our run from river center. Nearing the obstruction the river picks up speed and safely delivers us to the other side. It is an easy run.
Around 10:00 am we stop for coffee to warm up. The shore is cobbled with small rocks lying on top of soft gray clay. I find myself quickly sinking into the ooze and step onto a rock the size of a basketball only to find it rapidly sinking into the muck that wants to claim my mukluks. The shoreline is riddled with animal tracks. We see plenty of bird and crane prints. There are caribou tracks being followed by wolves. Don finds a set of moose tracks that are absolutely huge, bigger than his boot print.
The mosquitoes are somewhat bad and come at us in waves throughout the day. We are surprised that we have to apply DEET to keep them away. It is 47 degrees, too cool to bring them out or so we thought.
We easily run several small rapids and numerous swifts. Around one bend in the river we spy a moose. Around another bend we see two adolescent bald eagles just getting their colors. As we paddle down the river we see plenty of arctic terns, plovers, canadian geese and several duck species we do not know. Around noon we begin to see large snow banks on the northwest banks of the river.
By mid-afternoon the sun is shining. The skies are blue and it is 62 degrees. The barometer is rising and the wind is gusting to 11.3 mph out of the north. Jim is tired and wants to quit for the day. Below the next set of rapids we stop to make camp on a rocky beach. While Jim sleeps, Don and I fish for dinner. Don catches three pike and I catch a large one.
During dinner the wind begins to blow out of the southeast. It is getting colder and buggier. After dinner, Jim and Larry paddle over to the far side of the river for a brief hike. They see nothing but lichen and bog as far as the eye can see. They also see fresh foot prints. We are not alone; someone else is ahead of us. All of us go to bed early. It has been a long day. Distance paddled, 18 kilometers. Maximum speed, 5.9 kph.
Day 2: Wednesday, June 27, 2007
It was a short night. Sunset did not occur until 11:30 pm. Around 2:00 am I was awaken by the cold. It is 33.4 degrees. I put on my long johns and use my second light weight sleeping bag as a quilt. It is strange to see the night sky being so bright, more like dusk back home in Indiana. Sunrise wakens us at 5:15 am with bright blue skies. By 9:30 am it is 43 degrees with a light breeze and is beginning to cloud up with the typical low, gray clouds you routinely see in the far North.
Throughout the day we stop several times to hike the tundra. Walking quickly over the soft, gray clay we climb the steep banks pushing our way through the willows and alders. Nearing the summit we find groves of small white spruce and balsam fur. Behind the pine trees is nothing but lichen, reindeer moss, small knee high bushes and an occasional clump of stunted, wind blown black spruce. The black spruces are small and typically only have branches on one side, all pointing away from the prevailing winds. A few of the spruces are almost void of limbs except for a small tree top ball of green.
It is amazing how dry and crunchy the brown lichens and mosses are beneath our feet. One careless match or a lightening strike and it appears that it all could go up in smoke and flames. In some of the areas we hike, the landscape is also dotted with small ponds of brilliant blue water where the permafrost has melted. It is impossible to get close without sinking into the ground.
Walking back to the canoes we are mugged by the mosquitoes hiding in the willows and alders. Occasionally there are black flies in the mix. It is easy to lose the black flies on the water but the mosquitoes are different. They give pursuit. If the wind is blowing hard we quickly lose them; however, when the air is calm and still we found ourselves sprinting down the river trying to lose them. After a quarter of a mile we are bug free or so we think. At this time we discover that many have taken refuge within our hulls or amongst the packs which always resulted in the waving of arms and hands, paddles or hats to shoo them away. We quickly learn to appreciate the wind.
On one particular hike Jim, Don and I return to our canoes leaving Larry behind. We climb into our canoes and paddle a few hundred yards down river to a huge snow bank. Don and Jim land first and begin lobbing snow balls at me. For several minutes we play in the snow throwing snow balls at each other or slide down the slippery snow bank. Eventually we fill our water bottles with snow for slushies and wait for Larry. It takes an eternity but Larry eventually arrives. Upon his arrival he tells us that he almost got lost out on the tundra. After we left he kept on walking. Hundreds of yards away from the river he realizes he does not have a compass and everything looks the same. Fortunately he remained calm and was able to follow his footsteps back to his canoe.
The day consisted of running many small rapids. One particular rapid consisted of three sets where we had to dodge rocks and change sides of the river to make our run. This particular set might have been a CI-tech or possibly a C-II. In between running rapids, we would flush from the bushes Canadian geese with goslings. For hundreds of yards the hen would lead us down the river trying to draw attention to herself and not the goslings beside us that would dart in and out amongst the rocks or bushes lining the shore.
It begins to rain when we stop for lunch. After donning our rain jackets and pants the rain stops only to start again about the time someone removes their jacket or pants. Eventually we called this on and off phenomena “almost rain”. Late in the afternoon the rain officially stops and the wind begins blowing hard out of the west. With three and a quarter inches or rocker in the bow and three inches of rocker in the stern, I find my Swift Raven wanting to weather vane badly every time the river turns north. I find the paddling to be difficult and tiring. My paddling strokes become inefficient. Instead of propelling myself forward with each stroke of my blade, I find myself having to do a lot of correction strokes in order to stay on course. Running the rapids becomes more difficult and my reaction times begin to slow. By late afternoon the wind shifts out of the north creating waves that flow upriver with small breaking white caps. The paddling is still difficult and I find myself having to dig a little deeper and harder with each stroke of my blade.
After sharing a dinner of chili and corn bread we lash the four canoes together and flip them over in the knee high willows. The willows are not stout enough to keep a canoe or canoes from going airborne. Hopefully, by tying the canoes together in a daisy chain we will not lose any of them in the gusting winds that continue to build in strength.
We crawl into our tents at 8:00 pm. It is 69.9 degrees. Within 30 minutes it is 62 degrees. As I settle and get comfortable in my tent I notice the temperature continues to drop, the wind continues to build and the tent begins to shake. I grab my toque and pull out my second light weight sleeping bag rated for 55 degrees. I suspect it is going to be another cold night. Distance paddled; 25 kilometers almost half of it spent fighting the wind.
Day 3: Thursday, June 27, 2007
It is a cool 45 degree morning. The barometric pressure is still running high and continues to climb every so slowly.
I have been watching the barometric pressure for several days, now, and anticipate it to start dropping soon; bringing the cursed winds that keep one from paddling. I hope and pray it does not drop once we are on the Churchill River. The Churchill is a big, wide river that aligns itself with the cold prevailing winds coming off of Hudson Bay. We anticipate trouble and suspect we will have at least one lay over day on the Churchill. Hopefully, the barometer will guide us in choosing the right day for paddling below the weir where the river gets extremely wide and where we are the most expose to the winds and tides.
I have been watching the barometric pressure for several days, now, and anticipate it to start dropping soon; bringing the cursed winds that keep one from paddling. I hope and pray it does not drop once we are on the Churchill River. The Churchill is a big, wide river that aligns itself with the cold prevailing winds coming off of Hudson Bay. We anticipate trouble and suspect we will have at least one lay over day on the Churchill. Hopefully, the barometer will guide us in choosing the right day for paddling below the weir where the river gets extremely wide and where we are the most expose to the winds and tides.
All morning long we battle the wind coming out of the north. The paddling is difficult and the gusts of wind throw you off course at the most inopportune time. The wind continues to build eventually muffling the sound of approaching rapids. Even in the midst of the rapids all you can hear is the howling wind. In one particular rapid, a gust of wind pushes Don’s bow and pivots him 180 degrees just as he is setting up for a run. Immediately his bow and stern are pinned against the rocks. He is sideways in the river and causes a massive canoe pileup for all of us behind him. Today, there is a little bit more of rock bashing and scraping going on than usual.
Instead of fishing, we feel the call to visit and hike the tundra. It is so alien and different. Having nothing to draw from or compare it against, the experience is surreal. Today we find the tundra to be damp and spongy, not dry and crunchy. Although it is barren and almost void of trees, the mosses are alive and blooming. The ground is covered in a carpet of itsy, bitsy pink and white flowers.
Hiking back to our canoes we are greeted by hordes; no, legions of mosquitoes near the water’s edge. They are blood thirsty and determined to dine. Their attack is vicious and I can almost feel myself panicking for I am being pelted in the face. In their rush for blood, they are hitting me so hard that they bounce off of my face. It feels like someone is throwing sand in my face. Lacking my head net, all I want to do is close my eyes, wave my arms madly around and run like a crazed animal.
Life on the tundra is not controlled by the sun or moon. It is ruled by the wind. The wind determines everything, when to paddle, when the bugs come out, when skies are blue or when you feel warm. Your level of comfort depends solely upon the wind. And she is fickle, always changing her mind and where she is coming from.
Stopping for lunch we are all in need of something to warm us up. I hand Jim a bag of Alessi Pasta Fazool soup and ask him to bring it to a boil. It is exactly what we need and gives us the mental fortitude and energy needed to tackle the continuous 12 mph wind with her sporadic gusts.
In the afternoon, a horizontal object spanning a creek bed gets our attention. Upon closer inspection we spy hidden in the bushes something that looks like a bunker. It is constructed of concrete and has a flat roof. There is a huge opening that faces the river. We are confuse and unsure what we see. Are we looking at a bunker from a Distant Early Warning radar station the United States built to detect incoming Soviet missiles during the cold war? Is this part of the DEW Line? Beaching the canoes and slogging our way through the soft, gray clay we struggle to climb the near vertical bank. Standing beside the structure we see a pipe protruding from a wall that disappears far off into bushes. Two of the walls have collapsed. The walls are thick and there is a hatch on the roof. Inside is a partially submerge boiler. Coal litters the ground. It appears to be a pump house. The mystery is solved when we consult the maps. Half a kilometer away are the railroad tracks and a water tower.
Throughout the afternoon the wind slowly dies down. By the time we arrive in camp at 6:00 pm the sky is blue and the sun is shining bright. One could easily get sunburn. There is something strange about the tundra sun. Throughout the day the intensity of the light makes it look and feel like it is mid-morning all day long. Mornings warm up quickly and the hottest time of the day is during dinner. Come evening when the sun should be going down the temperature starts to drop and drops quickly. However; to the eye, nothing has changed. We also discover that it is much easier to get sunburn. We speculate that all of it has something to do with the angle of the sun and its affects on solar radiation.
Larry and I are restless after dinner and decide to explore our surroundings. Our hike disturbs the arctic terns, plovers and sand pipers. When they become too agitated we carefully watch where we place out steps for we have discovered that the terns lay their camouflage colored eggs in nothing more than a depression of gravel. Once again we see plenty of signs of caribou, scat and the footprint of a lynx.
By 8:00 pm we are all in our tents and it is 64 degrees. Around 9:00 pm I hear the unmistakable sound of a helicopter. Eventually it becomes too loud to ignore and I stick my head outside my tent. I spy Jim, naked, sitting on a rock taking a sponge bath and coming directly at us 50 feet off the ground is the helicopter. As it passes directly overhead I wave and watch the helicopter rock back and forth in reply. Distanced paddled, 23 kilometers.
Day 4: Friday, June 28, 2007
I am the first to arise at 6:30 am and begin to take down my tent. While taking down my tent, far off in the distance I see something move. It is a lone caribou coming down a steep embankment. It slowly makes it way to the river’s edge but does not linger longer. All too quickly it vanishes into its surroundings and is gone.
The river takes on a different character today and begins to meander back and forth every one hundred yards. With every twist and turn, we are greeted with a small rapid. Taking turns, everyone has the opportunity of leading the group down the rapids.
Although it is a comfortable overcast morning, no one wants to go for a swim; thus, there are a few rapids we decide to scout first. As the morning passes by I find my confidence and bravado slowly building to a crescendo. Eventually I become the one who runs the ledges first. The majority of the ledges are located in the middle of a horseshoe turn and run diagonally across the river with rock piles to avoid at the top and bottom. Rising on my knees I look for a line to run below the ledge and slowly work my way towards it. Upon reaching the precipice I occasionally find myself having to take evasive action with a quick draw or pry. Sometimes I just have to boof my way over the top. Catching an eddy, I spin a 180 degrees around and use my paddle to point the best way over the ledge for the group.
dLate in the morning Larry is leading us through an S-turn rapid with Don following too closely behind him. Coming out of the rapid, Larry manages to avoid a big pillow rock but Don does not see it and finds himself perched on top of it. Trying to avoid Don, I boof a few rocks and eddy out to watch the drama unfold, ready to give a helping hand. Unfortunately, Don is unable to drop to his knees and stabilize his position. Instead he sits in his canoe, center of gravity high above the water, because he has not undergone surgery to replace both knee joints. Don had made the decision to postpone his surgery until after the trip and undergo rehabilitation during the winter in order to do the trip of a lifetime and visit Quetico one more time. Stuck fast and going nowhere, Don rocks his canoe sideways, forward and backward. He repeats the process until his stern breaks free. The current grabs hold of the stern and begins to spin him backwards and the gunnel begins to drop. It is too late to stop the roll and Don quickly finds himself standing in waist high water holding onto his canoe. Larry and I rush forward to retrieve his gear. Don eventually lets go of the canoe and walks toward shore.
Everyone helps him empty his canoe of water and reload his gear. Don refuses to change his clothes. He is more concern about retrieving the pink, heart shape rock he found for his dear wife from the Deer River. Back on the river, I stay close to Don and watch for signs of hypothermia. It is beginning to cloud up and the wind is slowly building.
Not far around another corner we spy a large, lone caribou feeding near the shore. It looks up and pays little attention to us until we get too close and then moves further downstream. Carefully and slowly, staying on the opposite bank closing the distance we approach trying to get the perfect camera shot. This game goes on for a kilometer before the caribou decides to vanish into the willows.
Eventually Jim snags a pillow rock and comes to brief stop. In another rapid, Larry takes on too much water and has to empty his canoe.
I too, eventually find a pillow rock and get myself stuck. Already on my knees and going nowhere, I mirror Don’s actions and rock my canoe sideways, forward and backwards. I feel the current grab hold of my stern and I begin to spin around. Sliding off the rock, I too, feel my gunnel drop and quickly shift my weight to pop it up to keep from going for a swim. It is a close call. Larry and Jim thought I was a goner. Don told me my gunnel touched the water.
Shortly thereafter, we stop for lunch, experience “almost rain” and fire up the stove for tea or coffee. A tactic I request Jim do to insure that Don stays warm after going for a swim because he still refuses to change his clothes. Supposedly, they are almost dry and he is warm. After lunch it stops raining and the sky turns a bright, vibrant blue. It rapidly warms up and becomes hot.
The afternoon is full of fun! We are running rapids about every 30 minutes, the type of rapids where you do not have to scout and can just blindly run them. The type of rapids where if you do get into trouble you do not need to worry about going for a swim, you just boof them and continue on. At the confluence of the Dog River we find the river to be extremely shallow and come close to having to drag our canoes. Beyond the confluence it becomes marshy and delta like. Here the Dog divides into multiple streams, distributaries, and gives little hint which may be active or inactive. We are in a maze of reeds and barely afloat. I check my GPS to confirm our location. Jim and I paddle into what appears to be potentially a deadened distributary choked full of reeds. The reeds close in on us until we are pushing more than paddling our way through a narrow channel with flowing water that barely accommodates our canoes single file. Eventually we see a wide expanse of water partially hidden by the reeds in front of us and know that we have arrived. Don and Larry join us and someone comments on how wide the Churchill is. The river is a kilometer wide.
It is late afternoon and the group wants to travel a little further downriver. We paddle past a few potential campsites in search of perfection and begin to find every inch of the shoreline covered in willows. The river becomes shallow, forcing us to paddle out in the middle amongst the shoals studded with low growing shrubs. Early in the evening we find a narrow shrub free shoreline that we can call home. Slogging and dragging our canoes through the soft gray clay we make it to shore and find the ground saturated with water. I pitch my tent on the highest spick of land only to find that I am several feet from a plover’s nest who is very upset at me. Larry helps me relocate my tent besides Jim’s. Water oozes out the ground around us and I hope my plastic outtie and innie keep me dry throughout the night.
It is a stifling hot 86 degrees and there is no breeze. We have no shade and it is too muddy and shallow to go for a swim. The sweat runs down our backs and beads form on our foreheads during dinner. After dinner we walk back and forth along the narrow shoreline because it is too hot to crawl inside our tents. Walking along the shoreline we see wolf tracks following the caribou, gnawed caribou bones and small bear tracks. Distance paddled; 28 kilometers.
Arriving in Churchill:
Day 5: Saturday, June 29, 2007
During the night all of us at some time or another, exited our tents to relieve ourselves and saw the brightly glowing full moon above the brush tops and at the same time a vibrant reddish, orange sun barely visible above the horizon on the far side of the river that appeared as if it was on fire. In between the sun and moon was the Churchill River; calm, flat, shining like a mirror. It was a beautiful sight, worthy of a photograph but my camera laid 15 feet away in the canoe unreachable due to the gray, mukluk sucking clay. Some events in life are meant to be cherished, stored away in one’s memory and this was one of them. Serenading us throughout the night were the calls of sandhill cranes.
Today was supposed to be a short paddle. The goal was to travel no more than 18 kilometers and find a nice campsite where we could lay over for 2 days of fishing or hiking the tundra. Instead, I find the crew paddling at a moderate pace and doing 10 kph out in the middle of the open river. Several times I tried to slow the pace down and get them to move towards shore or the shoals where the waterfowl are. Huge tundra swans are nesting along the Morrier Islands but the crew is content to share Jim’s binocular and watch them from a far.
However, we did stop to investigate a few cabins sitting back off the river amongst the trees or bushes in hopes of finding a high and dry clearing to pitch our tents. Instead we find the cabins surrounded by brush or worse, ravaged by marauding black bears.
By noontime we have arrived at the pumping station immediately above the weir. While walking around the premises we decide here is where we will eat lunch and make camp. During lunch a SUV arrives with students from the University of Manitoba. They are studying flies and are looking for the introduction of new genus’s that may have migrated northward due to global warming. Several walk around with butterfly nets while one stands guard holding a 12 gauge pump action shotgun. Upon seeing the shotgun, Larry and Don begin asking the same questions I had asked long ago when planning and preparing for the trip. The conversation goes something like this, “Are there any polar bears in the area? We do not have a shotgun. Is it safe to camp here?” Jim chimes in and reminds us that we do not need to worry about polar bears as he pours the juice from a tuna can onto the ground. It is the wrong time of the year to see polar bears. A student corrects him and tells us that a large polar bear was seen at the end of the road yesterday. Don and Larry’s courage is slowly melting. Jim continues to downplay the risk; however, he is listening very intently. I stand back and say nothing. I already know the answers and realize that Jim’s disregard played a role in Don and Larry’s decision not to bring a shotgun. The two need to truthfully assess the risks and ask themselves how comfortable do they feel traveling in polar bear country unarmed with nothing more than bear deterrents. Eventually Don asks the magical question “Is there a safer place to stay than here”? The students are unfamiliar with the area and do not give us a satisfactory answer.
At this time two local Meti arrive to repair the motor on the fishing boat beside our beached canoes. Larry speaks with the one drinking a beer while the other repairs the motor and asks, “Are there any polar bears in the area? We do not have a shotgun. Is it safe to camp here? We have been told that polar bears have been seen nearby. Is there a safer place to stay than here?” The Meti tells us that there is a tower nearby where we can sleep in. The Meti consults with his friend and we are also told that there are two public cabins across the river for folks just like us without guns. Behind the cabins is a rock quarry where the water should be warm enough to bathe in. Don asks where can we find these cabins and the intoxicated Meti points his finger across the 2 kilometer wide river at a speck that only he can see. His friend warns us to stay away from the weir. One does not want to be sweep over it and drown. Don states that he would feel more comfortable sleeping in a cabin. Larry agrees. I noticed that the two Meti are unarmed. I do not feel the need to relocate because of bears. I feel the need to relocate because I do not want to sleep in an area that sees so much traffic. I speak with Jim and the two of us are skeptical. We have seen plenty of cabins throughout our travels and the majority were never inviting. Can we trust the information from two drunken Indians?
I lead the way across the river slightly ferrying upstream. Supposedly we are about a mile above the weir and from our experience, the river flows fast. It is my intent to stay far away from the weir. Half way across I spy shoals and change course to intercept them. The water should be shallow and slow flowing, much like the area we camped in last night. Nearing the other side we see a cabin sitting back off the river; however, we can not locate the second cabin. Paddling into a small channel Larry finds a trail leading us through the willows and into a large, open clearing where the cabin sits. A broken window shows signs of a black bear’s presence but the cabin is in excellent condition. Building supplies lie behind the cabin. Inside we find two beds, a stove, table, chairs, two shotguns, ammunition of a different gauge and the rack from a caribou. The cabin is cozy and clean. Don and Larry mull it over, whether or not to sleep in the cabin or out in the open. It is a scorching 85 degrees. I decide to sleep out in the open where I will have a slight southern breeze to keep me cool and netting to keep the mosquitoes at bay. In the process of setting up our tents in the ankle high willows, Jim and I discover the hiding places for hundreds of black flies. Fortunately, it is too windy for them to want to take flight.
Nearing dinner time the heat becomes almost intolerable. I remove my tee-shirt and put on my bug jacket to keep the few black flies at bay. Don removes his shirt and models his sheep skin hat he brought for the cold weather while Larry holds the caribou rack up against his head. This elicits much laughter and joking regarding our cold weather clothing and the lack of warm weather clothing.
Throughout the evening I drink plenty of fluids to ward off the cramps that come with dehydration before crawling into my tent. Unfortunately, numerous black flies accompany me inside my tent. I try to ignore them but find a few that would prefer to crawl around and bite. After several minutes of hand slapping and pounding I have killed the majority of them. Not soon thereafter, I need to relief myself and exit the tent. Standing in the grass barefooted I can feel the water oozing up and out of the ground. Returning to my tent I find a cloud of black flies swarming behind my tent in the lee which also happens to be were I left the door open. This time it takes many minutes of hand slapping and pounding to kill them all. Afterwards, I make a mental note to pitch the tent with the door facing into the wind the next time I am in the tundra. I eventually feel the need to exit the tent again. Instead I grab my piss bottle and relief myself in it. Throughout the night I can hear the black flies hitting the tent, making popping noises upon impact. Distance paddled; 25 kilometers.
Day 6: Sunday, June 30, 2007
I am up at 6:15am and find thousands of mosquitoes beneath my rainfly. Walking towards the cabin, I see that Don or Larry has boarded up the broken window to keep either the mosquitoes or the man eating polar bears out. Their food packs are strung about the porch and unburned trash from last night’s dinner is in the trash can beside the cabin. I seriously doubt they had that much of a safer sleep. High tide ends in a couple of hours and there is no rush to quickly break camp. Jim enters the cabin and begins to make pancakes. Our plan is to paddle the deep, narrow channel that looks more like a small Michigan river and stay off of the Churchill River. We suspect the channel will take us directly to the weir and should be easier and faster to paddle than traveling through the shoals. Upon arriving at the weir we plan to ride the out going tide, cross the 2 kilometer wide river before it quickly becomes a six and a half kilometer wide river and hopefully arrive in Churchill before the mighty Churchill can drop 2.81 meters leaving us stranded on the mud flats, hundreds of yards from shore.
An hour later we break camp, tidy up the cabin and leave it better than we found it. Once on the water we slowly paddle towards the weir. Another hour finds us near the weir and we can see that the weir has been breeched in several locations where the winter ice pushed aside and downstream the large rocks and riprap that make up the dam.
dBeside the weir are two cabins. Both cabins have bars over the doors and windows and an observation deck on top. The first cabin is clean. Inside is a picnic table, bale of straw and a couple of unused shotgun slugs. The second cabin sits near the rock quarry and has a deck. Beside the cabin is a picnic table and outhouse.
Don, Larry and I decide to line the first breech in the weir above a small island until we are in a better position to run the pseudo-man made rapid. Jim believes he can run the third breech and paddles off. After lining the breech, the three of us drag our canoes across a slab of limestone and run the “S” shape channel that separates the weir from the island. It is an easy run that does require some quick maneuvering in the fast flowing water. Eddying out behind a large boulder near the third breech I grab my camera to take a photograph of Jim portaging his packs in a cloud of angry sea birds. Before I can click the shutter I hear Larry shout, “Behind you, look behind you”! Not far off my stern I see a seal checking me out. The three of us quickly become distracted by the numerous seals that surround us and watch them as they watch us. The current below the weir flows extremely fast and we find it difficult to watch the seals and dodge the many rocks at the same time. Eventually all three of us eddy out behind large boulders and wait for Jim’s arrival.
Crossing the river we begin to feel a light breeze blowing off Hudson Bay that slowly begins to build. The far side of the river is a long ways off and we can barely make out the grain bins of Churchill 12 kilometers away. Halfway cross the narrows I spy the white backs of the beluga whales. Turning around, we head back where we came in hopes of intercepting them. They appear to be avoiding us. All around us we can hear them clearing their blowholes. We sit in our canoes quietly, broadside to the waves, and try to predict where they might rise from the water.
We spin the canoes left, we spin them right, we twist our heads right, then left. It is maddening trying to take a picture. The wind continues to build and it is starting to feel uncomfortable riding in the troughs broadside. After half and hour or more, Don and Jim head for shore. Larry and I stay a little longer gambling for a perfect picture with the outgoing tide and building winds.
We eventually give up and begin paddling hard to catch up with Don and Jim. Unfortunately, the tides and current have taken us quite a ways downstream and the shoreline is much, much farther away than it previously was. Our paddling draws the attention of the belugas and they give chase. Rising close to the canoe, they clear their blowhole, take a breath and dive beneath the hull only to rise on the other side.
A few lie on their side and tilt their head towards us for a better view. It is a wonderful experience. Occasionally, I lie my paddle down and attempt to take a picture only to quickly pick up my paddle and brace in the building waves.
All too soon the belugas leave for deep water. By now it is blowing hard and we are in big, yet somewhat gentle swells. We fight to keep our bows pointed towards Churchill. The current is pushing us north and the wind is pushing us south causing our canoes to weathervane and turn broadside into the waves. Eventually, I stop fighting when I realize that the conditions are causing me to grossly ferry across the river. Far from shore, boulders emerge from the river and the canoes pass by broadside at an alarming pace. Eventually the boulders close in on us making it more difficult to dodge them. It soon becomes impossible to pivot the canoes around fast enough to pass through the narrow gaps that keep coming at us faster and faster. Calling it quits we head for deep waters and question whether the tide has won and we will be dragging our canoes and slogging our way across the mudflats. The grain bins are getting closer and the waves are beginning to break. The river’s personality is getting mean. Without the current we would be wind bound. Shortly before noon we arrive at the flats in Churchill. Waves are crashing onto shore and the wind is blowing fiercely. Several hundred yards away are shanties and further still are the buildings of Churchill. After taking a brief rest and studying our surroundings we decide to head further downriver to shorten our portage into town. Launching our canoes into the breaking surf we quarter the waves and slowly move away from shore. Spinning 180 degrees, our bows pointing towards shore we float broadside into the waves as we race down the shore. When we get to close to shore we turn away and repeat the process over and over again, zigzagging our way down to the shanties. We exit the river beside the shanties and carry our canoes and gear mere yards to the road.
Greeting us is an intoxicated Meti. Having neither plans nor itinerary Don immediately begins questioning him where the cheapest place to stay in town is. Another fellow shows up and Don and Larry bombard him with questions as to where to stay. Grinning and laughing, he quotes us ten dollars a night to stay in a shanty. We pass on the offer and the two volunteer to find someone to give us a lift into town. Several minutes later, Gary and our friends arrive in a pickup truck. More discussion ensues and I hear that we can stay free at Caribou Hall owned by the Boy Scouts of Canada. Larry and Gary leave to find Louise who manages the property. Another pickup truck arrives to give us a lift. Don, Jim and I load all our gear and two canoes onto the back of the pickup truck. Climbing inside I leave Don and Jim to watch the remaining two canoes while the mayor of the town takes me to Caribou Hall.
Driving down Kelsey Blvd we see preparations for today’s parade and I over hear the mayor comment that Don and Jim are on their own. He needs to get ready for the Canada Day parade. It is an extremely short ride to Caribou Hall. After being dropped off, I stand guard over our possessions and patiently wait for the crew to find me sitting on the doorstep.
Half an hour passes and I decide to remove my mukluks and eat lunch while watching the townsfolk move about in a flurry of activity trying to get ready for the parade and other festivities. Another half hour passes and I begin to wonder if the three of them have decided to watch the parade without me. An hour later the sirens wail and the parade begins. I am extremely irritated. Churchill is not that big of a town. I drag our canoes to the side of the hall and stash our packs behind the building. Before leaving, I rifle through our packs looking for valuables and take them with me. Walking several blocks I arrive just in time to catch the last 5 minutes of the parade. I look around and do not see Don, Jim or Larry. When the parade ends I returned to Caribou Hall and wait for another hour.
I am beyond irritation and decide to take matters into my own hands and go looking for them. Very quickly I find Jim standing beside the welcome sign and polar bear statue near the grain bins. The two of us head towards the train station to meet up with Don. Don is standing guard over the two canoes lying beside a semi trailer that Louise uses for storage. Together, the three of us leave and easily find Larry standing in the train station parking looking for me. Apparently, there was a miscommunication! No one knew where I had gone with our gear. Supposedly, Larry, Gary and Geronimo drove around town looking for me and drove past Caribou Hall three times. Don was beginning to think that I was shanghaied. After returning everyone’s valuables, I learn that Churchill is a safe town and the townsfolk would not mess with our gear. Now with money, we walk towards Hudson Square where the town is having a picnic. At the picnic I am introduced to Geronimo. He is a big, pleasant, elderly Meti who once lived in Churchill and is here visiting his niece, the Deputy Mayor. With Geronimo’s help, we begin our quest to find Louise. Louise is a businesswoman and Councilor for Community Infrastructure Services and makes things happen. She is also a very busy woman and is extremely hard to track down or keep up with. We need to find her because everything is closed in Churchill and we can not stay at Caribou Hall. Louise owns two hotels and has the key to the semi-trailer. Eventually we find Louise and get a room at the Aurora Inn. Gary graciously delivers our gear to the semi-trailer and drops us off at the inn. Unlocking the door to our room we are pleasantly surprised. Aurora Inn was once an apartment building. We have a kitchen, living room and loft with 2 queen size beds. Dinner is at the Seaport Hotel, the only restaurant and business that is open.
Day 7: Monday, July 1, 2007
Heading towards the Seaport Hotel for breakfast we cross paths with Geronimo. He insists on driving us and we arrive at the restaurant to find it close. We are too early. Geronimo decides to give us a tour of the tank farms, grain bins and wharf.
After breakfast we go to Sea North Tours to purchase tickets to tour Prince of Wales Fort. The tour consists of two parts, an interpreted tour of the fort and a ride in a zodiac raft to visit the belugas. While waiting for the tour to begin, we meet a fellow Hoosier from Indianapolis, practically a neighbor for me, who is also vacationing in Churchill. Sitting on the sides of the zodiac tightly clinging onto the ropes, we smoothly skim across the water.
It is an exhilarating, comfortable, dry ride. Upon reaching the whale pod, our guide begins talking about their conservation, behavior, diet and reproduction. While talking about how they communicate and use echolocation, he lowers stereo hydrophones into the water enabling us to hear their high-pitched, resonant whistles, squeals, clucks, mews, chirps, trills and bell-like tones. Their large repertoire of vocalizations has given them the nickname “sea canaries”. Asking questions, we discover that we had erred while trying to interact with them in our canoes. The whales are very social animals and will approach you if they know you are there. We should have been making noise instead of sitting still, quietly bobbing up and down on the waves in the center of the river like flotsam. This is why they gave pursuit when we were forced to head for shore.
Landing at Prince of Wales Fort, we are greeted by an armed park ranger and hordes of mosquitoes. Before strolling to the fort’s gates, the ranger discusses polar bear safety and what steps are taken to protect us and what we should do in the event we see a bear. During the course of her discussion she chokes on a mosquito for several minutes.
From a distance the fort looks as if it belongs in Europe and not the far Canadian North. It is an impressive stone fortress, “star” shaped with four protruding bastions. It took more than 40 years to build because the men spent a large amount of their time just trying to survive. It was not too difficult to envision how harsh, extremely cold, buggy and smoky the quarters must have been for the men of the Hudson Bay Company.
We return to the Seaport Hotel for lunch and while waiting for our food to be served, I see Dave Pancoe and introduce myself. I update Dave regarding the river conditions because I know he has a guided trip coming up soon. I also tell him that he needs to do a better job at marketing this little gem of a river. Before he can leave to guide his walking tour of Australians out on the tundra, I thank him for providing the information he shared to insure our trip was a success. After lunch we go to the train station to see the Park’s Canada museum. It is very similar to the Heritage North Museum we visited in Thompson.
Geronimo finds us leaving the train station and graciously offers to drive us outside of town to see other sites of interest and hopefully find a polar bear since it is Canada Day and all the businesses, museums and souvenir shops are closed. Heading south, we see row upon row of dogs and their individual doghouses out in the open near the coast. We are told that these are pure breed Canadian Eskimo Dogs. Occasionally a polar bear will come to steal food but they leave the dogs alone. Supposedly, the dogs are the oldest indigenous domestic dog species still existing in North America and are currently one of the rarest dogs in the world.
Farther down the road we see a grounded freighter. During low tide it is possible to walk down to the freighter.
Turning away from the coast we pass Miss Piggy, a crashed C46 aircraft that was operated by Lamb Air. She was called Miss Piggy because she was able to hold much freight, including pigs. She crashed on November 13, 1979 flying a cargo of 1 skidoo and many cases of soda pop for the Arctic Co-op in Chesterfield Inlet after loosing oil pressure and clipping a hydro pole when trying to return to the airport. Her original paint of white and red with the Lamb Air markings was recently painted over with gray for the movie, The Snow Walker.
Geronimo takes us to the old United States Air Force base that operated until the end of the Second World War before it was turned over to the US Department of National Defense. In 1964 the air base was sold to Transport Canada. All that remains is the airport and its 9,200 foot long runway. There is no hint that the airbase was a town in itself. Gone are the two-story townhouses, garrison theater, the elementary and secondary schools and bowling alley.
Approximately 20 miles from town we arrive at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, an independent, non-profit research institute with a mandate to facilitate research and education in the sub-arctic. The facility provides logistical support to researchers working in the Hudson Bay region. In addition, it monitors climate change through several long-term ecological research sites. Prior to being a research center, it was where the Canadian Space Agency and NASA jointly conducted studies up to the mid 80’s launching research and meteorological equipment using sounding rockets. The Churchill Rocket Research Range was instrumental in studying the earth’s near space environment and mid-auroral belt. During its period of operation, the facility was involved in the launch of over 3,500 rockets on a year round basis. Driving through the research center grounds we see abandon radar installations and several launch towers sticking out of the tops of buildings with their blast doors closed.
Farther back in the Impact Zone we begin to find remnants of rockets littering the ground and rocket engines sticking up out of the ground. Geronimo continues on until we found ourselves off road and in 4-wheel drive slip sliding amongst heavy brush in search of polar bears. Geronimo comments, “This is good polar bear territory. I don’t know why we not see them.” The terrain gets worse. Don, Jim, Larry and I become fearful that we might get stuck. No one knows where we are. We are unarmed and have no protective clothing nor Deet, walking back is not a good option. Larry asks Geronimo to turn back before we get stuck. Geronimo takes a different way back. Traveling on back roads that see very little traffic, I over hear him say, “I don’t remember that road. Where are we?” Eventually he figures it out and we find ourselves high on an overlook looking out across the remnants of the boreal forest and tundra. It is a spectacular view but we do not linger for the mosquitoes are bad.
Driving back towards town, we stop at the pumping station where we first landed. Geronimo then takes us to a three story high tower used to observe birds. It is gated and is located near the weir. Beside the tower are toilets and picnic tables. Sitting away from the tower is a swimming hole where children are playing. Leaving the tower, Geronimo points out several good trout streams and areas where grain dust, a waste from the grain bins has been dumped onto the ground making the grass grow lush and green.
Arriving in town just in time for dinner, we invite Geronimo to eat with us. Unfortunately, he needs to get home and return the truck but does agree to have breakfast with us tomorrow morning. That evening, I have delicious a meal of arctic char, baked potato and tossed salad with blue cheese dressing.
Day 7: Sunday, Tuesday, July 2, 2007
We meet Geronimo at Gypsy’s Bakery and have an outstanding breakfast. While waiting for the souvenir shops to open, we are taken to Cape Merry. Cape Merry is the site where a cannon battery was built in 1717 to help guard the river and the river’s mouth. If capture, it could be used to fire upon Fort Churchill across the river. Thus, in 1747 the battery was relocated to a safer strategic location. Nowadays, you can still see the site of the first battery and remains of the powder magazine. The second battery still exists with a lone, original cannon taken from Prince of Wales Fort that evolved from the humble beginnings of Fort Churchill.
Returning to town, we visit several stores looking for gift ideas for love ones back home. Geronimo takes us to the Eskimo Museum and leaves. Here the history, life and times of the Inuit are told through their use of art work and tools. We marvel at the hunting scenes delicately reproduced in miniature on pieces of ivory and whale bone and enjoy looking at the carvings of ivory and soap stone. Afterwards, we stroll back to and make our purchases. I particularly enjoyed shopping at The Arctic Trading Company.
Larry and I are taken into the back rooms and shown the various hides they have purchased to make the handmade slippers and mukluks with beaded patterns and fur linings. In another room we see where caribou and moose tuftings are turned into beautiful florals. We see tuftings taken to the next level and turned into two dimensional sculptures depicting polar bears, birds, animals and a slice of Inuit life working the land.
After lunch we visit the Town Centre Complex. The complex is a multi-use facility housing many different services and recreational venues. Local government offices, hospital, school for grades 1 through 12 and a public library are located within the complex. Recreational facilities include a hockey arena, curling rink, gymnasium, swimming pool, bowling alley and a 300-seat theatre.There is also a child's playground and a cafeteria.
We check out of our hotel room before dinner and Geronimo helps us get our gear and canoes to the train station. He is surprise to see that we paddle solo canoes. Sorting gear at the train station, I notice that is Geronimo scrutinizing our gear. All of a sudden I get the impression that he realizes we are not your average run-of-the-mill weekend paddlers but true seasoned, hardcore wilderness canoeists. I can not help but wonder how different our travels around town might have been if he knew this in advance. Walking to the truck he tells us few tales of hunting near Rankin Inlet, an Inuit hamlet before taking us to Gypsy’s Bakery for one last meal. Throughout my caribou dinner I listen intently to Geronimo’s tales and recognize that there is more to this friendly, elderly man than we realized. He too, is an adventurer. Larry seeks out Gary to say good-by and learns that Geronimo was once a hockey player who spent most of his time in the penalty box; thus, his nickname. When we bring this to Geronimo’s attention, he just smiles with a twinkle in his eye.
At the train station we say good-bye, shake hands and step inside to exchange our tickets for Thursday’s departure for today. We sign the guest registry and I discover that someone from Plainfield, where I reside, was visiting Churchill last week. A small world, indeed! Our last minutes are spent enjoying a play about Samuel Hearne at the train station. Hearne was an explorer from the 1700’s who went on several expeditions throughout northern Canada searching for copper and mapping the way for future explorers and trappers. Samuel Hearne, Canada’s version of Lewis and Clark, played a major role in the making of Canada.
A few brief words regarding Churchill:
Although our stay in Churchill was brief, it was intense. We found all the people to be friendly and extremely caring. Churchill has a lot to brag about. The Town Centre Complex is very progressive and uncommon amongst northern Canadian communities. The townsfolk have pride in their community and it shows for it is a clean and safe town. The restaurants are excellent and surprisingly, there is fresh produced to be had with each meal, all at a reasonable cost. The town is quaint and yet, has the flavor of being a frontier community. I want to thank you, Gary and Louise, for the two of you were very instrumental in getting us a place to stay and making us feel like we were at home. And lastly, I want to give a special thanks to Geronimo. We greatly appreciated your camaraderie and generosity. You took us to places tourists normally do not see or have to pay big dollars to experience. Because of you, we have a better understanding of your culture and what it is like to live in such a harsh environment. You taught us much about the far North, more so than you will ever imagine. And because of this, our next visit into polar bear country will be enjoyable and safer. Thank you!