RESULTS FROM THE 2014 POLAR BEAR VIEWING EXPEDITION TO CHURCHILL, MANITOBA

by Paul D. Maley

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A sled dog in training as seen on a Churchill street corner

Our Ring of Fire Expeditions team  of 13 flew to Winnipeg, Manitoba, gateway to polar bear country on October 22, returning five days later.  We had hoped to observe the partial eclipse of the Sun on October 23 and see aurora during the trip, but cloudy conditions prevailed every day and night.  In Churchill the temperature varied from 38 degrees to 28 degrees F with periods of rain and light snow flurries and brisk winds. The town is located at the end of the road literally and at the end of the rail line. It was settled at least around 1700 BC if not earlier.  The oldest commercial corporation in the world (Hudson Bay Company) was established in 1670 and controlled much of the fur trade in the Churchill area.

Interestingly Canada’s first astronomical observations were made in Churchill. As part of the plans of the Royal Society to make observations of the June 3, 1769 Transit of Venus, which would lead to an accurate determination of the  atronomical unit (the distance between the Earth and the Sun), William Wales and an assistant, Joseph Dymond, were sent to Prince of Wales fort on Hudson Bay to observe the transit,with the pair being offered a reward of £200 for a successful conclusion to their expedition.  Due to winter pack ice making the journey impossible during the winter months, Wales and Dymond were obliged to begin their journey in the summer of 1768, setting sail on 23 June.

Ironically, Wales when volunteering to make a journey to observe the transit, had requested that he be sent to a more hospitable location. The party arrived at Prince of Wales Fort in August 1768. Due to the scarcity of building materials at the chosen site, the party had to bring not only astronomical instruments, but the materials required for the construction of living quarters.  On their arrival, the pair constructed two “Portable Observatories”, which had been designed by the engineer John Smeaton. Construction work occupied the pair for a month and then they settled in for the long winter season.

Located next to the Churchill train station is the Churchill Museum.  This small but very well organized collection of exhibits has a wealth of information about the region and its history, both natural and human. Life-size dioramas depict a polar bear maternity den, human polar camp, the region’s diverse animal life and so on. Their theatre is state-of-the-art and very much worth attending to see the films about the aurora borealis, Wapusk wilderness area, etc. 

At the other end of the train station you can see the old deck-cannon and the huge amazing shadow-clock employed by astronomers in 1769 to help observe the transit of Venus. 

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A recreation of what the portable observatory was believed to have looked like in 1769

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The Prince of Wales fort (aerial view)

When the day of the transit finally arrived, the pair were lucky to have a reasonably clear day and they were able to observe the transit at around local midday. However, the two astronomers’ results for the time of first contact, when Venus first appeared to cross the disc of the Sun, differed by 11 seconds; the discrepancy was to prove a cause of upset for Wales. They were to stay in Canada for another three months before making the return voyage to England, thus becoming the first scientists to spend the winter at Hudson Bay. On his return, Wales was still upset by the difference in the observations and refused to present his findings to the Royal Society until March 1770; however, his report of the expedition, including the astronomical results as well as other climatic and botanical observations, met with approval and he was invited by James Cook to join his next expedition.

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A view we hoped to see but were unable to due to weather. L. Palmer airport photo.

The Lazy Bear Lodge was our base of operations where the group spent 4 nights  including all meals and two full days of polar bear touring.  We had hoped for more bear sightings than we got but temperatures were above normal for the season and bears were relatively inactive. 2014-polar-bear-viewing

 Lazy Bear Lodge

The lodge, made entirely of wood, is the best place to stay in the small town of Churchill.  Everything tends to be quite expensive here based on checking out the one market in town. Many standard items are two to four times more expensive than in the US.  The lodge has a nice restaurant with a varied menu.  There is no alcohol served there but a liquor store is just down the street. 2014-polar-bear-viewing

Ordering coffee might result in this designer bear appearance when delivered to your table. L. Palmer photo.

Churchill itself has about 800 residents and perhaps a nearby bear population of around 1000.  Bears do wander into town and if they cause trouble end up in the bear jail.  Tourists flock to this place, known as the polar bear capitol of the world.  Bears can be seen in the months of October and November as they wait for the water in Hudson Bay to freeze.

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A typical bear – related sign outside of Churchill

The group visited the reconstructed cannon at Cape Merry positioned directly across from the Prince of Wales fort.  You can still see the site of the first battery and the remains of a powder magazine, which still has the original limestone mortar.  The Hudson’s Bay Company’s Committee in London was not pleased with either the location or the construction of the battery. The battery was located directly across from the fort’s eastern wall. The cannon, if captured, could be used by the enemy, to fire upon the fort. Built into the middle of the battery, the powder magazine was in a dangerous position, any stray sparks could ignite the black powder. The flag pole on the top of the magazine made an excellent target for an enemy ship. In 1747 Joseph Robson, a stone mason and surveyor for the Company, was instructed to relocate the battery to a second site. It still stands today, having been rebuilt in 1959-60 using stone blocks found at the site along with modern cement. A lone cannon stands as a reminder of its original intent. This cannon is one of the original 42 cannon from Prince of Wales Fort.

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Fossil remains in limestone in the fortifications at Cape Merry

The local weather forecasting tool is a hands on affair about a 200m walk from the lodge.

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The weather rock. J. Stegeman photo.

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 The polar bear jail

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Warning signs of possible unexploded ordnance during polar bear viewing trips

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We viewed polar bears from this type of vehicle

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The holding cell used to take bad bears off to the jail

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Part of the task of bear hunting is maneuvering by the two crawlers so everyone can get a good view. Here the second bear of the day is spotted and one vehicle attempts to ‘push’ it in the direction of the other crawler.

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 Viewing bears from the large front crawler window. D. Moran photo.

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The two bear buddies. J.Pohlman photo.

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Catching a bear through a window gap.  J. Stegeman photo.

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Most images were taken by sliding down half of the glass window and pointing lenses in the direction of the nearest polar bear.

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Closeup of a bear. J. Pohlman photo.

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Bear on the move. P.Maley photo.

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Bear sacked out. D. Moran photo.

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Yawning bear. J.Pohlman photo.

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A polar bear came up and licked the tires of the crawler. This was a view from the back deck.

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The crawler vehicle negotiating really muddy ground where an ordinary car would get stuck

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A sea bird comes in for a landing near the crawler. D.Moran photo.

On our second night at Lazy Bear the group went dog mushing. Although there was no snow yet on the ground, each pair of travelers were carted around by a team of six dogs along a track.  The dog musher used a head lamp part of the time, while the rest of the track we covered in complete darkness with the dogs seeing their away around potholes and bumps. elaine_denise1

Denise Knightley and Elaine Williams photographed after their dog mush experience.

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Denise and David English (center and right) and their lead sled dogs

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Jenny Stegeman (left) and Debbie Moran and their lead dogs

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Warning sign at the dog mushing venue tree_ring1

 A section of tree showing various ring historical events.

misspiggy The image above shows a crashed C-46 aircraft that was operated by Lamb Air.  This can be found on the scenic route along Hudson Bay close to the Institute of Arctic Ecophysiology.  She is called Miss Piggy because she was able to hold so much freight and once did have pigs on board.  On November 13, 1979 Miss Piggy was flying a cargo of 1 skidoo and many cases of soda from Churchill to Chesterfield Inlet.  The aircraft lost oil pressure in the left engine shortly after takeoff from Churchill airport.  The crew of three tried to return the aircraft to the landing field but clipped hydro poles with one wing and crash landed on the rocks.  Two of the three crew were seriously hurt.  The original white and red with Lamb Air markings were painted over years later with gray paint for a movie.

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The aircraft that we used to fly between Winnipeg and Churchill was an ATR-42. J. Stegeman photo.

Bill Ostrander sent me an email indicating that he was at Lazy Bear Lodge the previous week.  The weather was equally bad except on one night (October 14) between 8 and 11pm when the sky cleared and he was able to capture this aurora from the Churchill Northern Science Center.  The photo below was hand held and you can see the constellation of Taurus lyingon its side just below top center.  The science center is located on Launch Road at the rocket range.

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 An example of aurora we missed a week before our trip. B. Ostrander photo.

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Clothes ‘closet’ at Lazy Bear Lodge: 2 pegs and 4 hangars. D.Knightley photo.

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The group tables at the Lazy Bear restaurant where all of our meals were taken. D.Knightley photo.

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Spruce tree indigenous to Churchill with branches on the windward side. D. Knightley photo.

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 Sign near the Lodge. D.Knightley photo.

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 Bear sign. L.Palmer photo.

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 Undulating rock. L. Palmer photo.

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