Polar boulders. Caribushes. Muskrocks. Victoria-based wildlife guide Andrew MacPherson has seen them all during summer sojourns in the Arctic.
Drift through Wapusk National Park near the west shore of Hudson Bay aboard a slow-moving train and you will too, as wildlife melds with the landscape. A quartz boulder suddenly morphs into a polar bear sprawled in a grove of white birch. All at once a patch of spongy, bleached-yellow moss sprouts a sik sik – an arctic ground squirrel the size of a cat – curious about passers-by.
Wapusk is a national park most Canadians will more likely cross by rail rather than on foot and which was created in 1996 with pregnant polar bears in mind. In fact, wapusk is a Cree word for “white bear.” Female polar bears head to dens as far as 100-kilometres inland, MacPherson explained to Pique during a recent visit. The naturalist emphasized the uniqueness of this transition zone at the 60th parallel, where Arctic tundra meets boreal forest. All three North American bear species are found here – black, polar, and barren land grizzly.
The word barren neatly sums up this mantle of peat. Roly-poly is another way of looking at it: summer heat combined with a relentless upswell of the earth’s crust causes the tundra to ripple. Across the taiga, Via Rail’s Hudson Bay glides delicately over a gravel rail bed layered atop muskeg and permafrost. When warmed, the undulating ground slows train travel to a crawl, not great for business if you’re hauling grain to the port of Churchill but a trance-inducing pace for wildlife watchers. Between now and November is prime time to catch the show, both in the national park and Churchill, as polar bears rouse themselves from summer semi-hibernation and gather on the shores around Hudson Bay to await the arrival of shelf ice.
Just as unpredictable as the annual freeze up is the future of train travel in northern Manitoba itself. According to Catherine Kaloutsky, Via Rail’s senior communications officer, this may be either one of the last years the Hudson Bay operates or the dawn of a new era, depending on whether or not the U.S.-based owner, OmniTRAX, puts money into upgrades or not. When approached during the 36-hour, 1,700-kilometre journey north from Winnipeg to Churchill, Kaloutsky estimated the cost of repairs at $1 million per mile.
Parks Canada commemorates the construction of the Hudson Bay Railway in the 1920s as a National Historic Event. Before the passenger train service was named Hudson Bay in 1997 – the year OmniTrax took responsibility for the rail line as well as operations at the Port of Churchill – the twice-weekly run was called the Muskeg Express.
In 1964, pianist Glenn Gould drew inspiration from the train trip he took to Churchill for an hour-long radio documentary, The Idea of the North. At the time he was quoted as saying the he had long been intrigued by that incredible tapestry of tundra and taiga which constitutes the Arctic and sub-Arctic of our country.
With one notable exception, not much has changed since Gould’s northern journey. In 1999, the creation of Nunavut meant that Churchill became a crossroads for the new federal territory, as it has been for citizens of northeastern Manitoba and the Northwest Territories. As meteorologist Carmen Spiech explained to Pique during a walk along the shore of Hudson Bay, if you want to set foot in Nunavut, all you have to do is wade into the bay’s chilly surf. Nunavut is huge, she said, almost a third the size of the whole country. Its land mass includes the ocean floor beneath the bay. A lot of its residents journey here for health care, which means Churchill’s population is made up of Inuit, Dene, and Cree, as well as every other nationality that arrived in more recent times.
Arresting sights for visiting southerners are the firearms carried as casually as umbrellas by many northern residents. As a precaution, both Spiech and MacPherson shouldered rifles. One look at the size of polar bears, which range from 400 to 680 kilos on average, is explanation enough.
Long-necked Ursus maritimus makes grizzly and black bears look downright cuddly in comparison. Spiech, who lives on the outskirts of Churchill, wouldn’t consider even walking from her home to her car without protection.
Not for nothing are these bears referred to as polar boulders as they silently shape-shift to fool potential prey, whether seals, beluga whales, sik sik or humans, all of whom are featured on the omnivore’s menu.
Certainly the most popular way for tourists to explore the taiga is aboard one of the lumbering tundra buggies, enormous fat-tired vehicles designed to inflict minimum imprint on the delicate landscape while delivering maximum visual rewards to riders. Note: travellers prone to motion sickness would be well advised to self-medicate or wear acupressure wrist bands, as tundra buggies rock from side-to-side when crossing creekbeds and pebble beaches.
By far the most enjoyable way to experience this exotic countryside is on foot. Delicate features, such as boletus mushrooms, Labrador tea and cloudberries, which resemble salmonberries and taste like apricots, provide a surprisingly complex ground cover. Just mind those white boulders as you wander.
Access: For information on Wapusk National Park, visit www.pc.gc.ca/eng/pn-np/mb/wapusk/index.aspx. Information on Churchill is posted at www.churchill.ca, www.destinationchurchill.com and www.travelmanitoba.com.
Via Rail’s Hudson Bay train schedule is posted at www.viarail.ca.
To learn more about Glenn Gould’s “The Idea of North” project, visit www.hermitary.com/solitude/gould.html.
Jack Christie is an independent journalist based in Vancouver. To view more of his writing plus photographs and a video of Churchill by his partner-in-creativity, Louise Christie, visit www.jackchristie.com.