Huskies, Heritage and History

After a really good night’s sleep (the first one in days) we woke up early this morning and looked out of the window.  It was still dark (it didn’t get light until 8.00am) and a glittering coat of frost covered the ground.  A quick look at the TV showed us that the current temperature was -2°C with a wind-chill factor of -7°C.

We dressed and went along to the restaurant for our breakfast, which was a serve-yourself buffet.  We decided to have a substantial brekkie to set ourselves up for the (cold!) day ahead so we started with hot porridge, then bacon, sausage, pancakes, scrambled eggs washed down with fresh orange juice and good hot coffee.

Today our party of 35 had been split into two groups; we were in group one which meant we were doing the dog sled ride in the morning, and the Churchill history and heritage tour in the afternoon.  Wally came into the dining room and asked everyone in our group to assemble in reception for the bus at 8.30am.

After breakfast we went back to our room and dressed for the weather in thermal underwear (Damart – real passion killers but essential in the north of Canada!), fleece trousers, a t-shirt with a fleece hoody over the top, thick socks, walking boots, Regatta anorak, sheepskin mitts, scarf and fleece hat with ear-flaps.  🙂  We then went along to the reception/main entrance and stepped outside.  It was very cold and a few fine snowflakes drifted town.

We boarded the old school bus and Wally drove us out to the place where we would experience a real Husky sled ride, Blue Sky Mush.  The bus pulled up in the middle of nowhere; just a few tent-like buildings and lots of dog kennels.  We could hear the deafening sound of lots of dogs yapping, barking and howling.  We were taken into the largest tent and introduced to Gerald Azure, the owner of Blue Sky Mush and trainer of the Huskie dogs.  He and his wife Jenafor live and work in Churchill and indeed were married in the tent next to their Huskies.  🙂

Gerald and his eldest brother Ernest would be our ‘mushers’ for the day.  Because there was only a light sprinkling of snow (it was still only October, after all!) instead of going out on a sledge with runners on it, we would go out instead on a wheeled cart which consisted of two passengers, the musher at the back and a team of eight dogs in tandem pulling the cart.

Gerald explained to us how the dogs were trained and disciplined from small puppies.  He copies what their mother would do, even down to wrestling them to the ground and biting their ear (gently).  He didn’t believe in hitting or otherwise hurting his dogs.  You could tell he had a real love for his animals.

We went outside the tent to watch the dogs being harnessed up ready for their teams to pull the carts.  They were really raring to go and the din made by their barking was unbelievable!  When they were harnessed and attached to the sled, the musher gave the order and off they went!  They didn’t half go fast!  🙂

Eventually our turn came around; we climbed into the cart where we were covered in a sort of ‘sleeping bag’ type thing, and we were also given safety glasses to wear because of the grit and debris kicked up by the heels of the running dogs.  Ernest was our musher and he gave the command and the dogs took off like a rocket!  We went at some speed; much faster than you would imagine.  As we were also travelling into the wind, we were glad of our warm hats, gloves and the safety glasses.  We sped through the sparse countryside, consisting of rocks, fir trees, ice and snow and not a lot else!  It really was quite exhilarating and something else we can say we’ve done!  🙂

Once we got back to the tent we were glad of the shelter and the warmth after our sled ride.  We enjoyed some hot chocolate and home-made bannock, a sort of cake with currants in (like a big currant bun).  Once everyone was back inside, Gerald and Jenafor brought in two of their dogs who were allowed a couple of Bonio biscuits as a treat.  🙂  All of the dogs have names; these two were Thunder and Sound.

The dogs ‘retire’ at around eight years of age, then they can be adopted as pets.  Gerald is very strict and doesn’t just let anyone adopt them.  Also, he likes to keep in touch with the dogs’ adopted families so he can stay up to date with the welfare of the dogs.  If, for example, the dogs’ new owners decide they cannot keep them for any reason, then Gerald insists that they give them back to him, not just give them to anyone else.  It’s great to see that these animals are really looked after as there is too much animal cruelty and abuse in the world today.

Back at the Lazy Bear Lodge we went along to the restaurant for our lunch.  We enjoyed a meal of home-made hamburger with potato wedges and salad; it was tasty and filling.  After lunch we met once again in reception for the bus to take us around the town on the cultural tour.

Churchill is not a very big place at all, and is very remote.  Its latitude is 58° 47′ north.  Churchill’s winters are colder than a location at a latitude of 58 degrees north should warrant, given its coastal location.  The shallow Hudson Bay freezes, eliminating any maritime moderation.  Prevailing northerly winds from the North Pole jet across the frozen bay and chill it to a −26.7 °C (−16.1 °F) January average.  Juneau, Alaska, by contrast, is also located at 58 degrees north but is moderated by the warmer and deeper Pacific Ocean.  Juneau’s−3.5 °C (25.7 °F) January average temperature is a full 23.2 °C (41.8 °F) warmer than Churchill’s.  Yet in summer, when the Hudson Bay thaws, Churchill’s summer is moderated. Churchill’s 12.0 °C (53.6 °F) July average temperature is almost the same as Juneau’s 13.8 °C (56.8 °F) July average.

Around 56% of Churchill’s population is made up of Aboriginal people (you can’t call them “Indians” or “Eskimos” any more, which is considered mildly pejorative).  Churchill is a popular location for ecotourism, as well as for Arctic research.  The town also has a health centre, several hotels, tour operators, some restaurants, a rail line and a shipping marine port with a large grain elevator.

We were taken to the Prince of Wales Fort on the edge of the Hudson Bay.  It was bitterly cold when we got off the bus and  we were amused to see Wally carrying his rifle.  You had to be on the lookout for polar bears, and there were signs warning you of this.  Obviously no-one wants to kill a polar bear;  rather shots are just fired into the air to scare them off.

Inukshuk in Churchill, Manitoba

We also went to the Polar Bear “jail” in the town.  This is where polar bears that venture too close to the town are taken; they are darted to sedate them, then taken to the holding facility until they can be airlifted about 30 miles away.  Any closer than that and they’ll just make their way back again, particularly as they will be starving and ready to eat anything after their 3-4 months of fasting during the summer months.

We were then able to go to the post office and have our passports stamped with “Churchill – Polar Bear Capital of the World”.  This was good because we also had penguin stamps in our passports from our visit to Antarctica in 2006.  🙂

Opposite the post office was a liquor store, so we went in and bought a bottle of wine and a half-bottle of vodka, so we could sneak it into the dining room and add it to our soft drinks at the Lazy Bear.  😉

Once we got back to the lodge, we decided to have a nap – we were still slightly jet lagged but also tired after our action-packed day.  We had a sleep then opened the bottle of Cava we’d bought.  We were still quite full from the substantial lunch we’d had, so we decided not to go to dinner.  Instead we just stayed in our room, watch TV, read and then wandered along to the Seaport Hotel bar later on.

Tomorrow we would be venturing on to the subarctic tundra in search of the King of the Arctic, the Polar Bear. 🙂

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