The aurora borealis or Northern Lights have long been an item on our bucket list. We were finally able to see the lights in January and February 2017. We booked a trip to Churchill, Manitoba, in subarctic Canada through Natural Habitat Adventures (Nat Hab). Churchill is supposed to be one of the hot spots for aurora and polar bear viewing. The two don’t generally overlap. The bears come into Churchill in October and November, leaving when the ice on Hudson Bay is strong enough to support their weight. The aurora is generally best seen in January and February when the skies are clearest. We had traveled with Nat Hab in January 2016 to visit the monarch butterfly sanctuaries in Michoacan, Mexico. Monarch butterfly viewing can be pretty iffy like the aurora, but in spite of some obstacles with the weather in Mexico we had a great experience with Nat Hab. We felt pretty confident that Nat Hab would deliver on the aurora and we were not disappointed.
We Began in Winnipeg
If possible, we like to arrive a day or two ahead in the location where a tour is to begin. This tour began in Winnipeg, Manitoba, at the Fort Garry Hotel. We used Nat Hab to book the hotel and received a good discount on the rate. Built in 1913 by the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, the Fort Garry Hotel is one of Canada’s grand railway hotels and a National Historic Site. The architecture is in the so-called “chateau style” that characterizes all the large railway hotels built across the Canada before 1930. The hotel has been extensively renovated and has a really fine spa based on a Turkish hammam. We were not happy with our room and were able to upgrade to a much better one for $20 Canadian more per night which translates to roughly $15 US. The hotel staff is terrific. An extensive breakfast buffet came with the room and the hotel also offers coffee service to your room gratis.
Winnipeg is located where the Red and Assiniboine Rivers meet. It was quite cold when we were there, hovering between 20 and 0 degrees farhenheit. Both of the city’s rivers were solidly frozen over, but the cold doesn’t seem to keep the people indoors. The hotel is close to The Forks National Historic Site, a large park run by Parks Canada that is adjacent to an indoor food market, an extensive river walk and several museums. The place was packed with folks enjoying outdoor sports, skating in particular, on the frozen Assiniboine River. In addition to a children’s museum, the area also hosts the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.
At breakfast on our first morning in Winnipeg, we met the leader of our aurora tour, Brad Josephs. He turned us on to a fantastic Inuit gallery, Nunavut Gallery, run by Richard Kroeker with the help of his father John. We cabbed over expecting to spend an hour and then we planned to head over to the human rights museum. There are no short visits to Nunavut Gallery, especially if you are a first-timer. Richard Kroeker is a talker, but there is plenty to talk about in the gallery. We’ve been collecting Inuit art for a while and have a few really good pieces. I even had a show of Inuit and Haitian art in my gallery called “Shamans North and South.” Nunavut Gallery exceeded our expectations. It’s not a large space, but it is absolutely packed with Inuit stone, antler and whale bone sculpture, gorgeous prints from Baker Lake, Cape Dorset and elsewhere, and some contemporary non-Inuit art. I didn’t see much in the way of Baker Lake quilts but I was pretty much overwhelmed by the sculpture.
Three hours later and a few thousand US dollars lighter we emerged. We had no energy left for the human rights museum. The gallery will pack and ship directly to the States which allows you to avoid paying the 10.5% sales tax. Because we purchased a small polar bear carved out of caribou antler, our package was delayed for a week or so while we filled out the numerous forms required by the US Department of Agriculture. You cannot import anything made of whale bone into the US, but antler is apparently ok. You just have to prove it is what it is.
The weather was relatively warm that day so after a late lunch we walked back to the hotel and headed to the beautiful hotel bar where there was a terrific piano player. In our opinion, a good hotel bar is essential and the Fort Garry Hotel has a great one with live music most nights but music that still allows you to have a conversation. The bar seems to be a hub of activity for the city and can be hard to get into at times.
The next day we both had hammam 101 appointments at TenSpa at the hotel. We had experienced a hammam in Turkey, but we felt this experience was even better. After showering, we wrapped ourselves up in traditional Turkish towels and entered the large heated room and lay down on a very warm marble slab where an attendant gave us massages and sloshed us periodically with cold water. When our hour or so was up we retreated to a cooling down room for refreshments. All in all, it was quite lovely.
At dinner that night we met the other travelers on our tour. We totaled 13 plus our guide Brad who did a presentation on what we hoped to see and experience in Canada’s subarctic. We also picked up our arctic wear – insulated pants, a super warm parka, insulated mittens and boots, all on loan from Nat Hab.
The Tundra Train
(Nat Hab is not currently offering the Aurora trip to Churchill on the Tundra Train. Instead, on day two guests are flown from Winnipeg to Churchill by private plane. This saves a lot of time, but I loved the train experience especially the observation car.)
On Sunday the next morning our tour began with a visit to the Manitoba Museum which gave us an overview of the region from the early fossil period, 450 million years ago, when the area around Churchill where we were headed was covered by a tropical sea, and up through the early 20th century. Manitoba has four main indigenous groups – the Inuit way up north in the Arctic Circle, the Dene or Chippewa who inhabit the boreal forest through which we would travel by train, the Cree who were deeply involved in the fur trade with the French, and finally the Métis who are traditionally the descendents of the male French fur traders and indigenous women. The museum has some really fine displays of cultural artifacts from all four groups, Inuit beadwork in particular.
After a brief bus tour of Winnipeg, we boarded the Tundra Train that would take us to Churchill. We were assigned to the Sleeper Plus class which meant we had small private sitting rooms that converted into bedrooms at night with en suite toilets and wash basins. The dining car had a real chef. The menu was not extensive but the food was quite good. The beef pot roast with gravy seemed to be our group’s favorite. This year for the first time the train had an observation car which made a huge difference in our train experience. It takes two days to get to Churchill with an extended stop in the town of Thompson, a major shopping destination for folks in this sparsely populated part of the world.
The flat plains that surround Winnipeg gradually gave way to the beautiful boreal forest of white spruce, poplars and larches. The boreal forest covers about 60% of Canada’s land mass. With the snow cover and the poplars, the setting looked like something out of Doctor Zhivago as we chugged our way north. We saw a nice sunset from the observation car but no aurora because it had started to snow.
On Monday we had a full day on the train with a five hour stop in Thompson, a small city of about 12,000. It has been called “the hub of the north,” but it also has the reputation as Canada’s most violent city. Noel and I live in Chicago, aka “Chiraq,” so we’re not in any position to cast stones. Nevertheless, the crime rate in Canada, including Thompson, is on a 20-year decline.
While there, we hiked to Pisew Falls, an impressive small cascade that was still running despite the significant cold because the water was running so fast. Some of us celebrated the snow by making snow angels, something I don’t think I’ve done since I was a child in Maine.
One of the things we like the most about Nat Hab’s tours is that the company does a superb job of highlighting the lives of the local people today with all of the ups and downs of the present economy and politics, not just the “exotic” stuff and the past. For example, Thompson is struggling to diversify its economy which has been based primarily on mining. It has become a major cold weather testing ground for automobile manufacturers from around the world. Conrad, our bus driver in Thompson, was a kind of local character, a retired steelworker who had a lot to say about his town and its problems as well as its successes.
We passed another night on the train. Chris, one of our fellow travelers, had a touch of insomnia and said she watched the aurora from her cabin for over three hours. I took two sleeping pills and slept like a log. That was a mistake.
Churchill on the Bay
At 10 the next morning we arrived in Churchill, a town of only about 800 permanent residents, located on Hudson Bay. And a very frozen Hudson Bay it was. The location is a transitional area between the boreal forest and the treeless tundra. Churchill was an important military post during the Cold War for the both the Canadian and US military. But the end of the Cold War and the closing of the military facility resulted in a significant economic decline, forcing the community to reinvent itself. I saw this kind of thing happen to towns in my home state of Maine when air force bases were closed in Bangor, Presque Isle, and Limestone. Now Churchill is also battling the closing of its grain port resulting in the loss of 80 jobs, 10% of the population.
We checked into the Seaport Hotel. While not a 4-star property, it is a decent small hotel with very roomy accommodations, particularly after the tight fit in the sleeper cars on the train. We ate most of our meals there and the food was very good, in fact, better than the food at the Fort Garry Hotel.
In the afternoon Heather MacLeod of Parks Canada gave a very interesting presentation on the history of the Hudson Bay Company’s role in the European settling of the area and consequent creation of the Métis people. She accompanied her talk with a tasting of foods made from native berries and other flora indigenous to this very cold climate. No doubt Europeans coming here for furs owe their survival in part to the indigenous people, particularly the Dene who lived in the surrounding boreal forest, for educating them on food gathering. Parks Canada maintains a presence in Churchill because of Wapusk National Park. Wapusk is the Cree word for polar bear. Located about 30 miles south of Churchill, the park is home to one of the world’s largest known polar bear maternity denning areas and a large number of rare birds.
Following the Parks Canada presentation, we visited a really fine one-room museum dedicated to Inuit art, the Itsanitaq Museum. Its collection of Inuit artifacts and carvings contains some of the oldest Inuit pieces in the world, ranging from 1700 B.C. to modern times.
Aurora Parts 1 and 2
Our intrepid guide Brad hustled us through dinner that evening so we could get to the aurora viewing site. We had to wear our full Arctic gear. Although absolutely necessary, putting all that stuff on was a royal pain, especially the pants. A couple of our fellow travelers compared it to putting on scuba gear.
We were actually able to see the aurora from the bus that was taking us to Métis musher Dave Daley’s cabin and tepee outside of town. For some reason I kept thinking of iridescent jellyfish as we watched the lights gracefully loom across the sky. We were noisily greeted by Daley’s six-month old sled dog puppies.
We were able to view the aurora for about two hours before it started to fade. It was a very slow yellow neon light show. A camera can actually pick up a wider range of color than we can usually see with our naked eyes. I was not very successful photographing the aurora because I didn’t bring the right camera. Brad and a couple of our friends got great shots by mounting their cameras on tripods and setting the exposure to a very slow speed. That was actually fine with me because I was more interested in experiencing the phenomenon than recording it. I take pictures to illustrate what I’m writing about, but I’m more than happy to use other folks’ photos giving them credit for their use in my blog and my deepest thanks.
It was very cold outside but not windy. I actually enjoyed the cold. It made my face feel fresh and clean. But that kind of cold also made me hungry all the time. This is not an area of the world for a vegetarian. To live in this kind of environment full time you need animal fat in your diet. For our visit Nat Hab fully stocked Dave Daley’s cabin with lots of drinks, both alcohol and non-alcohol, and snacks.
Maybe it was the combination of the excitement of experiencing the aurora and the booze, but at one point some of us started sharing our youthful (and not so youthful) experiences with mind altering substances. I suppose seeing something like the aurora is a bit like gentle tripping. At any rate, we were all becoming fast friends.
Towards the end of the evening Dave Daley regaled us with his sledding tales and the politics of the mushing world. Daley is a founder and winner of the Hudson Bay Quest and a sled dog fanatic. The Hudson Bay Quest is a 220 mile dog sled race from Gillam, Manitoba, to Churchill. Originally, its purpose was to promote the sport of dog sled racing. Now the organization has broadened its focus to celebrate northern Manitoba trapper culture. Often a lack of snow can be a problem when holding the race, but this year it was too much snow, so the race was cancelled for 2017.
The second night in Churchill was snowy and overcast so we couldn’t see the aurora, but we did have one more sighting on our last night in Churchill, this time in a custom built vehicle called the Aurora Pod. It was a really nice setup, but you still had to go outside to really see the lights. The sighting wasn’t as dramatic as on Tuesday night, but intense enough. For the most part, we felt we had seen what we came for.
Although the aurora was the centerpiece of the tour, Nat Hab also offered us an ample overview of the arctic cultures of the area. One morning we were privileged to listen to a presentation by a Dene elder named Caroline Bjorkland. Her story is unfortunately a common one for indigenous people of her generation on both sides of the US/Canada border. As a child, she was forced to attend one of the notorious Indian boarding schools where she was not allowed to speak her language and was made to feel she came from an inferior culture, all in the name of “assimilation.” She described the terrible psychological pain she felt from the negative self-image she learned in school. She retreated to alcohol and drugs to assuage that pain, but she was able to recover in large part because of the example set by her grandmother who maintained the traditional Dene life style and who lived to be over a 100. We had heard a similar narrative from a Tlingit woman in Alaska a few years before.
That afternoon we visited the Churchill Northern Studies Centre. This is a very interesting place. It is a non-governmental, non-profit institute that provides laboratories, research space and living quarters for scientific researchers and students of the subarctic. The center is located in a beautiful LEED certified building that has a terrific glassed-in dome that you can climb up into to view the surrounding frozen tundra. You almost feel you are outside except it is nice and warm. Both Churchill and Thompson are communities built on permafrost.
Right after that we went outside to watch a crew build an igloo. With the wind chill that day it was 40 degrees fahrenheit BELOW zero. With the right clothes it’s amazing how you can adjust to the cold.
One of the activities I enjoyed the most was the chance to go dog sledding. Our experience was very brief. I would have liked a longer ride. The sled was surprisingly comfortable. But I definitely would not want to mush 220 miles. I found the dogs to be very interesting. On a dog team the brains are up front and the brawn in the back. The driver or musher uses only verbal signals, no whip. “Gee” (turn right), “haw” (turn left) and “on by” (straight ahead). The term “musher” comes from the French word marcher which means “to walk” or, in the context of dog sledding, “get going.”
There are generally four to ten dogs on a team. According to the man who ran this dog sledding experience, the females have more endurance on a run than the males because the males use a lot of their energy getting into it with other males when they should be resting. However, he did have one macho female lead dog that often got nasty with other females during a run. He punished her by leaving her behind when he hitched up a team. She knew she was being punished and behaved better the next time out.
The next day was our last morning in Churchill and we spent it visiting the very impressive community center. The center is decorated in one section with a beautiful collection of Baker Lake quilts. It also has a large ice curling rink where we had a lesson on playing the sport. Originating in Scotland, it is a bit like shuffleboard, only on ice, and is an Olympic sport. Like basketball and dog sledding, curling is very popular in Canada and parts of the northern US and Europe. Lately, the sport has been adopted by the Chinese and Koreans. The rules are pretty simple, but like the Chinese board game of go, the simpler the game, the more complex and subtle the strategy and tactics.
That afternoon we boarded a small plane for our two-hour flight back to Winnipeg. After our farewell dinner that night with many, many fond good-byes to our subarctic friends, five of us retreated to the bar at the Fort Garry Hotel where we ended our journey listening to a great piano and bass jazz combo.
Postscript, a Lesson Learned
This was our second attempt to see the aurora borealis. The first was two years before when we booked a reservation at Blachford Lake Lodge accessible only by “scheduled bush plane flights” from Yellowknife in Canada’s Northwest Territories. United Airlines cancelled our flight to Yellowknife because there was no crew. This meant we couldn’t arrive in Yellowknife in time to catch the “scheduled bush plane flight” to the lodge. To add insult to injury, the lodge wouldn’t issue us a rain check or a refund when I called to cancel. This was a bitter lesson. We never buy travel insurance because at our age it’s very expensive. We only make sure we have health and evacuation insurance. The lesson learned is to use a good travel company for this kind of remote adventure travel, not try to book everything on our own.