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Thursday, October 30, 2014         

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Manitoba ride is a polar bear express

A train ride leads to the staging area for a furry encounter

By Jim Loomis / Special to the Star-Advertiser

POSTED:


VIA Rail's train No. 693 trundles out of the Winnipeg station at five minutes past noon, beginning its twice-weekly run to the little town of Churchill, Manitoba, almost 1,100 miles to the north. There will be 25 stops along the way.

Most of us aboard on this late October day are visitors hoping to see the polar bears that come into the Churchill area about this time of year, waiting for Hudson Bay to freeze over. The bears spend each winter out on the ice, many miles from shore, hunting seals, their primary source of food.

Throughout the afternoon, the train rocks along, passing great, broad fields lying fallow after the fall grain harvest. The coaches toward the front of the train are where the locals have settled, many boarding or leaving the train at one of the tiny hamlets along the route. Tourists occupy most of the accommodations in the one sleeping car. So far, I've met an elderly man from New Jersey; two couples from Custer, S.D. (the men are law partners); a bookish single woman from Australia; and an aristocratic elderly woman from Cologne in Germany. It's a diverse group, but with a common purpose: to see the bears.

VIA Rail dining cars feature communal seating, and my companions at dinner are a Swiss man in the shipping business, a young Asian woman who says she's "from Montreal and sometimes Tallahassee" and a gruff, bearded farmer from neighboring Saskatchewan province who raises what I gather are vast quantities of wheat, canola and peas. When I return to my compartment, the train attendant has lowered my berth, and I'm soon under the down comforter, lights out, watching the shadowy outline of evergreens sliding by outside my window.

Morning reveals a mostly flat terrain with scrubby trees that became shorter and scrubbier the farther north we go — long stretches of tangled wilderness frequently broken up by streams and small lakes, just crusting over with ice and most featuring rounded beaver lodges.

POLAR BEARS OF CHURCHILL, MANITOBA

» Getting there: Most visitors to Churchill, Manitoba, opt for the two-hour, 40-minute flight from Winnipeg on CalmAir.

» Cost: Train fare can be pricey, as much as $1,150 for the round-trip in the late fall when most people go to see the polar bears.

» Taking your time: VIA Rail offers visitors a leisurely and more gradual introduction to this vast and magnificent north country: a twice weekly train that makes the 1,050-mile, two-night journey in 43 hours. Fares vary with the season, but six weeks ago the cost for a round-trip in coach class was $216. And, for a little more than $500, you could get a real bed to sleep in, albeit a no-frills upper berth. Highest-priced sleeping car accommodations are comparable to the cost of flying.

» Websites: VIA Rail: www.viarail.ca; CalmAir: www.calmair.com; Bluesky dog sledding: www.blueskymush.com; Polar bear tours: www.tundrabuggy.com; Churchill Northern Studies Center: www.churchillscience.ca

 

The train frequently slows to a crawl as it passes over stretches of track laid on permafrost that has softened and become spongy. No matter, these and other factors have clearly been taken into account, for our train eases to a stop in Churchill at 7:05 the next morning, just five minutes behind schedule.

There's a heavy gray overcast and it's quite raw — hardly a surprise, since we're now just 600 miles south of the Arctic Circle — and, right over there behind that row of darkened buildings, is Hudson Bay, its frigid gray water churning against the rocky shore.

Tomorrow I've scheduled a full day out onto the tundra in the hope of seeing bears. This morning, however, I'm driving to the Churchill Northern Studies Center some 20 kilometers out of town to meet with Michael Goodyear, its executive director. His facility is home to students and researchers with a common passion: learning more about this vast area and how to preserve it and the wildlife found here.

Goodyear is a 40-ish, friendly man clad in the standard unisex uniform for these parts: flannel shirt, jeans and thick-soled boots. He offers me a cup of coffee, and after a few pleasantries our conversation turns to the many and varied circumstances affecting area wildlife.

The problem in a nutshell, says Goodyear, is global warming. And he is emphatic: The planet is indeed warming, and that is a fact beyond dispute. The only possible controversy, he says, is the extent to which the warming is "human driven."

But whatever the cause, he says, warming is having an effect on the polar bears here. Hudson Bay is freezing later and thawing earlier, allowing less time for the bears to fatten up on seals. That, in turn, means bears gain less weight over the winter, and they are therefore less prepared for what amounts to their summer-long fast.

Goodyear quotes hard numbers: There are now 934 polar bears in this area — a decline of 22 percent over the past 20 years.

But can't the bears simply move farther north where the bay freezes earlier and thaws later in the spring? Certainly, he says, but there are already other bears north of here, and any given habitat can only sustain a finite number of animals, whether bears, foxes or seals.

I ask Goodyear what his prediction is for the future of these bears. He shifts uncomfortably in his chair and stares out the window for a moment. "I'm an optimist," he says finally, "so I'll give you my most optimistic prediction. It is this: In 50 years the polar bears will be gone from the western Hudson Bay area."

Ten minutes later I'm once again in my rental car, rattling over the dirt road on the way back to Churchill. The wind has picked up and it's snowing again when I pull up in front of Bluesky Bed & Sled, so named because the owners, Jenafor and Gerald Azure, maintain several teams of sled dogs and take guests on thrilling if bone-chilling rides. There'll be snow for the rides today, but these days the dogs often pull wheeled carts for lack of snow.

The next morning it's well below freezing, there are 3 to 4 inches of snow on the ground and it's still dark at 7:45 a.m. when a bus pulls up to take me and a dozen other tourists to the staging area where we climb aboard our tundra buggy. It's a ponderous, oversize vehicle with huge tires, ideal for what passes for roads out here — really just ruts and bumps alternating with low spots filled with water already turning to gray slush as the temperature continues to fall. Operating our tundra-buggy is a garrulous character named Mac, who keeps up a steady patter for some 20 minutes — interesting information about the tundra and the wildlife here.

By now the visibility has worsened, and the snow is at least 6 inches deep. Abruptly, the buggy jolts to a stop, and Mac turns to face us. "Now it would be a good idea if we all remained nice and quiet," he says. And he points out into the grayness.

Sure enough, an inquisitive polar bear is ambling across the rutty road, swaying side to side as he approaches, peering at our huge vehicle through the blowing snow. Passengers crowd against the windows and begin snapping pictures. I push open a door and struggle out onto an open platform at the rear of the buggy, right into the teeth of the icy wind. My fingers stiffen and start turning numb. No matter. When I look over the side, the bear is right in front of me, and I hurriedly click the shutter.

We come across more bears during the rest of the afternoon, including two young males who entertain us for well over a half-hour as they roll and tussle and chase each other in circles. "Just a couple of 800-pound puppies," says Mac. "But step outside, and in five seconds those cute little guys would have you for lunch."

The light begins to fail as we arrive at the staging area and transfer onto the bus for the 20-minute ride back into Churchill. Jouncing along in the darkness, I take out my camera and sneak a look at the photo of my bear. He's right there, looking straight at me. And all I can think about is Michael Goodyear's most optimistic prediction.

Jim Loomis is the retired owner of a Honolulu advertising agency, now living on Maui and writing freelance travel stories. The third edition of his book, "All Aboard — The Complete North American Train Travel Guide" (Chicago Review Press), will be in bookstores in February.






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