A polar bear on the move is a sight to behold. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Birds, belugas and bears, oh my

Manitoba’s Winnipeg and Churchill region offer amazing cultural and sub-arctic wildlife experiences

From the Cree aboriginal word meaning muddy river, Winnipeg is Canada’s seventh largest city with just over 830,000 people. Known as Canada’s cultural cradle, there are over 100 languages spoken.

Bob Hope honed his vaudeville chops in Winnipeg and fell in love with golf here. Neil Young grew up on Winnipeg’s Grosvenor Avenue and Nia Vardalos was born and raised here. Kiefer Sutherland’s grandfather, Tommy Douglas, was raised in Winnipeg and founded Canada’s health care system. If that weren’t enough, the real life inspiration behind Ian Fleming’s 007 James Bond was Canadian soldier spymaster, Winnipegger Sir William Samuel Stephenson, code name Intrepid.

Winnipeg’s focal point is the Canada Museum of Human Rights. The brainchild of tax lawyer Izzy Asper, it was shepherded to completion by his daughter Gail and opened in 2014. This stunning architectural masterpiece — think Disney Hall weds Seattle Space Needle — was designed by American Antoine Predock.

Canada’s iconic Human Rights Museum is in the heart of Winnipeg. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Starting in darkness and climbing to light, 11 galleries reflect universal human rights struggle during several millennia, from historic to present, both good and the bad, and appreciably, include an honest assessment of Canada’s own struggles with treatment of aboriginals, immigrant Chinese railroad workers and World War II Japanese internment. From the Tower of Hope, one gets an impressive view of central Winnipeg and The Forks, where the Assiniboine and Red Rivers meet.

The Inn at the Forks, a comfortable, boutique-style hotel (https://www.innforks.com) is the ultimate location to explore Winnipeg and is walking distance to the Human Rights Museum, Union Station and The Forks Market, where great food choices abound. At Passero enjoy the grilled octopus with nduja salumi and horseradish mascarpone Brussels sprouts. The dark chocolate tart with espresso caramel sauce will forever have you singing Owner chef Scott Bagshaw’s praise. https://www.passerowinnipeg.com

Chef Scott Bagshaw creates masterpieces at Winnipeg’s Passero in The Forks Market. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Churchill: Gateway to the Wild

Wanting to see the often-elusive polar bears in their natural habitat, I joined Churchill Wild. This outfitter provides several types of all-inclusive safaris commencing and ending in Winnipeg. https://www.churchillwild.com

A two-hour flight on an altered Boeing 737 transporting cargo in the front and passengers in the rear brought us to Churchill, an isolated tiny hamlet 68 miles from the Manitoba-Nunavut border. Where three major biomes converge: marine, boreal forest and tundra, Churchill — named after an ancestor of Winston — was once a fur trading post. After World War I, Churchill was selected as a new shipping harbor on the Hudson to ultimately be linked by rail from Winnipeg. From World War II until the late 1970s, the military had a presence and 6,000 resided here. Today just 800 call Churchill home.

Throughout Churchill and along 18 miles of drivable roads are 19 murals. In 2017, 18 talented international artists, including one from Hawaii, painted murals to raise ocean conservation awareness, including one on a 1945-built, Curtiss C-46 Commando cargo plane dubbed “Miss Piggy.” Named for the heavy loads she carried, she crashed in 1979 — the crew miraculously survived — and her painted hulk rests close to the airport runway she missed.

The fallen cargo plane “Miss Piggy” is an eye-catching piece of public art near Churchill airport. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Churchill’s railway station is home to the excellent Parks Canada exhibits on local history, aboriginal culture and wildlife taxidermy.

Seal River Heritage Lodge

Using three eco-lodges in sub-Arctic Manitoba, the Churchill Wild safari I took — “Bears, birds and belugas” — was based at its northern-most Seal River Heritage Lodge on Hudson Bay’s otherworldly rugged coast.

Through overcast skies flying 300-400 feet above sea level, pilot Jason flew seven of us on a Cessna 208 Grand Caravan, about 35 miles north of Churchill. Halfway, during a moment of aerodynamic equality, those on the Cessna’s left saw a lone polar bear gallivanting through the tundra while passengers on the right saw several beluga pods. A better welcome was hard to imagine.

Near the Seal River Estuary in total wilderness, Seal River Heritage Lodge appears. Climbing aboard specially outfitted ATVs at the airstrip, moments later we arrived to one of National Geographic’s Unique Lodges of the World.

Tall viewing windows have strategically placed high-powered telescopes and binoculars in the comfortable fireplace lounge. Dining is communal and our terrific three naturalists, Boomer, Andy and Paul, ate with us, educated us on the environment, photography and wildlife and made us laugh. And outside on treks, zodiacs and ATV rides, kept us safe.

The lodge’s eight en-suite rooms are comfortable. Happily, sub-Arctic air made us sleep like babies.

As the coastline changes so dramatically between high and low tides, from rushing waters to rocky moonscapes,guests often felt transported to a different location altogether between meals.

Following lunch and a safety briefing, we left for our first trek. Churchill Wild provides waterproof jackets, pants and boots, the latter especially key since water and kelp above the permafrost are often ankle deep. Also, Canada geese droppings are ubiquitous. Fortunately they don’t excrete while airborne! Sub-Arctic weather is always a factor and can change momentarily, dry to wet, cold to freezing and back.

Polar bear viewing is “dynamic” in that trekkers move along ethereal, moon-like surroundings, yet it requires patience. When ice breaks and bears move to land, this becomes their natural habitat — and they do precisely what they want and when.

A male polar bear rests amid blooming fireweed near Seal River Heritage Lodge. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

With a chevron of Canada geese screeching overhead, we spotted an enormous male amid fuchsia-colored fireweed about 40 meters away. While not habituated, he seemed marginally curious — enough to stand up, stretch, pose and plotz down all 1,200 pounds. At that moment, my heart was utterly colonized by this white behemoth.

In the days that followed, a steady rhythm ensued: morning and afternoon treks seeing bears on all but two, satisfying family-style meals, photo comparing and informative evening lectures by our naturalists, followed by satisfying sub-arctic slumbers.

Some hikes were bird heavy, including shrieking cackles of red-throated loons, graceful sandhill cranes, angular arctic terns, rotund willow ptarmigans and the bad dudes of the ornithology world: parasitic jaegers that force other birds to disgorge their food, then pirate it.

Above the permafrost, tundra’s peat is soft and giving, like walking on a foam mattress. On one chilly trek to Swan Lake, the lodge staff met us with hot mulled wine. Another day while on low- impact, custom-made tundra trackers, we stopped at perhaps the sub-Arctic’s only “Starbucks.” The rear of Boomer’s ATV had been converted dispensing coffee, tea and Nanaimo bars, which are marvelous chocolate creamy concoctions originally invented to sustain miners during long shifts (and today likely baked to fund cardiologists’ retirement plans).

Riding zodiacs on the Seal River Estuary was another highlight. Here molting common mergansers that half run, half fly on the water’s surface resembled a discombobulating Jerry Lewis comedy. Belugas pods milled about with several calves swimming along side. With the hydrophone on, we heard the cacophony of belugas squeal, whine and cackle. Some sounded like aquatic R2D2s completing an incredibly beautiful underwater symphony. The remarkable week’s piece-de-resistance was watching a polar bear do the backstroke one-half mile from the estuary’s shore with two others lollygagging in the distance. My nature loving cup had completely runneth over.

A beluga pod came just feet from our Zodiac. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Julie L. Kessler is a travel writer, attorney and legal columnist based in Los Angeles and the author of the award-winning book “Fifty-Fifty: The Clarity of Hindsight.” She can be reached at Julie@VagabondLawyer.com. Some vendors listed hosted the writer. Content was not reviewed by them prior to publication and is solely the writer’s opinion.

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