‘H e’s taking a peek at us,” said Gerald Azure, in the semi-grave tones of a nature program narrator. “Oh, my gosh, he’s got a dirty face. It looks like a rock with two little ears sticking out.”
Peering through binoculars from inside a school bus, I scanned the northern Canadian coastline, bumpy with boulders. I had only a few clues to work with: a white shape with smudges and a potentially aggressive streak.
“Does it look like a block of tofu?” I asked.
“That’s a rock. Look to the left,” the guide instructed.
I shifted the magnified eyeballs and locked onto a face like one that once lived among the stuffed animal menagerie on my bed — a polar bear. But this one, alive and wild, would never stand for a bow on its head.
A few days earlier, I’d landed in Manitoba with a rucksack full of preconceived notions. For instance, I thought that polar bears appear in Churchill only when Hudson Bay freezes over. Correction: They roam the town’s shores year-round, even when the sun shines deep into the night. I imagined prairie grasses, not boreal forest; cold temperatures, not a heat advisory. At least I was right about the beluga whales: They do summer in Manitoba, and they don’t mind sharing their pool with land dwellers.
I confess, a giant question mark hovered over the midsection of Canada. Though I could easily picture the western and eastern swaths of the country, I blanked on Manitoba.
That hole in the map, however, wouldn’t remain empty for long. By week’s end, I would fill it with images, experiences and real, not assumed, impressions.
Let’s start with some simple facts: Manitoba, one of the Prairie provinces, sits like the nose on Canada’s face, between the cheeks of Ontario and Saskatchewan, the chin of North Dakota and Minnesota, and the forehead of Nunavut, a federal territory with a sizable Inuit community. About 60 percent of the population (1.2 million) lives in the capital (Winnipeg), an urban concentration that no other province can claim. Another boast: The country’s second-largest French-speaking community resides here, so you might want to brush up on your conjugations.
In the history books, one of the most famous local figures is Louis Riel, who founded the province in 1870 and advocated the rights of the Metis, descendants of European and indigenous unions. His grave is in the tidy cemetery of Saint-Boniface Cathedral, in the French district across the Red River from downtown Winnipeg.
Among childhood sentimentalists, however, the hero of Winnipeg is Winnie the Pooh, who was more than just an imaginary friend. A.A. Milne’s literary character was inspired by an orphaned cub adopted by a Canadian veterinarian, who named his ursine pet after his home town. He eventually donated the bear to the London Zoo, where it received the attentions of one Christopher Robin, Milne’s nonfictional son.
Assiniboine Park, the city’s version of Central Park (landscape architect Frederick G. Todd was an acolyte of Frederick Law Olmsted), contains homages to Winnie. A sculpture adorns the zoo’s grounds, and a topiary Pooh graces the front lawn of the Pavilion Gallery Museum, which exhibits artifacts related to the honey-pot-bellied bear in its Pooh Gallery.
On a Saturday afternoon, however, the gallery was closed for a wedding. In the words of Pooh, “Oh, bother.” But additional woodland friends inhabit the Leo Mol Sculpture Garden, a collection by the Ukrainian Canadian artist set among waterlily-speckled pools and flower beds. Not far from Moses and some ponytailed sylphs, bronze cubs wrestle, climb trees and hitch rides from Momma Bear. Near a pair of prancing deer, life complemented art when a cottontail rabbit hopped into the frame.
Bears are prominent in Manitoba, as are wolves and, yes, Canada geese, which are less annoying in their home country. In the Forks, a recreational and historic area of Winnipeg, the birds, as plump as turkeys, command the banks of the Red and Assiniboine rivers. For thousands of years, starting with early Aboriginals, folks have gathered at this site to trade goods and gossip. Today, the area retains that communal spirit with restaurants, shops, museums, parkland and playgrounds.
One of the most anticipated new buildings at the Forks is the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, the first national museum to be built outside Ottawa and a coup for Winnipeg. Though the opening date is two years away, the $351 million museum offers free tours of the perimeter. Undeterred by the construction and cranes, the enthusiastic guide lent drama to the most mundane elements, such as dirt.
During two preparatory digs, she told me, archaeologists unearthed “fish scales, a pipe, a bison head and a 700- to 800-year-old foot” — I gasped — “print,” she finished.
“They know it’s a size 9, left foot,” she continued.
The sex of the appendage’s owner, however, remains a mystery.
Look at a road map of Manitoba and you’ll notice a spindly spray of threads rather than a knotty cluster of yarn. Highway 6, for example, is the only major thruway from Winnipeg to the north, and it doesn’t even reach the tippy-top. It sputters out at Thompson, the Hub of the North. The advantages of the sparse infrastructure: It’s nearly impossible to get lost. The disadvantage: Your car is not invited to Churchill, the northern outpost with more polar bears and beluga whales than people.
To get to Churchill, you can fly from Winnipeg or Thompson, or take the train from either. Many people mix and match transportation, such as riding the three-day train from Winnipeg and flying back. I chose a more pioneering route involving a 476-mile drive from Winnipeg to Thompson, plus a 16-hour train trip across the tundra.
Winnipeg doesn’t waste time shifting from city to country. One minute I was passing strip malls, the next I was deep in sunflower and canola fields that glowed Gatorade yellow.
And then, without warning, the landscape changed again.
An enchanting forest of evergreens, birches and teardrop lakes stretched to the earth’s edges. I was boxed in by trees and more trees. I felt as if I were in Oregon or New Hampshire, if someone had flattened the mountains and evicted civilization.
The rugged scenery was beautiful, but its monotony was also mind-numbing. To keep alert, I practiced my high-school French along with the radio. I listened to a two-hour call-in program about camping (everyone’s got a bear story to share) and reached No. 24 on the National Aboriginal Music Countdown before the station faded out.
The isolation broke intermittently. Like a survivor in the desert who spots a water fountain, I revived at the sight of what Manitoba calls towns and I refer to as generous rest stops.
Though tiny in size, the communities along Route 6 were large in pride. Ashern promoted its team spirit with a sign heralding its homegrown NHL talent: “Chuck Arnason, Where Dreams Can Happen.” Lundar celebrated the Canada goose with an 18-foot-tall sculpture of the bird, its 20-foot wingspan frozen midflap. And at the finish line in Thompson, the imposing 13-foot King Miner welcomed me in a hard hat, coveralls and protective goggles.
“The mining — that’s why we’re here,” said Whitney Landego, a student working at the Heritage North Museum. “That’s why Thompson is here.”
It’s also why Thompson is called Thompson, the surname of the chairman of the board of the International Nickel Co., which discovered a wealth of minerals in the region in 1956.
As a mining hub and the jumping-off point to lands north, Thompson is more pragmatic than fanciful. You can stock up on bug spray and batteries at the Wal-Mart, and eat your final Tim Hortons doughnuts before going days without. To gird myself for the close quarters on the train, I lapped up the open space along the Spirit Way, a 11 / 2-mile walking trail that unspools through wooded trails and town. Sixteen points of interest, including 35 painted wolf sculptures, shine a light on the town’s mining industry and fascination with things that howl in the night.
The train departed on time, but this did not augur an on-time arrival. The Muskeg Special’s tardiness is legendary — one showed up eight hours late — so you may as well chuck the watch.
Permafrost causes the tracks to expand and recede, forcing the train to move at a slug’s pace. In addition to the scheduled stops, the conductor will pick up any passengers standing along the track. In the tundra, riding the rails is a way of life.
For the trip to Churchill, I’d booked a lower bunk in a compartment with four berths, which was more secluded than the open coach seating but less private than the two-person cabins with real doors. (On the return, I slept in coach, in a seat fitted with an extension that simulates a cot.)
My neighbors were from Winnipeg, a couple originally from India and their adult daughter. They were on day two of their rail journey, and the mother was far from jaded: She excitedly pointed out black-eyed daisies along the track, remarking on how much the florist charges for the same flowers.
To bide my time on the train, I played a game called “How is Manitoba different from other provinces?” Since most of the passengers were Canadian, they were ideal respondents. Among the answers: the boreal forest, online pharmaceutical companies, the country’s most northern port (Churchill), the fur trade and early agricultural development (there were some serious history buffs onboard), the recognition of the Metis, and the accessibility to polar bears and beluga whales.
When I’d exhausted my query, I settled into my seat and stared out the window at the stubble of trees piercing the hard, flat earth. Despite the late hour, the day was stuck in the purgatory of twilight. At 10 p.m., the attendant arranged my sleeping accommodations, unfolding the bed, throwing down a thick duvet and Velcro-ing the curtains shut. About an hour later, we pulled into the town of Gillam, where I stepped out for a gasp of fresh air. A line of men with beers stood against the station wall, watching as we stretched our legs before folding them up again for the night.
After midnight, ensconced in my cocoon, I traced the familiar constellations shining brightly outside my window. A swirl of gossamer drifted into view. It looped and danced like a scarf blowing in the wind. Another spectral shape appeared, performing an aerial duet without strings. I blinked hard, but the Northern Lights didn’t disappear.
I’ve been burned by whales before. Virginia Beach 2008, for example. Not even a flip of a tail or a squirt through a blowhole.
The whales of Churchill are basically guaranteed. From June through early September, about 3,000 belugas inhabit Hudson Bay and Churchill River, the back and front yards of Churchill. The Arctic dwellers never fail to show up, and with their bleached- white coloring, they stand out like chalk against a blackboard. From many points in town — the beach behind the recreation center, Cape Merry National Historic Site, on a school bus — I could see slivers of white slice through the dark blue waters. Every so often, a knobby head would pop up, then dunk down again.
The lodges and tour operators arrange outings to see the summer visitors by boat, kayak or snorkel. At the Lazy Bear Lodge, I’d scheduled a whale swim for the next day, which left loads of free time in a town that you can basically cover from end to end in 10 minutes. (One distraction: Peruse the prices in the lone supermarket. Almost $10 for a gallon of milk. Another: the Eskimo Museum. One more: Volunteer with Brian Ladoon and his Canadian Eskimo Dog Foundation and help feed and fill water bowls for his 145 huskies.)
Gerald, a guide and dog musher who also runs a bed-and-breakfast, led an afternoon cultural tour that started at the southern point of town, at Cape Merry, and finished a few miles out at the polar bear jail. Here, in a 28-cell warehouse, reprobate bears are incarcerated and then removed to an area far from human interaction. As of late July, the cells were empty; the bears were wisely sticking to isolated sections of beach.
“The polar bear warning signs are real,” he said. “They’re not just for tourists.”
When we climbed the boulders to inspect Miss Piggy, a cargo plane that missed the runway in 1979, Gerald first walked around the crash site, shotgun in hand. He knew that bears were around, because we’d just spotted two of them.
On the day of the snorkel, the water was a nose-nipping 44 degrees, half the air temperature. We wore dry suits with double booties, a hoodie and gloves. I added two extra layers underneath to further repel any sneaky seepage.
Chad, our guide, steered the small boat toward the intersection of the river and the bay, searching for a square with little chop and plenty of pods. The watercraft was like catnip to the cetaceans: The whales, attracted to the hum and bubbles of the engine, would zoom toward us, then bolt under the boat and surface on the other side. Their squeaks and chirps reverberated like an aquatic symphony of Snap, Crackle and Pop.
I was the first to slide off the stern and walk hand-over-hand to the end of the tether. Floating like a thick strip of seaweed, I gazed through the alien green glow to see a ghostly figure glide by. A baby-and-mom duo followed, then a stream of solo whales. They came and went, waves of whales.
Belugas are curious creatures, and they have unfused vertebrae in their necks, so they can swivel their heads toward any objects of interest. Which, for one whale, was me. A beluga sailed by on his back, looking directly up at me. Our eyes met and I swear he smiled. I said “hello” through my snorkel and waved a gloved hand. He flapped his stumpy flippers, most likely for locomotion, though I preferred to interpret it as a salutation.
After warming up on the boat, I decided to take one more swim. For my second dip, I wanted to slide into the water just as the whales approached, hoping to drop into their liquid party. Chad suggested towing me, so that I could actually move with them, beluga-style.
As the whales drew closer, I jumped in and held tight to the rope. I traveled with them for a short distance, before the pod broke away and we each returned to our own kind.