Beluga Whales, White Fox & Polar Bears…. Destination Churchill, Manitoba

by Herb & Mary Zimmers

We are not sure how Churchill, Manitoba on the Hudson Bay, got on our bucket list; maybe we have been reading too many National Geographic magazines. At any rate, once on the list, Churchill had to be checked off and checked off it was!

We started researching the trip and buying aeronautical charts about 5 years ago. Originally, we were going to go alone, however, given the distance and remoteness of Churchill, we really wanted to go with another airplane. When Dave Weiman of Midwest Flyer Magazine showed interest, we picked the dates to correspond with the annual “Canadian Fishing Fly-Out” to Miminiska Lodge, Ontario, and come August 4, 2015, it was wheels up.

Six planes and six couples signed up for the trip – three Cessna 182 Skylanes, a Cherokee Six, a Piper PA-28 Archer, and our Mooney Ovation.

Not having fuel available at Churchill was not an issue for our Mooney Ovation with a 6-hour, 900-mile range, but it was critical for several of the other aircraft. With the Ovation, we were more concerned about having at least one paved 3000-foot runway at each fuel stop.

Our first leg was from Milwaukee Timmerman Airport (KMWC) to Winnipeg, Manitoba (CYWG) to meet up with the other couples. We flew this leg VFR in 3.5 hours under sunny skies. Once we checked in at the Sandman Hotel near the airport, we went out to dinner with the others who had arrived. One of the other couples joined us later. Unfortunately, Dave and Peggy Weiman lost their right magneto following a fuel stop in Longville, Minnesota (KXVG), enroute to Winnipeg, and had to cancel the Churchill portion of their trip. Better in Longville than in Churchill. We were all glad they were safe and sound.

The following morning, weather was IFR in Winnipeg with low ceilings and rain, and all but one of the couples took off as planned. The couple that stayed behind could not file IFR out of Winnipeg, so while they waited for better weather, they enjoyed the sights of Winnipeg. Unfortunately, better weather did not arrive in time for them to make the trip. Remember, this was to be a VFR trip all the way, but our instrument ratings did come in handy.

It was 354 nm from Winnipeg to Thompson (CYTH) where we got fuel, and another 215 nm to Churchill (CYYQ), where there was no fuel. We knew when we took off from Winnipeg the weather was improving towards the north. Thompson was reporting 3000 broken and clear below, so we pushed on.

Had conditions worsened, our only alternate airport between Winnipeg and Thompson was Norway House (CYNE) with a 3902 X 100 ft. asphalt runway, but that airport did not have fuel. Our only other option would have been to return to Winnipeg, while the others could have diverted to Gillam (CYGX), east of Thompson, which has a 5034 X 151 ft. gravel runway and fuel. Fortunately, we were able to land at Thompson, and then depart for Churchill as planned.

By the time we arrived at Churchill, conditions were 1000 broken and 10 miles visibility. Churchill has two runways – one paved (Rwy 15/33 at 9,195 X 160 feet), and one gravel (Rwy 7/25 at 4,000 X 100 feet)  – but only Jet A, which we knew in advance and planned accordingly.

When we taxied to the ramp, we had to scramble to find something to tie our planes down, since there were no permanent tiedowns. Some of us used large concrete tubs that had to be moved into place with a dolly to secure our aircraft; others used huge logs.

We stayed at the best place in town, the “Lazy Bear Lodge,” located 5 miles from the airport with complementary airport shuttle-service. The “Lazy Bear Lodge” is very rustic and has a very good dining room, and I highly recommend it for not only its accommodations, but also for its superb staff and trip planning. The staff made all of our sightseeing arrangements in advance, so that was nice.

The next day was very busy, starting with a tour of the town. Churchill is small and has 800 year-round residents and 1200 residents during the summer. There’s a splendid school, community center and hospital, all built adjacent and connected to the other buildings, no doubt because of the severe winter weather and the occasional polar bear that will roam the streets.

Churchill has an ocean port for grain grown in the prairie provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan. Some 20 ocean-going grain vessels arrive each summer, but none had arrived yet this season because there was still ice in the Hudson Strait blocking the path from the Arctic Ocean.

We visited Prince of Wales Fort on Eskimo Point across the Churchill River from Cape Merry. The fort was originally built by England in 1731 to protect their interests and the Hudson Bay Company trading post from France. We saw several polar bears near the point, which was quite unusual, since the bears are usually not in this area until the ice arrives in November. A polar bear’s diet is almost exclusively seals and their pups.

There was an armed Canadian Ranger present just in case a polar bear was around. We didn’t see any bears at Cape Merry, but ended up seeing a total of five bears during our four-day stay. White fox also abound.

In the afternoon, we took a beluga whale boat trip out into the river and bay and saw hundreds of whales. One couple rented dry suits and went snorkeling to see the whales below the surface of the water. You can also kayak with the whales, but none of us chose to do so on this trip.

The next day we took a 7-hour tundra tour in a huge vehicle that was about 15 feet to the top of the cab and was propelled with an all-wheel drive diesel engine with huge tundra tires, 7 feet in diameter. We saw a lot of bird wildlife and numerous plants and bushes that survive on the tundra.

The following day was just for relaxing and gave us time to explore the Eskimo Museum, which features a collection of Inuit artifacts and carvings that are among the oldest in the world, ranging from 1700 BC to modern times. The Pre-Dorset and Dorset people made the area around Churchill their home during the period from 3000 to 1000 BC. The museum has a gift shop where visitors can purchase Inuit art, books and other local items.

The morning of Monday, August 10, 2015, we were ready to depart Churchill – some for the trip to Miminiska Lodge, Ontario, and others were heading home. The clouds were 1500 broken with tops at 3000. Temperature-wise, even though Churchill is at the 58th parallel north, it was sunny and in the 60s.

Our group of four planes joined up with a group of 12 aircraft from the Cirrus Owners & Pilots Association and one Lancair Evolution. The entire group, minus two aircraft that departed the day before, began departing Churchill at 8:00 a.m. We all filed IFR to either Gillam, Red Lake, or back to Thompson for fuel before heading further south. Two Cirrus aircraft flew to Lynn Lake, Manitoba for fuel on their way back to Calgary, Alberta.

It took 5 hours for everyone to depart Churchill because Winnipeg Flight Service Station (FSS), which was understaffed and remotely managing the traffic without radar, separated each departure by 20 minutes. Regardless of the delay, the FSS specialist did a great job and we all made it to our fuel stops without a hitch. Knowing what we know now, it is advisable to bring a portable transceiver to use while waiting for an instrument clearance, so you do not have to keep the engine running, especially when trying to conserve on fuel.

All in all, it was a great trip, although I don’t think I was totally comfortable with the remoteness and lack of airport services at Churchill. If the airplane is working perfectly and the weather is reasonably good, the trip works out well. However, mechanical issues and poor weather are always a possibility. Churchill also caters to freight haulers and turboprops, but not small piston aircraft.

There are no roads to Churchill. The only way is by air or train, which runs every other day on a good day, we were told. There are also no grass fields in northern Manitoba that one could use in an emergency – only tundra with permafrost one foot below the surface and lots of lakes.

For additional information on Churchill, Manitoba, visit http://www.travelmanitoba.com/place-to-go/Cities/churchill/.

For additional information on Lazy Bear Lodge, and excursions and activities at Churchill, visit www.lazybearlodge.com, or call 866-687-2327.

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