Because 2012 was to be a solar maximum year, and Marilyn had never seen the Aurora Borealis, we enrolled in a Road Scholar Program: Into the Arctic Skies--Aurora and Astronomy in Churchill . We flew to Winnipeg, then took the two-night train ride to Churchill for our classes at the new, marvelous Churchill Northern Studies Centre.
[click] means you can click the image for a larger, perhaps different, image.

Our Embraer RJ145 dropped us, with 40 other passengers, at Winnipeg's James Richardson International Airport. +20°F.

We found sustenance at Shannon's Irish Pub in a pint of Okanagan Spring Black Lager [click].

Walking back to the Best Western Charterhouse, we ran across a polar bear! It invited us to go to Churchill.

The next day, we walked to the delightful Winnipeg Railway Museum, home of the Countess of Dufferin and a Packard=>

The modern Canadian Museum for Human Rights leaps up on the banks of the Red River, near the Forks.

Ice skating rules on the frozen Red River and adjacent paths.
The sign reads: Caution Ice Trail Crossing. [click]

The dearth of snow this year meant that Winnipeg had to haul in tons of snow for sculptures to celebrate Louis Reil Day and Festival du Voyageur.

As you can see, the train to Churchill was just PACKED!
We met and became acquainted with twelve other Road Scholar travelers, passengers on the Chateau La Tour sleeper car.

A quick stopover in Dauphin gave us an opportunity to get an image of the locomotives and to stock up on snacks and libations.

As we rode north, we left plowed fields behind and entered the winter Boreal Forest.

Tripod telephone poles showed the difficulties of building stable infrastructure on permafrost. The railway was an engineering marvel: first planned for Port Nelson, then re-directed.

A required shot on a curve at Thompson Junction. No roads go north of Thompson, so you must get to Churchill by sea, rail, or air.

Thompson features large wolf sculptures, part of a Spirit Way.

Wolves surround Thompson, one even stares down from a large mural on an apartment house.=>
The locals told us that several dogs had had run-ins with packs of wolves that live just outside town. Sadly, we saw no live wolves, but the Heritage North Museum was an unexpected treat!

We left the train at Churchill Station at -40°C = -40°F wind chill (frostbite time = 10-30 minutes)--fairly consistent for the time there.

Home for the next five days of classes, exploration, learning, and aurora hunting: the new
Churchill Northern Studies Centre
. [click]

Do old vans go to die in Churchill, or are unlocked relics kept to provide emergency shelter in case of a Polar Bear encounter?

CSNC lies on the Canadian Shield--the largest mass of exposed Precambrian rocks on Earth, and home to durable lichens.

We tested our outdoor gear at an igloo constructed by EarthWatch researchers/assistants the previous week.

Tundra Buggies provide safaris and Bear-proof campsites for tourists in the summer and fall. During winter, polar bears are either denned-up (whelping cubs) or are hunting on the ice.

Every morning, EarthWatch researchers rode out on snowmobiles to study snow, ecosystems, .... CNSC lies at a boundary of Boreal Forest and Tundra, as well as near an estuary (Churchill River/Hudson Bay) so it can provide unique research opportunities.

Every useable vehicle we saw was plugged into a block heater so that it would start when needed.

This image from a presentation by Dr. LeeAnn Fishback of CNSC shows what happens to rail beds built on permafrost.

We all milled about or stayed in the tent trying to keep warm while our marvelous mushers prepared dogs and sleds for rides. [click]

Bluesky provided the rides. Jenafor and Gerald Azure have a no-cull policy. The dogs adore the mushers and love the work. [click]

Eskimo Museum in Churchill had terrific displays, including native artwork and these Polar Bear Cubs (15 days and 1 month) [click]

The Parks Canada Visitor Centre had displays of denning Polar Bears and Arctic Foxes [click].

A frozen train awaited the next trip at the Churchill Heritage Rail Station, which houses the Parks Canada Visitor Centre. [click]

We provided scale for an Inuit Inukshuk on Hudson Bay.

Michael Goodyear, Executive Director of CNSC (left) took us into the Boreal Forest for snow research demonstrations and snow mobile or snowshoe excursions.

Starman (AKA Roger Woloshyn) provided many dynamic, informative and entertaining lectures* on aurora and astronomy.

We checked out the lexan Aurora dome in anticipation of clear skies and a reasonable chance that the Auroral Oval would intersect Churchill that night.

The sky lighted up at that night. The display was very dynamic, with moving curtains, blobs, and light points falling like virga. [click]

These lovely images were captured (and brightened) by James Killoran, one of our fellow students. [click]

This photograph documents a rarity: no wind on the morning of 27 February (note the flags)!

In case you have any uncertainty about the size of polar bears, this cast of a footprint was made just outside the Churchill Northern Studies Centre. You can see why the Centre has window bars on all first-floor windows and why we were happy that females were denning and torpid (though they can instantly become active and dangerous)! [click] =>

Our walking tour of the old Rocket Range (now CNSC site) took us by many launch buildings used from IGY to the 1980s. [click]

The CNSC maintenance director built this behemoth ATV/RV for his own version of bear-proof camping.

Here is a typical view out of the bus. Its defroster could not keep up with homeothermic passengers at -40°C wind chill.[click]

Our last evening of the Road Scholar Program, this red fox trotted by. We spied it out our window.

Myrtle DeMeulles, a Métis and winner of the Order of Manitoba, entertained us with an evening presentation including story telling about working traplines and bush life, songs, music, and samples of her Caribou Hair Sculptures. [click]

Our last night at CSNC, moon glow and aurora cast dramatic colors. [click]

How cold? This pickup delivering Road Scholars' luggage to the airport had been plugged in all night, and had idled for almost three hours before we used it. Note the un-melted snow on the hood.

Old style snowcats have mostly been replaced by snowmobiles that zoom about on frozen roads or their margins. Churchill residents walk the road edges at their peril!

By coincidence, I had reserved a room at the BlueSky Bed and Sled for two days, until the train returned to Winnipeg. What good luck! A sign by the entry warned of Polar Bears. [click]

That afternoon, we helped Jenafor and Gerald feed and clean up after their 24 sled dogs. Each dog gets 1 KG of raw frozen chicken and a large can of kibble with warm broth every day.
The dogs convert over a ton of food into fun, social interaction, sledding and by-products every year. [click]

The next day dawned still and warmer, a perfect day for a 20 mile dog-sledding adventure! Note the booties on the dogs, and how heated up the dogs get at -15°C = +5°F. Marilyn is in front of me, keeping me warm! Photo by Jenafor Azure. [click]

Back at the dog compound, cheeky Gray Jays took kibble from my hand. [click]

The Azures undressed the dogs (booties), let some run free for a while, then settled them for the night. [click]

Following Jenafor's great breakfast the next morning, we walked about Churchill and viewed Hudson Bay from the Town Centre.

Jenafor and Gerald joined us for dinner at the Seaport Hotel (Maple-Whiskey Scallops and Mushrooms Neptune-YUM!) They delivered us to the train depot with a supply of bannock for our next breakfast. As they were leaving, Jenafor popped back in to tell us the Aurora was on display. We all hopped up and, to the amused giggling of the locals, we ran out to see...

Auroral displays stayed on all night long as we watched through our train window. White squiggles are Venus and Jupiter, leaving long-exposure light paths while the train bounces and rocks down the tracks. [click]

Parting images:

All the locals told us that it was a really low snow year in Churchill.

We shall return to CNSC and BlueSky Bed & Sled for Belugas, Bears, and summer flora and fauna--including black flies and mosquitoes!

* Observation: As Starman contrasted Geocentric and Heliocentric models of the Solar System, I noted that exchanging the first two letters of geocentric would yield a more apt description of the model. [return]

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