Travel With Monica Frim

Manitoba: From Winnipeg to Churchill

There's More than Belugas, Bears and Beavers in Canada's Central Province
By Monica Frim
Photography by John Frim and Monica Frim

The land north of the 49th parallel held a curious fascination for the early European explorers. It was harsh and forbidding, especially around Hudson Bay where windswept rocks and tundra rendered the land so inhospitable that few could get past the pack ice or survive the region’s wintery bite. But the area offered access to something fashion-savvy Europeans coveted even more than New-World jewels — a beaver on their heads.

Intriguingly, the large furry rodent with buck teeth and a paddle-shaped tail led to the building of a nation and then became its emblem. Fur traders almost drove it to extinction in the mid-1800s. Then it resurfaced not only in rivers but also on company logos, buildings, kitschy souvenirs and the back of the Canadian five-cent coin, the nickel.

Early Jesuits’ journals tell of natives laughing themselves silly over the naivety of it all. “Imagine these crazy white men giving us kettles, beads, blankets and knives, all for a piece of fur,” they said, or words to that effect. The entire Hudson Bay drainage basin, called Rupert’s Land in the 17th and 18th centuries (roughly a third of present-day Canada plus parts of the northern United States), teemed with fur traders, most of them in the employ of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). The HBC monopolized the trade from 1670 until silk hats became the new rage in the mid-19th century and hastened the end of the fur trade.

As hunting and fur trading gave way to farming, the early trading posts began to sell household goods and general merchandise. The HBC evolved into the iconic department store that today counts among its acquisitions the American Lord & Taylor and Saks Fifth Avenue.

In the early 20th century, Winnipeg was the fastest growing city in North America. It grew from a population of 20,000 in 1886 to 150,000 in 1911 and, owing to its position as a transportation hub and its innovative architecture, came to be known as the “Chicago of the North.” Having recently visited Chicago, I was eager to see Winnipeg’s version and headed straight to the Exchange District, the city’s original center of commerce and culture. My guide was Don Finkbeiner, owner of Heartland International Travel & Tours. Don pointed out that many of the buildings here were, in fact, designed by Chicago architects. Today the Exchange District is a National Historic Site, a 20-block enclave of turn-of-the-19th-century warehouses, stately banks, opulent hotels and seedy saloons turned into trendy boutiques, galleries and condos.

The fine buildings of downtown Winnipeg attest to a time when it was a booming place of mansions, millionaires and merchantry. Located at the confluence of two rivers, the Red and the Assiniboine, and center stage on a railway that ran to both eastern and western ends of the country, Winnipeg was primed to outshine all other cities in North America.

“Let me show you where it all started,” said Don as he led us to The Forks, the actual river junction that’s been bringing people together for more than 6,000 years — from early Aboriginals to fur traders, buffalo hunters and farmers, to the modern-day citizens and tourists. Set alongside a river walk and parklands with symbolic statuary, The Forks Market is arguably Winnipeg’s busiest attraction, abuzz with people jostling shoulder to shoulder through specialty boutiques and ethnic eateries that were once the stables and haylofts of competing rail companies.

But the building that best epitomizes the high hopes of Winnipeg’s yesteryear, with its classically perfect dimensions and a gold-plated bronze statue known as the Golden Boy atop its cupola, is the province’s most powerful — the Manitoba Legislative Building. It is also the most perplexing, steeped in occult mysteries and, during its construction in the early 1900s, the object of its own scandalous undoing.

The story is that British architect Frank Worthington Simon was hired in 1912 to design a legislative building appropriate to the city’s anticipated lofty status. But when the contractor, Thomas Kelly, embezzled more than a million dollars, sharing his goodly plunder with government cronies that allegedly included the then-premier of the province, construction almost ground to a halt. Simon tried desperately to save his building, even offering to give up his $100,000 commission, but the new government would have none of it. They cut funding, forcing Simon to finish quickly with substandard materials and foregoing many finishing touches. Winnipeg slipped slowly downward, additionally affected by World War I and the curtailing of rail transportation. When the stock market crashed in 1929, it delivered a straight-out bust to the city’s boom.

Nevertheless, Simon left behind an unexplained legacy of allegorical statuary, hieroglyphic inscriptions and mathematical symbolism that remained largely unexplained for almost a century. Enter Dr. Frank Albo. As a graduate student, Albo tapped into the mindset of Simon and questioned the architect’s curious choices: Why were there two Egyptian sphinxes atop a building in Manitoba? Why two bronze bison guarding the building? And what about the symbolic measurements and mathematical placements of columns, stairs and statuary, all according to numbers of the Fibonacci sequence? This was real Dan Brown stuff, though not a fictional story. Albo found parallels among Christian and pagan symbols and proved that the Legislative building was actually an ancient temple in disguise built on masonic principles (Simon was a Freemason) with occult clues “hidden in plain sight.”

Winnipeg’s newest museum, The Canadian Museum for Human Rights, was designed by American architect Antoine Predock. The building opened in September 2014 as the world’s only museum solely dedicated to awareness and education about the importance of human rights for all. Maureen Fitzhenry, the museum’s media relations manager explained, “This is not a museum of artifacts but of ideas and stories related to human rights issues. The aim is to encourage dialogue and critical thinking about issues that affect people everywhere. It’s all about concepts and aspirations.”

Toward that end, 11 galleries of interactive displays showcase viewpoints from indigenous rights to labor rights, children’s rights, LGBTTQ rights, racism, and the struggles and genocides of societies from all parts of the world. Holocaust atrocities are presented not in terms of doom and gloom but in ways that recognize and encourage breaking the silence on genocide so it can be prevented.

As a result I found the museum far from depressing, which, Maureen explained, was the museum’s intended effect. Back-lit, alabaster-clad ramps zig-zag upward from the dimly lit lower floors through the museum galleries, which grow brighter until they ultimately end at the resplendent 23-storey Tower of Hope with views across the city. The ultimate effect is one of hope and achievement.

The message is consistent with the general spirit of optimism that has come to characterize the city. You see it everywhere — in the chic and trendy bars and restaurants of artsy Osbourne Village; in the world-class galleries and museums; in the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s performances, Canada’s oldest ballet company and the longest continuously operating ballet company in North America; at multicultural events like Folklorama, Festival du Voyageur and the Winnipeg Folk Festival; and in St. Boniface, Winnipeg’s French Quarter with its ultra modern cathedral built inside the ruins of the shell of the old cathedral, which was destroyed by fire in 1968.

As in the days of old, Winnipeg is still the gateway for exploration in all directions. Although the beaver trade ceased centuries ago, a replacement industry based on polar bears and beluga whales thrives in Churchill, an isolated town 600 miles north of Winnipeg and accessible only by plane or train. Churchill is known as the polar bear capital of the world for its accessibility to polar bears that wander from the tundra to inspect the shores of Hudson Bay for signs of pack ice in October and November.

I tacked a visit to Churchill onto my Winnipeg weekend in the summer when the Churchill River estuary teems with 3,000 beluga whales while the tundra vibrates with yellow and purple flowers. Wind-worn rocks tumble along a shoreline that heaves back and forth with 16-foot tides and occasionally reveals a polar bear that, on first glance, could be mistaken for a boulder.

Hudson Bay was angry my first rainy day and roared a mean froth, but Aaron, our guide from Lazy Bear Lodge, paid it no mind. He had received word that a polar bear was prowling along the shoreline and he was happy to drive a busload of deplaned nature enthusiasts in search of the bear before we even checked in at the lodge. Aaron stopped the car on a small rise and pointed at a white rock in the distance. “Check out that rock,” he said. “Let’s see if it moves.” We eventually found one that did — but it was so far in the distance that even with binoculars it looked no bigger than a lozenge. Later in the week, Wally Daudrich, the owner and builder of Lazy Bear Lodge, captained his bull-nose boat the Sam Hearne within 20 feet of a mother bear with her cub on the shoreline. Our previous bear encounters on land (there had been several over the course of a few days) suddenly melted into paltry inconsequence.

One reason for my making this trip in the summer was to cozy up to beluga whales — by snorkeling alongside them. Belugas are sociable things, as curious about us as we are about them, but probably a lot more comfortable in 48-degree Fahrenheit water.

My snorkel gear consisted of layers of winter woollies and fleece jackets under a dry suit with airtight openings at the neck and sleeves. Once I was fully zipped and tucked, the Zodiac driver, Bob, burped the air out of my suit as if it were Tupperware. I jumped from the Zodiac into the frigid water holding a rope tether to ward against the tides carrying me off to the Arctic Ocean and gasped as I hit the cold water. Plunging my face into the frigid water I saw… nothing! I stretched one arm out for a selfie as proof that I wasn’t dreaming but the resulting image showed only a coffee-colored rectangle around a barely perceptible oval that was either my mask or my head. Apparently the storm a few days earlier had washed so much peat into the bay that the water was brown as beef gravy and almost as thick.

It was only after I had pulled myself back into the Zodiac that I could see what had been there all along — the sleek white bodies of tens of belugas arcing over the water, looking for all the world like Bavarian Weisswurst in broth. By the time the zodiac headed for shore 90 minutes later, I had seen not tens but hundreds of beluga whales.

Surprisingly, kayaking provided a more interactive encounter as, another day, I practically got carried along by friendly belugas who came close enough to nudge my kayak with their ghostly bodies. Only the adults are white — belugas are born gray and lighten as they grow older. Thousands are born in the warmer waters of the Churchill River between June and August, which makes summer the best time to visit Churchill if you want to see both polar bears and beluga whales.

It’s also a good time to go dog-carting.

Gerald and Jenafor Azure are the owners of Blue Sky Expeditions. In summer they exercise their sled dogs by having them pull wheeled carts along a mile-long path through boreal forest and grassy ponds on the outskirts of Churchill. Visitors sit in the carts while Gerald steers from a small platform on the back.

Lazy Bear Lodge offers many programs that include visits to cultural heritage sites such as Cape Merry, an 18th century battery on the east shore of the Churchill River; the Prince of Wales Fort, a massive stone fortress that took 40 years to build only to be subsequently surrendered to the French without a single cannon having been fired; a full day’s boat trip on Hudson Bay to the Seal River to see more polar bears and beluga whales; and tundra tours onboard specially built bear-proof vehicles that are as roomy as they are comfortable.

But for those who can’t get to Churchill, the zoo in Winnipeg’s Assiniboine Park offers the next best thing. Of course the polar bears are the stars but snowy owls, caribou, arctic foxes, wolves and muskoxen play supporting roles. And just as in Churchill, sightings depend on the bears’ druthers. If you’re lucky, a bear will swim over your head in perfect synchronicity with your walk through a Plexiglass tunnel that features seals at the other end. If not, go to Churchill (Psst — I was told that in summer, zoo denizens prefer a morning dip).

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