What's it like to live in a far-off place most of us see only on a vacation? Foreign Correspondence is an interview with someone who lives in a spot you may want to visit.
Max Johnson, 53, owns the Great Canadian Travel Company (www.greatcanadiantravel.com). He is a tour operator based in Winnipeg who assembles trips to the Canadian wilds, and to other places. Johnson, originally from England, has been in Winnipeg since 1976. He recently bought a hotel in Churchill, Manitoba, on Hudson Bay, where his firm operates beluga- and polar bear-watching expeditions.
Q. Winnipeg is a major metropolis; Churchill has maybe 1,000 residents. What's Churchill like?
A. Churchill's primary role today is a port: It's at the edge of the Churchill River, where it enters Hudson Bay.
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It's a group of low-rise houses surrounding a grain terminal and grain port — the main reason people work there. Until the 1970s, there was a large American airbase here. The population was up to 6,000 at that point, but the base closed. The runway's left, and that's one of the 36 alternate landing places in North America for the space shuttle.
Q. When you go up there, do you pack differently?
A. Not in summer. The days up there are in the 70s. You certainly may find more mosquitoes than you'd expect, but other than taking jeans and a long-sleeve shirt, the mosquitoes aren't a big deal.
Spring is fine, but Churchill is so far north that it tends to be in June and the beginning of July. The bugs are worst in mid- to late August.
Winters are chilly. Most people end up renting clothing when they're up there at that time.
Q. Rent clothing?
A. Yes, but there's not that much going on in Churchill in winter. We run the polar bear tours in October and November, when it gets down to about minus-10 Celsius (14 Fahrenheit). That's not so bad. Most people have gloves.
Come January, when it's minus-40 Celsius, we don't send anybody there. There's no difference between minus-40 Celsius and minus-40 Fahrenheit. They meet at minus-41.
Q. What's to see and do in Churchill?
A. There's a great deal of the history of the Hudson's Bay Company traders. Fort Prince of Wales is an extraordinary structure. It was built in 1680 and never had a shot fired at it in anger. It's in pristine condition.
Spring wildflowers are remarkable. Whales start to come at beginning of July.
From that point until the end of August and start of September, there are literally hundreds of beluga whales in the Churchill River. You go out in boats to the middle of the river and drop hydrophones into the water to hear them chattering and talking.
Q. What does whale talk sound like?
A. Beeps and whistles.
Q. Is whale season the same as bear season?
A. There's some overlap, but basically no. You see some bears in summer, but they start arriving in number around the beginning of October. They come wandering up the coast, waiting for the bay to freeze. They like to go out on the ice in winter and hunt seals. They find the seals' air holes and wait for them to come up to breathe.
There are seals in the bay right now — but without ice, the bears have no access to them.
Q. Where are the bears right now?
A. Coming off the ice about 100 miles south of Churchill. They make landfall. The pregnant bears stay there; the others will wander up the coast. They stop at the Churchill River, a barrier that prevents them from going north. By the middle or end of November, they'll go to the ice and spend six to eight months there.
Q. So a guy could be sitting in a bar and look out the window and see a polar bear ambling by, waiting for the river to freeze.
A. Yes. In October and November, Churchill has bear patrols. When all the kids go out trick-or-treating for Halloween, people watch carefully for bears, which will come into town. Last year, a guide was picking up someone from the train station and 400 yards away, on Main Street, he encountered a big polar bear.
What happens at that point is this: The bear patrol comes and fairly quickly tranquilizes it and takes it to polar bear jail.
Q. Polar bear jail.
A. Yes. It's just on the edge of town. Google an aerial image of Churchill, and you can see it. It's a collection of Quonset hits they stick the bears in. There frequently will be 10 to 12 caught around town and placed there. When the huts are full, they helicopter the bears 1,500 miles north of town and that's that.
Q. What if they come back?
A. The second time, they'll again be locked in polar bear jail and later flown out. If they're back a third time, it's because the animal has become too accustomed to the town and being around humans. That third time, the bears are killed. That doesn't happen often.