Archive for November, 2009

Exciting cars in America. Well not exactly.

I heard an ad on the radio this week for Hyundai USA. The nice chap from Hyundai was saying that his cars are a cure for erectile dysfunction (a major problem in the US if ad volume is anything to go by). The best line in this advertising masterpiece was “if your arousal lasts for more than four hours, don’t call your doctor. In fact we think you’ll be excited all year.”

Disturbing. Particularly having seen the cars themselves – I think they’d do better being promoted as a cure for insomnia. Zzzzzzz

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Food with serious airmiles

One day when I was in Churchill I was sat in a bakery/ coffeehouse undertaking the onerous task of deciding which pastry to have with my coffee. I felt that I couldn’t possibly have a fruit based pie or tart as the berries much have come from a thousand miles away. I’m sure this occurred to me as I’d seen all the hundreds of miles of nothing but snow that berries, or almost anything for that matter, had to travel to get there.

That thought stayed with me once I got home. I hadn’t previously specifically looked at the origin of foods I buy at here. I guess with neighbouring New Jersey being” The Garden State” and  all the farmland in the area  I had managed to kid myself that much of the food is grown nearby. Of course it isn’t. I had a quick look at what was in my most recent shopping basket and found things from places including Mexico, Costa Rica, France (ok so I still won’t buy local cheese). Wow my shopping has an astonishing amount of air miles and even the USA grown bits are from thousands of miles away.

I’d actually like to buy locally. I believe it is worth supporting the local community (although some of the shops on the local high street are clearly a tax dodge  – there’s no way they are actually trying to make money). I’d love for there to be shops selling local meat and local fruit and veg – not stuff shipped in from somewhere. I’ll keep looking.

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So sorry I missed…

This is one recent event I’m sorry to have missed: The annual Punkin Chunkin contest. In a nutshell this seems to involve flinging pumpkins as far as possible down a muddy November field. However even a cursory glance at The Rules shows that this is far from that simple. For a start there are a bewildering number of categories, such as Adult Centrifugal , Adult Human Power,   Theatrical,  Youth Trebuchet. Hilariously the goal of the “theatrical class” is not distance, rather ” to ham it up as much as possible” as long as you clean up after yourself.

Still, you think, it is probably just a bunch of geeks in a field with some catapults. Well yes, that’s almost certainly true, but the striking thing is the sheer scale of the contraptions. Judging by the photos, there are trebuchets the size of oil derricks out there, not to mention what appear to be surface air missiles!

The rules are astonishingly comprehensive. I’ll admit I only managed to read the first couple of pages (of how many? I shudder to think…). These went into rather a lot of detail about illegal pumpkin tampering (I don’t know either? Maybe you soak them in vinegar and bake in the over as you might to create an illegal but champion conker), also it excludes the use of gasses such as nitrogen, helium and hydrogen. Eeek  – presumably to prevent people from making actual pumpkin bombs. On second thoughts – maybe I’ll just wait to see if it is televised next year.

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They have brains too you know

Before actually experiencing the dog sledding first hand I have to admit I did wonder how the musher steered his dog team without reins. The answer is completely obvious – he tells the lead dog where to go by shouting out left, right, straight on etc (or actually haw, gee etc). I’m ashamed that I didn’t immediately work this out. These dogs are above average clever – of course they will follow commands.

That led me to think more about the bears with their enormous heads, most likely crammed with huge brains. What are they thinking when they amble around the tundra? Are they simply wondering if there’s some seal to be had over the next hill, or are they contemplating the meaning of beary life?

One bear in particular intrigued me; he’d loped along to stand about 5m from the bus. Then he just stood there stock still for ages, not quite looking up at us, in fact he almost looked shy. Half of me couldn’t help thinking that he was pretending to look all cute and cuddly in the hope that one of us would jump off the bus. The other half thought that maybe we were parked right next to his favorite sleeping spot. Or just maybe he loves to be the centre of attention  – between us we took thousands of pictures while he posed. Who knows what was on his beary mind?

Churchill Polar Bears-14 Here he is just looking at us looking at him.

Churchill Polar Bears-15After approx 15 minutes he just lay down and put a paw over his eyes.

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When it comes to the mush….

Churchill Polar Bears-68

On the third and final day of our artic adventure we were fortunate enough to visit a Dog sled racing kennel in Churchill – Wapusk Adventures run by champion musher Dave Daley. The visit was a tour of the kennels and a brief insight into what it takes to run a dog sled team. What came out of it very clearly was that Dave cares very much about his dogs. He considers them to be athletes, so makes sure that they have the best food and the best care available. They have high quality paw ointment, muscle rubs and high protein, high calorie food and lots of it. When they are training they consume many, many thousands of calories a day which costs an absolute fortune. Which explains the tours. The care and attention shows in the dogs – they all look glossy, happy and extremely healthy.

One surprise was how small the dogs are. I imagined powerfully built, seriously furry huskies, but these dogs were smaller, wiry animals. According to Dave you wouldn’t back a 200 lb marathon runner and the same is true of dogs.  They are beautiful creatures – I was quite tempted to take one home. In fact I could probably have smuggled one out under the 18 layers of fleeces I was wearing.

Building up to the sledding, Dave and his son started getting the dogs ready. All of the team in the kennel nearly went mad with excitement when the harnesses came out and then howled with disappointment when they realised they hadn’t been chosen. These dogs want to run.

When we were actually on the sleds, the true power of those dogs quickly became clear – at a gentle trot they could easily pull up to four people on the sled without apparently trying. It was a great experience – gliding through the snow, watching the world streak by. Unusually for me I didn’t remotely miss having an engine.  I can imagine how it could become addictive quite quickly, being out in the elements with your team of dogs. I can’t begin to imagine how tough though – many hours of solitude, often in total whiteouts, in the middle of nowhere, in unbelievably cold temperatures. Brrrrrr

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Polar Safari

Churchill Polar Bears-40

We’ve just had the most astonishing two days on Polar bear safari – an experience that I don’t think I’ll ever forget.

Both mornings started at the Lazy Bear Lodge to the sounds of the strangely percussive water system and the sounds of the heavy-footed Heffalumps upstairs getting ready to go out. Excited about what was to come we were soon adding to the strains of Churchill plumbing before breakfast.  Before long we were on the bus heading off into the pre-sunrise gloom. Each day we were chauffeured by different vehicles –each unique to Churchill. The first was a Tundra buddy – a strange armoured, four wheel drive vehicle (imagine the automotive love-child of a hummer and an amphibious vehicle and you’d get the picture). The second was an off-road school bus. Both had monster tyres, 4-wheel drive, very unforgiving suspensions and a viewing platform bolted onto the back.

On the first day we had barely set off bouncing across the tundra in search of polar bears when first one appeared in the distance – a young male out for his morning constitutional. Soon after we caught sight of a mother and her two cubs. We watched these amazing creatures for some time, following them as they sniffed the air, and cautiously avoided the large males in the area. The noisy chatter in the buggy had given way to a stunned silence, punctuated only by the sounds of camera shutters clicking again and again. Many of our fellow travellers were part of a photographic tour and consequently brought a serious amount of kit. Before long we developed a serious case of lens envy as we saw some of the group using scopes to take dramatic close-ups of bears before we could even see them through our cameras.

Time flew by astonishingly quickly as we watched many, many bears as they went about their business. They seem to amble along without a care in the world but they actually cover a lot of ground. They gather in Churchill at this time of year waiting for the ice on Hudson Bay to form. When the Bay freezes, the polar bears can get onto the ice to hunt their favourite meal, ringed seal.

Luckily for us, many of them were in the area– we must have seen over 30 bears on the first day . The second day we managed to see several at very close quarters. In particular at a dog kennel, a number of bears and the dogs have formed some sort of friendship. The bears hang out with the dogs hoping to share in the food that is handed out, and rather than attacking the dogs, they just reclined peacefully among them (bears are great recliners). We were so close to some of these it was tempting to reach out and touch them – they looked so relaxed and harmless, but just looking at those massive paws with the huge claws was enough to remind us that wasn’t the case.

It was really encouraging to see that the bears weren’t troubled by these strange busses that bristled with telephoto lenses.  Sometimes their meandering paths took them right past the bus, sometimes not. They didn’t seem to change their behaviour at all. At this time of year they are hungry, waiting to go and hunt the seals, so to save energy they lie down a lot – some literally stopped in the road and had a cheeky nap right in front of us.

It has been such a privilege to see these animals in their natural habitat. I’ve only seen one or two in zoos and only now can I start to understand why they look so miserable – because they are. They are meant to roam for hundreds of miles across the ice and snow, swimming for miles to catch the seals they love to eat – they shouldn’t be cooped up in tiny enclosures in weather that is ridiculously warm for them.

Speaking of temperature, despite the fact that the locals all thought it was a heat wave, it was COLD. The days, while short, were mostly bright and the temperature was around -3 but it felt MUCH colder. When we were taking pictures, either on the viewing platform or on the bus through the open window it was freezing. By day three I felt like I was wearing ALL my clothes.

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Heading North to find the Polar Bears

This morning we woke up in Winnipeg and enjoyed brunch of Mimosas and scrambled eggs in the unseasonal sunshine. Today was to be the first step of our polar bear trip. Leaving Winnipeg mid afternoon we took a Calm Air puddle jumper two hours northeast to Churchill, Manitoba. As the plane circled and climbed out of Winnipeg it was really clear how remote the place is. A town that was created thanks to of the local agriculture, all you can see as far as the horizon in all directions is grain fields and flatness. Apart from the airport the only connection with the rest of the world seems to be the railway –  the tracks stretch off into the distance as straight as any Roman road. From several thousand feet the we could see the tape-worm like trains with their infinite procession of carriages.

The flight itself was beautiful – this is easily the furthest north I’ve ever been and as a confirmed townie I was surprised and slightly unsettled at the total absence of civilization of any sort for hour after hour. As the flight progressed, the large lakes we passed changed to many, many small lakes that were increasingly icy. The biggest treat of the trip was the sunset – the whole horizon bathed in reds and oranges.

Sunset over Manitoba

Churchill itself is tiny – almost a one road town huddled on the edge of Hudson Bay. Remarkably the temperature is currently just around about freezing. I was actually slightly disappointed that it is so warm as I came armed to the teeth with fleeces, ski wear, hand warmers and every sort of thermal clothing I could think of. Trip preparation also involved some rather unseemly fleece fondling in local sportswear shops so all that forward planning will have gone to waste. Still they think it might be colder on Wednesday…

A brief excursion into town revealed that there isn’t a whole lot here, and that they have some pretty crazy licensing laws – many places aren’t licensed, those that are won’t sell booze to take out, and even they only have certain rooms where you can drink it.  The best place to buy some is the state liquor store, which closes at 6pm. (our arrival time; 6.05pm….).

It’s recommended you don’t walk anywhere after approx 10pm as Polar bears sometimes cruise around town. I’m insanely excited and keep checking the windows just in case. In any case it looks like we’ll get to see some tomorrow.

Here’s where Churchill is:


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