Friday, 31 July 2015

I left everyone hanging after the goose camp post so I am going to attempt to catch up. The problem with a blog about a Churchill life is I'm finding that I'm busy living that life.

We knew the storm was coming so we started preparing. Batten down the hatches turned into batten down the tent. Claude, Melissa and Camille started gathering rocks to hold down the bottom of the tent. The wind was trying to blow it down. As the temperature dropped we found that the tent was becoming harder and harder to heat. Together we came up with an idea to fix that, cut down the size of the tent. We used tarps and boards and cut the tent in half. After our bathroom tent blew down we moved the pail into the blocked off area of the tent and ended up with an indoor facility, what a bonus.
Construction to make the tent smaller

After a cold and windy night we woke to a blizzard.
Spring blizzard
We pretty much spent the day in the tent, adding wood to the fire, napping and just passing time. If we got really bored we would knock the ice off the side of the tent.
Melissa knocking ice off of the tent.
By morning we were "over it" we packed up and hit the trail home.
Home safe and sound

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

A Churchill Life: We spent a couple of days at goose camp, we're not...

A Churchill Life: We spent a couple of days at goose camp, we're not...: We spent a couple of days at goose camp, we're not big hunters but we like the camping aspect of the trip and it was the perfect excuse ...
We spent a couple of days at goose camp, we're not big hunters but we like the camping aspect of the trip and it was the perfect excuse to get our visiting niece Melissa out on the land. This was our second year and this year there were more people, we ended up with quite a crowd of tents. The final head count was around 12.
The trip always takes place when the snow geese start arriving. We start with departure by snowmobile from the river flats. Through the week people ask each other when they are going and make plans to travel together. Down the Churchill River with all of our gear and across Button Bay. There is a group of islands just on the shoreline where we pitch our tents, the hunters travel further inland to set up the blinds to hunt for geese.
Melissa about 10 kilometers off the shore of Hudson Bay.
 Day one involved getting there, it takes about an hour and a half from Churchill across Button Bay to our campsite.  There was a lot of unpacking and setting up to do, we had friends that arrived a couple of days earlier so we had a lot of help.
Claude, Melissa and our friend Caleb spent much of the afternoon collecting driftwood for the woodstove and rocks to keep the tent in place. They went out with the snowmachines and a komatik that came back full at least twice.
Claude, Melissa and a load of driftwood, a frozen Hudson Bay in the background.
Even collecting firewood was an adventure for our city raised niece, she went from being on a snowmobile for the first time to riding standing up on the back as her uncle drove along. Everything is new to her and it is exciting to see our life through her eyes. The day was sunny and bright, the land thawing and the bay still frozen.
Day two was just beautiful, it was sunny and warm, windy but pleasant. We woke to gunshots that drove Samson to cling to me for the rest of the day, shaking most of the time. Claude shot a goose in camp, as it came down I was sure it was going to hit Florence. She told me later it wasn't going to hit her she would have just reached out and caught it, true northern woman.
Claude and his camp goose
I spent the day watching the birds as they arrived, leave it to me to forget my binoculars of all things, bitter disappointment, I would rather have forgotten my toothbrush. Most of the day I was guessing at the birds or taking long shots of them with my camera and then zooming in to ID them. I saw the Tundra Swans below, Semi-palmated Plovers, Snow Buntings, Lapland Longspurs and I'm pretty sure at least one Lesser Yellowlegs, along with the thousands of Canada, Ross's and Snow Geese. Florence and Camille had their 3 year old grandson with them and he was just a blast, we all took turns playing and caring for him and like all kids he took a huge liking to Claude and Melissa.

Tundra Swans
I love to feed people and was prepared for a crowd as usual, Caleb was invited to join us for dinner the two nights we spent in the tent. The week before I had cooked all of our meals and packaged them so we just had to reheat on the wood stove. Claude and Melissa named breakfast "McRhonda's", an english muffin with scrambled egg, bacon and cheese, Claude treated us both mornings to breakfast in bed, so thoughtful. Lunch was smokies and then dinner chicken stew or spaghetti and turkey meatballs with either cole slaw or tossed salad.
Claude and Melissa went out to the blind with Camille that evening, Claude to shoot with a shotgun and Mel with her camera. The trip was made by argo, an amphibious vehicle, and men being little boys on the way back they decided to cross the ice. Florence and I heard the machine go through the ice from camp, but with these guys that's what counts as fun. 
 As Florence and I watched; they were coming across the ice and suddenly they were in the water. If you're going to ride in an Argo you may as well try it all.
It wasn't long before we saw the lights of the argo coming toward us all of them laughing about how much fun they had. A beautiful sunset gave us no clue as to what we were going to have to deal with the next day. We had one place on the site where we could get an internet connection, we all laughed at each other walking in circles with our phones held up trying to find that one spot. What this spot provided us with was a connection to the weather, we found out that it was not going to be good the next day. The wind was going to gust up to 60 kilometers an hour and the temperature was going to dip below zero we were going to make preparations.
Sunset and hundreds of geese

Friday, 3 April 2015

Not long now, we're almost there.

A friend and I were talking one day as Claude was going out on the land on the snowmobile. Mike made a comment about the way Claude travels; he was laughing when he said that most people put 200 miles on their machines in a season but for Claude that's just the first day of an outing. It's true, we put a lot of miles on our machines in any given year.
We had plans to travel to McClintock and back to pick up some things that we had left behind while doing the trail for the HBQ. The weekend came but between weather and a sore back our overnight trip turned into a day trip. We left mid morning heading for Lamprey first, Claude really wanted me to see the drifts on the Deer River, so through Goose Creek and south we went. 
 Along the trail near Goose Creek we could see where a wolverine had followed a moose everywhere it went.
Out onto the Churchill River and on toward the Deer. It takes about an hour to travel the Churchill to the Deer but there's a lot of great scenery along the way, it's never dull that's for sure and it was a bright, sunny day. The Deer River is a twisting and shallow, I remembered my friend Ashley saying that she counted turns one trip so I decided that I would give that a try as we would be on this river until McClintock.. On some of the turns you can look through the bush and see the end of the turn about 100 yards away, staying on the river probably made for a lot more mileage. We flew over the river on our way to Winnipeg last week and it looks to me about 4 times longer than as the raven flies. Claude was right though the drifts were incredible, flowing off the barrens above.
All along the river the drifts were different, sculpted by the wind . You would think that the kind of miles we cover would get boring and I've heard from other people that they do. I don't; I'm looking around for wildlife and at just how stunning this land is. I always thought that a frozen river would be a flat surface, that is not necessarily true. We crossed an area that was full of hills and valleys yet we were on the river. I don't quite understand how that happens, how did the river drop like that? More research will be done so that I can understand this phenomenon.
 Claude crossing the hills and valleys that make up the ever changing Deer River.

We stopped at Lamprey for a short bit to pick up a few things that we had left there during the Hudson Bay Quest (HBQ). I was a little excited to see the scar left on the river after our three hour unscheduled stop in the slush, it was about an hour away. The turn count was over 150 by then.
The scar on the river where we got stuck in the slush, snow blew it in but it was quite a stretch.

The count was 246 when we got to McClintock, even I couldn't believe it and I drove it. We arrived at McClintock at about 5 pm and stayed just long enough to have something to eat, pack up the 500 HBQ markers we had picked up on the way and the few things that we had left there, we left at 8 pm.
On the return trip we were going to travel on the Hydro line, it seemed like a good idea at the time, it should be a lot quicker he said. Something in the suspension of his machine had broken and he didn't want to pull the komatik with it so that was now up to me. The hydro line goes a long way across the barrens; for those that don't know what that's like here's a breakdown. The barrens are treeless there is nothing to stop snow, so it just keeps blowing. That cushion of snow doesn't exist; you travel across frozen ground. Tundra is not flat, it's terribly hummocky, so very bumpy on a snowmobile.
The barrens humpy, bumpy and very little snow even in winter.

Claude stopped after about an hour to see how I was doing, I asked how long it was going to be this bumpy; he said not long we were almost there. Every bump the komatik pulled the machine back just enough to cause pain in my lower back, I kept thinking almost there; even though I didn't know where there was. An hour passed and Claude stopped to check on me again. I was sure that we were where we were going; off the barrens. He told me we were heading toward the Chesney trail and we weren't there yet. It was then that it struck me; our ideas of almost there and not long were hours apart. Almost there and not long to me never takes an hour or more, now it had been an hour and we still weren't where we were going. Finally another hour later we were on the Chesney trail. This is the trail that is used by Wat'chee Lodge to transfer everything they need from town by Cats (really large machines) they pull a groomer behind them, it's like a superhighway compared to what we were on.

We arrived home at 12 am tired and sore. It was one of those nights when the bed comes up to meet you; you lay down your whole body sighs. A long good day on the land was over and we were both happy for that.   

Saturday, 28 March 2015

A box of meatballs

Sunday morning the 15th of March, the HBQ is not quite over for one of the mushers and us. Before Tom Terry could finish the race a storm blew in, he was not being over-cautious when he stopped travelling; it developed into a full blown white-out. He did the right thing.
Claude got the call the night before and monitored Tom by computer, working out his location for pretty much the rest of the night. He gave Brett Wlock a call to see if was interested in coming with us to collect Terry and the team, of course he was all in.
We got up at 4 am; I'm not really at my best that early. I like some coffee and some quiet before I get moving. The problem with coffee is that too much and I will be freezing my butt off; enough said. Pack warm liquids and a sandwich for Tom and we're on our way.
We met Brett at the beginning of the trail and took off with Claude in the lead. About 2 hours later we were out of the bush and onto the river. Claude amazes me quite regularly but come on; I looked out and there was Tom's camp. Claude said that they were about 400 metres from where he thought he'd be.
Tom's overnight accommodations.
Having missed his alarm, Tom was still sleeping. Later he told us that he'd had the best 12 hours sleep that he could remember. We had to get him moving as there was another storm coming that afternoon. Claude handed him a thermos to get him rehydrated and Tom slowly got himself up.
We had pulled a komatik for the sled and gear, another with a box on it for Tom and the dogs. They packed up the gear and now it was time to pack up the dogs. Brett checked to make sure they would be comfortable.
 Always one to go the extra mile Brett makes sure everyone will be comfortable.
From the beginning of our relationship Claude has called Samson a meatball. As the dogs went into the box he was counting, "one meatball, two meatballs until there were ten meatballs in the box. Things were pretty iffy with dogs jumping about until Tom got himself settled in with them. After a bit of  pushing and shoving each other for space on his lap we were ready to go.
Tom, Brett and a box of meatballs.
A couple of hours later and we were back in town, we didn't pull the dogs across the finish line but skirted around it, after all they didn't finish the race. 
Jessie Terry was there to meet his Dad with a bear hug. He told him that he now knew how his mother and others felt when he was out on the trail. He had spent the night worrying about his father's safety.

Sunday, 22 March 2015

A Churchill Life: On the trail of the Hudson Bay Quest 2015

A Churchill Life: On the trail of the Hudson Bay Quest 2015: The Hudson Bay Quest (HBQ) is a 320 kilometre (200  miles) , mid-distance dogsled race, a qualifier for the Yukon Quest and Ididarod. A self...

Saturday, 21 March 2015

On the trail of the Hudson Bay Quest 2015

The Hudson Bay Quest (HBQ) is a 320 kilometre (200 miles), mid-distance dogsled race, a qualifier for the Yukon Quest and Ididarod. A self-sustained wilderness race; the musher must carry everything that they and the dogs will need, no dropping supplies at a checkpoint. What is not used on the race must remain on the sled until the racer finishes. Brainchild of  David Daley of Wapusk Adventures in Churchill, the inaugural race was in 2004. The route was then from Churchill, Manitoba to Arviat, Nunavut or the reverse. The seemingly scheduled extreme blizzard, overflow on the rivers, the barrenlands and sea ice travel were making this route downright dangerous. As of the 2011 race it's route is from Churchill to Gillam Manitoba or reverse, this year was Gillam to Churchill.

Since 2008 my partner Claude has been the trail-boss of the race, his duties encompass everything trail. Weeks before the Mid-March start he is studying maps and working on his G.P.S., he likes to give the returning racers some variety in the trail route. About a week before the start he is off on his snowmobile heading to Gillam checking conditions and deciding the route that the race is going to take.

 This year I was charged with the position of Trail Support, I called myself Trail Idiot but Claude assures me the name doesn't suit me. Completely out of my element there were times that the whole experience was completely overwhelming. My first lengthy trip on a snowmobile (to our cabin was my longest ride before this), first time pulling a komatik, (a large heavy wooden sleigh pulled by either a snowmobile or dog team), first time marking the trail for the mushers, first time in lead, I  am usually behind him. Claude was using a groomer and he wanted the mushers to be the first to travel on the trail he left.
The groomer leaves a smooth flat running surface for the dogs.
My experience started with a train ride from Churchill to Gillam. One of our snowmobiles was being repaired in Thompson and meeting us in Gillam, otherwise I would have travelled both ways by machine. The train was carrying the Churchill mushers and their 40 some dogs, all kenneled on a luggage car donated by VIA Rail. We arrived in Gillam about 4:30 am where the dogs were quickly unloaded to trailers and trucks, transportation was kindly donated by volunteers in Gillam. Down to the dog yard we went. The yard is set up so that every team has a chute, high banked snow breaks the wind for the dogs.
Justin Allen and his team of Wapusk Adventures dogs.
The dogs bedded down; it was about 9:00 am by the time the mushers settled in hotels. The party began; but that's all that I will say about that. Two days until race day. Thursday was spent tending to the dogs and welcoming arriving mushers and teams. This year we were host to teams from Quebec and the northern United States. Claude arrived after his solo trip down from Churchill, it was sure nice to see him. 
The southern racers make their way to Gillam is specially equipped pickup trucks.
Thursday; and the arrival of the repaired snowmobile, we transferred ourselves to Kettle Camp, a Manitoba Hydro workers camp, much like a hotel in the middle of nowhere; clean and comfortable. The day was spent in meetings; committee, mushers and more committee meetings ironing out the final details and making sure that the mushers understood the route and the rules. The evening event was  "Meet the Mushers", an opportunity for the people of Gillam to see the racers and get autographs. The schools have a program called "Adopt a Musher", classrooms are assigned a musher and team, they make posters and follow "their" musher throughout the race. The mushers, Claude and I were assigned "Spots"  much like a G.P.S they follow our every move, anyone can monitor the race online. Claude's daughter plays a game she calls "follow the bush man" she watches us mile by mile. This year her six year old stepson watched with her and was so excited that Claude and I were winning. 
The mushers are introduced and the bib draw conducted by the race marshall. The receiving of the race entry by the committee decides the team's placement in the bib draw. This year first in the draw was Martin Massicotte from Trois Riviere, he picked  number thirteen, it proved to be a lucky choice as he was first to cross the finish line in record time.

Claude and I departed Gillam at 9:00am Friday, the racers would start at noon. He was pulling a komatik with our gear,everything we would need for a couple of days, behind that was the trail groomer. I was pulling just a komatik. We left from the dog yard across Stephens Lake (part of the Nelson River) crossed the Gillam Hwy to the Hydro Line. This first part of the trail stays on the Hydro line. After the highway the next obstacle is Sky Pilot Hill, the mushers talk about it and now I know why. Claude didn't say much, he didn't want me to overthink it.  The only thing I really remember is feeling the komatik chasing me down this ultra steep long hill. I tried the brakes and the machine slid sideways a bit, fearing a jack knife of the sleigh I let the engine do the work slowing the machine. I think the only hills in Manitoba are in this area but none we encountered were like this. 
We arrived at Owl River about two pm. The first checkpoint on the race;  manned by the Gillam Canadian Rangers. We were welcomed, hydrated and on our way. By this time our parkas were off and we were dressed for spring, this was the warmest Hudson Bay Quest (HBQ) on record, the temperature was about 0 Celsius, quite lovely for us but hard on the teams. On to checkpoint two, McClintock. 
The ride to McClintock also followed the power line, the poles mark the trail so my only task was to place a marker every five kilometres. We arrived at the second checkpoint at around 5:30 pm met by a mix of Gillam and Churchill Rangers and Brett Wlock from Manitoba Conservation. Brett was volunteering, he manned the cabin for the vets and what a job he did, cooked, cleaned and added a door to the bathroom. We had a bite to eat and then hit the Deer River headed for Churchill, fully expecting to arrive there about midnight or so. 
The Deer River is known for slush. We stopped along the way; Claude carries a satellite phone, he took the opportunity to call his son, daughter and a friend of his that worked on the trail the previous year. He made a point of telling his friend Doug that there was no slush on the Deer. About 5 minutes after that phone call I ran into slush, we had made arrangements for this, I was to turn on the light on the back of my machine to let Claude know, the problem was I couldn't get to the light before he was stuck. I could hear the track on his machine gurgling and knew we were in deep deep trouble.
 The BearCat, the komatik and the groomer before they were all stuck.
Claude and his machine pull a heavy load; over snow is hard enough, in slush impossible. I will admit now that I was useless as a helper, so out of my element, all I did was push the button on the winch. I just kept thinking of the Corb Lund song "The truck got stuck." He went into the slush at 10:00pm and for three hours he pushed, pulled, winched and sweated until they were finally back on solid snow around 1:30am. At one point he said to me "Oh honey look at the sky." it was covered by bright green, dancing northern lights. Just when I thought we were on our way he told me that he had to go back, "you can't go back that's where the slush is." " I have to make a safe trail for the mushers." and off he went. I sat on the machine for about 10 minutes watching the sky and listening to the sound of the machine, wishing and hoping that I wouldn't hear that gurgling sound again, relieved when I saw the lights of the snowmobile approaching out of the darkness. The most amazing part of this whole ordeal to me is that not once did he lose his temper, not once did he his show frustration.  At 4:20 am we staggered into Lamprey cabin; checkpoint number 3, manned by Churchill Canadian Rangers. From the back of the cabin we heard "Who's that?" it was Dixon Hunter. We told him who we were and a bit of what happened. He jumped up, lit the lantern and told us to wait a second and he'd get dressed. We heard "Ranger up boys. You're tired wet and hungry. Are smokies okay and how many do you want?" From that moment on they did everything they could to help us out, hung our wet gear to dry, fed us, one of them gave up their bunk so that we could rest. There were eight people in that one room cabin, adding us made ten, it was more than a little crowded.
Wet with sweat, the komatik and groomer were still stuck.
The sun came up Saturday morning and it was just a little colder, off the Deer River onto the Churchill, we were almost home. Incident free along the river into the bush, along the tracks and to the finish line. To Gypsy's for some grub and then home to rest. We were lucky this year, it was the first time in all of those years that Claude was standing at the finish line when the winner crossed. This was one of those experiences I get to have with Claude, he believes in me when I don't and gives me the confidence to accompany him on his adventures; for that I am grateful.