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Subarctic Research Station Hosts “Learning Vacations” in New Eco-Friendly Facility

Published: 10/12/2011

An active scientific research outpost on the subarctic Hudson Bay coast of  Manitoba, Canada, is hosting tour programs for travelers curious about the wildlife, ecology, and other natural phenomena of the Far North in a new facility uniquely suited to observing and protecting its exotic environment.

The independent, nonprofit Churchill Northern Studies Centre (204-675-2307), about 14 miles from  the  remote seaport town of Churchill, offers expert-led "Learning Vacations" about local polar bears, northern lights, birdlife, and other topics.

The multiday adventure-study tours provide guests with opportunities to peer into the frontiers of science on the arctic frontier by observing and even assisting in research.

Tour members live and learn alongside senior scientists and student researchers in an environmentally friendly, handicap-accessible facility that opened this past summer. The two-storey, 27,000 square-foot structure was built to LEED Gold certification standards. Natural light permeates 90 percent of the interior space. A solar wall that heats incoming ventilation air is among the green features of the unusual trapezoid-shaped building. Amenities include sleeping quarters, cafeteria, laboratories, classrooms, an open-air viewing deck on the second floor that wraps around a corner of the building and is ideal for safely observing and photographing polar bears and other wildlife, and a heated, dome-covered observation lounge for relaxing and viewing the northern lights.

Metal bars across the outside of the first-floor windows keep powerful and curious local polar bears from clawing on the glass.

The new building replaces a decades-old utilitarian structure whose confines were rather Spartan. According to the center's management, vacationers and resident scientists now enjoy greater comfort in more spacious surroundings, including guest rooms with cathedral ceilings, common areas suited to socializing, and a 100-seat cafeteria roomy enough so that everyone can dine together rather than eating in shifts, as was the case in the old 38-seat dining room.

Michael A. Goodyear, the center's executive director, says guests receive "a quality of information that's very high" from lecturers, guides, and researchers posted to the facility. Goodyear, who guides some tours himself, is a wildlife biologist with undergraduate and graduate zoology degrees from the University of Manitoba.

Prices for all tours include lodging in four-person dormitory-style bunk-bed rooms with shared baths, excursions, lectures, local transportation, and three cafeteria meals daily. Linens are provided, but toiletries are not. "We're not trying to be a hotel," Goodyear advises. "There's no in-room TV or maid service."  Tour prices don't cover transportation from home to Churchill.

Here's the schedule of the Churchill Northern Studies Centre's "Learning Vacations" from late fall 2011 through late spring 2012:

"Lords of the Arctic."  The organization will offer its "Lords of the Arctic: The Ecology of Hudson Bay's Polar Bears" program October 25-November 1, 2011 and November 8-15, 2011. Churchill's annual fall polar-bear migration has become a tourism mainstay. Goodyear says "Lords of the Arctic" is designed to offer "a more immersive experience" than the typical polar bear-watching tour. Activities include evening lectures, two-days of close-up polar bear viewing from a specially built tundra vehicle, a 45-minute helicopter ride over the barren Hudson Bay lowlands - with occasional views of bear, moose, and caribou - a dog-sled ride, a visit to Churchill's acclaimed Eskimo Museum, and an opportunity to tour the community of Churchill to learn more about daily life in the Far North. Guests can contribute to scientific knowledge by downloading their polar bear photos to a computer database used in ongoing research into the unique facial characteristics of individual bears. Goodyear says it's not unusual to see polar bears traversing the center's parking lot or wandering past the cafeteria's windows. Guests have opened their bedroom shades to see bears looking in. The final night's dinner features subarctic specialties such as Arctic char, bannock (a pan-fried bread), and home-made cloud berry and tundra berry jams. Canadian wines are served. The farewell event includes a talk on local First Nations culture by a Dene or Cree native. The per-person cost is $2,745 Canadian ($2,610 US).

"Winter Skies." The center's "Winter Skies: Aurora and Astronomy in Churchill" program will operate February 10-15 and March 3-8, 2012.  Evening talks by an astronomer are followed by leisurely viewing of the aurora borealis - the northern lights - from the warmth of the darkened, enclosed viewing lounge with its eight-foot diameter clear-acrylic dome or from an open second-story deck. Goodyear says the celestial fireworks typically appear as "a slow, sweeping progression of white, green, and light-red" lights and sometimes as "dancing, shimmering curtains." During daylight hours, guests can snowshoe, experience a dogsled ride, visit the Eskimo Museum, and ride a snowmobile into nearby woods for a presentation on "snow ecology" and winter wildlife.  Visitors often glimpse arctic hare, arctic fox, ptarmigan, and caribou. Cost is $1,015 Canadian ($965 US).

"Spring's Wings."  Geared to dedicated bird-watchers, "Spring's Wings: Birding in Churchill" is scheduled for June 7-14, 2012. It's "all birding, all the time," Goodyear says.  "From sunrise to sunset, they're out visiting the various habits - boreal forest, tundra, marsh, salt flats, sand dunes, river estuaries, and creek wetlands." The tour is conducted by Rudolf Koes, one of Canada's leading ornithologists. It coincides with the peak migration of hundreds of thousands of returning snow geese. Birders might spot rarities like Ross's gull, bohemian waxwing, and Harris' sparrow. Some unique birds common to Churchill include the Pacific loon, jaegers, willow ptarmigan, and Smith's longspur. Birders also come to see resident gyrfalcon, ravens and other species. The tour provides opportunities to explore Churchill and its Eskimo Museum, with its renowned collection of historic and contemporary Inuit art and artifacts. Cost is $1,150 Canadian ($1,093 US).

Reachable only by air or rail, Churchill is located about 625 air miles north of Winnipeg, Manitoba, the provincial capital and international air hub. The central Canadian province is directly across the U.S.-Canada border from North Dakota and western Minnesota.

 The Churchill Northern Studies Centre has yet to announce its summer 2012 "Learning Vacations." Previous programs have focused on wildflowers, Hudson Bay beluga whales, and hikes through diverse habitats and to historic fur trade sites.

The center hosts approximately 165 "Learning Vacation" participants annually.  Having experienced the new building for the first time this summer, some guests returned for a second and different program before the season ended, a staffer said.

The center says it's developing new "Learning Vacations" suitable for family groups, now that accessibility and comfort issues have been addressed.

Located on a former Cold War-era rocket range, the center opened in 1976 to provide accommodations, facilities, and logistical support for field researchers. Its motto is "To understand and sustain the North." Each year the center hosts about 150 researchers working on some two dozen projects. Current subjects include, among others, caribou herds, climate change, Arctic soil characteristics, biochemistry of the Hudson Bay lowlands and coastal tundra environments, and "the breeding biology of the Blackpoll Warbler," in addition to polar bear studies.

 For comprehensive information about Manitoba's "accessible arctic" and its attractions, contact Travel Manitoba at (800) 665-0040; www.everythingchurchill.com

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