It was here that Mark uttered his timely warning about the somewhat larger creature snoozing nearby, and I got my first, unforgettable sight of a polar bear in the wild. But Churchill is as much about history as huskies and bears, and my next stop was the town’s oldest structure – and one of Canada’s most extraordinary places.
...such A Miserable Place
Situated on an isolated peninsula, Prince of Wales Fort was built by the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) between 1732 and 1771. While ice is forming at the onset of winter it can only be reached by air, so I hitched a lift with Chuck Burke of Hudson Bay Helicopters.
With us was Parks Canada Heritage Presenter Duane Collins, a mine of information on the area’s topography, culture, flora and fauna – and weather. “Bucket loads of misery coming sideways from the sky,” was his forecast for the day – delivered so lugubriously that laughter was the only possible response.
From the air the sea was grey-brown, with scummy foam. The enlarging ice floes were pale grey and looked like crazy paving. We circled the fort a couple of times to check for bears. Duane had cartridges as well as scary cracker shells for his gun, but good bear cover around the fort could result in an uncomfortably close meeting.
Chuck dropped us by the entrance to the fort. The storeroom, workshop and accommodation blocks survive to first-floor level in a central area sunk below the artillery platforms. The stone walls are some 11m thick.
I tried to imagine the emotions of newly arrived HBC men, in turmoil as they regarded their new home. A more desolate and inhospitable spot is hard to imagine. Even the man who chose the site, Captain James Knight, wrote in 1717 that he had ‘never Seen such A Misserable Place in all my life’.
Yet its bleakness makes it a fascinating place to visit, and to wonder at the endurance of early HBC recruits, mostly from London and the Orkneys – the last port of call for company ships bound for Hudson Bay.