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  • Louise Coghill

Leaving a Better Trace

In a remote Canadian town with no road out and plenty of polar bears, a warming climate threatens locals of every species. Can responsible tourism help restore nature’s equilibrium? Story and photographs by Louise Coghill
The aurora borealis, or northern lights, are visible for most of the year from Churchill, Canada.

"I said I’d travel less this year,” I remind myself on the long-haul flight from a hot and sweaty Perth to a frozen small town on the Hudson Bay in Canada. In isolated Churchill, houses are engulfed in snow, icicles hang from gutters and there are street signs warning me about polar bears. It’s like no other place I’ve been.

No roads lead to Churchill. The only way in and out is by air, train or, if you’re local celebrity Dave Daley, dog sled. It’s well known for being the polar bear capital of the world, however I’m assured by every Manitoban I meet that it’s so much more than that. “I want to go for the bird migration”, a museum guide had told me in Winnipeg. “Next time I’m going for the belugas”, said another Winnipeg local, referring to the thousands of whales that swim through the river in summer. The town also sits beneath the Auroral Oval, which means seeing the aurora borealis (northern lights) is almost a certainty. As tour guide Ward Cameron tells me, “You don’t come to Churchill to tick an item off the bucket list, you come here and realise you need a whole new bucket.”

A Tundra Buggy.

As a travel photographer and writer, I have a complex relationship with tourism. Over the years I’ve witnessed and unwittingly contributed to the environmental and cultural impact of overtourism. With the weight of climate change, I now worry even more about my impact on the places I visit. To assuage my travel guilt, I strive to follow a “leave no trace” ethic, which is made easier by travelling with Frontiers North, an impact driven B-Corp tour operator that actively embraces this philosophy.

After several cloudy nights of failed aurora viewing, our tour group visits the dog sledding yard. Wyatt Daley exclaims with an infectious grin, “This is usually where I’d introduce you to the ‘Big Dog’ Dave Daley, my dad, but today I’m the Big Dog.” Dave Daley once raced his sled dogs 1,200 kilometres from Churchill to Winnipeg, and son Wyatt seems to be just as enthusiastic and passionate about the ancient practice. Dogs lounge inside while others walk from hand to hand for a pat and a joyful lick as Wyatt shares his family’s history of dog sledding. Wyatt explains that his mother and father are from the Cree and Métis tribes, respectively. He mentions that he doesn’t speak his family’s languages, which were actively suppressed in Canada until recently. Dog sledding, a traditional method of Indigenous travel for 10,000 years, started as a hobby but became a way for his family to reclaim and preserve their cultural heritage.

The dogs are bouncing with energy, desperate to hear the word “hike!”, meaning go, as I climb onto the wooden sled. They jump from a standstill to running full pelt, easily navigating the path through the boreal forest.

An old aircraft hangar repurposed to temporarily house troublesome polar bears.

When we return to the yard, the mushers give each dog a loving pat as they unhook the harness. When Wyatt says these dogs are part of the family, it really rings true. He explains that dog sledding is experiencing another revival because, as climate change intensifies in the north, the reliability of the ice diminishes and dogs, unlike snowmobiles, can sense weak ice.

My gloved hands are frozen by the time we get back on the bus, and I make a note to bring gel hand warmers to the next activity. Living in a cold environment takes practice.

Frontiers North guide Jim Baldwin has a rifle slung over his shoulder as we schlep on snow shoes through the forest. Two polar bears have been spotted recently. It’s the end of denning season, so polar bear cubs and their mothers are re-emerging after as much as 180 days of fasting and are venturing out onto the sea ice. I had the opportunity to observe a group of polar bears involved in some rough and tumble at the Assiniboine conservation park in Winnipeg. Encountering a hungry wild polar bear isn’t on my bucket list just yet (maybe next time I visit Churchill). Having just visited Polar Bears International (PBI), a not-for-profit conservation project, I know that the sea ice is forming more slowly and melting sooner, leaving less time for the bears to find sustenance.

The Indigenous sled dog guide Wyatt Daley.

Frontiers North has donated a Tundra Buggy along with several permits needed to explore the tundra. “It would be really difficult to do what we do without them,” says Kieran McIver, one of the researchers at PBI. The team believes education is the key to conservation, so the buggy has been converted into a portable TV studio to film life in the Arctic, host researchers and create educational programs.

It’s strange to contemplate a warming world when surrounded by so much ice. It’s not just the polar bears that feel their ecosystem shifting beneath them; Churchill itself faces similar challenges. The railroad providing crucial resources was washed away during severe weather events, compromising the town’s supply chains for 18 months. The melting permafrost further threatens the vulnerable railroad. Locals find themselves in a daunting situation that mirrors that of the Arctic animals they strive to protect, as the ground beneath them melts away. In an effort to garner attention, the Saskatchewan-born, Winnipeg-based artist Kal Barteski organised 18 international artists to come to Churchill as part of the SeaWalls movement to paint stunning murals across the town. It has become another major tourist attraction, the outdoor gallery that lines its streets showcasing not just art but also the place’s resilience.

A mural from the SeaWalls Churchill project that turns the town into a living gallery.

Witnessing the aurora was the reason for my trip, but upon returning it’s the element I find myself thinking about least. I remember the green tendrils dancing across the sky as my frozen fingers snapped away, and hope to photograph it again one day. But the thing that has stuck with me, reigniting my guilt about air travel, is witnessing how tourism has become a fundamental part of Churchill’s ecosystem. Rather than leaving no trace, each facet of the town’s tourism efforts is leaving a better trace; a form of tourism that helps find ways to heal, conserve and educate.

This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our eighth edition, Page 142 of Winning Magazine. Subscribe to Winning Magazine today.


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