“Every year,” he started, “Macleans magazine puts out an annual review of Canadian universities. And every year, the University of Manitoba doesn’t do so great. But clearly , Macleans magazine hasn’t heard a thing about this course.” Around me, 10 heads bob in heartfelt agreement. It is our last day in Churchill, Man., and as my classmates and I sit on the rocky seashore of the Hudson’s Bay, listening to our instructors’ closing remarks, we are all reluctant to leave. The truth is, while the University of Manitoba’s travel/study course to Churchill is probably one of the most unique field courses you can take anywhere in Canada, it’s probably also one of its best kept secrets. We all feel lucky and privileged to have been a part of a course that is unlike anything else we have encountered in our university educations so far. What you sign up for is six credits in Geography, Environmental Science or Biological Sciences over 10 days, but what you get is an amazing experience and memories that will last you a lifetime.
The town of Churchill lies almost 1,500 km northeast of Winnipeg, on the Manitoba shoreline of Hudson’s Bay. Most of our group flew in by chartered flight, but for those with a bit more time on their hands, we also had the option to take the train. I chose the latter, and the 43 hour ride was an experience in and of itself. At times the train crawls along, barely moving as the conductor tries not to derail us from tracks affected by the heaving, defrosting ground, but I don’t mind as the changing landscape and spectacular sunsets provide more than enough distraction.
The course starts the day you arrive in Churchill, and you don’t stop until you’re on the way home! It’s a full 10 days, but they feel like they fly by much too quickly. As a group, we jumped onto the famous Churchill Short Bus, and headed out to see the hundreds of beluga whales who come into the mouth of the Churchill River to calf in the summer, avoiding the killer whales of deeper waters. They were curious and followed our Zodiac boats, nudging the sides and coming close enough to touch.
The next morning we departed bright and early for Wapusk National Park, Canada’s newest 11,475 square-km national park, lying east of Churchill. Through permission from Parks Canada and Manitoba Conservation, the U of M’s course is the only university course in the world that spends time in the park. During the summer months it is only accessible by helicopter, and most other tourists would only get an aerial tour before having to head back to town. After a colourful safety briefing by the local helicopter pilot, he began to fly us and our equipment out in small groups.
As a group we got to spend six days in a provincially-operated research compound equipped with a kitchen, dorm rooms, an observation tower and, for the first time last year, flushable toilets and showers. The biggest challenge was packing only the bare minimum for six days and keeping in mind that everything brought into the park must also come out with you.
Our days in the park were spent hiking the coast along ancient beach ridges, participating in field-based lectures by the instructors and Parks Canada staff and collecting data for important research projects that contribute to the understanding of the Greater Wapusk ecosystem and how to best manage it. During the course, students worked in groups to perform original research projects on a subject of their choice, and findings were presented to Parks Canada staff on one of the last days. We also collected data for long-term monitoring in the park, including arctic and red fox den selection, and vegetation-permafrost relationships in the face of climate change.
Our hikes around the park provided us with an exceptionally unique opportunity — the chance to see northern species, such as arctic fox, caribou and polar bears in their natural habitats, with minimal impact (to us or to them). Every single day that I spent in Wapusk I saw something amazing that made me appreciate just how incredible and diverse our province truly is. Our nights were spent in the warm cozy kitchen, working in groups, or huddled up in sleeping bags on the kitchen roof, watching the northern lights dance across the night sky. While we all smelled a little worse after the five days in the park, our remote wilderness accommodations were far from “roughing it,” thanks to the new toilets and showers, and the plentiful meals cooked up by group members every day, which also happily included many snacks and desserts. In fact, the group’s most common complaint was having to go back to “regular” food again once we got home.
On our last day in the park, we flew back to the Churchill Northern Studies Research Centre, 23 km east of Churchill, to spend the last four days exploring the area and meeting with local Aboriginal and Métis elders who shared their experiences and knowledge with us. Throughout the trip we continually met remarkable people who gave us insight and understanding into an incredible place, its history and its people.
When asked what makes this experience so special, course instructor Ryan Brook concluded that it’s the people that participate, the bright, hard-working, committed and enthusiastic students the program always seems to attract. And as I can testify, the course creates connections and friendships that will last you a lifetime. I will never forget my 10 days on the course, and I can’t wait to go back up north. It truly was a once in a lifetime experience, and as Brook assures, students should take this program if they want to be inspired by what both he and I consider to be the most amazing place on earth!
This year’s course will run from Aug. 16-26, with a pre-travel session on July 20. Contact Ryan Brook (email@example.com) or Kristina Hunter (firstname.lastname@example.org) for more information.