By Dunja Kovacevic
Peer into the little explored but often mythologized world of the Arctic tundra with the Assiniboine Park Zoo‘s landmark exhibit, Journey to Churchill. Cutting-edge technology, top of the line research facilities, unparalleled attention to authenticity and environmental stewardship have set the bar for polar bear conservation centres, now recognized as the “Manitoba Standard”.
The story of Canada’s north is still a largely untold one. With environmental crises looming, the role that Manitoba has in protecting the legacy of the north and shaping the narrative of future generations is becoming increasingly important. By dazzling the senses and engaging the public, Journey to Churchill represents a monumental step towards Winnipeg’s growing reputation as a global leader in environmental and human rights.
The ambitious exhibit is both a love song to the untapped beauty of the north and a ringing call to arms. Opened in 2014, it is the first exhibit of its kind, aimed at education about climate change and conservation issues focused on northern species. According to Margaret Redmond, President and CEO of the Assiniboine Park Conservancy (APC), Journey to Churchill is “unparalleled in the zoo world in terms of its focus on northern wildlife and the immensity of the space given.”
Polar Bear Pilgrimage
Some 10-12,000 eco-tourists and adventure seekers file northward to Churchill, Manitoba’s Arctic jewel, each year in search of the Great White. Aptly named the “Polar Bear Capital of the World”, the wind-swept tundra has become a mecca for the world’s largest terrestrial predators, located at the crosshairs of their migratory patterns. Thrill seekers take to the frozen expanses of the tundra to catch a glimpse of these incredible carnivores.
While nothing can mimic the heart-pounding adventure of interacting directly with the bears in their icy environment, Journey to Churchill offers and experience of observing polar bears and other northern species undetected. Within the expanse of the exhibit are four main areas: the Wapusk Lowlands, Gatewa to the Arctic, Churchill Coast and the International Polar Bear Conservation Centre.
The Gateway to the Arctic contains polar bears and their primary food source, the ringed seal, in adjacent pools separated only by a thin clear wall. Expect dynamic interactions between the animals, who are able to see and smell one another through the wall, as they pivot and thrash in the exhilarating quickstep between predator and prey.
Perhaps most exciting is the Sea Ice Passage, a 10-foot wide acrylic tunnel that serves as the primary vantage point for viewing polar bears and ringed seals beneath the water. The exhibit functions as a “living laboratory” says Redmond, presenting rare and unique opportunities for field researchers to observe behavioural patterns of polar bears and seals beneath the ice.
Along with boundless roaming space, the exhibit features an on-site state-of-the-art research facility. The International Polar Bear Conservation Centre not only promotes conservation research, but is home to the only transition centre for orphaned and at-risk polar bear cubs rescued by Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship. At the centre, they are rehabilitated before being relocated to designated safe areas.
- Read More: Where To Go in Churchill, Manitoba
In order to begin construction on the exhibit, 86,699 metres of earth had to be transported. The tundra area of the exhibit, home to caribou, musk ox, snowy owls, and arctic foxes, covers 3,714 square metres. Polar bear roaming grounds within the exhibit span an immense 9,507 metres squared. Pools for polar bears and seals contain a total of 1,959,714 L of water. The indoor Polar Playground and Tundra Grill alone house some 238 people. The cutting edge 360 degree domed Aurora Borealis Theatre measures over 13 metres in diameter, and 5.5 metres high. Despite these scale considerations, the zoo is making every overture towards sustainability, even seeing a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Silver certification from the Canada Green Building Council.
Parks and zoos have long been spirited gathering grounds for families and larger groups. With this in mind, the Churchill Coast area is focused on immersive family fun. Children can explore the Polar Playground, which is packed with interactive and educational activities such as a moving ice-mass floor that responds to footsteps. Parents can unwind at the Tundra Grill, a fast-casual cafeteria-style setting with massive windows overlooking Churchill.
Also located within the Gateway to the Arctic is the Aurora Borealis Theatre, which hosts a domed 360 degree viewing screen. An interactive video weaves the interconnected legacy between the people, plants, and animals of Canada’s north. At night, the room is transformed into a bewitching backdrop for storytelling and concerts while the Northern Lights play above.
Visit the Assiniboine Park Conservancy’s website for information on hours and admissions.
- Winnipeg’s Top 10 Selfie Spots
- Top 10 Places for Manitoba Regional Cuisine
- Why You Should Visit the RBC Convention Centre