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Polar Bear Marathon 2013 Recap, Sunrise to Sunset, Churchill, Manitoba

Guest Post by Albert Martens, Organizer, Polar Bear Marathon

Blisters and frostbites have healed, the clothes have been washed and dried, and all 13 of the competitors in the second annual Polar Bear Marathon that took place in Churchill, Manitoba on November 22, 2013, are now home safe and warm, including the Europeans!

As a bit of background, the Polar Bear Marathon is sponsored by Churchill Wild in support of Athletes in Action (AIA) work done in the Sayisi Dene First Nations community of Tadoule Lake, 250 km west of Churchill. AIA has done baseball camps in two different First Nations communities for the past eight years.

The idea for the Polar Bear Marathon came to me via another runner who suggested we do something in the North. It became a reality in 2012 for a number of reasons: to create a running experience in a uniquely extreme environment; to network both local and international runners and inspire them physically, emotionally and spiritually; (We do the runner’s shop-talk one-to one to get to know each other.) and most importantly, to raise awareness and help find funds for First Nations camp costs.

Thirteen competitors brave icy elements and -40 C temperatures

Thirteen competitors braved the icy elements and -40 C temperatures for the 2013 Polar Bear Marathon including myself, two international runners, four from greater Manitoba, three from the town of Churchill and three Dene First Nations runners from Tadoule Lake. All came to know about the Polar Bear Marathon in slightly different ways.

2013 Polar Bear Marathon Runners, Churchill, Manitoba

2013 Polar Bear Marathon Runners. Photo Credit: Harold Cooper

2013 Polar Bear Marathon Runners

  • Albert Martens – Steinbach, Manitoba
  • Sven Henkes – Berlin, Germany
  • James Buhler – Winnipeg, Manitoa
  • Philippe Simon – Winnipeg, Manitoba
  • Simon Cutlip – Tadoule Lake, Manitoba
  • Lawrence Flett – Churchill, Manitoba
  • René Nüesch – Obfelden, Switzerland
  • Rickie Cheekie – Tadoule Lake, Manitoba
  • Cory Cheekie  – Tadoule Lake, Manitoba
  • Sara Scales – Churchill, Manitoba
  • Lee Siemens – Altona, Manitoba
  • Doug Gatey – Virden, Manitoba
  • Danielle Sinclair – Churchill, Manitoba

 
Among those from greater Manitoba, I first met transplanted Quebecer Philippe Simon of the University of Manitoba and James Buhler of Wallace and Wallace Fence Corporation through my Run AIA Booth at the Manitoba Marathon. Lee Simons of Altona came up to help me years ago with the first trip to Tadoule Lake for a baseball camp. And Doug Gatey, a funeral director from Virden was here for the run last year. I got to know him through the Manitoba Runners’ Association.

The three Dene First Nations competitors, brothers Ricky and Corey Cheekie, and Simon Cutlip, were persuaded to run by their Band Councilor at Tadoule Lake. Danielle Sinclair of Parks Canada in Churchill found out about the run via the Churchill Administrative Office. Sara Scales of Churchill saw the run advertised locally, and Lawrence Flett, also of Churchill, saw the Polar Bear Marathon poster in town and was running in the event for the second time.

René Nüesch of Obfelden, Switzerland, learned about the race through a search for Polar Bear Marathon on Google and Sven Henkes of Berlin, Germany, saw an advertisement I ran in Runner’s World Magazine in Germany.

The Race

We sang O Canada the True North Strong and Free before the start, and followed it up with a prayer. Then a shot from a bear gun and we were off and running into the sunrise. The sun rose at 8:15 a.m. and arched over the horizon, creating an absolutely breathtaking and almost surreal picture throughout most of the day.

Polar Bear Marathon 2013 Start

Off we go into the sunrise for the 2013 Polar Bear Marathon! Photo Credit: Ron McPherson

This year’s Polar Bear Marathon was about as extreme as it gets, especially running back into the town of Churchill against the wind. Beards iced up and our balaclavas froze to them, frostbite developed, the perspiration in our mitts froze and our outer pants iced up on the inside due to the moisture created. (Which then ran down our pants into our shoes and froze.)

I had already cut off the extra jeans I had brought along and put them on under my running gear. The cut-offs were a last minute improvisation in the restaurant just before the start of the race, when I realized the biting cold wind was going to be a huge challenge. My derriere was still cold even with four layers!

Some runners counted and weighed their clothing and found they were wearing over 30 items and carrying an extra 5-8 kg. My 25 items added up to an additional nine kg and that was dry! By the end of the run the under layers were all wet, so my weight was increasing as I went along.

By mid afternoon the sun began to set and the second half of the marathon was a real challenge. We were now running into a biting cold wind. My Smith Goggles totally fogged up and I couldn’t see anything, but I couldn’t run into the wind without them.

Polar Bear Marathon 2013 Sunset

Almost home as the sun sets over Churchill. Photo Credit: Ron McPherson

We were wearing normal running shoes, but the webbing at the top of the shoes allowed the cold air in, so I used duct tape to close up the shoes. At the 36 km mark the tape came off my left shoe and I had to find a quick solution. There was no tape to be found in my gear, but Lee Siemens gave me an extra sock. I pulled the sock over the shoe, but I couldn’t get it on all the way, so the end of the sock flopped around as I ran. The effect was a bit clown-like.

I started to complain to myself coming back, fighting the wind and the cold. I was getting tired and very low on energy, but the fantastic views of Hudson Bay overlooking the horizon to Nunavut kept me going.

I thought of bears only a few times. The bear concern was real because of the fresh tracks and because of what had transpired in Churchill during the tourist season. It was in the last 5-10 km that the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual aspect of this chilling run seemed to be reaching a breaking point, but by then I could see Churchill.

At the finish Mrs. Polar Bear, the mascot, gave each finisher a big “polar bear” hug. Lee, my running partner, had to get his balaclava off his beard so his face would not freeze. A few other runners had frostbite under their eyes and under their chin. We all wanted a challenge, but would not have wanted it any colder.

Polar Bear Marathon Hug

Polar bear hugs were definitely welcome after 42 km in -40 C! Photo Credit: Harold Cooper

Sven Henkes from Berlin ran free and fast, coming in first with a time of 4:14. The second place runner was James Buhler from Winnipeg with a time of 4:19. In third place was Philippe Simon of Winnipeg and fourth place went to Simon Cutlip from Tadoule Lake. Sven said he had never run a tougher marathon in his life, with the second half of this event being his most difficult ever. Many other crazy stories were told by the runners.

One thing I appreciated was that the runners truly became friends and supported one another. We had a mix of very experienced runners and relative beginners and the veterans offered encouragement to the less experienced.

Sven Henkes already had a sub three hour marathon to his credit, and René Nüesch had done the Yukon Arctic Ultra, the coldest and most difficult Ultramarathon in the world at 300 miles in Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada. In contrast, I was really excited about the three First Nations runners that had come from Tadoule Lake to run in their first ever full marathon. Another young man from Churchill also decided to join us at the last minute, but he decided he’d had enough after seven km. He had no running shoes, just warm, heavy boots.

I was pleased to hear that Lawrence Flett from Churchill had encouraged Danielle Sinclair at the halfway point when she was thinking of quitting. Lawrence’s kind words were enough to get Danielle through the icy headwinds that faced us as we approached Churchill. Danielle was so pleased, full of joy and satisfaction when she came in. It makes for the ultimate experience when runners help each other through difficult times. All are rewarded at the end, having given their best and persuaded and pushed through some huge challenges.

And we all finished before sun set!

Forever watchful polar bear, Churchill, Manitoba.

Were the polar bears watching us? We saw tracks. Photo Credit: Ron McPherson

At the end of the race there was definitely some competition, even though I stressed the aspects of a fun run and the fact that we needed to stay together because of safety (polar bears). We did not see any polar bears, but as I mentioned previously, we did see fresh tracks, and that was a concern. The polar bear safety was definitely something people in Churchill were highly alert to, as a result of two very serious incidents that happened during the tourist season.

The Polar Bear Marathon is an Athletes In Action event under my mandate of Run AIA, and thus it is my avenue to connect with runners, connect runners to runners, and to mentor those who would feel the need to be mentored, emotionally and spiritually.

Since I also do summer camps on remote First Nation communities, the runners from Tadoule Lake were very special to me.  We have been to Tadoule Lake for the past eight summers and have enjoyed getting to know these fine people. I felt a real connection to these men and I was excited for them to finish well.

Tadoule Lake Polar Bear Marathon Runners

Tadoule Lake runners. A deservedly proud group! Photo Credit: Harold Cooper

The Polar Bear Marathon is really starting to come to life and it is with much gratitude that I look back at this run and how the competitors gelled together. Additionally, it was through one of the runners who joined us, Philippe Simon, my French-Canadian friend, that the French CBC took note and sent their film crew up to capture the event. From there it was picked up by CBC National and a number of additional news outlets.

The camaraderie, the new friendships, the learning experience of running in the extreme cold, and the fact that we had a mix of veteran and beginning runners, both international and national, including the First Nations runners from Tadoule Lake, made the second annual Polar Bear Marathon a very special experience. Many of the runners were already making plans for next year.

A sincere thank you goes out to all the competitors, to Athletes in Action, to Churchill Wild, to the press who braved the elements to bring the event to the world, and to the people of Churchill, for helping to make the race a success.

Fond memories such as this can never be replaced. They keep us all running well into the future, and carry us through those grueling final kilometers.

In races we’ve yet to run.

Related Stories:

Who made Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge and Dymond Lake Lodge a success this year? Everyone.

by Nolan Booth, Director of Lodge Operations, Churchill Wild

Polar bear Mom and cub checking out the new Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Dennis Fast photo.

Polar bear Mom and cub checking out the new Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Dennis Fast photo.

Well, once again we find ourselves in the off season, so that means sitting around the office drinking coffee and Baileys in our pajamas and telling stories.

Kidding!

Sure there is some storytelling going on, after all, you helped us create some wonderful memories once again this year! But there are more exciting projects on the horizon for next year at Churchill Wild, and that means work, enjoyable as it may be.

Some great things happened this season, especially at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. I can’t help thinking back to the seemingly endless flights, the hauling of building materials, the long hours and the extraordinary teamwork that resulted in the construction of our beautiful new viewing and dining lounge.

Morning, afternoon and evening we were treated to wildlife outside those big picture windows overlooking Hudson Bay. And what a fabulous place to dine and socialize after a day of walking with polar bears!

Lunchtime! In the new dining/viewing lounge at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge.

Lunchtime! In the new dining/viewing lounge at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Robert Postma photo.

It was all worth it.

The wolves, black bears, polar bears, moose and the crazy list of birds that followed us from June until September has my head spinning, not to mention the fascinating guest that followed us along the Hudson Bay coast, trudging through the mud and scanning the horizon for movement. Or just sitting in the willows eating berries and laughing at us like nobody was watching.

Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge was a delight to be involved with this season and I look forward to many more Arctic Safaris in the seasons to come.

The Great Ice Bear Adventure at Dymond Lake started up after a short stint back home with my wife Doreen and the boys, and then I was off again, this time prepping camp for our time “playing” in the snow with polar bears and Arctic Foxes.

Our resident polar bear “Scarbrow” appeared early in the season, which shocked all of us, as we were sure he wouldn’t be back to tolerate us again. Thankfully we were wrong! Scarbrow came and went all season and posed for many fabulous photos.

Scarbrow the polar bear, Dymond Lake Lodge, Manitoba, Canada

Scarbrow was back again at Dymond Lake Lodge!

The Arctic Foxes this year at Dymond Lake were phenomenal. When Terry and I closed up camp we counted 20 plus on the lake and around the compound. There were also a couple of snowy owls and an awesome gyrfalcon that joined us in the evenings as the northern lights put on some incredible shows.

I thought I would be back to sitting around in the office for the winter, but Mike (Reimer) has already moved me off my chair and aimed me at a construction project at Nanuk that could only be rivalled by last year’s feat. So off I go again with a brain full of everything from airplanes, windows, carpenters and polar bears. It’s shaping up to be another awesome year at Churchill Wild and we have not even rung the bell for 2014 yet!

I would like to thank everyone involved at our lodges this year, whether you were a boss, staff, wife and kids, contractor, photographer, guide, culinary genius, pilot or guest. You all made this year little bit easier; the impossible possible; the hard work worth it; and certainly a lot more fun!

I look back now at what we’ve accomplished; at the lives of those we have touched; and the memories we’ve created; with humble thanks, and I can’t help but get excited about doing it all over again next year, with all of you…

and the polar bears!

Polar bear standing at Dymond Lake Lodge, Great Ice Bear Adventure.

Where did everybody go?

 

Thanks for the polar bears, caribou, arctic foxes, northern lights… and thank you to our guests!

by Mike Reimer, Churchill Wild

Qamanirjuaq caribou. Out for a stroll at Seal River Lodge. Dennis Fast photo.

Qamanirjuaq caribou. Out for a stroll at Seal River Lodge. Dennis Fast photo.

Hello fellow adventurers!

The long awaited ice has finally arrived and the world’s largest carnivores have moved back to their favourite hunting platform, the rugged sea ice, to begin the “fattening” period. Our friendly summer-fall polar bear visitors will spend the winter dining contentedly on yummy seals.

Polar bear outside Seal River Lodge

Hmm… no seals here. Dennis Fast photo.

We were blessed this year at Seal River with the return of thousands of Central Barren Ground Caribou. These photogenic creatures provided many bonus hours of “shooting.” The caribou herd pictured here is known as the Qamanirjuaq. Numbering an estimated half a million animals, the Qamanirjuaq herd takes part in one of the last great wildlife migrations on the planet, and certainly the largest of its kind in North America.

Qamanirjuaq caribou herd stops by for lunch. Dennis Fast photo.

Qamanirjuaq caribou herd stops by for lunch. Dennis Fast photo.

The caribou ventured south from their summer home in the barrens and are heading into the tree line to find shelter from the harsh winter winds. Most of them will overwinter in the North Knife Lake region of Manitoba, feeding, resting and avoiding wolves until they begin their trek north in the spring, back to the calving grounds.

Arctic foxes have been seen in abundance this year

Arctic foxes were seen in abundance this year!

Not to be outdone, the arctic foxes were back again in record numbers with 40 to 50 in sight at any one time. And of course, the northern lights have done their part and provided many a great light show for bleary eyed but happy photogs.

Lonely Zodiac at Seal River Lodge awaiting the return of summer and another chance to frolic with the belugas on Hudson Bay RJ Payne photo.

Lonely Zodiac at Seal River Lodge awaiting the return of summer and another chance to frolic with the belugas on Hudson Bay. RJ Payne photo.

Thanks to the polar bears bears, the caribou, the arctic foxes, the northern lights and nature, for providing Churchill Wild with yet another great season of adventure travel at our northern Manitoba lodges.

Polar bear says goodbye at Seal River Lodge

Polar bear saying goodbye to Seal River Lodge guests.

But most of all, a sincere thank you to our wonderful guests. You make this all so worthwhile.

Helicopter at Seal River Lodge

Time for a helicopter ride!

Young photographer learns “Fast” on polar bear photo tour at Seal River Lodge

by Mike Reimer, Churchill Wild. Photos by Elijah Boardman.

Relaxed but intense gaze from Arctic Fox at Seal River Lodge.

Relaxed but intense gaze from Arctic Fox at Seal River Lodge.

Thirteen-year-old Elijah Boardman, the youngest photographer ever to join one of our professionally guided polar bear photo tours, is proving himself to be a very adept, capable and enthusiastic “shooter”.

His boundless passion and energy serves as a catalyst to all, encouraging the team to spend every possible moment in what is at times a rather harsh Arctic environment. Eli’s persistence and dedication, along with some coaching from on-site professional photographer Dennis Fast, has resulted in the capture of some wonderful images and lifelong memories.

Caribou running windy cold!

Caribou running windy cold!

Eli was kind enough to allow his mother and father, Karen and Joseph, to accompany him to Seal River Lodge this year, in his quest for the great white bears.

Judging from the quality of his images and the zeal he has for this type of “work” we expect to see Eli back here again sometime in the near future. We’re looking forward to it.

Nice work Eli!

Polar bear says, "I know you're in there." to windsock at Seal River Lodge.

I know you’re in there…

Bubbly hot goose stew with cheese biscuits!

Goose Stew with Cheese Biscuits

Goose Stew with Cheese Biscuits. This will warm you up!

Bubbly hot goose stew for cool fall evenings and cold winter nights. Goose Stew recipe from page 22 of Black Currants & Caribou. Cheese Biscuits recipe on page 49 of Blueberries & Polar Bears. Cookbooks by Helen Webber & Marie Woolsey.

Goose Stew Ingredients:

  • 10 goose breasts, cut in chunks, (if you are using Canada Geese 6 breasts should be enough)
  • 1 cup (250 mL) chopped onion
  • 3 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 cup (250 mL) dry red wine
  • 1 tsp. (5 mL) salt
  • 1 tbsp. (15 mL) Dymond Lake Seasoning (DSL) OR 1 tsp. (5 mL) seasoned salt, 1 tsp. (5 mL) seasoned pepper
  • 6 cups (1.5 L) beef stock (and water to cover)
  • 3 cups (750 mL) sliced carrots
  • 1 cup (250 mL) chopped celery
  • 5 cups (1.25 L) diced potatoes
  • ¼ cup (60 mL) flour
  • ½ cup (120 mL) cold water

 
Goose Stew Directions:

  1. Combine the goose, onion, garlic, bay leaves, red wine, salt, DLS, and beef stock in a large pot and simmer until the meat is tender, 2-4 hours. Add water to cover as needed.
  2. Add the carrots, celery and potatoes to the meat mixture in the pot; return to boil and simmer until the vegetables are just barely tender, approximately 20-25 minutes.
  3. Thicken the stew with paste made by adding the ¼ cup (60 mL) of flour to ½ cup (125 mL) of cold water.

 
Serves 6-8.
 
Cheese Biscuits Ingredients:

Occasionally, you want a change from traditional tea biscuits. A hint of cheese gives a tasty alternative. These drop biscuits are ideal for the busy cook.

  • 2 cups (500 mL) flour
  • 4 tsp. (20 mL) baking powder
  • ½ tsp. (2 mL) salt
  • ¾ cup (175 mL) butter OR margarine
  • 2 cups (500 mL) finely grated cheese*
  • 1cup (250 ML) water

 
Cheese Biscuits Directions:

  1. Put flour, baking powder and salt in bowl. Add butter and cut in with pastry blender until fairly well blended. Small lumps are alright.
  2. Add cheese and stir in with fork, carefully separating any cheese that has lumped together.
  3. Add water all at once and stir with a fork just until blended.
  4. Drop batter by heaping tablespoons (about 25 mL) on to an ungreased baking sheet.
  5. Bake at 450 degrees F (230 degrees C) for 10-12 minutes. Jagged peaks on the tops of the biscuits will be browned. Remove the biscuits from the tray immediately.

 
Makes 15 large biscuits.

SERVING SUGGESTION: Serve warm for an evening snack or to accompany a light lunch. Or with goose stew :)

*Use Cheddar or Mozzarella or a mixture or experiment with any hard cheese. Cheese should be only loosely packed when measuring.