Polar Bear Blog

New subarctic greenhouse means enhanced culinary experience for Churchill Wild guests!

Look what's growing in our new subarctic greenhouse.
Look what’s growing in our new subarctic greenhouse!

by George Williams

The culinary experience at Churchill Wild has always been considered exceptional, but it’s about to get even better!

We’ve always prided ourselves on using locally sourced foods and any edible delights we can gather from the landscapes surrounding the polar bear lodges, but now we’ll be able to add fresh homegrown produce to our meals.

An idea that had been percolating in the mind of Churchill Wild co-founder Jeanne Reimer’s father Doug Webber, the builder of North Knife Lake Lodge, for 30 years, has finally come to practical fruition.

Doug has his subarctic greenhouse at North Knife Lake and it’s already producing!

“We used the produce for three weeks in meals at North Knife,” said Doug. “And we’ve already flown a load to Seal River Heritage Lodge. We do enough traveling right now between the lodges that we can get it there. It’s trips we’d be doing anyways. This will likely morph into a greenhouse at Seal River Heritage Lodge and probably at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge as well.”

Building a greenhouse in the subarctic requires serious thought and research, as snowfalls and storms during the winter can be very harsh on buildings. There are also curious polar bears and other Arctic creatures to consider.

“Riley Friesen, Karli’s (Jeanne Reimer’s daughter) husband did all the research and designed it,” said Doug. “It’s a 20’ by 12’ framed building made of treated wood, with a special three-layer plastic greenhouse sheet for the roof, similar to a triple-pane window but much thinner.

Subarctic greenhouse creators Riley Friesen (left) and Doug Webber sample some of the "vegetables of their labours." Well done guys!
Subarctic greenhouse creators Riley Friesen (left) and Doug Webber sample some of the “vegetables of their labours.” Well done guys!

“We’ve kind of dabbled in it over the years. I had a makeshift greenhouse a couple of years ago but the snow collapsed it during the winter and it only lasted a year. Then we had an outside garden for quite a few years. We’ve basically played around with tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, potatoes and spinach for quite a few years, sometimes with cold frames, boxes with a clear plastic lids on them.”

While the growing season is only about two months long in the north, there are quite a few more hours of sunlight than in the south, which helps the plants to grow faster. Ample rainfall and a huge freshwater lake full of ultra-clean water nearby also helps immensely.

“We’ve put up water collecting eavestroughs and we’re collecting rainwater as much as possible,” said Doug. “As a last resort we pump water out of the lake into barrels and haul it up to the greenhouse. We’ve also filled a number of black 45-gallon drums to use as a heat sink.”

The drums, which are located at the back wall of the greenhouse, collect heat during the daytime and keep the temperature moderated at nights. The heat sink mitigates the high temperatures during the day, and there is also a (solar powered) fan that comes on as necessary. The black drums of water can also be used for watering if necessary, but to date enough rain has fallen into the system to make it workable the way it is.

Doug has also manufactured his own special brand of soil using a combination of local clay, peat, lake bottom, a few tubs of top soil, and compost at the lodge that has been waiting for a perfect home. So far, the unique combination has worked beautifully.

Pure, clean water, hours of sunlight and Doug Webber's special blend of soil have resulted in some amazing (and tasty!) plant growth.
Pure, clean water, hours of sunlight and Doug Webber’s special blend of soil have resulted in some amazing (and tasty!) plant growth.

“We’ve already had one harvest of lettuce, arugula, kale, beet greens, oregano, basil and other herbs,” said Doug. “So it’s supplying some nice fresh produce for the guests, and pretty well all the fresh herbs for cooking in the kitchen. It’s not quite finished yet. We’ve got one bunk growing now. We’ll put two more in this fall and by next spring we’ll be ready to go into full production.”

The success of the greenhouse at North Knife Lake will likely be replicated at Seal River Heritage Lodge and Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge, but will it be able to survive the harsh winters and curious polar bears?

“It’s built to be a strong enough to hold the snow load we get there,” said Doug. “At Seal River it will be inside the compound fence, and we’ll also have an electric fence around it during shoulder season, when there are polar bears but no snow. And we might put it up an extra six feet off the ground at Seal.”

Doug’s greenhouse projects have been the subject of some good-natured family ribbing over the years, but no one is teasing him now. While we’d like to claim it’s our chefs and the recipes from the Blueberries and Polar Bears cookbooks that make our guests happy, there’s no question Doug’s results are already showing up in smiles.

At the Churchill Wild dinner table.

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