by George Williams with photos courtesy of Glen Newstater and Kelly Turcotte
There’s always some kind of adventure going on in the Canadian north, and while we did manage to avoid COVID-19 for the most part in Manitoba, we weren’t lucky enough to escape three feet of icy slush in Canada’s mighty Seal River.
Thank goodness we had two of the most experienced outdoorsmen in Canada running the show.
Churchillians Kelly Turcotte and Norm Rabiscah, both of whom have worked as Canadian Rangers, along with Churchill Wild tour guide and jack-of-all trades Glen Newstater, recently woke up our SHERPs for a spring trip from Churchill to Seal River Heritage Lodge.
“I was just happy to get out of the house,” said Newstater. “I’d reached the end of the Internet. Everything has been pretty well shut down here (in Churchill) since the beginning of March. People have basically been self-quarantining and keeping to themselves. We even started playing trivia in teams via ZOOM and I think we had a few people from Newfoundland and western Canada join in.”
The SHERPs were being taken to Seal River in anticipation of summer adventures including film crew trips to Hubbard Point. The crew left at 9:30 a.m. and arrived at Seal River around 5 p.m.
“I just went along for the ride,” said Newstater. “We started out by crossing the Churchill River and Button Bay on the way to Dymond Lake and then headed north, stopping at a couple of shacks on the coast along the way.”
According to Newstater and Turcotte, the trip was rather uneventful, but you can never be complacent in the north, especially along the Hudson Bay coast, where the weather can change in an instant and polar bears emerge from blizzards without warning. This is not a trip for the faint of heart.
“Norm and Kelly are both excellent outdoorsmen from Churchill,” said Nolan Booth, Director of Operations at Churchill Wild. “Both have worked as guides for Churchill Wild and are Canadian Rangers. When somebody gets lost in the wilderness these are the guys you call to go in and find them. They’re like the land version of the Coast Guard. I’d trust them with my life.”
The group didn’t see any polar bears while doing their faux audition for Ice Road Truckers, but they did see a few seals, and they did get a cold bath in three feet of slush, even with veteran SHERP driver Turcotte on the wheel.
“I helped drive the SHERPs up to Seal River last year,” said Turcotte, an accomplished carpenter who has been a wilderness guide in Churchill for 30 years and who also operates the dog-sledding company Churchill River Mushing. “Me and Kevin Brightnose got to drive them around up at Hubbard Point while the film crews were there. It was nice to drive them back up there. They’re pretty sweet machines. It was actually quite amazing out there on the ice. It’s different every year and every day. We did see a couple of seals pop up at Seal River, but they were few and far between. They’re just not here yet. It’s cold and the ice is still pretty thick.”
Not thick enough to stop the slush though.
“We timed it so we wouldn’t hit North River too early,” said Turcotte. “There’s always a chance of an overflow there. And the tide was in when we got to Seal River, but there were hollows in the ice. We broke through because we were pulling a trailer, so that made me a little it nervous.”
Turcotte ended up sitting in three feet of icy slush, and under that slush was water, which was sitting on top of thick ice.
“I’d never gotten stuck in anything in the SHERPs before,” said Turcotte. “But my tires were spinning and when I got out, I was up to my waste in water. The trailer weight bogged us down. Once I loosened the trailer and was able to punch the snow down, I managed to get a grip and we just kept crawling and digging and pulling our way out of there. It was slow going, it took 3-4 minutes to get 50 feet in first gear.”
The SHERPS are very efficient, all-terrain workhorses, and the crew had everything they needed for any kind of emergency, but they were unable to turn on the SHERP’s water propulsion system in the slush.
“There’s a learning curve to driving them,” said Turcotte. “You learn from experience where not to go. I found that out the hard way last year. There are certain types of areas you have to stay away from. Now we know that this type of slush presents a problem, but as long as you can keep it moving, you’ll be okay. You just can’t have someone who has never driven one of these expect to go across ice like that, they’ll get stuck worse.”
While crossing Button Bay last year, Turcotte discovered that the SHERPs don’t steer as well if there is a current. The crews from both SHERP trips are already coming up with ideas that include some kind of rudder to help the SHERP maintain its path in big water. They’ll find a solution. They always do.
And even with the slushy delay, the trio pulled into Seal River Heritage Lodge right on time around 5 p.m. They settled into the shop behind the lodge for the evening, cooked up some supper and enjoyed all the comforts of home courtesy of Turcotte, who built a living space in the shop a few years ago that includes two bedrooms, a main cooking area, a bathroom and shower.
Doug Webber, father of Churchill Wild co-owner Jeanne Reimer, flew in to pick up the crew the next day, and was able to land on a clear windswept runway, wheels down. Earlier he’d landed on hard, crunchy snow at Dymond Lake, another transportation twist better left to the pros. And a polar bear did show up, just as the group was arriving back in Churchill.
“As soon as we landed my phone started beeping,” said Turcotte. “There was a polar bear on my snow machine near the Churchill Marine Observatory. Conservation had to be called.”
Never a dull moment in polar bear country.