Hunting and Gathering: The Polar Bear Share
You know those mornings after a late night spent watching the northern lights dance across the sky in flinty green waves, when you rub your eyes awake and pull open the blinds, only to find a polar bear nuzzling the grass outside your bedroom window? Friends, this exact same thing just happened to me. Here on the western shores of Hudson Bay, polar bears spend much of the year out on the sea ice hunting for seals. But come midsummer, when the ice finally melts away, they're spun out onto the tundra, some in front of the fly-in Seal River Heritage Lodge, about 75 kilometres north of Churchill, Manitoba, a small idyllic spot (surrounded by a bear-proof enclosure) in the heart of polar bear country. This is almost the only place on Earth where you can go on guided walks and get within breathtaking distance of the world's largest terrestrial carnivore. The fact that the family-owned and -run lodge is almost equally known for its culinary prowess – from breakfasts of fresh-baked Red River bread smeared with its own cloudberry jelly to jalapeno goose breasts supreme – makes for a killer combo.
As lodge co-owner Mike Reimer explains, "Moose, goose, it's all the kids ever ate growing up. Less tame meats." Game is also the name of the game when it comes to burgers around here. The Seaport Hotel in Churchill does a buffalo burger – lean, slightly livery but mostly beefy – served on a kaiser, topped with lettuce, tomato, pickle and onion. It's as familiar as it is wild. Meanwhile, at the Tundra Inn's dining room, homey northern dishes include elk meatloaf and bison stew, yet the unexpected bestseller is the Borealis Burger, a vegetarian kitchen sink winner that sees a wild rice patty studded with berries, beans and veggies, topped with hummus, avocado, lettuce, tomato, alfalfa sprouts, red onion and feta (served with de rigueur yam fries and sriracha mayo.) Over a warm birch syrup latte at Lazy Bear Café, executive chef Josh Wozencroft tells me, "Game meats have bold flavours, making them a natural match for bold seasonings." Caribou and muskox were always top sellers at the Lazy Bear until earlier last year when seemingly incongruous government regulations about cross-border imports – much of the game was from Nunavut – were enforced. (The locals are at work to have them overturned.) But you can still tuck into braised elk in a peppercorn demi or bison assertively seasoned with garlic, salt and pepper, roasted like beef, then thinly sliced and served au jus.
Tundra Foraging: The Chex Party Mix of the North
The aroma of the tundra is almost magical, like a winter-fresh Febreze scent. Our patient ginger-haired guide from the Seal River Heritage Lodge, Terry Elliott, informs me that the scent is the Labrador tea we're walking through. There are wee wild strawberries and burgundy-coloured foxtails blowing in the breeze and purple Indian paintbrush that is especially beautiful (though I've been told there's talk of renaming it). During our hours spent roaming the Canadian Shield, the light changes constantly, softening with the afternoon: Rocks take on a golden hue; the Arctic willows become even more willowy, the grasses and lichens, more intense. Sandhill cranes, sounding like drunken turkeys, fly overhead while two teenage polar bears spar on the intertidal zone just in front of us as we stand in awe while snapping a million photos. We continue roaming through rivers and over beachheads, spotting many so-called bear daybeds, some still bearing tufts of white fur. Elliott bends down and roots through a patch of lingonberries. "They'll be ready in September," he informs us as I withdraw my greedy hand. "They really need a frost to ripen up."
As we hike along, he spots crowberries – "full of seeds, but the juice is fantastic" – and Arctic raspberries: "Ooh, you're in for a treat." I pluck and pop some. They're half the size and twice as delicious as the ones back home. We happen upon a patch of blueberries and gobble those up as well, like polar bears (though Elliott says real polar bears actually prefer crowberries.) Then we hit the jackpot with a swatch of tundra that's like the Chex Party Mix of the North: lingonberries, bog cranberries, soapberries, crowberries, cloudberries and blueberries, together at last. (Polar bears and belugas? Take a number!) And we're not done yet, as Elliott points to some Boletus edulis, more commonly known as porcini mushrooms. "They're delicious: the beefsteak of mushrooms," he declares, carefully bagging some. They'll turn up in a wild mushroom-and-tarragon cream sauce come dinnertime.
Sweet Spot: Bringing Home the Baking
Set in the transitional zone between tundra and boreal forest, Churchill went from a remote settlement to an active seaport when the Hudson Bay Railway and the Port of Churchill were built in the 1920s. Then, through the 1950s and '60s, it became a busy military outpost. The flavours of different settlers can be savoured today in this town of 1,000; the number swells during summertime's polar bear and beluga tourist season.
A woman in sweatpants and rubber boots walks into Gypsy's Bakery & Restaurant and wanders up to the counter: "Twenty dollars worth of pastries, please." Then, taking another gander at the tempting display cases full of doughnuts and beaver-tails, Nanaimo bars, butter tarts and pies – with fillings like pumpkin, blueberries and coconut cream – she instantly reconsiders. "Actually, make that $40." We may be waiting out a summer rainstorm, but when you're drinking your weight in tea while inhaling a homemade caramel-apple fritter, waiting on the weather kind of feels like winning the lottery. While the look of Gypsy's may say high school cafeteria chic, the wafting aroma of baked goods says welcome home. "We try to be like a family for the community," notes Helen Da Silva, who, along with her husband and children, has been here for over 18 years, running what's become the heart of Churchill's de facto Main Street. "Everyone is amazed when they come to the North and see this." Gypsy's is rightly renowned for those outsize apple fritters – fresh, fluffy, studded with apple and wrapped in a glaze of glory – but so too for its piri piri chicken, which Martha Stewart also loves.
The Cold, Cold Round: Tundra-tinis
During the casual appetizer hour at Seal River Heritage Lodge, the staff whips up Tundra-tinis: gin-based martinis shaken with citrus and a touch of honey, garnished with our foraged tundra berries. They serve them to us with caribou bites, hot off the barbecue, stuffed with cream cheese and jalapeno and wrapped in crisp bacon. Like jalapeno poppers gone boreal – an exciting bite of the Manitoba North.