Kids Summer Camp in front of a Tundra Buggy

Photo: Cassandra Debets / Polar Bears International

Summer Camp in Churchill

By Barbara Nielsen, Senior Director of Communications



26 Sep 2023

This past summer, Polar Bears International piloted two week-long summer camps for kids in Churchill, Canada, a town famous for its polar bears and a base for many of our research and outreach efforts. 

Cassandra Debets, one of our longtime ambassadors and an instructor and PhD candidate in biological sciences at the University of Manitoba, organized and led the camps. We caught up with Cassandra during a break in her busy fall schedule to talk about the program and its impact.

Churchill Kids Summer Camp 2023

Photo: Cassandra Debets / Polar Bears International

Q:  Can you give us some background on the camps. When did they take place and how did you get the word out?

The town of Churchill has been incredibly supportive of Polar Bears International’s conservation efforts on so many fronts, and we want to be good neighbors in return. Education is one of the pillars of our work, so we decided to test the idea of offering two summer camps for local youth, one for ages 5-9 and one for ages 10-13. We were able to offer the camp at no cost to participants, thanks to a grant from a generous donor.

The community’s Facebook page is really active, so I placed a notice there and the news spread fast. We ended up with 44 kids between the two camps—22 in each, which is great for the town’s size. We held the camp for the younger kids the last week in July and scheduled the one for ages 10-13 during the first week of August.

Q: Did the camps have a theme or special focus? 

Churchill has a strong Cree and Métis heritage, so I decided to focus on Indigenous Knowledge systems, with each day centered around a different Indigenous practice. For example, day one focused on sharing and day two on knowledge/understanding. Other values included expression and sense of place.

We were lucky to have Georgina Berg, a Cree elder and board advisor to Polar Bears International, join us. She was supposed to be there for one day, but she had such a fabulous time that she joined us almost the entire time! My husband, Garrett Clark, who is an 8th grade teacher, was my right-hand man throughout the camp. Two other camp counselors, Danielle Joseph and Hayden Moran, helped as well.

We also had bear guards from Discover Churchill with us when we had outdoor activities—because watching out for polar bears is part of the summer experience in Churchill. The bears are onshore and you need to stay aware and be prepared.

Churchill Kids Summer Camp 2023

Photo: Cassandra Debets / Polar Bears International

Q: What kind of activities did you do with the younger kids?

They were definitely an active bunch, full of energy and excitement. On the first day, we hiked to Cape Merry with Georgina as the lead guide. Georgina showed us a rock where her father had carved his name and told us the story of how her family and other Cree had migrated from York Factory to Churchill after the Hudson Bay Store in York Factory closed. Later, we played games with the kids on the nearby tundra and gathered fireweed flowers for use in making jam later in the week. Georgina talked to them about the parts of the plant that can be used in making jams, jellies, and fireweed tea. 

On the second day, we learned about beluga whales. We divided into groups and took turns with different activities. Two groups stayed at our interpretive center, Polar Bears International House, to learn about belugas and play beluga-themed games. A  third group went out on the Churchill River on a Zodiac, where they did a loop around the Beluga Boat, saw beluga whales, and learned about the live Beluga Cams. Some of the younger kids had never been on the water before, so that was really neat for them. 

The third day was full of activities. Once again, we divided into groups. Danielle Joseph, a Churchill-based seasonal staff member for Polar Bears International, taught the kids how to make jam. At a second station, Sandra Cook, a local artist, came in and led the kids in painting T-shirts. Garrett and I led a third station on Tundra Buggy One, which is parked in front of PBI House in the summer. We did polar bear science activities there, and it was the first time on a Tundra Buggy for a lot of the kids. They were amazed: “Look, there’s a bed! There’s a bathroom!”

On the final day, we made bannock in the morning and then went down to the beach, where we started a bonfire and cooked hot dogs and s’mores as a group. The energy of  the kids was so infectious! They were really sad when the camp ended. Almost all of them asked, “Are you doing this next summer?”

Churchill Kids Summer Camp

Photo: Cassandra Debets / Polar Bears International

Q: What did the week look like for the older kids?

They had a very similar week but geared to an older age group. We started with a hike at low tide to the wreck of the SS Ithaca, which is about 12 miles from Churchill. Many of the kids had never been there before, partly because you need a bear guard. A lot of them collected mussels and were so excited to take them home and cook them. Georginia talked with them about gathering food from the land.

On the second day we went on the Cape Merry hike. Half the group started with Georgina and learned about the Cree migration to Churchill, with more in-depth discussions. The other group went onto the Tundra Buggy Lodge, which was parked along the river, and built habitats out of tissue paper, popsicle sticks, and other materials. From the lodge, they could watch the beluga whales in the river.

Similar to the week before, we also had a day where they painted T-shirts and did polar bear science on Tundra Buggy One. But instead of making jam, they went out with Danielle to collect pine cones and create fire-starters. 

On the last day, we went out with the belugas. It was by far one of the beluga-watching best days I’ve ever seen, with crystal clear water, no wind, and belugas everywhere. One boat must have seen over a thousand! 

We ended with a bonfire on the beach, where we saw a polar bear mom and two cubs swim by—a magical ending to the week.

Q: What were some of the highlights for the kids?

When we asked the younger kids what they liked best, they said things like “gathering fireweed” or “making jam.” But a lot of them said, “everything!” 

The older kids especially liked the hikes, going out on the Zodiac, and learning from Georgina. They also liked learning about jobs like driving the Beluga Boat or a Tundra Buggy or serving as a bear guard. It opened their eyes to possibilities. You could see them feeling very proud of their community.

Churchill Kids Summer Camp 2023

Photo: Cassandra Debets / Polar Bears International

Q: How did the town respond?

Numerous people have stopped me in the grocery store to thank me and ask if we’ll be holding the camps again. Other staff members, including Krista Wright, Polar Bears International’s executive director, have had similar experiences. One woman stopped her on the street and said it was the best thing that’s happened all year.

I plan to go back to Churchill this fall to serve as a field ambassador. I already knew a lot of the adults, but now I know a lot more plus a lot of the kids, which is an added layer of connection. The opportunity to lead the camp with my husband, my partner in crime, and to share my passion for science, education, and Indigenous knowledge, is an experience I’ll long remember.

Special thanks to Mayor Mike Spence and the town of Churchill for supporting the idea of the camps; to Discover Churchill for generously donating bear guards and the use of their vehicles; to Frontiers North Adventures for providing access to Tundra Buggy One and the Tundra Buggy Lodge; to Georgina Berg and Sandra Cook for sharing their expertise; and to the generosity of the Burns Foundation and Heromado Foundation for making it all possible.