Conservation Through Exploration: Travel with Purpose
You may know Natural Habitat Adventures as a travel company, but we’re equally a conservation enterprise—and we pursue our commitment to preserving wild places through travel as our means. Our mission is Conservation through Exploration—protecting our planet by inspiring travelers, supporting local communities, and boldly influencing the entire travel industry through innovative efforts to live more lightly on the Earth.
In addition to our partnership with World Wildlife Fund, established in 2003, we spearhead various conservation projects in the destinations our travelers visit. Nat Hab Philanthropy was born out of the belief that the best guardians of biodiversity are the local and Indigenous communities who devote their lives to protecting natural habitats and defending wilderness. Through this yearly fund, we provide small grants to grass-roots groups worldwide, from implementing bear-resistant trash cans in Yellowstone to funding a primary school in Tanzania and reducing plastic pollution in sea turtle habitat to protecting orangutans in the rain forests of Borneo.
One of our priority areas is Churchill, Manitoba. Set on the western edge of Hudson Bay, a few degrees below the Arctic Circle, Churchill is one of Canada’s most remote towns. More wild animals live here than humans (Churchill’s population is just 900), with several hundred polar bears roaming the tundra in autumn and thousands of beluga whales swimming up the Churchill River each summer. Churchill’s cultural mosaic is shaped by its indigenous Inuit, Dene, Chipewyan and Cree heritage. Their presence long predates the first European contact in 1619 by Danish explorer Jens Munk and his expedition. In 1717, the Hudson Bay Company established the first permanent settlement, a fur trading post near the mouth of the Churchill River. After the fur industry declined, Churchill languished until a port was built on Hudson Bay, linked by a rail line in 1929.
Today, Churchill’s economy heavily depends on tourism around its most famous residents, as visitors from across the globe flock to see the “Polar Bear Capital of the World” each fall. As one of the first companies to operate polar bear adventures in Churchill more than 30 years ago, Nat Hab has become intimately acquainted with the Arctic region and its vibrant community. The people of Churchill are not only the greatest champions for polar bear protection, but they are also dear to our hearts, as they have been gracious hosts to our guests and guide teams for decades. We have built a mutually beneficial relationship based on the shared goal of protecting their environment, wildlife and culture.
By operating environmentally sensitive polar bear expeditions for hundreds of travelers each year, we contribute financially to Churchill while using travel to raise our guests’ awareness and inspire environmental advocacy. Nat Hab also contributes to WWF’s initiatives in the area, as well as to the whole of its Arctic programs. Whether it be through increasing our scientific understanding of polar bear behavior, understanding the effects of diminishing sea ice on the entire ecosystem, or how best to minimize human-wildlife conflict, together, we are making strides to secure a sustainable future for the Arctic.
Over the years, Nat Hab has partnered with town leaders to support local residents, including community breakfasts for hundreds of townspeople; providing fresh produce, milk, cereals and snacks for the school breakfast program; contributing to food drives with leftover groceries from meals served aboard our Polar Rovers; and donating furniture and housewares. We are also proud to have been the lead facilitator in developing enhancements to the community recycling program, especially related to tour company operations and guest activities in and around Churchill. And during three seasons of the year, the economic activity we generate through sustainable tourism also supports local enterprises in Churchill, including Indigenous-owned businesses.
Food Sustainability & Security in the Arctic
It is the policy of Nat Hab to source sustainable food whenever and wherever possible on our worldwide expeditions. This includes looking deeply at food sourcing, fair labor and ethical harvest and actively choosing the most sustainable meal options while on our adventures. In addition to monitoring current regulations and recommendations from sustainable food experts, we proactively analyze future trends and opportunities. One such opportunity we are particularly excited about is the evolution of hydroponic gardening and vertical farming in the subarctic.
Churchill is positioned at a transitional zone—distinguished by sparse and straggly tree coverage, pockets of old growth and mats of vegetation, which have had their vertical shoots suppressed for upwards of 300 years. The layer of permafrost (permanently frozen ground), long nights, extreme winds and freezing temperatures all conspire to stifle growth. Snow blankets the entirety of this subarctic region from late September through much of June, leaving around 70‒80 days of frost-free time. Plants rush through an abbreviated growing season, transforming from leaves to flowers to fruit in rapid succession. To optimize the extended daylight in the summers, flowers in the Arctic have evolved to be heliotropic or phototrophic—meaning they follow the path of the sun to absorb the most energy.
The subarctic landscape makes growing vegetables and produce nearly impossible. In a food desert such as this, Churchill residents must rely on expensive and often unreliable shipments from the South. In May 2017, unprecedented spring flooding washed out the community’s rail line, cutting them off from their only link to land-based resources. Churchill was thrust into its first long-term experience as a fly-in-only community, leaving some stranded, unable to afford the $1,000-plus flight to Winnipeg and doubling, if not tripling, the cost of food in town.
In the wake of this disaster, a local non-profit, The Churchill Northern Studies Center (CNSC), sprang to action to restore food security to the people of the North. With the help of the Churchill Region Economic Development Fund, CNSC partnered with Growcer, an Ottawa/Iqaluit-based company helping communities grow produce year-round using modular farms. The ‘farm,’ a 40-foot shipping container retrofitted with state-of-the-art hydroponic technology, began its journey at a manufacturing facility near Seattle. From there, it traveled by truck to Montreal and was loaded on a freight vessel that sailed to Hudson Bay before finally arriving in Churchill in the fall of 2017. November saw the planting of the first seeds, and six weeks later, new hope materialized in the form of fresh leafy greens, which were enjoyed at an all-community feast.
Sustaining the North with Rocket Greens
The first harvest was dubbed “Rocket Greens” in reference to the farm’s location on the former Churchill Research Rocket Range site where thousands of Rockets were launched into the upper atmosphere for auroral research in the 1950s-1980s. “Rocket” is also slang for arugula.
Today, the CNSC Growcer has a separate nursery for sprouting up to 1200 seedlings in addition to growing spots for 1800 mature plants. The farm provides 250-400 pieces of produce each week, including lettuce, spinach, kale, Asian greens, collard greens and herbs, to local grocery stores, the hospital cafeteria, and during polar bear tourism season, local restaurants and businesses. Rocket Greens are also delivered to residents via a subscription service called “Launch Box.”
“My town is small, so it’s nice to think that I’m feeding up to 50 households with lovely delicious greens that we grew right down the road from town. Even when it’s -40C outside!” says Carley Basler, Sustainability Coordinator at CNSC.
To help this program flourish, Nat Hab funded the Center’s hydroponic cabinet, a new educational component that offers hands-on learning experiences for scientists, residents and visitors. “Churchill is a cold tundra most of the year. We invested in hydroponic farming to help them grow fresh greens year-round. If you’re headed on a Nat Hab polar bear trip, you’ll likely have your own Rocket Greens salad!” shares Nat Hab’s Chief Sustainability Officer, Court Whelan.