With the parking lot packed and lineups out the door and down the road, the Assiniboine Park Zoo finally reopened its doors July 3, and introduced the long-awaited Journey to Churchill exhibit to the public.
The 10-acre, $90-million exhibit welcomed its first visitors at noon under near-perfect weather conditions, after opening ceremonies attended by all three levels of government, community leaders, donors and other invited guests.
"You are about to embark on an incredible journey, one that will stimulate your senses, challenge your thinking, and allow you to discover the wonders of the North right here in the heart of the continent," said Margaret Redmond, president and CEO of the Assiniboine Park Conservancy. "We are proud and excited to welcome our first visitors to Journey to Churchill and so very grateful for the overwhelming support we have received from the community, our members, government partners, foundations, individual and corporate donors who made this day possible. We got here together and now it is our pleasure to share this amazing accomplishment with you."
Journey to Churchill features expansive new polar bear, Arctic fox, wolf, muskox, caribou, snowy owl and seal habitats, as well as interactive and interpretive components, a short film experience inside Manitoba’s largest 360-degree theatre, underwater viewing tunnels — thoroughly tested earlier in the morning by polar bears Aurora and Kaska — and more. The exhibit is also home to the International Polar Bear Conservation Centre, a facility that will allow the Assiniboine Park Zoo to more actively contribute to environmental and wildlife education, research, and conservation.
"This unique, world-class facility offers tremendous opportunities for learning about our northern environment and the importance of conservation, as well as promoting all that Manitoba has to offer as a tourist destination," Premier Greg Selinger said. "I am proud that the province was able to provide support that helped turn this exhibit from a great idea to the reality we see today."
The landscape of the exhibit is home to seven types of wildflowers, more than 3,000 trees and shrubs, 13 types of native grasses, and six types of berries, including blueberries and wild strawberries.
"This is not your typical groomed landscape," said Don Peterkin, chief operations officer at the Assiniboine Park Conservancy, in a news release. "We want to recreate what would be found growing naturally surrounding Churchill, which is located right at the transition zone from the Boreal Forest to the tundra. That means you’ll see a lot of willows and shrubs, as opposed to large trees, and you’ll see plenty of wildflowers and grasses growing throughout the exhibit."
In most other areas of Assiniboine Park, horticulture staff work at grooming, weeding and manicuring the gardens, but that will not be the case within Journey to Churchill. The plant material, which is mostly short and low to the ground in nature, is intended to take on a life of its own and evolve over time, and there will be a number of influences at play, the most noteworthy being the animals.
"We know that the polar bears will have a huge impact on how the plant material grows and takes shape in the exhibit, particularly in the Churchill Coast, which is the largest of the three polar bear habitats" said Peterkin. "They’ll lay down on shrubs, dig dens and likely trash a lot of the work we’ve put into it — but that’s what bears do. It will be interesting to watch how they transform the space."