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$90-million Journey to Churchill unveiled

A polar bear swims in its new home at  the Journey to  Churchill exhibit.

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A polar bear swims in its new home at the Journey to Churchill exhibit. (MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

Muskox are herded into their pen overlooking the path to the Gateway to the Arctic building.

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Muskox are herded into their pen overlooking the path to the Gateway to the Arctic building. (MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

Susan Braun (left) and Jennifer Young wear distinctive polar bear head gear in the tunnel.

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Susan Braun (left) and Jennifer Young wear distinctive polar bear head gear in the tunnel. (MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

Hudson, meet Hudson. Aurura, meet Aurora.

Thursday's opening of the highly anticipated Journey to Churchill exhibit gave two young humans, and two young polar bears, the chance to make acquaintances.

Hudson Ellis, 5, was able to see Hudson the bear in the Churchill Coast portion of the exhibit. Aurura McDonald, 7, came all the way from the real Churchill to see Aurora the bear at the $90-million, four-hectare exhibit.

"Wow," said Hudson when he saw female bears Aurora and Kaska swimming and diving around him as he and his parents, Delaney and Jon, and brother Logan, 3, walked through the acrylic tunnel.

"I like her," said Aurura, after seeing the female bears in their aquatic playground. Aurura and her brother, Adam, 5, arrived just after midnight Thursday after their own journey from Churchill. They arrived with their mother, Gloria McDonald.

Aurura and Aurora share a similar name after Aurura and Avery Finlay of Churchill's Duke of Marlborough School chose it in a naming contest held by the zoo at their school. Aurora the bear was found orphaned near the Churchill airport last October.

Aurora and Kaska splashed in their own pool for the first time and astounded visitors who could see them swimming overhead as they walked through the 21.3-metre-long Sea Ice Passage, an acrylic tunnel that is three metres wide and 2.5 metres high. It's inside the Gateway to the Arctic building.

Hudson and the other male bear, Storm, live separately while the two female bears usually are together.

Kaska was orphaned when her mother was shot by authorities after two people were attacked by a polar bear in Churchill Nov. 1.

"These two females and Storm, one of the males, would have been euthanized in Churchill in years gone by," said Don Peterkin, chief operations officer for the Assiniboine Park Conservancy. He said one of the females has tripled her weight, and the other has quadrupled her weight since arriving last October.

Hudson was born in captivity in the Toronto Zoo before arriving at Assiniboine Park Zoo in January 2013. Storm lived in the wild the longest. It is estimated he was about three years old when he arrived last October after biting a man in Churchill.

Peterkin said the exhibit gives visitors a chance to see animals in habitats that are as close to natural as possible. Visitors also learn about educational aspects such as climate change, conservation and wildlife preservation.

"We wanted to create something that was a signature exhibit," Peterkin said. "There's nothing like this anywhere in the world. This is the No. 1 northern-species exhibit and it's appropriate for Manitoba with the focus on polar bears and the polar bear capital of the world (Churchill)."

Peterkin said $6.5 million was invested in the education and interpretation aspects of the exhibit.

"We're really proud to be able to present to the community something that does more than just provide recreation."

In addition to the four polar bears, there are harbour seals, muskox, arctic foxes, snowy owls, caribou and wolves.

There are multiple viewing areas, natural barriers between animals instead of fences and a variety of landscapes intended to represent what exists in and around the town of Churchill such as boreal forest, tundra, rocky cliffs and pools of fresh, filtered water. Surrounding each of the three parts of the exhibit -- Wapusk Lowlands, Gateway to the Arctic and Churchill coast -- are interpretive signage and in some areas there are interactive displays and audio-visual components.

The exhibit also includes a 360-degree domed theatre called the Aurora Borealis Theatre that shows a short film about the Churchill area, wildlife and the seasons through the eyes of an indigenous family.

"We're creating awareness of what's in our own backyard," Peterkin said.

Don and Lynda Collingridge, their daughter, Jenna Doerksen, and her daughter, Chloe, 18 months, were among the first visitors through the door at noon after buying tickets online.

"We've been waiting for it and we just wanted to be here on the first day," Don said.

Jessica Asplin, 9, came with her sister, Ellianna, 6, their dad, Allan, and their grandfather, Jim. They said Jessica is pretty much a polar bear expert.

"I was really excited to see the polar bears and all the arctic animals. It looks amazing," Jessica said.

Ann Page, 72, brought her brother-in-law, George Dixon, 75, who was visiting from Kent, England.

"It's fantastic," Dixon said. "This whole place is fantastic."

Alexandra Chorro, who brought her 31/2-year-old son, Chikondi, said they have zoo memberships as the zoo is a family destination.

"I like it," Chikondi said.

The Journey to Churchill exhibit was built with $34 million from the province, $28.1 million from the city and private-sector support from individuals, families, foundations and corporate donors.

The zoo is offering a discount rate on Tuesdays of $10, which applies to all admission categories. It does not include GST and cannot be combined with other promotions or offers. The deal runs from July 8 to Dec. 30.

ashley.prest@freepress.mb.ca

Does the zoo's new polar bear exhibit justify the jump in adult admission to $18.50? Join the conversation in the comments below. 

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Updated on Friday, July 4, 2014 at 7:23 AM CDT:
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