By Nat Hab Expedition Leader Eddy Savage
I would say most travelers heading to Churchill, Manitoba, in the summertime come to see the charismatic beluga whales that migrate to the Churchill River Estuary each year. The belugas migrate here to feed on capelin and to give birth to their calves. This is no doubt an extraordinary spectacle, with the backs of belugas on the river appearing as abundantly as whitecaps on the crest of waves. It is an awe-inspiring experience, especially from a Zodiac or kayak. However, to me, belugas only make up a small part of the subarctic experience, and off the water and on the land, Churchill offers access to unique and exceptionally biodiverse habitats. The tundra, for example, is an environment unlike any other I have experienced.
The vast land around Churchill blooms with life for less than three months of the year, and discovering the area in the prime of summer is a real gift. Speckled with wildflowers, humming with insects and teeming with nesting birds, the tundra is a busy and vibrant place to observe and explore. The regional ecozone, known as the Hudson Lowlands, is one of the largest wetland ecosystems on the planet, and the density and abundance of flora and fauna are astonishing. You do not have to go far from town to be surrounded by nature, and this little outpost community is perfectly situated for your walk on the tundra.
A few hours spent examining the intricacies of the tundra flora is endlessly rewarding. Countless wildflowers paint the land with splashes of vibrant color. The mountain aven (Dryas octopetala) is one of my favorite tundra wildflowers, and it is visible in at least one stage of its reproductive cycle during most weeks of the summer. It has many adaptations for life in the Arctic, which are easily observable on closer inspection. Dubbed a “cushion plant” for its low-lying and condensed footprint, the mountain aven boasts a minimum growing season of around 40 days. The Churchill region sees a growing season of around 80 days. Being a cushion plant means these tough eight-petalled flowers have a great advantage to thrive in the harsh subarctic environment, and 80 days provide ample time for a full flowering and seeding cycle. The low-to-the-ground mat of densely packed roots, stems and leaves provide somewhat of a greenhouse for the flower. When the spring sun begins to shine, the leafy cushion mat of the aven will melt snow from its base a few days to a week earlier than the surrounding areas.
Additionally, the leafy cushion mat allows the plant to stay ice and snow-free for a few days longer in the winter. Although a few days a year doesn’t seem like much, when you consider the duration of the growing season, an extra week of sun could mean the difference between success and failure. Many tundra plants carry similar environmental adaptations, allowing the vegetation to thrive during those few months of warm and sunny weather. This prosperous growth provides a time-sensitive bounty of food for the local fauna.
The fauna of the tundra is ever-present during the summer months. Sometimes it’s elusive, like a rare sighting of a polar bear sleeping out on a rock close to the edge of Hudson Bay. Sometimes it’s abrupt, like a defensive Arctic tern dive-bombing to push you away from its nesting colony (which isn’t always obvious until you’re too close for its comfort, and we leave the area as soon as we realize we are near a colony). With their sharp beaks, fearless attitude and relentless squawks, Arctic terns are the real threats to your personal safety in the summer. The polar bears are fat, covered in fur and more interested in sleeping in the cool sea breeze than investigating humans.
Weighing only 3-4 ounces, the terns migrate around 25,000 miles each year, from the Arctic to the Antarctic and back again. Their presence in an area is constant as one parent stays by the nest, and the other makes frequent trips to the sea or the river for food to bring back to the clutch. One of the reasons they are inexorably defensive around their nests is because their main camouflage from predators is small speckly brown/olive eggs laid in a shallow depression scraped into rocky or sandy soil. I remember coming across an Arctic tern nest scraped into the gravel on the shoulder of a busy dirt road just outside town. I had gone out to look for wildlife early in the morning and parked near some ponds to watch feeding shorebirds. To my surprise, I was instantly bombarded by an Arctic tern. I tried to shield my scalp from injury as I scoured the area for the nest. Sure enough, there it was, the shallow nest with eggs and all, no more than 10 feet away and mere inches off the flattened gravel trail of dozens of vehicles. These terns sure had a mighty task defending their nest from the daily commute of buses and trucks. Within a few hours, some locals came out with posts and flagging tape to mark off the area of the nest to protect these brave birds from otherwise certain catastrophe.
And so, fellow travelers, explorers and learners, if you can pull yourself away from the gregarious beluga whales of the Churchill River and spend an afternoon exploring and learning about the intricacies of the region’s flora and fauna, you are certain to be rewarded. A walk on the tundra, in my experience, is well worth your time. Standing there with your feet planted on that squishy soil, the warm summer breeze rushing past your face, and the melodic symphony of songbirds, migratory birds and mosquitoes rushing around the bountiful tundra flora, your understanding of the subarctic landscape will be forever enriched.
All photos © Eddy Savage