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 (a small fish of the smelt family) and to give birth to their calves. It’s an extraordinary spectacle, especially from a Zodiac or kayak, watching the backs of belugas on the river crest like whitecaps on the waves.

Belugas following a Zodiac in Churchill

Belugas following a Zodiac © Eddy Savage

But belugas only make up a small part of the subarctic experience. Churchill offers access to unique and exceptionally biodiverse habitats both on and off the water. 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.

Tundra Swan and signets in Churchill

Tundra swan and signets © Eddy Savage

This 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 don’t have to go far from town to be surrounded by nature, making this little outpost community perfectly situated for your exploration of the tundra.

Favorite Wildflower: Mountain Aven

Spending a few hours examining the intricacies of the tundra flora is endlessly rewarding. Countless wildflowers paint the land with splashes of vibrant color.

Mountain Avens in Churchill

Mountain avens © Eddy Savage

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 that are easily observable on closer inspection. Dubbed a “cushion plant” for its low-lying and condensed footprint, the mountain aven needs 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 can 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 a sort of 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.

> > Read: 5 ways to help the Arctic as the planet warms

Summer Wildlife of Churchill: Polar Bears and Arctic Terns

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 drive you away from its nesting colony (which isn’t always obvious until you’re too close for its comfort—we always 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 animals to watch out for in the summer. The polar bears, on the other hand, are usually more interested in sleeping in the cool sea breeze than in investigating humans.

Polar bear resting in the breeze

A polar bear rests along the coast © Eddy Savage

Weighing only 3–4 ounces, the terns migrate around 25,000 miles each year from the Arctic to the Antarctic and back again. During the summer, their presence in the area is constant, as one parent stays by the nest while 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 so defensive around their nests is because they lay their small speckly brown-olive eggs laid in shallow depressions 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.

Arctic Tern at the edge of a pond

An Arctic tern © Eddy Savage

Sure enough, there it was: a 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 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.

(By the way: You can also see Arctic terns on our Antarctica trips!)

Fort Prince of Wales boardwalk, fireweed flowers

Fireweed grows along the Fort Prince of Wales boardwalk © Eddy Savage

Churchill Summer: Lots to Love!

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.

Start planning your Churchill Summer adventure!