A Subarctic Summer
Churchill rests at the ecological crossroads of three regions: the Northern Canadian Shield taiga (which represents nearly one-quarter of the linear extent of the tree line in North America), the Southern Hudson Bay taiga (which contains some of the most extensive wetland complexes in the boreal system in North America and supports the world’s southernmost polar bear populations) and the Low Arctic tundra (characterized by a continuous cover of shrubby tundra vegetation). Its location along the coast of Hudson Bay further influences the ecology as the arctic marine ecosystem attracts resident animals and introduces a menagerie of migratory species to its shores.
Approximately 4,500 years ago, mighty glaciers receded—scraping the landscape down to what remains today: geological lowland underlain by Palaeozoic limestone and Precambrian granitic bedrock, loosely covered by glacial till (assortment of sediment), striated with fossils. The splotchy terrain is dominated by marshes, shallow ponds and tidal flats and carpeted with peat plateaus comprising moss and lichen (symbiote between fungus and algae).
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. However, even in the most severe conditions, life finds a way—as fragile and as fleeting as it may be.
Snow blankets the entirety of this subarctic region from late September through much of June, leaving around 70‒80 days of frost-free time.
Rock-breakers & Soil-makers
Plants rush through an abbreviated growing season, transforming from leaves to flowers to fruit in rapid succession. The first plant to flower in the springtime (early June) is the purple saxifrage (Saxifraga oppositifolia). True to its Latin roots (Saxifraga means ‘rock-breaker’), this plant gathers on barren, exposed rock and moist, calcium-rich gravel; and clings to damp crevices in cliffs and mobile surfaces such as scree slopes. This species is specifically adapted to conditions of low nitrogen and can grow in very poor soil. Despite the unforgiving terrain and harsh elements, the purple saxifrage is also adapted to the very short growing season of arctic environments. The flowering buds overwinter in an advanced stage (ready for blooming), protected by its living foliage and even dead leaves. Once the snow cover melts, flowering occurs in about 5 -16 days and individual flowers last about 12 days. Growing low to the ground has another advantage: protection against evaporation and abrasion by wind-driven sand and snow. A dense cushion of this matted plant chronicles growth cycles and a life span that could be many decades old. Tundra areas, in particular, are very susceptible to trampling, so in order to protect these beautiful and sensitive plants, hikers should try to remain on marked trails.
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. Flowers that produce more pollen, attract more pollinators. Churchill’s pollinators include ants, flies, mosquitos and eight species of bumblebees. Though bees are keystone species and globally recognized totems of pollination, Churchill’s diversity in plant life is owed to a much tinier organism. Male mosquitoes are commonly collected bearing the pollinia of the Franklin’s lady’s slipper orchid, (Habenaria obtusata). When a mosquito inserts its proboscis to obtain nectar, the sticky pad at the base of the pollinium adheres to its eye. All varieties of lady’s slippers and all eight species of wild orchid are slow-growing plants and can take years to flower. Mosquitos play a crucial role in fertilizing flowers and catalyzing seed development across the tundra.
The efforts of these insects are also evident in the pockets of fireweed, berries and lichen that sprinkle the landscape. Fireweed (Chamerion angustifolium) is a true plant of disturbance. It thrives on roadsides, newly exposed beach ridges and is one of the first plants to emerge after a wildfire. Fireweed is the official floral emblem of the Yukon Territory in Canada and is treasured as one of the most widely distributed species in the northern hemisphere. In fact, fireweed was one of the first plants to appear after the eruption of Mt. St. Helens in 1980 and after the bombing of London in World War II—setting an otherwise dismal scene ablaze with color.
Crowberry (Empetrum), like the purple saxifrage, translates to ‘grows on rocks.’ The juicy fruits on this tiny herbaceous plant support both animal and human ecology. The berries range from reddish to purple to black and are a favorite among songbirds, bears and Indigenous communities who often make jam and medicine with the edible parts that are high in antioxidants. Another plant that serves as a valuable source of calories and nutrients is lichen. Lichens are used to measure the geological time of various events in Earth’s history such as glacial retreat. They are extraordinarily resilient and have the unique ability to shut down their metabolisms for periods of time to survive extreme conditions by regulating varying amounts of air, light and moisture. One of Churchill, Manitoba’s most prolific lichen species, (Xanthoria elegans), survived for over a year and a half in an extremely cold and oxygen-deficient atmosphere attached to the exterior of the orbiting International Space Station! On the ground, lichen comprises the main diet of caribou and other ungulates (hoofed animals). These “deer of the North” consume 10‒20 pounds per day and can potentially be spotted by helicopter on one of Natural Habitat Adventures’ Churchill tours.
Wildlife of Churchill: Birds, Bears and Belugas
The Canadian subarctic comes alive when the winter thaws, bringing migratory animals—including close to 300 bird species, polar bears and beluga whales—back to the Hudson Bay coastline. Resident species including seals, Arctic fox, red fox and other small mammals take advantage of the compressed summer season to give birth and raise their young to maturity in an accelerated period of growth.
The Arctic tern (Sterna paradisaea) is known to have the longest migration of any species on the planet. Each year, this slender gray-and-white shorebird travels from Antarctica (its wintering grounds) to its Arctic breeding grounds where it enjoys the subarctic summer, covering around 25,000 miles. Over the course of 30 years, they fly the equivalent of venturing to the moon and back. Arctic terns tend to stay out at sea during migration; therefore, a pelagic whale-watching excursion aboard one of Nat Hab’s Zodiacs would also make for a superior bird-watching experience.
Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) have a circumpolar distribution limited to four distinct sea ice habitats—or ecoregions—of the northern hemisphere. In central and eastern Canada, much of the polar bear habitat lies within the Seasonal Ice Ecoregion, where the sea ice melts entirely in the summer. The Archipelago Ecoregion, in addition to the northernmost portions of the Convergent Ice Ecoregion, is likely to provide a final refuge for polar bears, as the ocean channels separating the islands of the far north Canadian Arctic have historically been covered by sea ice year-round.
In Churchill, polar bears doze away the summer months, expending minimum energy by feeding on algae and berries and sleeping in sand or gravel pits along the shore. Polar bears also retreat into summer dens that extend into the permafrost, which prevents overheating. Some of these dens appear to have been in use for hundreds of years.
Pregnant or lactating females and their dependent offspring are most vulnerable to warming temperatures. The melting of arctic sea ice increases the length of summer-fall fasting—a period when polar bears lose access to their primary source of food—seals. Usually, a female gives birth to a litter every two to four years, but due to decreasing ice floe quantity and quality, some mothers may only give birth to one or two litters during their lifetime. Though the loss of habitat is the biggest threat to the survival of polar bears, other concerns include lethal response to human-polar bear conflict, toxic pollution in the environment and direct impacts from industrial development, such as disturbance of maternal dens or contact with an oil spill.
The Arctic and Subarctic Canada are home to two-thirds of the world’s polar bears and Churchill is considered to be “The Polar Bear Capital of the World.” By mid-October, between 600 and 1,000 bears amass along a 100-mile stretch of coast between the Churchill and Nelson rivers. This spectacular gathering is the largest concentration of polar bears on the planet!
Join World Wildlife Fund and Natural Habitat Adventures on our next trip to Churchill to see these majestic terrestrial-marine mammals. We offer special departures and itineraries including, Women-Only, Classic Photo and a Climate Change Trip from October 11 through November 18. Our Polar Bear Expedition Leaders receive additional training and resources from WWF’s top scientists, ensuring the best interpretive experience available. Among them is Expedition Leader, Eleanor Edye (interim research manager at the Churchill Northern Studies Center).
Eleanor was born and raised in Winnipeg, Manitoba and possesses intimate knowledge about subarctic and arctic ecology. One of her guests, J. Merck, praised her charisma and skill with the following review:
“Eleanor is an extraordinary scientist and human being. She is thoughtful on environmental and social justice and gave us a grand introduction to First Nations and Metis culture. She was always enthusiastic and had a beautiful passion. My friends on the trip agree that we were so lucky to be in a small cohesive group with amazing access to presentations. She was a 10! Thank you for having this beautiful Canadian on your staff.
In all Eleanor’s years of exploration, she maintains that the beluga (Delphinapterus leucas) is her favorite mammal. Her love for these sea creatures is most apparent in our Daily Dose of Nature Webinar, White Whales and A Subarctic Summer in Churchill.
Eleanor dives deep into the biology and ecology of these highly social and intelligent cetaceans. In the videos, she details the species’ evolutionary journey and specific adaptations to survive in the frigid waters of the North. She also describes the conservation challenges and opportunities that different beluga populations face, with a special focus on the Western Hudson Bay population near Churchill, which numbers in the thousands.
Here are some fascinating facts Eleanor reveals:
- Delphinapterus leucas roughly translates to ‘white whale without a dorsal fin.’ This evolutionary advantage allows for greater maneuverability under shifting ice floes. In place of a fin, belugas have a hard dorsal ridge that enables them to break apart ice (up to eight inches thick) to take breaths.
- Belugas are one of only two species within the family, Monodontidae (meaning ‘single-toothed whale’)—the other being the narwhal.
- Echolocation is a specific adaptation—present only in toothed whales. The beluga produces sound waves in nasal sacs and uses its melon (bulbous fluid-filled sac on its forehead) like an acoustic lens to focus the sound. For instance, it may direct the sound waves to a school of fish to determine proximity and size. The sound bounces back to the whale and is received by the jawbone, where a fat-filled cavity transfers the information up into the inner ear and relays it to the brain in the form of images.
- Belugas boast an astounding repertoire of sounds (chirps, trills, clicks, squeals and whistles) that have earned these whales the nickname, “canaries of the sea.” The songs of a breaching beluga pod can be heard from 100 yards off the coast.
- Another form of communication that requires further study is the production of bubbles. Belugas have been observed in aquaria across the world displaying playful and defensive behaviors through bubble-blowing. Similar to humans, belugas have lips that can be pursed. Blowing a ring-shaped bubble has been interpreted as a playful gesture, while a high-velocity bubble stream is viewed as an attempt by mothers to protect their calves from encroaching males. Belugas also use their lips to suck water and prey (like mollusks) into a high-pressured jet—facilitating bottom-feeding.
- Beluga whales are philopatric, meaning they return to the same breeding ground every year. Many populations of belugas migrate as the sea ice changes in the Arctic. They move south in the fall as the ice forms and then return to feed again in the spring, as the ice breaks up. Churchill is an especially phenomenal location for whale-watching because it harbors the Hudson Bay population of belugas, which is the largest population worldwide at 60,000 individuals.
- Belugas feed on a variety of fish species, such as salmon and herring, as well as shrimp, crabs and mollusks. However, capelin (Mallotus villosus) are their main prey source. Shimmering schools of these species of smelt will spawn in Arctic streams, following a nearly identical route belugas take on their philopatric journey.
- Like polar bears, the beluga depends on sea ice for its existence and can be directly impacted by climate change. Since whales depend on sound to communicate, any interference by noise pollution can negatively affect their ability to find food and mates, navigate, avoid predators and take care of their young.
Among the nearly ninety kinds of cetaceans, six out of the 13 great whale species are classified as endangered or vulnerable—despite decades of protection. A minimum of 300,000 whales and dolphins are killed each year as a result of fisheries bycatch, while others succumb to threats including habitat loss, shipping collisions and noise and fuel pollution.
Here at Nat Hab & WWF, we are renowned for world-class, environmentally responsible whale-watching excursions. We offer expeditions to see blue whales in Quebec, belugas in Churchill and humpbacks in British Columbia. Learn about whale-watching, cetacean conservation efforts and seasonal splendors by watching Nat Hab’s Daily Dose of Nature Webinar: A Summer Adventure with Quebec’s Whales. Also, check out this incredible video taken by one of our travelers! On our Arctic summer adventure, we get the opportunity to kayak at eye level with curious beluga whales in the mouth of the Churchill River.
Kristine Bowling, another summer traveler, reflects on her intimate encounters with roaming polar bears and beguiling belugas in this aerial footage. She conveys:
“You only appreciate and care about and want to protect what you know. They (Nat Hab) help people know. We all have a story about what brought us to where we are. I ripped the bandaid off my life and walked away from just about everything, but now I’m in Churchill. Now I’m living.”