By Nat Hab Expedition Leader Eddy Savage
Heading down to the Churchill River to catch the sunset is by far one of my favorite scenes. The crunching of snow in -30°F is a sound not soon forgotten as you step from the bus onto the ice. The crisp squeaking under your feet is so enjoyable it helps you to forget about your chilled and slightly numb cheeks. Add in a little wind at these temperatures and you’ll embrace blowing snow, in the form of tiny ice pellets, flying into any exposed skin and giving you a barrage of gentle stings—a true northern exfoliation you could say. The condensation from your breath will freeze to any nearby surface, leaving eyelashes, beards, eyebrows and anything near your mouth coated with the frosty and coveted “Manitoba Mascara”.
These little moments add agreeably to the scenery in front of you. Such a vast expanse of ice and wilderness that can take your breath away (or was that the extremely cold air? Hard to say sometimes.). Listening closely, you can hear the ever-shifting twangs and pings that reverberate through the ice sheet as it gently shifts with the rising and falling tides. Your mind tricks you a little bit, reminding you of all those movies and stories you’ve heard of people falling through the ice, a common fear. Not to worry on the Churchill River though— because of the extremely cold temperatures and long winters, the ice is around six feet thick and falling through would be impossible. Nonetheless, there’s a subtle nervousness in the first few moments after your boots stop squeaking on the snow and hit the solid clunk of six-foot-thick river ice.
The landscape around the river is remarkably flat and the highest points of land are on the western bank. The ridge consists of 100-foot-high, two-billion-year-old Precambrian shield bedrock with a dusting of spruce trees wherever there’s enough soil and protection from the prevailing northwest wind to support their growth. It’s a rugged and harsh landscape that only the hardiest of plants and animals can endure. Between you and that far ridge of land is the frozen 1.3-mile-wide Churchill River. You might expect it to be flat and smooth, but it is very much the opposite. Until you go six or seven miles upriver, there is a tidal fluctuation every six hours, up to 12 or so feet, and the constant vertical movement of the river ice causes jagged ice pillars and deep cracks to form where there are large rocks, or glacial erratics, on the river bottom. Wind-blown snowdrifts up around these ice pillars create an arrangement of many standalone miniature “ice-mountains”. Textured drifted snow reaches up from the ”ice-valleys” to the exposed and sharp “ice-mountaintops”. The ice-mountain ranges extend several hundred yards from shore until the river deepens and the ice doesn’t reach the river bottom anymore. Here the ice is smooth and flat and the high northwest winds keep sections of it free of drifted snow. The colors of the sky reflect delicately off these clear patches of ice here and there, adding to the impressive aesthetics of the view.
And then there is the sun. With such a big sky in Churchill, the sun can look insignificant when observed in the vastness of the wide-open Churchill River and western ridgeline. However, ice crystals can fill the air even with the slightest bit of wind, and their presence dramatically increases the sun’s impact. The ice crystals refract the light from the setting sun, and as it dips lower towards the horizon and the atmospheric blue light is filtered out, the sun appears to double or triple in size as yellows, reds and oranges saturate the horizon. Each sunset is different, and occasionally you can spot the atmospheric optical phenomenon that can only be seen when falling or suspended ice crystals refract or reflect sunlight. If there are hexagonal-shaped ice crystals falling vertically in the sky, we might see a sundog, parhelion or mock-suns adjacent to the sunset. Or perhaps we’ll experience a light pillar as the sun drops below the horizon and the sunlight is reflected by tiny ice crystals.
For me, the most impressive light show comes when the sun is low on the horizon, moments from disappearing, and the shards of ice at the top of the ice-mountaintops begin to absorb the yellows, oranges and reds of the sky. You’ll often find me laying down on the ice, flat on my belly, to get the sun partially obscured by one of the ice mountaintops. Moments before the sun disappears, the snow and ice on the river become completely bathed in the subtle colors of the sky.
When the sun begins its final descent behind the distant rocky ridge of Precambrian shield and spruce trees, it seems the whole world goes quiet. The sky is full of color as far as I can see, and all I can hear is the quiet whispers of my travelers sharing their awe, the whistling breeze of the northwest wind through the ruff of my parka and the squeaky sound of snow under our feet. As we all revel in the beauty of nature and the sun says its farewell for the night, the sky becomes full of pinkish hues from horizon to horizon. Despite the continuing beauty of the scene, in a surprising hurry we all become much more aware of our numb and chilled cheeks, the rapidly growing “Manitoba Mascara” and how alive we all feel at that moment as our bodies remember they’ve endured -30°F for the past 20 minutes. We’ll crunch and squeak in our boots back to the comfort of our bus and head back to town after our small adventure on the Churchill River.