Northern summer in Churchill

When we hear a reference to “the north” an image of windswept tundra blanketed by snow and ice immediately rises to mind.  That, or maybe Santa Claus.  Even in the high arctic though, summer does arrive; the land takes on a very different look than that which we imagine and attracts seasonal animals that travel great distances to get there.

This past August I witnessed the brief northern summer for the first time with my own eyes and, of course, my camera.  Returning to Churchill, Manitoba, I ventured out on soft tundra along the Churchill River, and even out into the Hudson Bay to spend time with arctic foxes, boreal caribou, polar bears, and belugas – not to mention the plethora of birds nesting up there.  One of the things I love about going north is that the wild still exists to those who patiently seek it out.

Experiencing this more elusive perspective of the northernmost region of Manitoba only makes me appreciate its diverse and fragile ecosystem even more.  Conservation of these special places is something I care about deeply and moving forward I would like to do more work in the conservation realm.  I am keeping my eyes and ears open for opportunities to be a part of this important discussion with my work, so if you have a project in mind and would like to work together in pursuit of these ideals, please reach out and get in touch with me.  I truly believe that our actions with regards to environmental consequences of how we choose to live are some of the most important ones that our current generation will make, and I hope that through showing the world the oft-unseen effects of our current actions we can continue make better choices as we move forward.

All that said, here is a visual story of my time up north.

Churchill Airport Runway - Silhouettes


Flying sandhill cranes

Sandhill cranes also arriving by air.  Birders flock to Churchill to see the plentiful birds of the midnight sun.

Keeping watch with binoculars on Churchill tundra buggy

The tundra is a harsh environment and so “survival of the fittest” is especially evident here.  The animals adapt incredible camouflage that shifts as much as the extreme seasons that shape the land and, as such, it takes a really attentive eye to notice the wildlife.

Colorful northern tundra

The colorful patterns of the tundra floor.

Fox den and kits

These arctic fox kits are a perfect example of camouflage.  It would have been so easy to miss them, and I can only imagine how many other animals I didn’t notice that quietly watched me pass them by.
First, we spotted one little brown face watching us from the edge of the patch of brush on the left.  Stopping to quietly watch from a distance (so as not to intrude) we watched more faces cautiously emerge one by one from the brush as they realized we were not a threat.  Turns out, we had found an arctic fox den and, over the course of an hour, were lucky enough to watch eight little kits play in front of us until mama fox came home with a bird for dinner.  She went on to teach them how to hunt with the dead bird before dinner proper.

Fresh polar bear tracks next to tundra buggy near Churchill

Polar bears are elusive in the summer, but these fresh tracks turned into a tracking challenge for us.

Polar bear stalking near Churchill Northern Studies Centre

Six hours later, as this particular day neared its end, we finally found the paws to match the tracks.  It is uncommon to see polar bears around Churchill in August (October and November are the months when they tend to congregate at the edge of the Hudson Bay) so we were surprised to meet this lone male bear stalking the rocky flats.  On the distant horizon is the Churchill Northern Studies Centre.

Male polar bear on rocky tundra

Polar bears are surprisingly well camouflaged in the summer.  Case in point: we spotted several “polar rocks” in the distance before finding an actual polar bear.

Jim - Frontiers North tundra buggy guide

Jim Baldwin, our guide on the tundra, was a pleasure to work with.  His knowledge of the land and animals was invaluable.

Polar bear portrait in summer

Portrait of a polar bear in summer.

Caribou on the coast of the Hudson Bay

Near the coast of the Hudson Bay, a lone boreal caribou feeds.  This photo is not the greatest, but it’s worth sharing because this scene is quite a rarity.  The previous year Jim, our guide, had seen just one caribou in the region…and that was at the tree line where expected, not near the ocean itself.

Sandpipers feed in shallow pools of water on the tundra

Sandpipers feed in shallow pools of water on the tundra.

Shorebirds in shallow pools of water on the tundra

As the sun gets lower in the sky the vibrant colors of the tundra behind these shorebirds become more radiant.

Backlit boreal caribou on tundra

Against all odds we chanced upon a second boreal caribou on the tundra…

Boreal caribou and calf

…in fact two – a mother and her calf!

Tiffany Spence - Sea North Tours - Zodiac guide

Exploring on land is a difficult ordeal on the soft tundra.  In good weather, moving through the waterways is a great alternative for accessing the wilderness.  Here, our guide Tiffany Spence captains a small inflatable Zodiac and takes us out of the port into the Churchill River.

Beluga mother and calf in the Churchill River estuary

This particular location is a special place at this time of year; thousands of beluga whales gather here to calf in the safety of the Churchill River estuary.  The darker whales are the young ones and the white whales are the adults.  The calves keep very close to their mother as they swim; their movements synchronized to a mere beat behind their parents’.

Beluga whales near people in Zodiac

It’s an incredible experience getting up close and personal with these friendly whales.

Playful beluga whale

Belugas are incredibly curious and playful animals.  They love to play in the bubbles from the motor.  Every time we stopped to drop a hydrophone below the surface we quickly found ourselves drifting alone again, listening to their animated chatter fade into the distance.

Beluga whale swimming out of the Churchill River into the Hudson Bay

Leaving the shelter of the Churchill River we motored out into the heavy swell of the Hudson Bay to move along the coast in search of polar bears.

Polar bear peeking over the bedrock

Lo and behold, we found a polar bear peeking over the bedrock at us just a little ways up the northwest coast at Button Bay.

Polar bears play fighting

However, he was not alone.  At this time of year, bears tend to conserve their energy, so it was another rarity to watch these two spar on the shore.

Polar bears on shore of Hudson Bay

Polar bears on the shore of the Hudson Bay in summer.

Polar bear wading into the Hudson Bay

A polar bear wades into the Hudson Bay…never taking his eyes off our little inflatable boat bobbing in the distance.

Distant belugas circle below the surface of the Hudson Bay

Distant belugas circle below the surface of the Hudson Bay.

The rugged coastline of the town of Churchill

The rugged coastline of the town of Churchill.

Churchill weather station

The town of Churchill weather station:
“If the rock is wet, it’s raining.  If the rock is swaying, it’s windy.  If the rock is hot, it’s sunny.  If the rock is cool, it’s overcast.  If the rock is white, it’s snowing.  If the rock is blue, it’s cold.  If the rock is gone…tornado.  Up to the minute.”

The outskirts of the town of Churchill

The outskirts of the town of Churchill.

A vehicle for every situation and season in Churchill

A vehicle for every situation and season in Churchill.

Children cycling down the quiet streets of Churchill, Manitoba

Children cycle down the quiet streets of the remote northern town.

The Hudson Bay coast at sunset

The Hudson Bay coast at sunset.

Beautiful northern sunset

Silhouetted against a beautiful northern sunset.  There’s something that draws us to the water wherever we find ourselves at sunset, even this far north.

Lone pine tree

A lone pine.  Harsh weather conditions make for a beautifully minimalist landscape.

The tundra's living carpet

If you take the time to look closely, the tundra’s carpet is full of life; the harsh conditions mean it exists on a more miniature scale.

Torn metal from Miss Piggy frames car rental

Torn metal from wreckage frames our more modern transportation.  With the town of Churchill as the heart of this region, only a few paved arteries spread out from it, which quickly dwindle to makeshift roads before disappearing altogether. You can easily drive the entirety of this network of roads in a day.

Miss Piggy plane wreckage

The wreckage itself.  Miss Piggy, the nickname for this downed plane, is a C-46 aircraft that crashed on November 13th, 1979.  She was flying a cargo of 1 ski-doo and many cases of pop from Churchill to Chesterfield Inlet when the left engine lost oil pressure.

Windblown trees dot the Hudson Bay coast

Windblown trees dot the Hudson Bay coast.

Freshwater pools in the bedrock along the edge of the Hudson Bay

Freshwater pools reflect a grey sky amongst the bedrock edge of the Hudson Bay.

SS Ithaca shipwreck resting place

In the distance the SS Ithaca lies in its final resting place 750 meters off the coast.  This shipwreck dates back to 1960 when it encountered a storm on its way back north to Rankin Inlet to transport nickel from its mine.  The captain turned back for the shelter of Churchill’s port but the weather was so bad he decided to drop anchor and try to wait out the weather.  The anchor chain broke, the rudder was beaten off, and with no control left she was pushed to where she still sits today.

Bedrock at the edge of the Hudson Bay

Beautiful weathered bedrock.

Walking through long coastal grass

The north can be a difficult place to travel because of the real dangers that apex predators pose here.  You can’t simply wander around on foot and really shouldn’t venture far from your vehicle unless you are carrying a gun (and know how to use it).  Please note this if you end up visiting yourself; the photos don’t emphasize it but we travelled with guides, guns, and vehicles to access this wilderness safely.  You never know when your next step might be right next to a dozing polar bear.

A bald eagle takes off

A bald eagle takes off from its hunting perch…

Aerial view of the tundra

…and so do we as we head back south.  This is an aerial view of the tundra further inland; virtually untouched by human development.

Aerial view of cultivated farm fields

Further south the wilderness gives way to cultivated farm fields and an ever-increasing population.  Though human effect is not directly seen up north in the way that we can see the worked land here, what goes on down here is changing the global climate and will have serious effects on the fragile northern ecosystems going forward.