Northward into familiar territory.
The compass always points northward, and like its needle I inexplicably feel a pull in that direction wherever my dusty boots may happen to be. Situated northwards from my home at the top of Manitoba, the town of Churchill sits at the edge of the treeline and on the breezy shores of the Hudson Bay.
Returning is a beautiful thing; the same place at a different time, adding up to a wider perspective. This was my third return to Churchill (here is some field work from visit number one and visit number two), and it is interesting to see that the issues facing the region have shifted considerably over a short period of just eight years. From the local level they echo outward: the death of a critical member of a community of only 700, the burning down of a bakery that served not only fresh delights but also as a gathering place, the closure of both railway and port isolating a northern town that previously had the unique blessing of connectivity. And so too do global influences cascade inward on the town: climate change melting the permafrost making access from the south ever more difficult while also simultaneously opening up summer northern sea routes, self-interested parties looking to stake claims in the opening north, researchers descending on the community in seasonal influx. The region is shifting.
Problems beget solutions, and so things evolve; the discovered process of breaking peat down to soil has allowed greenhouses to be erected in pursuit of food security, the railroad has been purchased and restored by a consortium of local and foreign investors, large ships are arriving at the port that stimulate one aspect of the economy but impact wildlife and therefore the community’s keystone industry of tourism. All this is to say that change is inevitable, and adaptation to the uncertain future is going to be full of tradeoffs.
Everything is linked, but much of it is out of sight and out of mind. The older I get, the more I realize that the most important stories are the ones that will unfold over my entire lifetime. Within a particular moment it is tricky to piece together the unfolding puzzle and, while seeking deeper understanding for oneself is good, sharing these unseen stories is a responsibility of our times. With camera and pencil in hand I step out into the world. With reflection and technology I share my experience with all who will listen. Thank you for listening.
Taiga, tundra, and coast – these three ecosystems collide around the port town of Churchill, creating a special intersection of flora and fauna.
In 2017, Kal Barteski (an artist from Winnipeg) descended upon the town of Churchill with a team of artists gathered from around the world. Blank canvases on worn architecture were brought to life in a tough time, like this mural on the town’s Polar Bear Holding Facility. Check out the documentary Know I’m Here by Handcraft Creative that covers the whole SeaWalls Festival story.
Even Miss Piggy – a plane wreck not too far from the town of Churchill – received its first paint job since being grounded in 1979. Fluffy, late season White Mountain Avens dot the landscape’s foreground as a short summer rolls onward to autumn.
Painted belugas at the abandoned rocket range…
…and the inspiration from which the strokes were brushed. Belugas swim alongside the Port of Churchill, a critical town structure that is grinding back to life for the first time after being shut down in 2016. Several people noted that after the first large ship came into the river estuary the whales disappeared for a full week – it will be interesting to see the impact of noise on these important birthing waters.
Distinctive scratch marks on the backs of belugas hint at the stories they’ve lived.
A baby beluga pokes its dark grey head out of the murky birthing waters that are the Churchill River estuary. As it ages, its colour will shift to white like the other adults in this pod.
Dom Tollit, a researcher who studies the effects of noise pollution on whale populations, films belugas in the Churchill River estuary.
Curious beluga whales approach a boat.
Beluga whales are also known as ‘canaries of the sea’, for they are extremely vocal and make many distinct calls that sound surprisingly birdlike.
Dusk at the oceanside edge of the town.
Even in August it is clear that summer has already passed. It is said by residents that the end of summer is marked when the last flowers drop from the bright fireweed plant, but it is also felt on bare skin when the cool breeze comes in off the Hudson Bay.
Local art hangs from the roof of Churchill’s Town Centre Complex. This huge public building houses the region’s health centre, high school, library, swimming pool, indoor playground, curling rink, theatre, hockey arena, gymnasium, and fitness centre. Needless to say, in a place where the weather is harsh and one always has to be wary of polar bears outside, an indoor space such as this is important for the community.
Traditional figures take form in storytelling tapestries.
Wally Daudrich – the founder and owner of Lazy Bear Lodge and Expeditions – preps a group with boat safety necessities before they head out onto the rough waters of the Hudson Bay.
Even in summer the northern waters are frigid, and so survival suits are necessary for both the comfort and “just in case” scenarios.
Moody weather on the horizon.
A polar bear stands silhouetted on a rocky ridge.
Two young polar bear cubs move playfully along the edge of the bay at dusk. They are approximately eight months old and to their wide eyes everything is still new.
Curious siblings explore along the waters edge…
…and keep cool, as polar bears do.
A sibling bond.
A curious cub.
Mother and cubs.
Polar bears are marine mammals, which means they spend most of their lives on the ice. This family is a picture of good health, but as the sea ice continues to disappear there is a lot of concern that so too will this fragile species.
Looking towards the unknown light on the horizon.
Looking out to sea.
A quiet sandy beach edges onto frigid waters.
The disappearing edge of the treeline.
Crowberries dot a bed of reindeer moss on the tundra floor. While not very flavourful, these plentiful little berries can be a good source of hydration in the summer.
Beluga whales breach along the rocky Hudson Bay coastline.
A mother polar bear waits with her cubs on shore for the ice to freeze over. Since they were born, she has fed them with her own milk. Only when she can get back onto the sea ice can she begin seal hunting and thus replenish her reserves.
Exposed granite is incredibly smooth, scraped by the slow but forceful movement of ancient glaciers. Now that the great mass of ice has melted and is no longer weighing upon them, this bedrock is in fact rising in a process know as isostatic rebound (which amounts to it gaining a little more than one meter of elevation every year). This rock is part of the far-reaching Canadian Shield, and in this specific region it is known as Churchill Quartzite.
A large male polar bear conserves calories on the summer shore.
A flock of Canadian geese rests in the last piece of ocean on their southbound autumn journey. From here on in, it will an overland trek.
Eye contact. Polar bears are apex predators and don’t fear humans at all, but they do keep their eyes (and nose) acutely aware of their surroundings.
A mother bear teaches her cub the skills it will need…
Over a period of about an hour, this mother polar bear and cub repeated a swim and walk cycle several times. Combined with some jumping on rocks mimicry (simulating the movements required to break into a seal den in winter time) it was evident that she was teaching him through drills, and preparing for the hunting season to come.
A sandhill crane blends in amidst the tundra’s colour palette.
Sandhill cranes fly south – a small part of the migratory mass of life that moves through this unique ecosystem’s seasonal landscape.