Located on the edge of the Arctic in northern Manitoba, Churchill has the feel of a frontier town with the amenities of a remote community. The town, quite literally, comes alive each time a train or plane arrives in.
For wildlife lovers, however, this place is a subarctic Narnia. Polar bears are everywhere here – on signs, artworks, sculptures – and occasionally they wander into town in person too.
Churchill’s diversity of wildlife owes to its unique location – right at the meeting place of three distinct biomes - Hudson Bay lowlands, taiga/boreal, and tundra.
Hudson Bay is the dominant influence on the weather, both on it and around it. The cold ocean makes the lands that border it more like the High Arctic regions that are located so much further north. Its coastal climate creates an ideal environment for polar bears and other iconic wildlife such as beluga whales, black bears, wolves, moose, fox, seabirds, migratory birds, and more.
The bay is shallow – no more than 600 feet deep at any point. The current, combined with the wind constantly break the ocean’s ice cover, making it an excellent habitat for ringed, harbour, and bearded seals, and for the polar bears that depend on them to feed. The coast is abundant with such a wide diversity of species – flora and fauna associated with Southern biomes meet species from the Arctic and marine habitats in a curious mix.
Creatures like the snowshoe hare, the lynx, the red squirrel, the martin, the fisher, moose, black bears, warblers, woodpeckers, and a variety of others venture to the forest’s edge but rarely beyond it. Others such as the Arctic hare, Arctic fox, barren land grizzly, ptarmigan, and snowy owl make the tundra their home. A few, like the caribou, spend their summers on the tundra and winter in the taiga, and marine mammals such as the seal, beluga, and bowhead whales, and of course the polar bear are tied to the water and ice of Hudson Bay.
Creatures of the taiga and tundra
The taiga, or boreal forests, exist as, pretty much, continuous belts of coniferous trees across North America and Eurasia. Islands of tundra occur deep within the boreal forest where trees cluster in sheltered valleys far north of the treeline. Sparse groups of spruce stand up to the weather - often having branches only on the leeward side because of the harsh winds.
In contrast to the taiga, the tundra is wide, open, and spacious – its name coming from the Finnish word ‘tunturia’ meaning the treeless plains. This is the coldest and driest of the biomes, receiving such very tiny amounts of precipitation that it’s somewhat desert-like. The Arctic fox, Arctic hare, and Arctic ground squirrel make this land their year-round home and even some bumblebees that hibernate all through the winter. Waterfowl, shore birds, and caribou avoid the most severe conditions of winter but return to enjoy the flush of life during the summer. Each year, at the end of the very short growing season, they move southward into the boreal forest or beyond but return to the tundra to breed.
The diverse flora of Churchill is typical of plant life throughout the barren lands. Here, live around 400 native and rare plants, including fruitful lignon berries, crowberries, dewberries, and cloudberries. Not to mention an abundance of horsetails, club mosses, ferns, conifers, grasses, sedges, and rushes.
Miniature orchids grow by the moss, forming tiny, yet intricately formed flowers, and the arctic dryad, a relative of the rose, can be found on the sand dunes near the beach with its beautiful white-petaled, yellow-centered flower.
The cold, semi-arid climate makes for a very short growing season. This also forces barren land plants to sprout up, reproduce, and return to dormancy in a relatively short period of time. Each summer season reveals new crops of plants approximately every few weeks - one week the landscape will be white with the flowers of mountain avens, and not long after, it will be purple with the tinge of Indian paintbrush.
Our Canadian Wildlife Adventure features seven days in Churchill and is one of the all-time bucket list trips. Take a first-hand exploration of the wilderness here and immerse yourself in the wonders of its wildlife - swimming with pods of Beluga whales, looking over herds of caribou as they cross the tundra, and of course, have the privilege of seeing the polar bear in its own natural habitat. Get in touch to start your Untold Story.