When the Europeans first came to the Arctic, they were awed by its immensity, appalled by the harshness of its climate, intimidated by the seeming barrenness of the land, and enthralled by the wealth of its wildlife.
The treeline is the border between two of the world’s great ecosystems: the austere taiga, which is primarily coniferous boreal forest, and the immense and treeless tundra to the north. At the treeline, the taiga and tundra meld and merge in erratic intermingling fashion as local conditions of soil, moisture, humidity, elevation, precipitation, and permafrost favor or foil the growth of trees. Islands of tundra occur deep within the boreal forest, and oases of trees cluster in sheltered tundra valleys far north of the treeline.
This line was once the division between human communities. Essentially, the Chipewyan and Cree tribes were a people of the forest, while the Inuit called the tundra and the northern coasts home. Today, the treeline is still a border for many animal species, and this division can often be quite abrupt. The snowshoe hare and its archenemy, the lynx; the red squirrel and its twin foes the marten and fisher; the crossbills, siskins, thrushes, woodpeckers, chickadees, kinglets, and grouse venture to the forest edge, but rarely beyond. To other species such as ptarmigan, musk ox, Arctic fox, and snowy owl, the tundra is home. And a few, like the caribou, commute and spend summer on the tundra and winter within the forest belt. In addition, 10,000 species of insects exist in the boreal forest, while only 500 species live just north of it on the tundra. Unfortunately, the two main insect scourges of the North–black flies and mosquitoes–torment man and beast and fill both the tundra and the taiga with their legions.
Taiga and tundra are completely different realms. Except in the northern portion of the boreal forest where trees are often widely spaced, the taiga can be a gloomy place–the forest encloses, shelters, and protects. Boreal forest covers about half of Canada and Alaska; its dominant conifers are the white and black spruces, balsam fir, and tamarack. This brooding, spired forest becomes increasingly open and park-like in the north. Near the treeline, however, mop-headed black spruces are the predominant species. Because they are shallow-rooted, they can survive even where permafrost–the concrete layer of eternally frozen soil–lies only a few feet beneath the surface. But poorly anchored and pushed by buckling sub-soil ice, the trees lean crazily, and many lie toppled; botanists call it “the drunken forest.”
The wind sighs through the treetops, but beneath the blue-green canopy, the air is calm and cool–wind intensity decreases by 90 to 95 percent only fifty yards from the forest’s edge. In this deeply shaded realm, few plants can prosper; mosses, lichens, some wintergreens, and horsetails cover the forest floor, and young spruces struggle upward towards the life-giving light. Flocks of chickadees and kinglets flit and flutter high in the trees, busily picking insects. Crossbills use their strangely shaped mandibles to open conifer cones; they pry the scales apart and extract the seeds with their scoop-shaped tongues.
In contrast, the tundra is open and spacious, awesome in its immensity, a land as vast and lonely as the sea. In winter, snow lies deep and soft within the sheltered forest belt, and indigenous people are able to travel on snowshoes and with flat-bottomed toboggans. On the tundra, however, winter storms sculpt and compact the snow until it is so hard that the Inuit’s sharp-edged sled runners leave a barely perceptible track, and snow can be cut into blocks and made into an igloo. However, the spring and summer on the tundra offer the visitor a very different experience. Charlotte Seline Bompas (1830-1917), wife of the first Bishop of Selkirk (Yukon), kept a journal that described spring and summer in the far north. She states that:
“The rapidity with which the summer comes on here is quite wonderful. The ice only began to give way on May 13, and at that time, of course, the snow lay thick everywhere and by the end of the month, the small gooseberry bushes were in blossom… Every bush round seems to bear promise of berries, and we walk on a carpet of wild strawberry blossoms. At a quarter to ten in the evening, the sun sinks down almost in the same place where it rises, then follows out a long beautiful twilight. There is really no night even now. And at two in the morning, the dawn begins and birds chirp-one very like a thrush.”
Boreal botany is very unique, and the flora of Churchill is representative of plant life throughout the barren lands. Plants throughout the Arctic survive in a cold, semi-arid climate, with only a three- to four-month growing season. Within these parameters, barren land plants have evolved characteristics unique to their environment in order to survive. For example, to adapt to the long, cold winter period, some plants, such as the wintergreen species, begin photosynthesis and grow underneath the snow in late spring. Given the semi-arid climate, three-toothed saxifrage grows within the cracks of rocks, breaking down the rock material for nutrients.
The short growing season forces barren land plants to sprout up, reproduce, and return to dormancy in a relatively short period of time. For this reason, the summer season exposes new crops of plants approximately every few weeks. One week the landscape will be white with the flowers of mountain avens; later, the landscape will be purple with the bloom of Indian paintbrush.
The flora in Churchill is very diverse. About 400 different native vascular plants occur in the region, not including the abundant lichens, fungi, mosses, and algae. Horsetails, club mosses, ferns, conifers, and flowering plants, as well as grasses, sedges, and rushes abound. Lignonberries, crowberries, dewberries, and cloudberries grow right through a natural mulch of living sphagnum moss and tangle themselves among and around other species, such as minute orchids that grow spikes no taller than three inches. These spikes sprout flowers no larger than a baby’s fingernail that open into forms as complex and colorful as any you find in a florist shop. A miniature rose relative–the white-petaled, yellow-centered Arctic dryas–can be seen on sand dunes near the beach and alongside creeping willow shrubs inland, as well as in boreal forest glades. It, along with the bright reddish-purple legume the locals call “sweet vetch,” is the most commonly found plant in bloom.
In very moist areas, a carnivorous species called Pinguicula vulgaris, or common butterwort, produces a flower that at casual glance looks just like a violet. It catches, and then digests, tiny insects right on its sticky leaves. Summer days can get quite hot, even into the eighties, and boreal botany thrives. Plants such as Arctic dryas flower and set seed or fruit almost as quickly as do desert ephemerals. Insects, voraciously hungry for flesh and blood and nectar, instinctively know that they must cram their entire life cycle into the few months of sunshine between when the snow finally melts away in May or June, and autumn’s first hard frost.
Aurora borealis means “Dawn of the North,” and Churchill sits under one of the heaviest concentrations of aurora borealis activity in the world! The lights may begin quietly with the appearance of a faint glow, and then intensify in size and color until they are dancing across the night sky!
One of the most spectacular sights in the northern hemisphere is the display of Northern Lights in the night sky above Churchill. The aurora borealis is a spectacular natural phenomenon that exhibits systematic motions on a global scale. Solar winds flow across the upper atmosphere 50 to 200 miles above the earth’s surface, and hit molecules of gas that causes them to light up, much like the high-vacuum electrical discharge of a neon sign. The color created depends upon the type of atoms struck by the energetic particles.
Throughout a single night, the auroral display varies in intensity and form in a process known as the “auroral substorm.” Auroral activity varies from year to year as the sun is more or less active, depending on its stage in an 11-year cycle. The colors of the lights range from green and red to purple, with the brightest and most common color being yellow-green. Sometimes a faint glow will remain still in the sky, while at other times, the aurora borealis intensifies in size and color, and dances and twirls in the sky.
For thousands of years, different cultures have tried to explain these northern lights in the sky. The Chinese recorded one of the earliest sightings as a “red cloud spreading all over the sky.” In the fourth century B.C., Aristotle became the first person in Western culture to record information about the lights, referring to them as “burning flames,” “chasms,” and even “ghosts”–apparently an allusion to a very active display. Scottish legend links the lights with supernatural creatures called “Merry Dancers,” who fight in the sky for the favor of a beautiful woman. And the Hudson Bay Inuit see the lights as the magical manifestation of their ancestors’ souls dancing in the sky.
Though we now know the scientific explanation for the lights, they are no less haunting and memorable. Churchill has one of the heaviest concentrations of aurora borealis activity in the world. While October and November are usually very overcast months, on a clear night, the vividly colored displays of this phenomenon may prove to be a highlight of our Polar Bears of Churchill expedition.