My favorite season in Churchill is not polar bear season. No…Winter would not be my next choice….although hailing from New England I do love the cold. Well, that’s not really “cold” compared to the Arctic. Summer in Churchill is unmatched anywhere in the world I have traveled to. Alaska is very close. I think the beauty is enhanced for me by spending close to 15 years of alternating seasons….both Fall polar bear season and Summer beluga whale season... within the same year. Experiencing different seasons bonds one with the land, water and people quite differently then only seeing the place during one particular time of year. If I had to choose a season…Summer would be the one!
Churchill Summer is spectacular. Photo-Steve Selden.
Over the years I passed up many opportunities to guide polar bear trips full time out on the tundra of the Churchill Wildlife Management Area for Natural Habitat Adventures … instead staying with the Churchill logistical team organizing everything from dog sled trips to personal photography tours to escorting hospital visits for over a thousand travelers per season. I am more of an outdoor naturalist and the Summer trips encompass more in terms of piecing together a complete ecosystem. Life becomes so intertwined out of necessity as the season to reproduce and gather energy is extremely short. October and November in Churchill are the busiest tourist months of the year as everyone wants to experience the realm of the polar bear. Get in, see a polar bear, get out is the mantra for many tourists yet they are missing a myriad of life buried beneath the snow and ice. That’s why many travelers return….in Summer.
Beluga whale in the Churchill River. Photo-Steve Selden
Just as polar bears are the star everyone comes to see in the Fall, beluga whales are the main focus of the Summer season. However, it’s a different feel in the Summer. Since so much time is spent hiking on the land, much more is taken in. Multifarious flowers..including various orchids..bird life, ground animals, geological formations and fossils, Boreal forest and of course the marine environment provides an outdoor classroom for all ages with diverse interests. Whales are the headliner…though the journey around the land between time out on the water reveals the true secrets of life in the Arctic. An incredible web of life continually links the present with the past in this timeless landscape. Researchers in numerous fields return to Churchill annually and set up at the Churchill Northern Studies Center to learn more about how every living and even non-living thing relies on another.
Spring and Summer birding is unmatched! Photo-Steve Selden
I’ve often said that the biggest kept secret about Churchill is the Summer season. I feel as if I’ve only scratched the surface of the tundra so to speak. The incredible array of life and history observed on a trip to Churchill in the summer will peak the interest of anyone. Twelve years or more have left me yearning to learn more.
With the Churchill beluga whale season approaching I thought I’d offer up some inspiring photo’s from recent years guiding these amazing trips up in the North. Over twelve years of guiding Summer trips for Natural Habitat Adventures have produced a few stellar shots. Out on the water the action can be sublime. I would always warn travelers not to “focus” on trying to get that amazing shot, rather become part of the experience. Often the will to get the perfect shot creates a void between one and the actual wildlife encounter. In these days of technological immersion, the gap between the actual experience and seeing life through a camera is blurred. However, without hesitation, I know the real thing offers much more inspiration then looking through a lens. Tell that to an avid photographer. Certain excursions can be frustrating to photophiles …the power is somewhat lost from the side of an Italian -made zodiac. Either way, the experience with these incredible animals is transient and everlasting.
This rare shot captures a beluga head above water. Photo-Steve Selden
This is the most common photo taken of beluga whales in the waters around Churchill, MB. Photo-Steve Selden.
Calf in mother's slipstream in Churchill River. The calves are darker gray color. Photo-Steve Selden.
Near the mouth of the Churchill River the water is crystal clear and belugas are quite visible under water. Photo-Steve Selden.
A pod of male beluga whales near the mouth of the Churchill River. Photo-Steve Selden.
Churchill has been buried in a thick, dense fog for some days last this past week. Spring in this area tends to bring this affect as the melting ice becomes open swaths of water in the Hudson Bay. Fresh -water rivers such as the Churchill, Knife and Nelson among others flow into the bay as their earlier break-up signals the onset of Spring. This fresh water facilitates a speedier melting time -frame as the warmer water from the South mixes with the frigid salt water. All of these varied water temperatures blending with warming and cooling air temperatures create air moisture leading to increased fog. If your from the coast you really can love this time of year. If your from the coast and work with boats, not so much.
Foggy Churchill River. Photo-Steve Selden
Yesterday, June 11th, the wind-chill temperature was -7 C with a 40% chance of snow flurries. The unpredictable weather is another charm of the North. I remember guiding a group of Summer travelers and we were on Kelsey Blvd. watching the Canada day parade (July 1) some years back. The snow started lightly but then turned into an all out storm. The makeshift floats, polar rovers and fire engines sped up and disappeared fairly quickly into the white -out at the East end of town. We all scurried to Gypsy’s for hot toddy’s. Snow in July…..that’s Churchill.
While the fog is clearing, beluga whales begin to appear in the Hudson Bay and the bird population is building. Soon the Churchill River will be full with beluga’s chasing capelin and gulls and jaegers above picking off fish pushed close to the surface by hungry pods of whales. The weather will still be inconsistent but there will be glorious days in between that will allow the Arctic to unveil its’ magnificent beauty.
Beluga whale in the Churchill River. Photo-Steve Selden
Out on the water fog can be both exhilarating and heart – wrenching. Out on the zodiac boats whale – viewing, the fog transports one to another world. Even though the massive grain port structure might be within sight, the fog dilutes the place and moments with the belugas into a memory of a lifetime. It’s only fitting to share this space in time with intelligence under the frigid waters of the Arctic. Beluga’s belong in this environment. After sharing so many years with these animals in the wild, the thought of even one confined to an aquarium is numbing.
There have also been instances when the fog has created sense of doubt and even fear. Early in the Spring the ice can clog the river channels like an ever changing jig -saw puzzle. shallow areas can creep up on you and the weather can turn on a dime. One minute of doubt and indecision can create a tense scenario in the mind and then subsequent decisions are quite important. Water creates a sense of beauty and horror all within the same thought sequence. Respect is the common thread whenever a boat is under foot. The Churchill River presents one feel while the Hudson Bay places a magnifying glass over the situation. These dynamics however go hand in hand with the experience…leaving a traveler with a sense of awe for the Arctic environment.