Churchill Summer is for the birds…and whales ..and …bears?

“We just arrived in Churchill today and from shore saw a beluga festival out near the edge of the bay along with Herring and Bonaparte gulls flying overhead indicating a feeding frenzy!” reported Sue Zajac this past week with her first Natural Habitat Arctic Summer group. Up North for another season of ever surprising wildlife encounters, Sue finds a way to uncover all the natural wonders this unique region has to offer. Assisted by local resident/guide Rhonda Reid, the pair have been scouring the tundra and Arctic waters to insure travelers leave no “Tern unstoned”…uh..rather “stone unturned. The former would not be  good…those poor little guys have to fly a long way to get their capelin.

In the ponds adjacent to the grain silos the group viewed two -week old herring gull hatchlings nesting on a rock protected by surrounding water, as well as another pair of fledglings nearby.  Lesser yellow legs and a female lesser scaup with seven chicks, short-billed dowitcher, red-necked phalarope and attacking Arctic terns suggesting a nest. A molting male greater scaup rounded out the birding extravaganza. The weather was windy and warm with a hint of rain. A background of grain dust filled the air as grain cars were unloaded to fill the towering elevators guarding the Churchill river.  No grain container ships in port or on the horizon yet though a small barge left port, escorted by a tugboat. All eyes will be on the grain port this August through November to see how the lack of a grain commission affects the supply and demand of this inland seaport.

As Summer in the north progresses, wildflowers come and go like the tide. Fireweed, an everlasting sentinel, lines secluded dirt roads all throughout Churchill, Arctic avens, the initial sign of Spring have now mostly gone to seed as have many of the willows,  hedysarum or Mackenzi sweet vetch, and purple Indian paintbrush color the tundra with shades of purple and red.
 Hedysarum or Mackenzi sweet vetch…one of Churchill’s prize wildflowers.
Arrival in Churchill began with a visit down to the shore of the Hudson Bay near the inukshuk behind the town complex. After a long train excursion from Winnipeg, the travelers were content with settling into the northern pace and feeling the ground. The serenity of the Hudson Bay does this better than any other place.
Walking the beach of the Hudson Bay.

Guide Sue and travelers walked the beach on the Hudson Bay.Photo Rhonda Reid

Day one in Churchill was an adventure out on the water aboard the Sea North 2, a 30 passenger viewing craft made to go around ice flows. The sea north gives people a view above the water and has a front and rear deck for photography. Although one cannot getas close to the beluga’s as you would aboard the zodiacs, this is made for getting clear more interesting photos. The boat is also used to transport the groups across river to fort Prince of Wales. The group made the trip and luckily was prepared with bug nets as the mosquitos were out in full force. when you experience a remote environment you have to take the good with the bad. This is not a zoo where the climate can be made to order. A taste of the real thing , even when annoying, can make the experience everlasting.

Sea North 2 in the Churchill River.

Sea North 2 on the Churchill River looking for belugas. Photo Rhonda Reid.

The next day the wind forced zodiacs to stay at the dock so the morning was spent out near goose Creek with Bill Calnan birding and story telling. Always different and interesting. After a visit to the iconic Eskimo museum the group just went with the flow out on the land exploring along the coast near Miss Piggy (an old plane wreck on the rocks above the coastal road)  and the fossil beach below it at low tide. These spontaneous days in Churchill always seem to lead into something eventful. Serendipitous to say the least. Back on the outside of town, Conservation officers were dealing with a bear that had just come out of the water and was unwilling to be persuaded back in and along the coast. They chased the sub-adult male along the rocks all the way from the complex to Cape Merry …with cracker shells as a motivational tool. Meanwhile the group followed at a safe distance watching every move…amazing luck with the timing!

Relections of Churchill Summer

Here are some more shots from the amazing Summer adventures in Churchill. Reflecting back on some fantastic memories caught in these photo’s brings expectations for this season. Every Summer in the North is different. Weather can change instantaneously and create unique situations on the land and water. The beluga’s are omnipresent and display incredible various behavior on any different day.  The only times I have seen a scarcity of whales is when the Inuit hunters appear for a few days a couple of times each season. By treaty law they are able to cull a minimal number of whales. When they are in the area and when they have made a kill, all the whales in the river stay submerged as much as possible. They communicate the danger and fear through their echolocation senses. Otherwise the abundance is incredible and as I stated, the interactions are quite different each time on the water. Consider making the trip to Churchill soon….it’s an amazing experience in nature!

On the Churchill River.

Calm afternoon on the Churchill River. Photo Steve Selden.


Churchill beluga whale.

Curious male beluga near zodiac. Photo Steve Selden.


Beluga's submersible bubble.

These beautiful submersion bubbles are formed when the whale dives beneath the surface. Photo Steve Selden


Beluga emerging from the water.

An encore of my favorite shot from Summer. Rare capture of male beluga out of the water. Photo Steve Selden


Beluga sow with calf.

Beluga sows shelter calves in their slipstream. Darker calf stays close until later Summer. photo Steve Selden


Fight oil drilling in the Arctic

This new campaign by Greenpeace just in time for the olympics this month in London will raise a few eyebrows. I think it’s ingenious and a perfect time to redouble efforts in the arduous fight against Arctic oil exploration. The industry will never stop trying to extract oil from the precious pristine landscape of the Arctic. The fight to save the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge lasted years and still is under pressure with heavy dependence on political incumbency. Now other areas are targeted and oil groups are depending on resistance being lowered in these bleak economic times. With gas prices escalated and heightened conflict in the mid-East, people are more apt to give in to pressure to explore new fuel sources…especially in North America. This is time for all responsible individuals to step back from personal economic distress and fight for future generations….preserving the frontier of the North.


Oil lobbyists are banking on persistence. In our information – overloaded world, the tendency to be overwhelmed with “causes” can lead to complacency. As humans, we tend to engage a cause the first time with incredible effort and then less and less in subsequent campaigns. A perfect example of this is the harp seal campaign. In the 80’s the tenacious resistance to the practice of seal-clubbing was so intensely fought that the market dried up. Later on the passion to fight waned and activists moved on to another cause. It’s hard to focus on one campaign these days as we are more aware of numerous hardships in the world.

Churchill polar bear.

Polar bear on polar rover Photo Steve Selden

Granted, the oil issue is infinitely broader in scope. though we need to take that stance in order to preserve the planet. We have made incredible strides in alternative energy in the just the past  two decades..we need to keep going in that direction and not fall back into the old familiar trap of oil…a limited resource. Will we keep using oil until the resource is exhausted or save a supply for emergency situations or future generations? We also do not know the planetary implications of taking all of this resource out of the Earth. I’m all for exploring less planet-exhausting resources! You?

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