North to Churchill, Day Eleven

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

July 11, 2018

We are driving back to the Twin Cities today and plan a few stops at places to look for flowers.  The first is Seven Sisters Prairie near Ashby.  The hills rise above the rolling landscape, and we climb the path up the first hill as the temperature climbs toward a high of 90 degrees.  Along the hilltops the prairie wind whips the grasses and flowers, a welcome relief from the hot sun, and the landscape—lake, farm, woods—stretches around us 360 degrees. Along the path that winds over the hilltops we find purple prairie clover, white prairie clover, Canadian milk vetch, stiff goldenrod, thimbleweed, harebell, fleabane, side-oats grama, hairy grama whorled milkweed, lead plant, prairie milkweed, ground cherry, prairie turnip, wild rose, wild bergamot, pale spiked lobelia, hairy false goldenaster, yellow sundrops, and green milkweed.  Bumblebees buzz, and dragonflies flit among the flowers like electric blue darning needles.  We are clearly back in the Minnesota prairie.

Then we lose the path in sumac. Is this it, we wonder.  Or this?  Or this? When we finally make our way through sumac waist-high and higher, down hills, under trees, and alongside a marsh through buckthorn to where we left the car we are both drenched in sweat and decide that perhaps we will head on home after all.  The other places we had planned to stop are well within driving distance of the twin cities, and we will come back another day soon.  We also invent a new word (or at least we think we do): shrubwhack.  Harder than bushwhacking, not as difficult as treewhacking.

As we drive through Alexandria, Minnesota, we spot Cherry Street Books, an independent bookstore, and stop for a quick look.  In the window we see our book Searching for Minnesota Wildflowers.  At our first stop on the way north at Mille Lacs State Park we also saw our book in the hands of a naturalist.  It seems auspicious that our trip is bookended by book sightings—we are already talking about doing some sort of book about Churchill and the sub-arctic wildflowers we’ve seen.

Quietly contemplative—so much to let settle in from the incredible experience we’ve just had—we drive on home.

p.s. We don’t recommend shrubwhacking, but we do recommend the Northern Studies Centre in Churchill, Manitoba.  It really is the experience of a lifetime.

 

North to Churchill, Day Ten

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

July 10, 2018

Our last morning in Churchill, we awake to the endless light and our last views  out the window of sun over tundra and lakes.  We pack the bug shirts that have been essential to the trip, say our good-byes, head for the airport.  Walking across the tarmac to the plane we both tear up.

Our plane takes us nearly 300 miles farther north to Rankin Inlet before heading toward Winnipeg.  Out the plane window as we descend toward Rankin Inlet the water is patterned with patches of floating ice.  Not a tree in sight—we are above the tree line now, the farthest  north either of us has ever been.  During the layover we start to walk to the nearby town (no bear guard needed) but are captivated by a gravelly bit of ground where we can’t stop ourselves from identifying white mountain-avens, northern hedysarum, broad-leaved fireweed, alpine milk-vetch, lacerate dandelion, bog asphodel, cotton-grass, dry-ground cranberry, long-stalked stitchwort, mouse-eared chickweed, dwarf Labrador tea, flame-coloured lousewort, and one flower new to us, a beautiful little ball of tiny pink blossoms which we figure out from our book is thrift. We feel as though we have passed a final in our wildflower class.

I’ve been thinking about this class for ten years.  Learning about the loss of the tundra train to Churchill spurred me to come; we are worried about the future of a town with no access except plane and barge.  And we are so glad we came.  Churchill has changed us in ways we have yet to discover.

On the plane to Winnipeg we make a list of what we are grateful for:
Northern Studies Centre
Our amazing instructor Jackie, who endlessly pointed out flowers and answered our questions.
Our bear guard Evan, who kept us safe
Our program assistants Carrie and Beth
Sunrise
Wildflowers
Rainbow
Whales
Everyone who makes the Centre work for researchers and learners like us
All the people who live and work in Churchill

What a gift.

North to Churchill, Day Nine

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

July 9, 2018

Up so early I can see the sun actually rising, a long line of brilliant orange at the edge of sky, water, trees.  Turning the other direction, I’m surprised by a  streak of double rainbow in the sky.

Today is a winding-down day, the last full day of our class, Into the Wildflowers, at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre.  We visit greenhouses that grow tomatoes and greens here in the north.  We drive past many of the amazing murals of the Seawall Project last year in Churchill, eat lunch in town, visit the Eskimo museum, and take a boat out into the mouth of the Churchill River where beluga whales rise in graceful curves around us in the bay, white adult whales and adolescent gray ones who don’t turn white until they are fully grown.  When the guide drops a hydrophone into the water, we hear the whales calling and singing.  Magical.

We finish at Prince of Wales fort, where the guide lets us veer from the tour to see a rare flower, bluebell, that both the bear guard and our instructor remember from last year.  Even on a winding down day, this is at least the third new-to-us flower we’ve seen, along with Herriot’s sage and seaside lungwort.

In the evening we hear a Metis elder and her daughter talk about their life, culture, and art, then finish the day with a lovely sampling of traditional food–grilled char, bannock, and two kinds of jelly, cranberry, and fireweed.

It is hard to imagine leaving Churchill tomorrow.  We are already scheming a return.
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