North to Churchill, Day Eight

July 8, 2018

Our days have been chock-full of wildflowers, and yet there are still more to see.  Down by the shore we watch three caribou graze on the tidal flat while our guard checks for bears.  Here in the rocks we find still more proof that life takes every foothold or roothold it can find–tiny Greenland primrose and tufted saxifrage appear to grow straight out of the rocks. By the place where the plane called Miss Piggy crashed, we see one rare white flax flower, which only blooms for a day and only in the middle of the day (although our days seem endlessly light, so how does it know?). When we stop to take a picture of the shore and the Krumholtz-effect spruce trees, we see yet another new-to-us flower, broad-leaved fireweed, blooming beautifully in the sand and gravel.

After lunch we head out again down the bouncy road to Twin Lakes, this time to  explore an area where a wildfire burned thirty years ago or more. The land is slowly recovering.  We don’t find the wet bog we are looking for, but a stop at a fen reveals more butterwort, more round-leaf orchids, Lapland rhododendron, and dwarf Labrador-tea among many others. In the last few minutes of the last stop of our last day of full-out wildflower searching, I lip my waders by stepping into water deeper than my boots are high.  Luckily I have only a short time to squelch in my socks before we arrive back at the Centre.

We spend the evening as a group going over the checklist of flowers (we have seen almost every one on the list excepting water plants) and identifying photos.  Churchill has over 500 vascular plants.  In a place where glaciers left scratches on the rocks and we scratch at the bites of persistent insects who found us in spite of our bug shirts, we have barely scratched the surface of what there is to see.

Tomorrow is not a designated wildflower day, but we are sure we will see them no matter where we look in this incredible and amazing place. #sustainthenorth

 

North to Churchill, Day Seven

July 7, 2018

Everything outside our window looks silver this morning—clouds, water, even the sky.  Rain is forecast, but the possibility doesn’t even slow us down.

We are on the edges here of so many things:  the northern boreal forest, the arctic tundra, the freshwater Churchill River, and the salt water of Hudson Bay.  Here some plants are at the northernmost edge of their range and some at their southernmost edge. Spruce trees near the bay have a Krumholtz effect, with  branches growing mostly on the downwind side of the trunk and only a few stunted branches on the side facing the bay.

Today we find flowers at edges.

Even a non-flower stop along the road  to see the barricade across the tundra train tracks and the sign that reads, “Hudson Bay Railway, No Trespassing, Violators will be Prosecuted,” becomes a stop full of wildflowers. Almost as soon as we step out of the van we see northern lady’s-slipper, also called sparrow’s-egg lady’s-slipper, round-leaved orchid and blunt-leaf orchid (we have seen so many orchids we have quit counting them), the seemingly ubiquitous butterwort, and many of the new-to-us flowers that we’ve been seeing since our first day in Churchill.

Along another railroad crossing we find elephant’s-head (a tall purple lousewort whose flowers look as though they have trunks), pink pyrola in bloom, and a lovely little gathering of  blunt-leaf orchid, large- flowered pyrola (sometimes called large-flowered wintergreen), and snow willow.  Our instructor calls us into the woods bordering the tracks, where round-leaved orchids carpet the moss. Here we find northern twayblade–an orchid rare enough that our instructor says she will report it to the Manitoba Conservation Data Center. What a find!

We eat lunch at the edge of the Churchill River where the breeze keeps the ever-present bugs at bay, and the beluga whales rise to breathe in half-moon curves.

Cape Merry, part of the Prince of Wales National Historic Site, is our last visit of the day. Our guide fills us in on natural and cultural history.  We are fascinated by the rocks (which we learn are greywacke), rising in graceful curves with cracks and dips filled with flowers.  This might be one of the most beautiful places we have ever been.

The forecasted rain waits until later in the evening, then crashes over us in a thunderous cloud.  We are safe inside the center, seeing it through windows and the aurora borealis viewing dome, where the edges of the sky meet the water and the land in every direction.

North to Churchill, Day Six

July 6, 2018

We have left dark behind. All night, light leaked around the edges of the room-darkening shade. Last night other students saw a bull moose from their window, but we were already asleep.

As we drive down the road on our morning outing–four students, an instructor, a programming assistant, a visiting artist, and a learning technician who is also our essential bear guard–we see geese with goslings and a ptarmigan. Out in the bay a barge heads toward town; since the tundra train was decommissioned the only two ways supplies reach Churchill are by sea or by air. The barge might be carrying badly needed propane or even a pre-built house (cheaper than buying all the pieces needed to build a house here).  Even though Churchill sits on land, without the train the town and Centre are essentially an island, dependent on what arrives by plane or by barge–and only three barges are scheduled for this year.

Some of the flowers we see through the morning, such as northern hedysarum, test our memories from yesterday, and some are brand-new sightings for us here in the sub-arctic, including alpine arnica, Greenland primrose, grass-of-Parnassus, stemless raspberry,  red-flowered saxifrage, and yellow marsh saxifrage.

After lunch at the Centre, we head out again for the boreal forest and Twin Lakes. Along the bumpy road we wade through boggy water to see buck-bean, and in the deep moss on the other side of the road we find Lapland lousewort, more round-leaved orchids than we’ve ever seen, and two green-flowered bog orchids less than three inches tall. Tucked into the gravel under roadside bushes several blunt-leaf orchids grow.

The road rattles us along to the lakes, where our instructor points out sandwort, the tiny pink flowers of alpine azalea, and the bigger pink blooms of bog laurel along with purple paintbrush and the white blossoms of cloudberry.

The day has been hotter than we expected for Churchill (who knew it would reach 81 degrees Fahrenheit—we packed for cold and rain). We end the day at Twin Lakes by pulling off boots and socks, rolling up pants legs, and wading in the water. On our way back to the Centre we stop to watch three sandhill cranes stalking through the hummocks. A three-orchid day rich in so many flowers we can hardly imagine more, but tomorrow holds the possibility of northern lady’s-slipper and who knows what else?

After dinner we learn more about herbarium preservation and how to use the five-question method of keys to identify flowers, then watch a film by a visiting artist about transporting beluga whales, narrated in French and Russian with English subtitles.  We are here to learn, but the Centre is so much more than educational classes, with people doing all sorts of research in the sub-arctic and artists whose work combines art and environmental education.  Already we are planning how to return to this amazing place.

The immense sky at 8:30 p.m. is still as light as afternoon, but we tumble into our bunks tired, happy, and ready for what tomorrow brings.

p.s.  I have managed to write to write a post without the word tiny in it, but we are constantly amazed by the smallness of so much of what we see.  Everything that lives in this incredibly beautiful but harsh place not only survives but thrives, including the people who live and work here. #sustainthenorth   #wildflowerwomen

 

North to Churchill, Day Five

July 5
5 a.m. We wake up at our hotel in Winnipeg.
6 a.m. We arrive at the airport, ready for our 7:30 departure to Churchill on Calm Air.
9 a.m. We arrive in Churchill after a calm flight on Calm Air (which has lived up to its name) excited for our class on sub-arctic wildflowers at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre.
1 p.m. As soon as lunch is over, we head out for some places alongside the road to look for wildflowers, along with our instructor, one of the learning vacation staff, and our bear guard (who knew there was  such a job, but we’re glad there is, since polar bears are seen in the Churchill area at any time of year).  While we look down for wildflowers, our bear guard looks out and around for any sign of bears.  And we do look down—many of these flowers, even the familiar ones, are amazingly tiny, including teeny bog rosemary and the tiniest round-leaved orchid we have ever seen.  We learn new flowers: velvet bells, purple rattle, flame-colored lousewort, Lapland lousewort, alpine milk-vetch, northern Hedysarum, long-stalked stitchwort, alpine bistort, bog asphodel, blunt-leaf orchid, and white mountain-avens. Along the tracks of the decommissioned tundra train we see huge swaths of artic wintergreen blooming (we know it as large-flowered pyrola). I take notes as fast as I can. Kelly snaps picture after picture.We end the afternoon tired but deliriously happy, filled up with flowers and having met our daily quota of at least one orchid, no matter how small.  Orchids or not, this has been a spectacular wildflower day.Out the window of our room the view stretches across pines, lakes, and boggy places to where the waters of Hudson’s Bay begin.  We are in territory I have dreamed about.And this is only the first day in Churchill.

 

North to Churchill, Day Four

July 4, 2018
When we first decided to drive to Winnipeg to catch the plane (Calm Air, a name we hope is accurate) to Churchill, we thought it would be a great opportunity to spend time in the tallgrass aspen parkland, one of Minnesota’s four biomes, which only covers about 5% of the state. Hayes Lake State Park, where we hiked yesterday, edges on the tallgrass aspen parkland, but now we are in the heart of it, where trees and prairie fight it out.

On the drive to Lake Bronson State Park we pass many showy lady’s-slippers in the roadside ditches, two sandhill cranes (for which tallgrass aspen parkland is prime nesting habitat), and a sign that says “Old Mill State Park 11 miles.” On a whim we take the turn.  Old Mill State Park showcases the history of area pioneers complete with an old mill and settler’s cabin, but it also has a wonderful path that winds along the edge between prairie, aspens, oak trees, and pines.  In the prairie grasses we spot prairie sage, milkweed, wood lilies, harebells, yarrow, daisy fleabane, small blue lobelia, purple prairie clover, and bergamot, all in bloom. Under the shade of the trees we’re surrounded by the susurration of wind in aspen leaves. Out in the prairie once again, we see purple leadplant blooming not far from a line of aspen.

At Lake Bronson State Park we head for a prairie where wind ripples the grass and we see purple prairie clover, prairie rose, bergamot, the bright orange of wood lilies, leadplant, rough blazing star budding, milkweed, and puccoon, along with a startled coyote who disappears into the trees at the edge of the grasses.  Farther down the road we hike a mile and a half into a Scientific and Natural Area (SNA).  Along the way we pass white prairie clover, black-eyed Susan, harebells, Canada anemone, Canada milkvetch, camas just budding out, milkweed, wood lilies, purple prairie clover, and yellow paintbrush.

At last we come to the SNA where we decide that if tallgrass aspen parkland is a battle between prairie and trees, then here the trees are clearly winning out, with aspen and willow saplings filling in the grassy open spaces.  We do see blue eyed grass, yellow star grass, marsh skullcap, swamp milkweed, goldenrod, and, behind the barbed wire of a nearby field, one western prairie fringed orchid shining in the sunlight.

So far on our trip we’ve been seeing at least an orchid a day, and today that one bright bloom, along with the showy lady’s-slippers, makes our quota.  We drive on north to Winnipeg for our 7:30 a.m. flight to the place we’ve been heading toward all along.

Tomorrow, Churchill.

 

North to Churchill, Day Three

July 3, 2018

Today we are grateful for bug shirts, a GPS, and waterproof boots because we’ve decided to head into Pine Creek Peatlands Scientific and Natural Area (SNA). Our directions send us along roads near the Canadian border, then tell us to walk .5 miles to reach the SNA.  They don’t mention that the .5 miles is through thigh-high grasses that hide deep runnels of water.  We slosh on toward the black spruce trees we see in the distance, clutching at horsetail and aspen saplings for balance.  When we reach what looks like higher ground we discover it consists of broken branches, stumps, and sawdust where our footing is even more treacherous. By now we’ve reached the bog forest, but between the dense growth and the hummocky ground we can’t find anywhere to enter under the trees. When we hear the first roll of thunder, we prudently decide to slosh back to the car.  We make it just as rain begins to pellet down.

Even though we never actually entered the bog forest on our attempt to go in we saw showy lady’s-slipper blooming along with Canada anemone, tall rue, swamp milkweed, fireweed, tufted loosestrife, Labrador tea, bunchberry, marsh skullcap, and three-leaved false Solomon’s seal gone to seed.

What did we learn? That when we are headed into an unfamiliar wild place, it might be wise to ask someone who’s already been there about the best way in.  Maybe that best way was indeed our slippery slog, but maybe another way would have led us in among the trees where we might have found the linear leaf sundew we had hoped to see. When we are headed into a wilder place that we have ever been, it never hurts to ask advice from someone who’s already been there. But, even with slogging and squelching, we’re glad we tried.  Next time (and chances are there will be a next time) we might actually make it into the trees.

Hayes Lake State Park is a contrast to Pine Creek Peatlands: roads lead us into and around the park, paths lead us under the tall pines to a bog boardwalk where we find lots of tiny pyrola and one northern bog orchid (we are still trying to figure out which).  The stillness under the pines, the green light after rain, birdsong and butterflies all make us think we have arrived at the beginning of the world.

Along the road to a walk-in campsite we spot several lesser rattlesnake plantain almost in bloom, along with showy lady’s-slipper blooming and lots of pipsissewa. We drive back to our hotel under a sky that stretches in every direction, knowing that native flowers bloom in places both wild and protected, and we are grateful for this chance to see them wherever they grow.

 

 

 

North to Churchill, Day Two

July 2, 2018

Yesterday we were grateful for our bug shirts. Today we’re grateful for bug shirts and Kelly’s new Garmin GPS as we make our way into Iron Springs Bog, a place where it’s easy to get turned around and not know the way out again–something that happened to us once before. We’ve stopped here on our way up to Winnipeg in hopes of seeing orchids, and we’re  not disappointed. Within five minutes Kelly  has spotted a blooming round-leaved orchid and I’ve found an early coral root gone to seed.  A few minutes later we see tall northern bog orchid and northern green orchid, and not long after we find bunches of showy lady’s-slipper. Stemless lady’s-slipper has already gone to seed, and one small heart-leaved twayblade is bravely blooming in the moss. Tiny lesser rattlesnake plantain is almost hidden in the deep sphagnum moss next to even tinier one-sided pyrola.

When we’ve had our fill of orchids (along with gold thread, bog buckbean, and three leaved false Solomon ‘s seal gone to seed), we followed the GPS back to the car. Soon we leave peat lands behind for a wide prairie sky as we look for the western prairie fringed orchids that we’d seen last year in a ditch alongside a wildlife management area. We drive along the edge of the area peering deeply into ditches until finally we jubilantly spot three western prairie fringed orchids. While Kelly takes photos I wander up the other side of the ditch to discover a prairie full of the bright white blossoms of over fifty more orchids.

“When you’re done there you might want to come up here,” I call. “I think you’ll be happy you did.”

She does, and she is. While Kelly takes picture after picture of orchids from bud to full bloom I wander, grinning, among more western fringed prairie orchids than I’ve ever seen in my life.

Finally we head  farther north at the end of a day filled with orchids.