North to Churchill, Day Eight

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

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

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

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

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

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