Churchill occupies a transitional zone where the stunted taiga trees (subarctic coniferous forest) meet the tundra mosses. Blanketed with snow in the winter and covered by thousands of bogs and lakes in the summer, this terrain is completely flat until it reaches the sloping Churchill River banks and the ridge around Hudson Bay, whose grey-quartzite boulders have been rubbed smooth by the action of the ice, wind and water.
This environment harbours splendid wildlife, including polar bears, which start to come ashore when the bay’s ice melts in late June. They must then wait for the ice to form again to support their weight before they can start their seal hunt; a polar bear can detect a scent from 32km away and can pick up the presence of seals under a metre of snow and ice. The best months to spot bears are September, October and early November, just before the ice re-forms completely.
In mid-June, as the ice breaks on the Churchill River, the spreading patch of open water attracts schools of white beluga whales. As many as three thousand of these intelligent, inquisitive and vocal mammals spend July and August around the mouth of the river, joining the seals, who arrive in late March for five months. The area around the town is also a major migration route for birds heading north between April and June and returning south in August or early September. Nesting and hatching take place from early June until early July. A couple of hundred species are involved, including gulls, terns, loons, Lapland longspurs, ducks and geese. The star visitor is the rare Ross’s Gull, a native of Siberia, which has nested in Churchill for some years. The Birder’s Guide to Churchill by Bonnie Chartier lists them all and is sold at the Eskimo Museum.
Churchill is also a great place to see the aurora borealis (Northern Lights), whose swirling curtains of blue, green and white are common in the skies between late August and April; occasionally it’s seen year-round but is at its best from January to March. Finally, in spring and autumn the tundra is a colourful sheet of moss, lichens, flowers and miniature shrubs and trees, including dwarf birch, spruce and cranberry.