Churchill National Park


People esteem wildlife in the little town of Churchill on the northernmost edge of Hudson Bay in Manitoba, which is fortunate, since wildlife often outnumber people. Churchill’s 1,100 residents can be outnumbered by visiting polar bears in fall.

Beluga whales and tens of thousands of nesting birds from half a world away arrive in May and June.

Some 1,200 polar bears converge every autumn on this part of the cape to wait hungrily for Hudson Bay to freeze hard enough to hold their weight so they can go out to catch seals. This is usually around Halloween, so parents keep a close guard on their youngsters in “trick-ortreat” costumes. So do police and natural resource officers on “bear patrols” which tranquilize and transport out of town any bears that seem threatening.

Churchill, known as polar bear capital of the world, has the largest concentration anywhere of these largest land carnivores, which can weigh a half-ton, with paws a foot (25 cm) long, capable of killing a 600-pound (270-kg) bearded seal with a single blow.

Arctic fox fur has the highest insulation value of any mammal, useful in treeless arctic tundras where they live in Eurasia, North America, Iceland, and Greenland. Soles of their feet are covered entirely with fur—hence their scientific name, LAGOPUS or “rabbit foot.” Small, rounded ears restrict heat loss. Long, thick, bushy tails reach around them like fur stoles when they curl up to sleep, able to endure temperatures of –70oF (–60oC). No other canid species lives so far north.

Arctic fox fur has the highest insulation value of any mammal, useful in treeless arctic tundras where they live in Eurasia, North America, Iceland, and Greenland. Soles of their feet are covered entirely with fur—hence their scientific name, LAGOPUS or “rabbit foot.” Small, rounded ears restrict heat loss. Long, thick, bushy tails reach around them like fur stoles when they curl up to sleep, able to endure temperatures of –70oF (–60oC). No other canid species lives so far north.

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After freeze-up the land is left to hardy arctic foxes, snowshoe and arctic hares, and willow ptarmigans which molt from off-white and brown summer plumage to snowy winter feathers. Then night can last nearly 24 hours, illumined by some of the brightest northern lights in the world. Only in Norway and Russia does the swirling blue, green, and white aurora borealis get this close, only 25 miles (40 km) from earth.

Equally overwhelming are the great numbers of rare and interesting birds that arrive in spring from all over the western hemisphere, many in striking breeding plumage not seen elsewhere. Over 200 species come, plus more “accidentals.” Some nest here, some continue farther north. Flocks of thousands of Lapland longspurs accompany a flood of waterfowl, shorebirds, Pacific and red-throated loons, golden plovers, Hudsonian godwits, a dozen kind of warblers, hoary redpolls, sometimes rare pink-breasted Ross’ gulls, snowy owls, merlins, and arctic terns, whose migrations can cover 26,000 miles (42,000 km) a year.

By June, up to 3,000 pearly-white beluga whales crowd into the Churchill River estuary to stay for two months in the warmer, fresher water, mating, giving birth, rolling over on sandbars to scratch off old skin. Once they were heavily hunted—now they hang around small boats “whooshing” through blowholes and chirping friendly greetings that sound, through underwater microphones, something like canaries.

Wildflowers carpet the summer tundra—purple rhododendrons, pink alpine azaleas, yellow, pink, and white saxifrage, 14 orchid species, and later, bright blankets of multihued mosses, orange lichens, deep purple bearberries, and dwarf birch, spruce and cranberry.

Churchill is reachable by air or rail, with views from the Winnipeg train of sharp-tailed and spruce grouse, great gray and northern hawk owls, waterfowl, willow ptarmigans, and caribou. Churchill has modern, comfortable motels, also vehicle rentals, tour guides, and outfitters (reserve ahead). High waterproof boots, warm clothing, and rain gear can be useful any time, insect repellent a must in summer.

Much can be seen in the town’s environs, but now just southeast there is also new Wapusk National Park, 4,429 square miles (11,470 km2) of wetland covered by bogs, lakes, and the most extensive mantle of peat in North America, with, inland, one of the world’s largest known polar bear denning sites where females give birth in snow and earthen dens to white cubs every November and December. It is, as well, critical staging habitat for hundreds of thousands of waterfowl and shorebirds and a breeding colony of some 90,000 lesser snow geese. Also there are Ross’ gulls, swans, loons and, among mammals, arctic foxes, lynx, timber wolves, wolverines, black bears, and 3,000 caribou.

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