The night of the 25th was the perfect close to a summer of work in Churchill. For the first time, we had a wonderful, mosquito-free bonfire on the rocks outside the Studies Centre. Of course, it just so happened that it was midnight, and there was a full moon in the southeast and a blue glow lingering on the western horizon, with silhouettes of spruces still plainly visible; there also just happened to be a Pacific Loon uttering its ethereal wails from some unknown pond in the night. It made for an idyllic Churchill midnight, but as we were discussing, the Northern Lights that I had missed by about a week at the beginning of the summer would have to wait until next year. I finally decided I should head to bed, since I still had to get up to band a late Godwit nest the following morning. As I was walking in, I looked back at the moon to see what I thought was a slight greenish haze in the northern sky. Since we were just talking about the Aurora, I assumed I was imagining it- after all, it was very faint. Nevertheless, I started walking back to the fire pit to point it out and see if I was the only one seeing it, but on my way over, they quickly got much brighter. Now there was no doubt- this was finally my Aurora Borealis! We enjoyed the show for another 20 minutes or so, watching the silky green sheets of light slowly wave, seeming to betray some intangible wind. I was giddy for hours, and could hardly get to sleep.
We had also recently taken a Beluga whale watching tour of the Hudson Bay and Churchill River mouth, which yielded excellent views of these enigmatic and intelligent creatures of the Northern seas. Their rubbery, wrinkly white skin appears so other-worldly when they breach, affording us brief glimpses of their bulbous foreheads and arched backs before they slipped back under the surface with as little warning as when they appeared. The guide and driver dropped a hydrophone off the stern, attached to speakers on the boat, which allowed us to listen to the pod's raucous collection of grunts and wails- a cacophony that seemed quite unfitting, given their docile and precocious appearance.
I realized that I haven't written anything about the Polar Bears, and while I'm on the topic of Churchill's non-bird wonders, I suppose they would be a good thing to mention as well. They came in force at the beginning of July, and although we were told to be cautious since they can appear anywhere at anytime of year, they really became almost a given environmental factor after July 5th or so. We encountered our first bear crossing Launch Road on the way back to the Studies Centre; it was a mother with two adorable cubs, whose round shoulders were less than two feet high. The mother, however, standing a good bit higher than her cubs, was very wary of our truck stopped 75 meters down the road from her; once they had crossed the road and were walking through the willows, we pulled level, and the mother then raised her head above the willows, glaring at us and waving her head about. Let's just say it was a good thing we were a truck and not four delicious meals threatening her babies. After seeing how easily three bears could disappear into a small patch of shrubby willows, let alone one, I was, shall we say, much more cautious when working in the field, and much slower to assume I wasn't being sized up for a meal at any given moment. Luckily, we never had any real encounters while working in the field; there were times when we would see a bear from a great distance, or before we got out of the car, that would force us to work somewhere else, but never did we have to shoot off any cracker shells. But from a safe vantage point, the bears awed us time and again this year, our record being six in one day on an evening drive along the coast.
Walking along the coast requires vigilance
They're big, and truly impressive; more so, I am confident, than any living thing I've seen in the wild yet. I'll update you on that ranking when I see my first Blue Whale.