I’m now at home in southern Michigan, roasting in 80-90˚F heat, and lamenting that I could not still be in the (slightly) cooler Churchill, Manitoba. Compared to the spindly spruces and ground-hugging shrubs of Churchill, the towering, green foliage of temperate broadleaf forests in the south is almost claustrophobic and oppressive. Every time I look out the window, the immense amount of green refracted through the glass makes me think I’m looking at the calm before a severe storm, but I always catch an obstructed glimpse of clear blue skies and a sweltering sun, and am left to reminisce about the openness I have become accustomed to over the last months.
The subarctic North is incomparable country. The land is flat to the horizon, and seemingly barren. The skies are vast and dynamic, with afternoon storms building under the soft light of prolonged twilight. The wildlife is keen and curious. Arctic Foxes and Polar Bears both come close to investigate a passerby (hopefully from the safety of a vehicle for the latter), and outlandishly large Arctic Hares feed calmly at an arm’s length, plucking the buds off Dryas flowers with outstretched lips and munching sublimely, but always watching with panoramic eyes; ptarmigan coolly (and rather stupidly) patrol the tundra nearby, with a slow gait and humorous clucking, and only seem alarmed when herding a new clutch of chicks.
The plants are very different from those of the south as well. There are patches of dense and lush boreal forest, carpeted with a generous layer of soft lichens and mosses, creeping all the way up the craggy trunks of the predominant White Spruce, over an understory of Ledum groenlandicum and decumbens, Labrador Teas with strong, fresh scents. Then there are the sedge bogs and fens, where as you tread across a spongy substrate of moss and peat laid over permafrost, you can kneel to find more than half a dozen species of sedge in one square yard, among a plethora of other berries, wildflowers and insects. The composition and distribution of these plant communities, then, is foreign to a southerner, but even watching these plants blow in the wind gives one the impression of a remote and austere land. Instead of the therapeutic swaying of branches and rustling of leaves, the dwarf shrubs and short wildflowers twitch in these winds, yielding no such sign of warmth. Staring at the windswept tundra and the twitching of hardened plants, you feel as if you are watching a time lapse, as if all is passing in fast forward—maybe a fitting impression for the abbreviated passage of the fleeting arctic summer.
So much vibrant life is densely spread over the course of a few short summer months. The birds arrived en masse throughout May—huge flocks of snow geese filled the cold skies and shorebirds passed through the bogs and mudflats along the Churchill River, all in a frenzy to reach their breeding grounds. Throughout June, the fen was alive with the outlandish songs of shorebirds establishing territories, as nests were built and eggs were laid. With rising temperatures, plants and insects alike bloomed, and the multitude of eggs hatched in accordance, so as to take full advantage of the plethora. Likewise, the predators rose to face a similar plethora of young, flightless birds on gangly, weak legs.
Red Fox kits
Some birds survived their first month, however, and then it was time they left for the southern hemisphere. Come the end of July, the fen had cleared so thoroughly it was eerie. The sounds of so many birds we had grown accustomed to were already silenced; the birds which had arrived later than breeders in the south had also left sooner than those of more temperate climes. Many of them are now well on their way south to the wintering grounds, some (like the Godwits) travelling to the southernmost outposts of the western hemisphere, in Tierra del Fuego. There is no rest for these birds it seems; they are carried across the globe by the play of seasons, by the Earth’s orbit, as naturally and thoughtlessly as...wait for it...dust in the wind.