First Sight: Churchill
I first saw the site on one of those fabulously clear long evenings of the short northern summer. We drove the rusty Suburban down the potholed road, between verges clad in purple vetch. After parking beside the cemetery, we waded through soaked sphagnum behind the perimeter fence and up onto the Precambrian quartzite ridge. Among all the memories, what comes through most strongly is the golden quality of that evening; I can’t even recall the clouds of mosquitoes and biting flies, but no doubt they were there too if it was summer in Churchill.
We trooped down through deepening shadows on the north side of the quartzite, constantly nervous, constantly on the lookout for polar bears. Being southern greenhorns, we thought that “this is Churchill – there must be bears everywhere.” Down from the quartzite towards the quiet sea, on the first outliers of the site we could see dark boulders on the shore, with patches of paler rock between them. An interesting outcrop, certainly, but not quite the visceral experience we were anticipating. Continuing a few hundred metres to the east …. now this is the place!
The receding tide is gradually exposing an expansive field of boulders, 300 metres long and in places tens of metres wide. A pale brown dolostone (a rock derived from limestone) is wrapped around the boulders, which sit beneath a scarp of dark grey quartzite. This is an aspect of this site that I still find it difficult to comprehend; it is probably beyond human capacity to really grasp what this place represents. These boulders have sat at the foot of this scarp for more than 440 million years. They were here when this was the edge of a shallow equatorial sea. They were buried under thick layers of sedimentary rock for hundreds of millions of years, during which the sea covered and uncovered the middle of this continent on many occasions, the crustacean-like trilobites left forever, land plants, birds, and mammals appeared on this planet, and the dinosaurs arrived and disappeared. This shoreline we are standing on is much older than the Ice Ages, older than the Rocky Mountains, older than Pangaea.
As we walk over the dolostone, we can see hundreds, no, can it be thousands of fossil corals? These remain where the waves had rolled them between and in front of the boulder field. Here and there the tapered cylindrical shells of cephalopods, top carnivores of that ancient sea, lie in crevices between the boulders. The cold modern sea continues to move lower on the shore, beginning to expose sloping dolostone beds in front of the boulders. As we slowly follow the tide across these beds, we can see fewer and fewer corals until, some metres in front of the boulder field, they disappear completely. Dolostone beds farther out appear to be blandly unfossiliferous at first glance, but as we look more closely we can see that the rock comprises a complex tapestry of ancient burrows.
That evening was a turning point in my life, perhaps as close as I’ve ever come to a religious experience. I had already spent about 15 years studying fossils of this age, but before I visited Churchill I was like one of the blind men with the elephant. I had examined rocks and fossils in many different places around the northern hemisphere, but I was only seeing fragments of the ancient world, drawing conclusions from numerous minute clues. Here on the shore in Churchill I was viewing a whole “place”; I could see the long-extinct beasts where they lay between and in front of the boulders, below the now-rounded scarp that had stood as a steep giant headland in that distant past time.
unless otherwise stated, all images on this site are © The Manitoba Museum; text © Graham Young, 2009