Weather and Other Bugbears
During Churchill’s short summer, there is no question that local conditions greatly affect one’s perception of the landscape. The most important of these conditions can be broken down into three variables: weather, flies, and bears. Of these, the first two are always physically present but fluctuate wildly from one extreme to another. The third is rarely visible, but always present in the mind of anyone who is on foot and away from a vehicle. The quality of any given day is largely dependent on the interaction of all three.
The one word that best describes Churchill’s weather is “changeable.” My colleague Ed, a retired meteorologist, delights in saying “if you don’t like the weather here … wait a minute.” Though he sometimes follows this up with “…and it will get worse.”
The perfect field day is about +10 to +15 degrees Celsius, with a steady onshore breeze. We work in cooler weather, of course, but it is not all that comfortable, especially if one is crawling over wet rocks. Hotter weather tends to bring out the bugs. Also, any extreme in one direction tends to be followed by an extreme in the other. I remember one July day when it was a stifling +34 C, very still at midday with the stink of the scum on the shelving rocks becoming most unpleasant. It was so hot that Dave stripped down to underpants and went for a swim in Hudson Bay, using the excuse that he needed to look at an offshore rock outcropping.
The following night, powerful thunderstorms struck. By the next morning the temperature had dropped to +2 and a northeast wind blasting in sleet and rain had broken the telephone link to the outside world. We found ourselves sitting out the weather at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, hearing the storm hammer on the tin roof and watching swirls of mist and water sweep past across the tundra. Outside the window, a boulder, satirically suspended from a telephone-pole tripod as a “wind indicator,” was indeed being blown out sideways by the powerful gale. There was nothing to do but drink coffee, read a book, and perhaps wander occasionally into the lab to see if another slab of stone needed to be strategically placed to hold the window shutters against that frightening wind.
Churchill’s flies come in three main varieties, horseflies, mosquitoes, and blackflies, each of them drawing blood in its own wonderful way. Most southerners think that mosquitoes are likely to be the main northern annoyance, but on the shore you are more often pestered by horseflies, or “bulldogs” as they are called locally in honour of their toughness and persistence. These tabanids appear at mid-morning on any day with a temperature above the low single digits, so that by lunchtime you are usually surrounded by a swarm of 20 or 30 of the blighters, all of them trying to land for long enough to sink their mandibles into you. They are slower and stupider than southern horseflies, but they are also very hard to kill; I have seen a swatted bulldog fall into a tide pool, only to flip itself over and take to the air to resume the assault. Bulldogs “think” that trucks are large animals similar to caribou, and there will often be a swarm of them sitting on the vehicle when we return to it. When the truck begins to move they will follow it in a small black cloud, and if the truck stops or suddenly changes direction they will do a double-take, like bees in a Bugs Bunny cartoon.
Mosquitoes are rarer on the shore, but they can be voracious on still days. Inland, the mosquitoes and blackflies can instantly drive a person to utter distraction. It is impossible to think of anything except escaping the bloodsucking hordes, which is of course impossible to do. And while the mind is thus occupied, it can’t consider developing an understanding of the ancient landscape. Nor can it be wary of bears … and this can be dangerous.
Polar bears are the constant threat to life and limb. Fortunately, we have had no particularly dangerous encounters with bears at Churchill, though we have seen them on many occasions (Dave has had rather closer encounters with them on Akimiski Island, in James Bay). The problem with bears on the Hudson Bay lowlands is that they often aren’t really all that obvious. Given that they are the world’s largest land carnivores, and that the coastal area has few trees taller than I am, this may seem a bizarre statement. But the Churchill landscape is characterized by quartzite, and this sculptured bedrock has a lot of ups and downs. The downs in any patch of quartzite are plenty large enough to hide a gang of adult polar bears, and as we walk across the ups we are constantly on our guard.
When we step off the quartzite into a level vegetated area, we still can’t relax, because bears like to avoid the summer heat by digging down to permafrost between the willows. Even in a relatively open boulder field, I have discovered on two occasions that there is an uncanny resemblance between a big brown boulder and a big dirty polar bear (see photo above). And in the sea, a bear’s head looks little different from a chunk of rock sticking out of the water – you have to watch to see if it is moving. Given that these beasts have no fear of humans and can run 40 kilometres per hour (and there’s no way that I can run 40 km/H across a boulder field!), I prefer to stay close to Ed and his shotgun. Polar bears are beautiful, majestic animals to watch, something I am quite happy to do once I have regained the pickup truck (although now, of course, I am being swarmed by the bulldogs and mosquitoes, which makes wildlife viewing very uncomfortable …).