Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

To see aurora borealis in all its grandeur, Churchill is the place to be

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CHURCHILL: The polar bear capital might not sound like the greenest place on earth.

For nine months of the year, it's snow-covered. Charcoal boulders tumble down to a frozen Hudson Bay. Ice volcanoes from freeze-dried tides curl like whipped cream. And the colour everywhere is white.

The average daily temperature ranges from -26.7 C in January to 12 C in July.

Yet, this place is the proverbial canary in a coal mine for our planet. In the era of global warming, findings studied here include: a 22-per-cent decline in polar bears since the 1990s; ice that melts faster and freeze earlier every year; and orcas that chase seals into the Arctic.

The elements have always reigned over Hudson Bay, once even triggering a global shift of stunning proportions. It was here Lake Agassiz pushed over an ice dam 8,000 years ago, raising global sea levels a metre, kick-starting farming in northern Europe and spawning an epic flood.

Even in summer now, the electrical grid is vulnerable to fierce subarctic thunderstorms.

Beyond the snow and global warming, it's the skies that rule here -- and what they say about solar winds and other secrets of the universe aren't just manuals for telecommunications and satellites. They are the stuff of art and dreams.

Churchill is like stepping outside time, says Edmonton filmmaker, Kyle Armstrong. "I would encourage anyone who wants to get a taste of what the north is like to go to Churchill," he said.

Armstrong, along with Calgary scientist Tron Trondsen did just that a year ago, producing a short documentary on nature's elemental magic --the northern lights -- set against the decaying glory of Churchill's air and ship wrecks.

Magnetic Reconnection has some of the best footage of the aurora borealis ever captured and the film has been selected for viewing in a number of film festivals.

Beyond the overwhelming landscape, there's a passion in people that evokes nostalgia in visitors.

"The people are great. I grew up in a small town and I felt like I was in Canada again, for the first time in long time," Armstrong said.

There are three seasons here: Polar bear fall, beluga summer and aurora winter.

When the skies rule, they pull scientists, photographers and tourists in like magnets for the ultimate lesson in earth magic.

Churchill's been like that, a laboratory, for decades.

Until the 1970s, American and Canadian scientists and military experts shot off rockets to study the upper atmosphere here.

They built a power-supply blockhouse with concrete walls six feet thick that still stands. They had to.

The scientists misfired so many rockets, they were afraid they'd hit it. As it is hundreds of rockets crashed. They pin the tundra like thumbtacks around the former range.

Once, the scientists even pumped the northern lights with barium to see what colours would light up.

This year, the lights took a decided tourist turn for Churchill, catapulting the remote town of 800 onto the top ten list for romantic getaways on the Lonely Planet website.

Locals chuckled indulgently at the description of a two-day train trip from Winnipeg as the love train.

But couples raised on Asian legends do come here, every winter, drawn to the lights for their power to bestow fertility on would-be parents.

Churchill's location gives the place a front row seat on aurora for 300 days a year. It's subarctic climate makes for clear winter skies.

Best of all, Churchill is literally held in a halo called a circumpolar auroral oval, where the best northern lights in the world can be seen.

Sometimes, even the rarest lights of all: Blood red aurora.

Nights light up with ghostly sheets, glowing green, even pink, across black velvet skies. Whistle them down and they'll dance brighter but they'll snag you away, northern legends say.

Science says the stunning phenomenon is the charged particles from solar flares -- 2013 is a peak year for flares--drawn down to the poles by earth's magnetic fields.

The magnetic field is an undulating rippling shield that sweeps solar wind, and radiation, away. The planet would be charcoal without it.

The Churchill Northern Studies Centre, 23 kilometres east of town, is a popular staging area.

In late February, a Travel Manitoba crew led a weekend tour for writers from Canada, Michigan and Texas to the centre. Some lugged heavy cameras and tripods. We all rode dogsleds at Blue Sky Expeditions, snacked on homemade blueberry bannock and snapped photos of grey jays eating out of human hands. We ate like kings.

I tumbled head first --twice -- into thigh-high snow despite snowshoes, laughing so hard I had to be hoisted upright. Beached beluga must feel like this.

A story on Churchill's history as a celestial observation platform back to the pre-Dorset days 3,500 years ago can't end without one final footnote from the fur trade era:

In 1769, William Wales measured the Transit of Venus here.

He not only became the first European scientist to work in Churchill. Wales set in motion a string of events that would immortalize Churchill and the fur trade, without ever naming either, in the English language.

Wales, you see, helped Hudson Bay Company explorer Samuel Hearne hone navigational skills for his historic trek to the Coppermine River. Decades later when they were seasoned, salty veterans, Wales, by then London prep school headmaster, invited the gnarled old explorer to spin his tales in school.

One of the students was to become a famous poet. By some account, Samuel Taylor Coleridge took Hearne as his model for the cursed narrator in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. And the poem's description of ice that "cracked and growled and roared and howled"? Could well be Hudson Bay at spring break-up.

alexandra.paul@freepress.mb.ca

-- Sources include: Michael Goodyear, CNSC executive director, Churchill Hudson Bay, a Guide to Natural and Cultural Heritage, Blue Sky Expeditions, National Film Board's The Northern Lights.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 16, 2013 ??65520

History

Updated on Saturday, March 16, 2013 at 10:11 AM CDT: adds link, adds fact box, adds photo credit

April 4, 2013 at 10:57 AM: Volunteers stay for free in exchange for six six-hour days.

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