There are two important rules to follow while staying at Nester One: always lock the metal doors and never leave without a shotgun.
The prospect of a close encounter with a polar bear is enough to make you heed these rules, should you be lucky enough to attend this seasonal research camp inside a national park that only sees about 225 visitors a year. total.
Nester One, a Parks Canada gated compound with dormitories for about 20 people, is the largest human habitation of any kind within Wapusk National Park, an ecologically and culturally sensitive stretch of northern Manitoba along the coast of the Hudson Bay.
At 11,475 square kilometres, Wapusk is the eighth largest national park in Canada and the largest contained entirely within a province. Manitoba’s best known and most easily visited Riding Mountain National Park is about a quarter the size of Wapusk.
In short, the vast majority of Canadians cannot visit Wapusk. But that is not the point.
Wapusk was originally created to protect winter refuge areas for polar bears. It also encompasses summer calving grounds for caribou and the timber wolves that follow them, vast tracts of wetlands that provide habitat for waterfowl, and ancient raised beach ridges that served as trails for the Dene, Cree, and Inuit for millennia.
However, the park’s remote location, the difficulty of traversing its terrain, and the threat posed by volatile weather, as well as polar bears, mean that Manitoba’s largest national park is also one you’ll likely never see firsthand.
“It’s a real privilege to be able to come to Wapusk, because very few people get boots on land. A small proportion fly in a helicopter and take some pictures of a bear or caribou, but we are a select few,” said Ryan Brook, life ecologist. from the University of Saskatchewan and one of the world’s leading experts on the flora and fauna of Wapusk.
“We’re lucky to be out here with our research permit to collect data, but also just to spend time on this land here at Camp Nester One. This will be my 412th night sleeping in this camp and this is my second home and it’s incredible.”
When tourists arrive in Churchill, about 25 miles west of Wapusk, they sometimes walk into Parks Canada’s visitor center and ask how far it is to the park or if they can stay at the campsite.
“Oh, gosh, I’ve been asked, ‘Where do we keep the bears?’ It’s funny,” said Russell Turner, an ecosystem scientist in his fourth year at Parks Canada.
That turns into sad and sometimes confused faces when tourists learn that Wapusk is banned, both for logistical and security reasons.
“It’s very different from the national parks in the south. You can’t go into the park on your own,” Turner said. “You don’t want to camp out on the tundra and have a polar bear in your camp, so no camps.”
The only infrastructure within Wapusk is a quartet of research fields. Nester One is the largest and was originally created to study goose populations. A smaller camp to the west called Nestor Two (American scientists chose the aberrant spelling) has not been used since 2019. To the south are smaller research camps at the Broad River and Owl River, both of which flow east through the park to Hudson Bay.
The only people allowed to visit these field stations are Parks Canada staff, field scientists and their students, and indigenous elders like Lizette Denchezhe, a Canadian ranger who spent a week at Nester One earlier this year. month to provide traditional knowledge and support to students in the north. Manitoba and a high school in Baltimore.
“My people have been here for thousands and thousands of years,” said Denechezhe, a member of the Denesuline First Nation of the Northlands on Dahlu T’ua, also known as Lac Brochet.
On the morning that Denchezhe was due to leave, a caribou was wandering along a ridge of the beach just 50 meters from the camp. He took his long gun and harvested the ungulates, giving away some of the meat to his students and taking the skin back to his community in the far west.
“The caribou was a blessing,” he said, explaining that he doesn’t chase animals. “That caribou has to come to you. You don’t just go hunting it. You just wait patiently.
“Then when it gets closer and closer to you and that animal is very patient with you, then you take that picture.”
The only other place in Wapusk that humans can visit also allows tourists to take a photo, albeit of a different kind. Operating out of a former naval base at the western end of the park, Wat’chee Lodge offers wildlife photographers the opportunity to observe polar bears and their cubs for several weeks in late February and early March.
That trip can cost photographers tens of thousands of dollars, if they visit from another country and buy it through a travel company.
If Parks Canada ever decides to allow tourists to visit the park, the cost of the visit will be a consideration.
“It’s unbelievably expensive. We all arrive by helicopter and the bill at the end of the day will be over $10,000,” said Brook of the University of Saskatchewan, referring to himself, a fellow instructor and a group of 19 students.
“So you’re not only concerned about access, but also about privilege. I’d hate to see this only accessible to the very rich.”
Brook students visited the park as part of a $1,800 two-week summer course that also included stays in and around Churchill.
Jocelyn Gorniak, a course participant, said she had no words to describe the experience.
“It’s absolutely amazing. I never thought I’d ever get here. Every step you take is awesome,” he said during a 15-kilometer hike through the park that traversed some of the ancient beach ridges that used to form the Hudson Bay shoreline. .
Most of the park is made up of wetlands, ranging from soggy swamps patrolled by northern harriers to large ponds frequented by tundra swans, sandhill cranes, Pacific loons, and arctic terns.
The beach ridges are easier to traverse. In a process known as isostatic rebound (a rebound effect following the retreat of heavy glaciers around 7,000 years ago), Wapusk National Park is rising at a rate of about one meter every century. It’s easy to find purple fragments of mussel shells that used to lie below the surface of the bay.
The raised ridges of the beach, which tend to run north-south through the park, serve as migration routes for the Cape Churchill caribou herd, which numbers between 1,000 and 3,000 animals.
Grassy knolls on some of the ridges give away the location of arctic fox dens. The larger earth mounds suggest the work of indigenous people, who moved earth on the ridges and used flint to create tools.
The only modern signs of humans you’re likely to find in the park are the remains of rockets fired from a now-inactive firing range east of Churchill.
The park is also the only place in the world where polar bears, grizzlies and black bears have been known to interact.
All of this is of immense interest to tourists, if only there was a way to keep them safe and to keep the park’s natural and cultural treasures intact.
“Access to this park is a big question, and my immediate selfish response is ‘Keep everyone out. We’ll get it ourselves.’ But of course, that’s not fair or realistic,” Brook said.
“I think that access to some scientists and some visitors is appropriate and can be done safely. We have shown that over many, many years that I have brought [student] groups. We can do it well on a limited scale, but I think the value of leaving it in this pristine wilderness is worth an infinite amount of money.”