Being Beluga

Exploring Wapusk National Park

May 1, 2000
Outside Magazine

I'm here for a week to explore Churchill without its famous blanket of white. I get a good start the morning after I arrive, when I hitch a helicopter ride to Wapusk National Park, 35 miles southeast of town. Wapusk—nearly 4,500 square miles—is one of North America's wildest places. From my hovering perch, I can see where the treeless tundra morphs into taiga—a thin boreal forest of stunted conifers, muskeg, ponds, and rivers. In Wapusk you could see an Arctic fox and a red fox, a ptarmigan and a spruce grouse, a caribou and a wolf, a polar bear and even the odd grizzly—all in one day.
But in the three and a half years since its founding, only a handful of people have visited. The reason? Wapusk (which means "white bear" in Cree) may be the most concentrated polar bear denning area anywhere; on average, one in three overnight visitors—of only about 200 per year—has an aggressive encounter. (A future general park plan, tentatively slated for summer 2001, could increase the number of outfitted trips to the park.)

So you might think twice about camping here, but provided you plan your trip carefully—namely, with the guidance of the park's chief warden, Doug Clark—Wapusk is ripe for adventure. In early June, when the bears are still out on iced-over Hudson Bay, you can canoe the Class II-III, spruce-and-tamarack-fringed Owl River, where you're likely to see kingfishers, wolverines, moose, and in its easternmost reaches, the occasional harbor seal. Or if you heli-hike the coastline, according to Clark, "caribou will walk right alongside you because they've never seen a human."
I certainly didn't see anyone when I was there.