Talking Travel Destination Canada Elle Andra-Warner Tundra Trekking

Tundra Trekking in Ontario's Sub-Arctic
by Elle Andra-Warner

Polar bears living free and wild in Ontario, Canada’s most populated province?

It’s true. Over a thousand polar bears spend every summer at the Polar Bear Provincial Park, located at the junction of Hudson and James Bay in northern Ontario.

(To find specific locations in this story, visit the Canadian Geographic Online Canadian Atlas.)

The park, covering 24,000 square kilometres, was established primarily to protect the world’s southernmost polar bear population. This harsh, hostile sub-arctic environment is the bear’s summer sanctuary and denning area. It is also one of the world’s last places for a true wilderness adventure.

Last August, when an opportunity came to go tundra-trekking and looking for polar bears in Ontario, it didn’t take me long to pack my bags and be ready. Bill Rogoza, the General Manager of the Northern Ontario Native Tourism Association and Moccasin Trail Tours handled all the arrangements for our urban adventurer group, which was composed of two Europeans, three Americans and three Canadians.

Moose Factory: Ontario’s oldest English settlement

We started off by first spending a few days at Moose Factory (population about 3000), an island community in the Hudson Bay Lowlands, three miles south of James Bay. Moose Factory holds the honour of being Ontario’s oldest English settlement, and was established in 1673 as a fur-trading post of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). The latter is one of the most important commercial enterprises in Canada's history and was responsible to a great degree for the development of the fur trade in Canada, which in turn was also one of the principal industries that led to the evolution of this nation..

Yes it's the 21st century, but there are still no roads to Moose Factory. You get there from Moosonee, Ontario either by scheduled air service or by train from Cochrane, Ontario. (In summer, the famous Polar Bear Express train is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.) And once you arrive in Moosonee you then take a freighter canoe water taxi (fare $5) across the fast-flowing Moose River.

As you approach Moose Factory, you’ll see the impressive Cree Village Ecolodge with its towering cathedral-like Shabatwon (a Cree word for meeting place) which overlooks the Moose River. A few days before we arrived, about 20 beluga whales had been seen frolicking for days in the waters right in front of the Ecolodge.

Owned and operated by the MoCreebee Council of the Cree Nation, the $7-million ecologically-friendly smoke-free lodge (with 20 comfortable guest rooms) is one of North American’s top eco-tourism destinations. Designed to incorporate and reflect traditional Cree values, it uses natural, organic, and chemical-free materials wherever possible; for example cedar and the natural local stone are principal construction materials. Inside, it is decorated using low-gas emission paints. The lodge is surrounded by a natural wild clover landscape, and inside you will also note the lodge's distinctive handmade hickory furniture, birch wood blinds, 100% organic wool carpeting and blankets, 100% organic cotton mattresses, pillows, and linens. Even the hand soaps and shampoo-conditioners in each room are organic vegetable-based products.

Moose Factory is a “must-see” destination for cultural and historical buffs. The town's small HBC Museum, is packed full of fascinating exhibits. Be sure to see the old compass of a HBC ship and learn where the term “It's cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey” came from. At Moose Factory, you can also visit centuries-old cemeteries, and Canada’s oldest wooden church — St. Thomas’ Anglican Church which was completed in 1885 with holes in the floor to prevent it from floating away during spring floods. Moose Factory is also a favourite of fossil hunters. And to top of your experience, there is nothing like a traditional Cree fish fry.

The Wild Winisk River

A few days later, we flew on AirCreebec to the remote Cree community of Peawanuck (population under 300) on the historic Winisk River. We were met there by our host Sam Hunter, a well-known Cree guide and owner of Hudson Bay Polar Park Expeditions. He drove us to the river dock where two other Cree guides, Nick Mack and young Todd Spence waited for us with two motorized freighter canoes. After quickly loading us on the boats, we headed out on a 2-3 hour journey (about 25 miles) on the wild Winisk River to our base camp at Polar Bear Provincial Park.

It was a warm August day, but in the boats — just in case it turned cold — Nick and Todd had provided heavy winter parkas. The Winisk River winds thread-like through a changing landscape of boreal forest, then limestone cliffs, and finally tundra and muskeg. It can be a wicked river because of its many rapids, shoals and rocks. It passes by the site where on May 16, 1986, the former village of Winisk was completely swept away by massive chunks of ice carried by the fast floodwaters of the river. Two people died. In one day, every building except two, were levelled; some homes ended up 5-6 kilometres inland. The entire Cree community had to be evacuated and reestablished 30 kilometres to the south in a new settlement called Peawanuck

Base Camp at Polar Bear Provincial Park

Three hours later, Sam and Nick pulled up along the shore. By then, most of us had put on the winter parkas. It was 7:30 p.m. and dusk was setting in fast. As our campsite was inland about half-mile, we were to be transported there in a wooden box trailer towed by a snowmobile. We had to wait however until the food and luggage was hauled first. The only other choice was to trek through the tundra. Our hardy bunch unanimously shouted with bravado, “We’ll walk!” And off we went single file down the well-trodden trail. Tundra-trekking in a darkening sub-arctic environment; this was cool stuff!

However, we had only proceeded a few feet when we heard a booming “Stop!” We looked back and Sam was quickly walking over to us carrying a rifle. “This is polar bear country. You can’t walk out there without a rifle,” he said. “There could be polar bears anywhere.” He handed the rifle to Todd the guide who would lead us to camp. Sam went back to unload the freighter canoes.

All our senses were now heightened as we scanned the horizon, watching and listening intently. At one point, Todd stopped and asked us all to be very quiet and still. Seconds seemed like long minutes as we waited for the all clear. It was a false alarm, but we were glad he was so cautious. We plodded on.

Once settled at the campsite, we relaxed beside a roaring bonfire, drank hot drinks, and ate caribou stew and bannock. Later, another group of eight arrived to stay the night, accompanied by Sam’s partner Maurice Mac (owner of Wild Wind Tours). It was an evening straight out of a wildlife safari movie: strangers sitting around a campfire hundreds of miles from civilization, swapping stories until the wee hours of the morning.
There are no hotels or cabins at Polar Bear Provincial Park — this is truly wild and totally non-commercialized country. We “roughed it” in comfortable sleeping bags on mattresses and cots in two large yurt-style tents. The accommodations were just fine; we had not expected four-star accommodations — we were here to see the polar bears. And the next day we did.

Polar Trekking by Air

After a hardy breakfast of pancakes, eggs, hash browns, bacon, and toast, we gathered at a pre-arranged spot on the river where we were met by a bush plane from Hearst Air Service. This was our day to go polar trekking from the air. Around 11:30 a.m., pilot Rob Butts landed his Beaver floatplane on the Winisk, picked up the first group (including me) and took off into an overcast sky.
Within minutes, we were flying over our first polar bears — a mother and two almost-adult cubs who were feeding by a small lake. Over the next two hours of flying (we lucked out getting two one-hour flights), we saw over 21 polar bears. Some stood alone on sandbars as if deep in thought, others appeared to be walking aimlessly about on the tundra, and others roamed the coastline in search of dinner. We saw one somewhat roly-poly polar bear with muddy legs and an equally muddy (and very large) rump running and splashing through the water along the bay’s shoreline. Suddenly he stopped, looked up at us, and then continued running. Even from the air, you can see how huge polar bears are; they can measure up to nine feet in height and weigh as much as 2000 pounds. To see these formidable bears running wild in their natural habitat is an extraordinary experience.

The Tundra

Looking out the window of our float plane, I was struck by the immense vastness of the area and its flat open expanse. Here was a boundless uninhabited landscape dotted with stunted trees scattered in a irregular pattern hither and yon. The landscape was also punctuated by many small ponds in a palette of colours of rust, yellow, green, turquoise, black, ivory, and brown. The colour of the pond depended on the plants and minerals in the water. From the air, I also noticed dry lake beds and an occasional huge boulder left behind by some mysterious geological event. And this amazing landscape was the backdrop for stupendous mixed flocks of snow geese and blue geese.

The only blight on this pristine landscape, however, (and it came as a bit of a shock) was the deserted U.S. military air base left over from the days of the Cold War when Canadians and Americans maintained the “Dew line.” The Distant Early Warning Line was part of a continental defence system; reconnaissance planes and fighter-bombers flew north from here, ready to repel any attacks on North America from the former Soviet Union. Today this small section of what is surely one of the wildest areas in Canada's far north is littered with abandoned buildings, an airplane hangar, a radio and air control tower, a gravel runway, and huge heaps of rusty corroded fuel barrels. It is a bizarre and incongruous scene, but a remote reminder of a time in global history that is no more.

As we flew along the shoreline of mighty Hudson Bay, I was surprised at its colourful coastline. The wide sandy shore slipped into soft shades of gradually lighter green water. And during the Arctic low tide, you can see the sand extended far out into the saltwater. It is no wonder that the 17th- and 18th-century Hudson's Bay Company sailing ships — the vital transport system of the lucrative fur trade — had to anchor far from the sandbar coastline, requiring the crew to row people and supplies to shore in smaller boats. A little altitude gave a much wider perspective on an area of Canada that was integral to the commercial development of the North American continent.

Later that evening, after a delicious supper of sea trout, potatoes, and corn, Sam led us on a trek through traditional First Nations hunting grounds that date back hundreds of years. I was surprised to see that parts of the “bleak” tundra were a spectacle of wildflowers in glorious bloom.

The most wonderful thing about experiencing tundra-trekking in the Hudson Bay area is the feeling of being in uncharted territory, of seeing what very few people in the world have seen — or will ever see. This is one of the planet's unique environments and ecosystems. This is raw rugged nature.

Would I go again? You bet.

Tundra Travel Resources

Northern Ontario Native Tourism Association (NONTA)
Moccasin Trail Tours
Bill Rogoza, General Manager
710 Victoria Avenue E., Suite 200.
Thunder Bay ON P7C 5P7
Tel. 807.623.0497.
Fax 807.623.0498 &

Cree Village Ecolodge
Greg Williams, Manager
P.O. Box 70,
Moose Factory ON POL1W0
Toll-free 1-888-CREEWAY
Tel. 705-658-6400
Fax 705-658-6401

Hudson Bay Polar Bear Park Expeditions
Owner/Operator Sam Hunter
Lot 45, General Delivery
Peawanuck ON POL 2HO
Tel. # 705-473-9998
Fax # 705-473-9979

Wild Wind Tours
Owner/Operator Maurice Mack
60 Main Street
Peawanuck ON P0L 2H0
Tel. # 705-473-9918
fax # 705-473-9919

Hearst Air Service
Owner/Operator Veilleux Family
P.O. Box 2650
Hearst ON P0L 1N0
Toll-free 1-866-844-5700

Photographs by Elle Andra-Warner