North American Adventures: Bearing Witness

  • Karen Cakebread

Polar Bear Provincial Park, on Canada’s Hudson Bay, seems an unlikely spot for an extravagant wildlife safari. For one thing, the place has no visitors’ facilities, and its description on the Ontario Parks web site might deter, not encourage, guests: "Visitors to Polar Bear should be prepared for any eventuality. They should bring at least one week’s extra supplies in case their departure is delayed due to bad weather. Tents should not rise any higher than necessary, due to the possibility of strong winds."

Nevertheless, this subarctic domain is our destination, and we appear well-prepared to heed the cautions. A floatplane—a circa 1953 single-engine Otter—waits for us at the dock in the Cree settlement of Moose Factory, Ontario. We already are well north of any roads and had arrived here the previous day by private jet. Into the Otter’s small cabin goes the overnight gear: tents (low-rising, presumably), military-type packs containing our bedding and extra clothing, and, most important, the supplies for the Toronto chef who will accompany us. Two large coolers and six additional cases contain foie gras, venison, juniper berry sauce, and other essential provisions, as well as the appropriate wine accompaniments and tableware. Our band of four need not worry about bad weather delaying our departure from the park. We plan to spend just one night there, but the plane is carrying enough food to last us a week.

These precautions do not impress our pilot. Jean-Marie Arseneault is a rough-around-the-edges, 67-year-old veteran bush flier who in recent years searched for meteorites in South America for NASA and flew visiting dignitaries to Antarctica as a sideline. He has just one question: "Where’s the guard with the gun?"

On this, day three of the Great Canadian Expedition—a five-day, $20,000 (Canadian) trip offered by Moccasin Trail Tours from mid-July through August—we begin to adapt to "any eventuality." During the trip, you are immersed in the native Cree people’s culture, and experience the province’s extremes, but it begins with two nights and a day in civilized Toronto. There, you stay in the Fairmont Royal York hotel’s Royal Suite, Queen Elizabeth II’s accommodation when she visits the city. From Toronto, you fly 530 miles north by private jet to James Bay and a stopover in the island community of Moose Factory for an overnight at the Cree Village Ecolodge. Finally, a floatplane takes you another 325 miles northwest to the edge of Hudson Bay, where you, a tour escort, and the chef join a native guide for the big event: tenting on land populated by polar bears.

 

Ontario is a vast province bordered by four of the Great Lakes on the south and by the saltwater Hudson Bay on the north. Much of it is sparsely inhabited wilderness and tundra. En route from Toronto to Moose Factory (more specifically, the airfield in Moosonee), our jet crosses over the Trans Canada Highway near Cochrane, marking the last sighting of any highway. In Cochrane, if you want to travel by land north to James Bay, you catch the Polar Bear Express train and ride for about five hours. The flat, green muskeg is broken up by countless lakes and rivers, the latter serving as the thoroughfares—especially those closer to Hudson Bay—for the Cree who live here. However, once the land and lakes freeze and become covered in snow, usually by January, plows and water-filled tanker trucks create a road of ice across the tundra for transporting supplies north. Usually by the end of March, the snow and ice have melted enough to render the highway unusable.

From the airport in Moosonee, land and water taxis transport us to the two-by-three-mile island of Moose Factory. Here we are introduced to the Cree and their culture while staying at the Ecolodge, which fills the role of halfway house between the city and the tundra; you can experience something of the north while still enjoying hot showers and satellite television.

The MoCreebec band owns the lodge, which is perched on the southwestern shore of the island, along the Moose River, near where it empties into James Bay. "Being on the river and then on the bay are two different realities," says Randy Kapashesit, chief of the MoCreebec, who has served in that position for most of the past 20 years. The activities list at the lodge is lengthy, yet loose and informal. "We try to encourage an awareness in people of what they can achieve here, and then we can try to arrange what they want," says Kapashesit. These arrangements can include anything from a session in a sweat lodge or a search for fossils, which are plentiful, to fishing or flying north to view polar bears. "There’s a lot of freedom here still," the chief says, "and many of the experiences here are nonconsumptive in nature. What the Europeans appreciate, for example, is the wide open spaces, stands of trees that have never been cut.

"It’s a place for someone to push their own edges," he continues, "but you have to respect the elements. In winter it’s a different planet. The river freezes before Christmas, and people cross-country ski or use vehicles on the river system." The real adventurers, he says, are the contingents of snowmobilers who drive their machines from hundreds of miles away and make their own trails using GPS systems. With Moose Factory’s average January temperature of 13 below zero, though, many guests push their edges no further than to view the Northern Lights from the lodge’s porch.

Yet the town can be hot in late summer. Clarence Trapper, a local Cree guide, says Moose Factory is sometimes the hottest spot in Canada. On this August day, it is in the 80s. We walk and drive around in Trapper’s van—with the air-conditioning on and a dreamcatcher swinging from the rearview mirror—and view most of the island, including some small museums that document Moose Factory’s fur-trading history as the Hudson’s Bay Co.’s second-oldest settlement. (An early Hudson’s Bay Co. settlement was called a factory if a "factor"—a regional manager—lived there; see "Mutiny and the Bounty," page 120, for more about the Hudson’s Bay Co.) Trapper also points out a modern landmark: the hockey rink that is home ice to native son Jonathan Cheechoo of the San Jose Sharks, the NHL’s leading goal scorer in the 2005–06 season.

As we drive past the hospital, the tour operator pipes up from the backseat about the urgent phone call that took her away from our box at the theater in Toronto the previous evening. Sam Hunter, the guide for the expedition’s upcoming camping trip (the names of the two guides, Hunter and Trapper, presumably reflect their ancestors’ vocations), was phoning to report that a polar bear had trashed his campsite. This, it seemed, never had happened before. The bear left the outdoor dining table in smithereens, shredded Hunter’s tents, and ripped off the outhouse door. Hunter recommended, the tour operator now informs us, that we cancel our plans to stay at the site. He told her that it would be better to stay put at the Ecolodge where we will be comfortable, though we can still fly up for a couple of hours and look at polar bears. (When pressed, the tour operator confesses that she and Hunter are concerned about a writer from Robb Report seeing the camp in this less-than-stellar state.)

This is crushing news, indeed. We will not have a chance to use any of the tantalizing new camping gear stowed in our rooms at the Ecolodge. Even worse, having left the summer togs back in Toronto, and with nothing to wear but fleece and warm clothes, we face the prospect of a fashion faux pas: being uncomfortably overdressed for three more days.

Deciding no polar bear was going to trash our plans, we stamp our L.L. Bean-boot-clad feet and urge the tour operator to call Hunter and convince him to let us come anyway. Surprised and maybe impressed that the south-of-the-borderites remain intent on roughing it, Hunter relents and proposes another camping spot. It has no facilities at all, he warns, but this is no worse than the Ontario Parks’ web page had cautioned, and so we readily consent.

 

Arsenault, the floatplane pilot, greets this new plan with raised eyebrows. He will sleep in his plane instead of a tent, but he still wants to know if Hunter will have guns. After receiving an assurance, Arsenault helps load the Otter, and we leave from the relative civility of Moose Factory for the desolation of Hudson Bay.

A beluga whale surfaces below, in James Bay, before we begin crossing over land that is dotted with roaming caribou. Touching down briefly in Peawanuck, on the border of Polar Bear Provincial Park, we pick up Hunter, who is 44, his father, and their guns. Then we take off for the campsite and fly low to scout for polar bears.

This portion of Ontario is the southernmost point in the world that the bears inhabit. During the summer months, when they are forced off the ice and onto land, several hundred of the massive creatures roam this portion of Hudson Bay shoreline. They subsist here on their stored body fat until the fall, when they can return to the ice and hunt for seals. Unlike the polar bear tourism experience offered in Churchill, Manitoba, where large groups of people view the bears from Tundra Buggies ("Polar Express," February 2006) and can retreat to a hotel in town at the end of a day’s drive, no such infrastructure for visitors exists here. We have only the floatplane and our tents—and a well-supplied private chef who is prepared to delight us with his haute-Arctic interpretations.

Before long, we are counting the bears below, as they graze on scrub or run along the sandy shore of the saltwater bay. Male polar bears can weigh more than 1,400 pounds, and we are close enough to see their loose white fur coats ripple as they move. On two passes over the area, we count about 30 bears; later, while reconnoitering on land, through binoculars we spot two more as they circle a stranded seal.

Arsenault brings the plane down in what looks to be about 6 inches of water on the Sutton River, and in short order I am setting up the tent that now seems alarmingly flimsy. I mull our proximity to land’s largest predator while determining which skinny tent pole will form the backbone frame of the night’s shelter. "Don’t worry about it," says Hunter. "I can shoot a dime from 100 yards and hit it every time. And I’ve never had to shoot a polar bear, though once I did shoot in the air to scare one."

With this faint reassurance and under the gaze of an eagle perched on a lone, scrawny tree, we make camp on land that may never have been trod before. We pitch the tents, build a fire, and eat a lunch of caribou stew that Hunter’s mother prepared. Hunter also contributes what he calls "swing coffee": After bringing a pot of water to a boil and adding the grounds, he swings the pot in a circular overhand motion until centrifugal force has separated the grounds from the liquid, and it is ready to drink. "Much like a French press," observes the chef.

It is 5:30 pm, and we have just finished lunch. I am theorizing that northern time may be relatively similar to island time in the tropics, when Hunter shifts back into guide mode and hustles us into the canoe he had tied onto the plane. "Hope you don’t mind," he says, "but I promised my wife I’d bring back 10 brook trout."

Recalling fly-fishing trips past, I fear that meeting Mrs. Hunter’s request could take days, possibly weeks. However, I catch a beauty on the first cast from the canoe, another on the second. Within a half hour we have our 10. "Now you see why the Sutton River is famous for fishing. I call it East of Eden," Hunter says. He claims to know someone who caught trout here with a bare safety pin.

Sunset is yet another new version of a familiar experience. Against the backlight of the cold, multihued sky, hundreds of black-silhouetted birds skitter and flit at canoe-level amid the low tundra scrub. As we paddle, Hunter hums Kinks songs, accompanied by the squawks of Arctic terns and snow geese. We may be the only humans in the 9,300-square-mile park.

It is dark when we return to the campsite at 10 pm, and the day’s culinary timetable is shot. It is now too late for the chef to prepare his dinner of seared foie gras, wild rice cakes, and venison rubbed with juniper berries. He gives a shrug at this eventuality, produces a corkscrew, and opens a red Meritage that we sip around the fire, under a starry black sky lit by the green of the Northern Lights.

Moccasin Trail Tours, 807.623.0497, www.moccasintrailtours.com

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