Remote research station Nester One provided an ideal base camp for exploring all that Wapusk National Park, set on Canada's Hudson Bay, has to offer. In June, the wildflowers were just beginning to emerge, starting with the vivid purple saxifrage.

© Madison Stevens/Polar Bears International

7/23/2018 2:38:22 PM

Wapusk Park Camp Taps Next Generation

Story and photos by Madison Stevens 

The snow had only just melted in Wapusk National Park and the vibrant petals of purple saxifrage, recently emerged, accentuated the lack of color in a stark landscape. The subarctic summer had barely begun, but already the tundra was teeming with life. Within moments of our arrival, a snowy owl alighted on a knoll to eye us from a safe distance. The following day, an Arctic fox, midway through its molt to summer phase, approached curiously from a nearby stand of trees. Several species of geese called overhead. Boreal chorus frogs chimed in from ponds still brimming with snowmelt. Visible from the observation platform atop the Nester One research station, hundreds of caribou dotted the landscape, calves close by their mothers.

A snowy owl perched on a willow tree

Alert to our movement across the tundra, a snowy owl watches from its perch in the willows. This individual stayed near Nester One throughout the camp this year, perhaps one of a nesting pair.

Arctic fox halfway to its summer phase.

Midway through its molt to summer phase, an Arctic fox pauses to eye us curiously from across the tundra. Though they are often highly inquisitive, this fox was particularly bold, approaching our group within a few dozen yards before dashing off again.

Each summer, Parks Canada brings a handful of Manitoba high school students to this remote research station to learn about ecology, conservation, and leadership, under the capable leadership of Heather MacLeod and with support from Polar Bears International and explore.org. At Nester One, the students develop leadership and communication skills, learn about the history and ecology of their surroundings, and encounter subarctic wildlife up close and personal. The Wapusk Leadership Camp has offered dozens of students this transformative opportunity to immerse themselves in the tundra environment.

The Parks Canada group hikes to the Hudson Bay coast.

Parks Canada’s Heather MacLeod and Brendyn Perron lead the way on a hike to the Hudson Bay coast, following the topography of the land.

In past years, most of the students have come from the southern part of the province. Yet the original intent of the leadership camp was to engage youth from Wapusk National Park’s three stakeholder communities—Churchill, Fox Lake, and York Landing—to help ensure that local communities remain invested in protecting the park for generations to come. In the spirit of this objective, Parks Canada teamed up with Frontier School Division to deliver the camp as a high school course. So, this June, the inaugural Wapusk Next Generation Camp brought the focus back home to Churchill, flying nine high school students from the local Duke of Marlborough school—and one Winnipeg student—out to Nester One for five days of exploration and learning.

The students, ages 14-19, brought a wealth of local knowledge and expertise to the camp. Far from being tourists, many students have been out on the land hunting, trapping, and fishing with their families since they were young. The archeological sites we visited during camp are evidence of their own families’ longstanding connection to this place. Nickia McIvor, 17, noted, “For some people who have come on this trip, their families have been living here for generations, and having those stories passed down, family to family, person to person, is really good because it means you have roots on this land.” Conversations around the campfire each night were full of these stories, meandering from tales of the student’s first caribou hunt to their closest polar bear encounter in Churchill.

Students talking around the campfire at night.

“I feel connected to the land from the stories the elders tell us and the locals tell us. I think one of the reasons this camp is really cool is that we get to walk on the land that our ancestors walked on.” - Aliyah Dingwall (right, quoted), 15 and Shalynn Gulick (left), 14, are both Métis students from Churchill, Manitoba.

As a media specialist for PBI, I have acted as a facilitator and videographer for this camp for the past three years, developing short films documenting student perspectives. In this year’s interviews, I was struck by the students’ depth of knowledge and commitment to building community in their hometown. “I think it’s really great that they opened up this camp more to local students,” Aliyah Dingwall, 15, reflected, “because not only are we the next generation of business owners who are going to run the tourism industry in Churchill, but we’re also the next generation of people who are going to share and protect this land.” With its emphasis on local experiences and priorities, the Wapusk Next Generation Camp represents a marked departure from previous years.

Students on the Hudson Bay shoreline, a towering sheet of ice on the horizon.

Students explore the coast of Hudson Bay as the tide ebbs, against the backdrop of a towering sheet of sea ice. Only a few weeks earlier, the coast was still locked in ice; now a wide stretch of open water has opened up along the shore.

The timing of this year’s camp dovetailed with the start of my doctoral degree, where I focus on the importance of involving communities in wildlife conservation. The opportunity to help foster this ideal by connecting local youth to the land is a privilege and a joy. I feel that the new direction of the camp reflects a growing awareness that communities and conservation are inextricably linked; that in order to sustain protected areas in the long term, it is essential that those landscapes embrace the people who live in and around them. “We are the next generation and the next generation is really looking forward to us, like we do now,” commented Matthias Nault, 16. “People here respect the land, and that’s how I want to keep it for my kids, and my grandchildren, and everyone else.”

Mathias Nault, an Inuk student from Churchill.

Mathias Nault, 16, an Inuk student from Churchill, Manitoba, is one of several students on the camp who have grown up hunting caribou on the tundra with their families.

A caribou dashing through the wetlands.

A startled caribou dashes through the wetlands, backlit against an afternoon sun. For thousands of years, caribou have been and remain an important part of First Nations and Inuit culture in this region, both as a source of subsistence and as a way of life.

As the last facilitators waited quietly for the helicopter to ferry us from the park, we spotted an ermine peering around the corner of the shed, as if to check that this boisterous crowd of humans had really left. Satisfied that it was alone at Nester One at last, the ermine hopped forward, transitioned to summer phase but for the tip of its furry white tail, a last hint of winter. Just two weeks from now, the landscape—and the wildlife—will be utterly transformed. Wildflowers will blanket the tundra. New leaves will spring from budding willows. The caribou calves will be steadier on their feet and will venture farther from their mothers’ sides. The sea ice will have diminished to a few isolated floes, and the polar bears will be back on land, fat reserves replenished and prepared for the long fast to come.

Wapusk Next Generation 2018 group shot

Wapusk Next Generation Camp 2018, in front of Nester One research station in Wapusk National Park.

In the meantime, we hope, the students have returned home to Churchill with a new appreciation for the extraordinary wilderness in their own backyard, and a renewed sense of their responsibility for the future of Wapusk National Park.

Sunset over the tundra, Wapsuk National Park.

The subarctic sun sets late in midsummer, and the inclement weather can make for dramatic skies on a blustery evening. The view is certainly worth the bitter wind that comes along with it!

Madison Stevens is Polar Bears International's media specialist.

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