Photograph by Norbert Rosing, National Geographic
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A polar bear nuzzles with her young.
Photograph by Norbert Rosing, National Geographic

Wapusk National Park

Location: Manitoba
Date Established: 1996
Size: 2,836,000 acres

Manitoba’s Wapusk National Park is one of the few places in the world where, in late February, visitors can watch tiny, three-month-old bear cubs explore their snowy new world for the first time under the watchful eyes of their mothers. But no roads or trails lead into this massive park made up of rough subarctic forest, tundra, muskeg, and part of North America’s largest expanse of peat bog, which shelters one of the largest known maternity denning areas for polar bears. Wildlife-watching, especially for polar bears, is why people visit.

Park Facts

Transition Region One of Canada’s most accessible northern national parks, Wapusk—Cree for “white bear”—encompasses a good portion of the Hudson James Lowlands, a subarctic ecological transition region between Manitoba’s boreal forests to the south and the Arctic tundra of Nunavut to the north. Hudson Bay itself is so vast (317,500 square miles) that it creates its own chilly microclimate.

Wildlife Habitat Wapusk National Park is home to polar bears and other wildlife, including many rare birds, moose, wolves, red and arctic foxes, wolverines, lemmings, and the 3,000-strong Cape Churchill caribou herd, which winters here. While the climate can be inhospitable in winter for the region’s aboriginal people, they continue traditional hunting practices within the park, primarily for the caribou. Winter’s blank landscape of virtually nothing but snow would have an ill-equipped, unguided traveler lost and frozen within a day.

Bogs, Bays, and Tiny Trees In summer, Wapusk National Park’s peat bogs and marshy wetlands are nearly impossible for visitors to safely navigate. In the tundra, sedge meadows, peat bogs, and ponds cover the landscape. In the subarctic forest, where the ground is firmer, tiny, stunted trees can live to be hundreds of years old. Standing less than 6.5 feet in height, the trees have branches only on their south-facing sides, thanks to constant, harsh winds. The Hudson Bay shoreline habitat is peppered with salt marshes and flats, rocky beaches, and, because the bay has strong tides, an intertidal zone that stretches some six miles.

White Bears Come late October and early November, roughly a thousand polar bears, which have spent their summer shambling around the region’s subarctic forest and tundra awaiting the freeze-up of Hudson Bay, move through the park’s Cape Churchill area to the new ice. They spend the winter out on the frozen bay, gorging on seals to store up fat reserves for the following year’s lean summer. Inexplicably, even grizzly bears have been spotted in the park, seven between 2003 and 2008.

Guided Trips Visitors can access Wapusk through licensed local operators who provide guided trips into the park. Tours are also available into Cape Churchill Wildlife Management Area, a provincially designated buffer zone surrounding the park that affords additional protection for the polar bear denning area and the delicate ecological system here.

Rare Birds This ecological system attracts and supports some increasingly rare bird species. The habitat along the park’s coastline lures more than 250 species of birds—including hundreds of thousands of waterfowl and shorebirds that come to nest or stage and feed en route elsewhere during annual migrations on this major North American flyway. Birdwatchers exploring accessible open tundra and shoreline northwest of the park can spot rare Caspian terns, great grey owls, sandhill cranes, stilt sandpipers, Hudsonian godwits, Ross’s and ivory gulls, snow geese, Canada geese, arctic loons, gyrfalcons, and peregrine falcons.

How to Get There

From Winnipeg, Manitoba, fly north to Churchill using either Calm Air or Kivalliq Air. Flights take from 2 to 2.5 hours; some people opt to drive from Winnipeg to Thompson, Manitoba, on Hwy. 6 North—a distance of 435 miles—then take a one-hour, less costly plane hop on Calm Air (Kivalliq does not service Thompson) to Churchill. Air schedules vary depending on the time of year and passenger demand, and in winter Arctic blizzards can disrupt flight schedules, delaying arrivals and departures, sometimes for days.

VIA Rail runs passenger service on the Hudson Bay Line from Winnipeg to Churchill twice weekly (Tuesday and Sunday out, Thursday and Saturday back). The train should take two nights to get there, but can be delayed if the track has been frost heaved and the train slows to about nine miles an hour, with frequent stops to check the track.

The train offers sleeper cars or economy class. The train also passes through Thompson, so visitors can choose to drive to Thompson and take the train from there, or take the train to Thompson and fly the rest of the way on Calm Air, an option that requires taking a taxi from the train station to the airport or vice versa.

When to Go

The yearly polar bear congregation at the coast happens in late October and early November, whereas young cubs are visible at denning areas from mid-February to mid-March.

Wapusk National Park is accessible in summer via helicopter for guided tundra hiking and wildlife spotting. Birders and wildlife watchers can also explore the tundra around the town of Churchill, 25 miles northwest of the park. In July, visitors can don dry suits and frolic with hundreds of beluga whales and their calves in the Churchill River estuary. It is recommended that any hiking near Churchill be guided by trained escorts carrying firearms in case of encounters with polar bears. Keeping a vigilant eye out for wandering bears is critical; they sometimes come right into town.

How to Visit

Unescorted travelers are not permitted in Wapusk National Park. Escorting guides, operators, and local hotels usually book up well ahead, so early planning is a must. During bear season, complete touring packages are the most common way to visit, with all travel details taken care of, from the Winnipeg arrival point on.

Wat’chee Lodge—Wat-chee is Cree for “a hill covered with trees in the middle of the tundra”—one of the few spots in the world where young polar cubs can be viewed, has limited capacity and is open for only four weeks from mid-February to mid-March. The lodge is reached by night rail from Churchill. Travelers detrain at a stopping point called Chesnaye, where lodge employees meet them with specially equipped all-terrain trucks and take them to the lodge.

—Text adapted from the 2011 National Geographic book Guide to the National Parks of Canada