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  • Saturday August 14, 1999

    Peter Brewster writes:

    The polar bear experience

    PETER
BREWSTER  PEAWANUCK, WINISK RIVER: The polar bear and her two cubs weren't moving far from their sunny spot on the shore of Hudson Bay.
     
     We had been slowly stalking them for an hour, and so far they hadn't seen us.
     
     Suddenly, we were aware of a big male bear just 600 yards away. He was on his hind legs. The sow and cubs were on a sandbar.
    BREWSTER
    The polar bear is spotted.
    -->to photo gallery

     
     We were on foot. Our guide, Maurice Mack, was all smiles. This was why we had come 21 miles downstream of Peawanuck to the estuary of the Winisk: To see the most important inhabitants of Polar Bear Provincial Park.
     
     What a way to end our canoe trip down the river.
     
     We rolled into this community of 300 people Friday afternoon, finishing Limestone rapids with a flourish and enjoying the fast water all the way to town.
     
     Earlier contact with Sam Hunter, who runs Hudson Bay Polar Bear Park Expeditions with partners Maurice Mack and his brother Dominic Hunter, came to fruition this morning. We left the community beach in two boats, Sam at the helm of one and his son Fletcher, 20, running the other with Sam's younger brother Toby.
     
     Even though, as regular readers of this website will know, the water level on the Winisk this summer is unusually high, we were glad that Maurice and Sam run jet outboards. The river north of town splits into many channels, and losing a prop here would be no problem at all.
     
     Maurice knows the river like he knows the faces of his seven children, and as he worked his way downstream he told me the story of Peawanuck, and how the Cree community came to be where it is now. But more of that later. Back to those bears.
     
     After beaching the boats our group of nine set off across the Hudson Bay tidal flats, tramping over lush grass and oozing mud, heading for a point of land Maurice knows well.
     
     At first, they just looked like white rocks, and even with my 10-power binoculars I could not say for sure if that is all they were.
     
     It took a long time to get a little closer, until Maurice said emphatically: 'Those are bears.'
     
     Carefully and slowly, we edged towards the bears. There is no cover out there, and to say you feel exposed and naked is an understatement.
     
     The tingle of adrenalin you feel when the realization sinks in that you are sharing a patch of Hudson Bay shoreline with a mom and two polar bear cubs is electric. When you suddenly see another, larger bear somewhat closer the voltage goes from 110 to 220.As we cautiously watched and cameras clicked, the big male - who had appeared out of the backdrop of an ocean horizon and heat haze - stood upright and sniffed the wind. No contest - six canoeists at the end of a two week trip are fairly easy to detect.
     
     What happened next was pure natural drama, of the kind that makes Polar Bear Park as special as it is huge (the park is six times the land mass of Quetico Provincial Park, and sprawls many miles along the Hudson Bay coast).
     
     Mom and the cubs started walking from left to right, and the big male went towards them. Maurice told us that sometimes males will attempt to kill and eat cubs, and the sows get into life-and-death battles with them.
     
     This didn't happen, and when we last saw the four bears they were disappearing over the large sandbar on which we'd first seen mom and the cubs.
     
     While all this was going on, I found time watch a golden eagle - as big as the many bald eagles we had seen on the river and somehow more sinister in darker colours - checking out a flock of snow geese and blue geese and deciding which one to ambush.
     
     The geese were everywhere, and I marvelled at how in a mixed flock the snows, or blues, would lift off together when spooked, leaving their cousins on the ground. Genetic synchronization at work,
     
     Near where we had beached the boats is the site of the original community of Winisk, which enjoyed its close proximity to the Bay and a stunning view across the river and islands until May 16, l986 when spring breakup swept it away.
     
     It happened so fast, Maurice told us he and his family had about 20 minutes to flee into the bush, from the rampaging ice and water. Two people died, and everyone lost a home and most of their belongings.
     
     Today, standing in the encroaching grass and willow amid the concrete foundations, flipped over bulldozers and assorted remains of old Winisk, you can only guess at the horror of those 20 minutes.
     
     The entire community was airlifted to Attiwapiskat, along the west coast of James Bay, and the site for the present community was selected 20 miles back upriver and on higher ground.
     
     Across from the original village site is the stark, surreal remains of an early warning station called Site 500, deserted now for 40 years and looking completely out of place amid the stunted spruces and poplars close to the Bay.
     
     It has been a near-perfect day, the sunniest of our two weeks up here (naturally, there was short, sharp rain squall on the way back) and the night is clear and cool. While I will remember the bears forever and can hardly wait to get those Kodachromes back once we are home, my immediate memory is the look on the whiskered face of a seal we checked out as we pushed upstream against the Winisk's formidable current. Curiosity, bewilderment, mild alarm, but no fear. He just slipped into the river and reappeared behind us and headed out of the water.
     
     The best time to see polar bears is after late July, when the ice recedes and bears comes ashore. They will stay until the Bay freezes over again in late November-early December.Hudson Bay Polar Bear Park Expeditions can be reached at 705-473-2657 (phone), 705-473-2544 (fax) and e-mail at adventure@icebeartours.com. There are Air Creebec flights from Timmins, Ontario twice a week. Sam, Maurice and Dominic have comfortable accommodation in cabins beside the river for visitors. So you don't HAVE to canoe the Winisk to get here, but it's arguably the finest way to arrive.
     



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