The province of Ontario is a beautiful place. It has Great Lakes, the city of Toronto, 213 million acres of Boreal Forest, and 20% of the world’s freshwater in its more than 250,000 lakes and 100,000 km of rivers and streams. Even the word Ontario is likely derived from the Iroquois language meaning “beautiful water”. But did you know that Ontario also boasts over 1,200 km of ocean coastline? Many people don’t realize that along Ontario’s northern border lies the shores of an immense inland sea. Bordered by Quebec to the east, Ontario and Manitoba to the south, and Nunavut to the north, the marine system of Hudson Bay—along with its southern extension, James Bay—encompasses 1.2 million km2 of surface area in northeastern Canada.
It is uniquely positioned to disperse Arctic marine water much farther south than is typical in other parts of the world. This southward expansion of Arctic water is accompanied by an extreme southerly presence of Arctic mammals, such as beluga whales, bearded seals, Arctic fox, and polar bears. Another feature that makes Hudson Bay unique among the world’s oceans is that, despite its latitude, it completely freezes over from December to May. This is the result of the relative shallowness of the bay (averaging 100 m in depth) and because it receives an extraordinary amount of freshwater river discharge (roughly 900 trillion liters per year), which keeps its salinity low and allows it to freeze. Marine mammals, like polar bears and seals, rely on that ice cover for resting and hunting habitat for most of the year. The region also provides critical breeding and migration stopover habitat for more than 170 species of birds, including millions of shorebirds and waterfowl. Each fall, migratory birds leaving Arctic breeding grounds are funneled southward through Hudson Bay and into James Bay. Here they spend several weeks acquiring the fat they will need for their southward journeys, which will take them as far as the southern tip of South America. Therefore, these coastal areas play a critical role in their annual survival, so much so that the region has been proposed as a site of hemispheric importance as a migratory stopover, largely because it lies on a major migration route for at least 25 shorebird species.
The importance of this marine ecosystem to fish and wildlife has long been known by the many Indigenous communities who have inhabited the region for millennia and continue to do so today. In northern Ontario, the Omushkego Cree are leading an effort to establish of an Indigenous-led National Marine Conservation Area (NMCA) that would protect 91,000 km2 of Weeneebeg (Cree for James Bay) and Washaybeyoh (Hudson Bay) from oil and gas exploration, mining, ocean dumping, and industrial fishing. The region comprises the traditional marine territories of seven First Nation communities: Attawapiskat, Chapleau Cree, Fort Albany, Kashechewan, Missanabie Cree, Moose, and Taykwa Tagamou. Together, they make up the Mushkegowuk Council, whom, along with the Weenusk and Fort Severn First Nations that reside further north along the shores of southwestern Hudson Bay are working together to ensure the marine ecosystem remains intact to support their traditional way of life for generations to come. In August, I had the privilege of traveling to the home of the Weenusk (Peawanuck) First Nation in northern Ontario to see firsthand the magnificence of their Traditional Territory. I traveled there with the Wildlands League—a Toronto-based non-profit conservation organization working to protect Canada’s wilderness and to find nature-based solutions for today’s environmental challenges. They—along with many other non-profit conservation organizations including Audubon's Boreal Conservation Program—are working to support the Mushkegowuk Council in their establishment of the NMCA. For this trip, two cinematographers also joined us to film the wildlife and landscape. The stunning footage they captured with their drones will be used in the conservation campaign to show people why this place is so deserving of official protection.
Our journey began in Sudbury, Ontario, where we boarded a charter flight that would take us on the three-hour flight to our destination (see photo 1 in the slideshow below). There we met our host, Sam Hunter, a councilor with the Weenusk First Nation and an advocate for conservation within the community. Sam and three other community members were our guides for the next five days and took us by boat up the Winisk River (photo 2) to the Hudson Bay coast where we would made camp. Upon arriving there, I was immediately reminded of how restorative it is to spend time in wilderness and how much I love the landscapes of northern latitudes (photo 3). Countless numbers of shorebirds, including Black-bellied Plovers, Short-billed Dowitchers, Semipalmated Sandpipers, Dunlin, Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs, and Ruddy Turnstones, could be observed feeding in the endless miles of tidal mudflats and wet sedge meadows along the coast (photo 4). Sandhill Cranes, American Black Ducks, Canada Geese, Bald Eagles, Osprey, Lincoln’s and White-crowned Sparrows were among the other abundant bird species we observed on our trip.
One of the highlights of the trip was the day we went out into the bay to meet a group of oceanographic researchers from the University of Manitoba that were conducting sampling in the area. They were aboard the William Kennedy (photo 5)—the first vessel dedicated to research in Hudson Bay that, even for its large size, is capable of accessing shallow water environments. On our way out to the ship, the cinematographers spotted a pod of beluga whales (photo 6) with their drone. Hudson Bay hosts the largest population of beluga whales in the world, with an estimated 55,000 migrating there from the Arctic each summer. The region also hosts the most southern population of polar bears in the world, and we were treated to an up close (but safe) encounter as we were leaving our friends aboard the William Kennedy. One curious bear was swimming toward the ship to check us out. We passed by him in our (thankfully motorized) boats as we returned to shore (photo 7). It was a thrill of a lifetime to see this large, majestic, and powerful animal swimming in the ocean. Afterward, we spent several hours on a nearby island shoal and saw massive polar bear tracks in the mud (photo 8) and a scrape in the sand that was a bear bed (photo 9). From our camp, polar bears were visible lazing about on a distant sand ridge but thankfully none were curious enough to come any closer. Even the smell of freshly caught whitefish (photo 10) that we feasted on one evening did not draw them in! Our guide, Sam, explained that when the bears come off the ice in late summer, they feed on molting geese that are flightless that time of year, and they tend to be more aggressive in late fall when their fat stores begin to wear off. We were also treated to seeing numerous bearded seals (photo 11) summering in the Winisk River Estuary, where the river meets the bay. Similar to polar bears, bearded seals spend most of the year on broken pack ice and drifting ice floes and will move great distances following the receding ice in summer. Once the open water season begins, bearded seals enter estuaries and haul themselves onto land (photo 12), like we observed throughout the numerous river channels and islands of the estuary.
After three nights on the coast, it was time to head home. Although I was saddened to leave the beauty of the Omushkego Cree’s homelands (photo 13), I was grateful for the opportunity to visit and I take comfort in knowing that they will continue to steward these lands and waters, as they have since time immemorial.