Rudolf Harmsen 

The Bears of Wapusk

Four days hiking in bear country


The Bears of Wapusk

Churchill Northern Studies Centre, 2 September 1998, 2 p.m.

Over the many years that I have travelled in the arctic, I have learned to accept that nothing runs on a fixed schedule. Between extreme weather conditions, lack of air-traffic control, medivac priorities and limits to what the bush pilots can endure, I have been forced to wait not just for hours, but often for days before I find myself in the air, on my way to my next field-research destination. My colleagues and I refer to dealing with those inevitable delays as the ‘waiting game’. Well, we are playing it. Yesterday we stopped in on the Eagle’s Nest, where Steve lives, to finalise our flight schedule to Nestor 1, in Wapusk Park. We talked about the possibility of the weather deteriorating yet further and about possible down-days between now and the pick-up day for our return to Churchill. Other than those rather remote problems, everything seemed in order. As we left, Steve said ‘...see-ye at seven thirty..’. So, this morning we were up at six, sorted all our gear, packed things up into easily handleable units, cleaned our rooms, ate some breakfast, and at 07:30 hours we were ready, and started to train our ears for the sound of the approaching helicopter. But then, by 7:45 we were informed that our departure had been delayed till ‘later this morning sometime’. So, we waited.

I have already been at the Studies Centre for a few weeks, teaching an ecology field course to a group of keen students, and am now gearing up for a week’s hike in Wapusk Park in the middle of polar bear season. At this time of year, the bears are getting very hungry, so it is not wise to hike around alone. But for personal reasons I need this break before going home, and I also want to see some of my research sites south of Cape Churchill, and make a last set of observations. The course I just finished teaching was my last professional job before retirement, and I have no idea what to do next with my life. This week among the bears is therefore a chance for me to reflect, but to make it a safer and more congenial event, I have asked a few friends to join me. Phil and Sarah arrived the day before yesterday, which was the day the course ended. That was also the last day of summer, as the first arctic low of the season swept down off the barrens, and by now the temperature hovers chillingly close to freezing as a fierce northerly blows a fine misty rain off Hudson Bay onto the lowlands. The geese are flying out, flock after flock. The bearberry1 foliage is turning a magnificent magenta, while the willows are taking on a more gentle pale yellow hue. Something about the ragged form of the stunted spruce trees seems to indicate a resignation to the unavoidable coming of winter. Every living thing here is either fleeing down south, or hunkering down for another annual onslaught of the elements. I love the drama of this landscape, the extremes of tenderness and ferocity, the sense of inevitability, the ice cycle, the serenity of the ever-present horizon.

The night before last there was a party, as over the next few days most of the researchers and students will abandon the North for their homes and workplaces in the cities of the southern provinces. It was one last bash by and for a bunch of tough, adventurous people, some of whom have spent the best part of this summer here. The party was held in ‘the lab’, which is a giant hall, probably once intended to be a hangar, but now filled with equipment, work benches, dividers, crates full of gear of every description, and at one end a pool table. It was the space around the pool table and some passageways nearby that served as the party area. Some sixty people spent the night drinking, talking, playing pool, and dancing to the raucous tunes of a ghetto blaster. As at midnight I reached the point in my career at which I switched from being a professor to being a professor-emeritus, this milestone became the highlight of the party. Phil and Sarah had brought a bottle of champagne and a cake, and some of the students had prepared the night’s entertainment in the form of a poem and a song about me and the ecology course I taught. I was deeply touched by their warm, creative show of wanting to do something for me. Dave’s performance of the song, which he bleated out in his high pitched voice to the rhythm of his hands bashing away at a large empty coffee tin was unforgettable, and Simon’s reading of the poem brought roars of laughter from the crowd. Immediately after the applause I popped the cork out of the champagne, poured some of it over my head, took a swig, and passed the bottle on. To spirited applause and raucous shouts of congratulations I became emeritus. No amount of money and planning could have produced a better retirement party than this effort by a few enthusiastic students, with the impromptu and warm support of a crowd of people, many of whom I barely knew. It was more like a beginning than an end, or perhaps best seen as a confirmation of the continuum of life.

Still on the ground. This is getting to be a major case of ‘déjà vu’. The ‘later-this-morning’ expired at noon, so we ate lunch, and just now Steve called with the news that it will likely be 3 p.m. before he can pick us up. Phil and Sarah went for a walk, Tove went back to her room, and I sit here by the radio, and play the waiting game in the (probably) vain hope that Steve will change his mind and come sooner. Having not been to Nestor 1 in four years, I am really quite keen to get there before dark.

This hike through the tundra of Wapusk Park has changed so much that it shows little resemblance to the original plan. When earlier last month I called Parks Canada head office in Ottawa, the woman on the other end of the line first told me that there is no such park, then she claimed it was a provincial park, not a federal one, and when all that was finally cleared up, she informed me that the park was closed for the rest of the year due to polar bear danger. I am glad I persisted, and asked for the warden of the Park. I got through to Rob Watson, the assistant warden, and after explaining what we wanted to do in the park, he was much more encouraging, but warned me that some changes in our plan might be necessary. Since four of the planned participants had already dropped out, by the time I arrived in Churchill, our group was down to three. I managed to find first Rob and then Doug Clarke (the warden) in the Parks office in Churchill, and negotiated an acceptable arrangement. The original idea of walking from the White Whale River delta via Nestor 1 to the Cape, and from there, via Nestor 2 back here to the CNSC was scuttled. Doug’s reason was primarily that he wants us to be able to get in touch with him on a daily basis, and the satellite phone is too heavy and too fragile to lug around the tundra on twenty or thirty kilometer hikes. So, we agreed that we should stay for the full six days in the Nestor I cabin, from where we will strike out on daily hikes, after scheduled 8 a.m. calls to the Parks’ Churchill office.

Yesterday we practised general target shooting with the gun we will be taking with us, and then we had fun getting some quick aim and shoot practice. I was very pleased to find out that Phil has a similar shotgun with which he shoots wild pigs in New Zealand. He is a good, quick shot, and he is also fully aware that a polar bear is not a pig. Afterwards we went into town to do a long list of last minute errands, purchases and other bits of business. I picked up my permit to do research and collect specimens in the Park, which is a formidable four-page document, decorated with a Canadian flag. We also bought all our food, some tools, a notebook, fuel for the camp stove, matches and candles, a flash-light and a zillion other items. Then we relaxed, had a very passable meal at the Traders Table, and returned to the CNSC confident that we were as ready as we will ever be for our adventure into polar bear country.


Nestor 1 Research Camp, 3 September, 8 p.m.

Four tired but happy people we are. Just finished dinner and dishes, and then the debate was ‘shall we light candles or just go to bed’. Well, the candles are lit, so I guess we will write or talk or just sit around for a while.

What a great day we had! Shortly after breakfast the fog lifted, and for most of the day the sun came and went; a cool southeasterly breeze made hiking a pleasant pastime, and we hiked! We probably covered at least 25 km, and because it was cross country - esker, fen, mud flat, beach ridge, shallow water, rocky gravel, soggy peat, etc, we had to do all this on rubber boots, leaving our comfy hiking boots here in camp.

I love this wide-open landscape. The narrow, raised sand and gravel beach ridges or eskers are only a couple of meters above the flat surrounding landscape, but they run on and on. Their slight elevation provides the hiker not only with a smooth, hard dry surface, but also with a good viewing opportunity to both sides. In polar bear country, that is also a matter of safety, since it gave us a chance to spot bears from a fair distance, rather than stumble onto them unexpectedly. We did in fact come upon two of them: big white faces with black noses looking at us from behind willow bushes a couple of hundred meters away. It is hard to explain, but even at such a distance, it is exciting to see such a large predator in the wild, when you are not perfectly safe inside a building or a vehicle. Seeing a polar bear in a zoo, behind a strong fence may be interesting, but it is not exciting. The moment there is no fence, a bear, even half a km away makes your heart run a little faster. Today, we gave our two bears a wide berth, and left them to their lazy lives; they left us to ours. We did, however, come a lot closer to other wildlife, such as caribou and arctic foxes, and tried to identify the various waders and waterfowl that are very abundant at this time of year. A large number of high arctic migrants are resting in the Hudson Bay Lowlands at this time of year, while many of the local breeders are still lingering.

We hiked south from the cabin, along an old beach ridge until it petered out near a small lake. From there on it was cross-country down into soggy fen lands, back onto a ridge, around some tundra ponds, across a peat plateau, etc, until we reached the White Whale River about three km inland from where it runs into Hudson Bay. This was a delightful site; what made it so appealing was the greater diversity in landscape. Rivers do that. Shorelines, deep, dark, slow channels, ripples and sandbanks, different drainage patterns and greater contours in turn lead to greater bio-diversity. We sat on the edge of a ridge covered in bright red Arctostaphylos and pale yellow creeping willow, and ate our lunches. I felt very content; small flocks of shorebirds came and went, the call of the snow geese was always somewhere in the back ground, a couple of caribou were grazing just on the other side of the river, and the sun bathed all this in a wonderful warm light. This was the last, gentle hand of summer.

From our pleasant lunch spot we continued by walking directly to the coast, and then, with the endless blue water of Hudson Bay to our right, we headed north. We stopped at one of the remaining CWS towers. When we climbed up the rickety ladder and onto the flat roof, we found a still smelly, recently abandoned nest of a rough-legged hawk, with remnants of partly digested bird and rodent bodies. But, our perch was a delightful vantage point for scanning the horizon. In this nearly totally flat landscape, sitting on top of a 12-meter high tower made me feel like I sat on the top of the world. We could have sat there for hours, absorbing the beauty and solitude of the tundra, but the wind started to cool our inactive bodies, so we descended back to earth, and briskly continued our walk. When we reached a point more or less directly east of camp, we turned and sloshed home through the three-km or so of intervening wetlands.

Ah, yes, I mention ‘home’, may be I should elaborate a bit about our temporary home on the tundra. We live in one of two cabins that have been built inside a very sturdily constructed fenced perimeter with a heavy steel gate to the outside. It is really like being in an inverse zoo, in that we live in a cage, while the animals roam in freedom. The fence does protect the cabins and their occupants from marauding bears. I like this design. It means you can step out of the cabin without taking the risk of coming face to face with an unfriendly bear. In fact, the fence has a few panels that are bulging into the compound. Steve told us that these bulges are the result of a thousand pound bear charging at 50 km/hr at a person who fortunately was on the inside. This is a firm reminder that one has to take these bears very seriously, and not leave the compound without first taking a good look around. The compound is large enough for a helicopter to land, which is essential, since polar bears have taken a dislike to helicopters, and can do many thousands of dollars damage to such a machine when parked in an unprotected location. The camp is known as Nestor 1, as distinct from Nestor 2, which is the camp at La Pérouse Bay, some 35 km to the west. Nestor 1 is the summer research site of an international team of goose researchers from the CWS, Minnesota and Saskatchewan. It is also frequently used by the polar bear research team, of which Steve is the regular pilot. The cabin we are in is pretty minimal, with a general sit-around-a-table area where we cook on a little gas stove, read, write etc, and a smaller area with six bunk beds. A very efficient oil stove can keep the place pleasantly warm, even in winter, so that we are not suffering from the cold. Within the compound there is also an equipment-shed and a larger kitchen cabin for when there is a larger team. On the roof of our cabin is an observation platform, which must be very nice in summer. For some sinister reason, the outhouse is outside the fence, which can make going for a crap an exciting experience, especially after dark. I never thought I would ever feel it necessary to carry a loaded gun just to go to the shitter.

Anyway, it is getting very late, the others have turned in, the candles are burning low, and I am exhausted.


4 September, 10 p.m.

As night was falling, we stood very quietly in the compound, and listened to the sounds of the darkening world. We could still distinguish the horizon, and below it the various lines of dark and light, of tundra and lake, but at dusk the world changes. Distances become more difficult to estimate, willow clumps seem larger, or they take on different shapes. The low dark clouds added to the mystery of the falling night. Then the arctic loons started their evening chorus; from one lake a pair moaned their mournful call, and another pair answered from a large lake to the south. After several calls back and forth, they started to add the higher pitched cry at the end of the more muted moan. After a while, from a distant lake to the east a third set of loons joined in. We stood absorbed in our individual thoughts, mesmerised by the grandeur of the moment, with unidentifiable archaic feelings awakening in our innermost souls. The darkening landscape with its fading lines of willow and tundra separating the lakes that still reflected the last of the day’s light formed the perfect backdrop to what suddenly seemed to me a Wagnerian scene of foreboding. Suddenly, they all stopped. We listened for a while longer to the sounds of the night: a shrill whistle from some shore bird, a distant goose, the yelp of a fox, a splash in the nearest lake, but mostly silence. The sound of silence is very dominant here on windless nights. By now, however, a fair wind has blown up, and it has started to rain. The wind howls around the cabin, and it sings in the chimney of the stove. Phil, Sarah and Tove have turned in, but I sit here at the trestle table and write by the light of a new pair of candles.

We had another great day, despite our not seeing any bears. But we hiked a good distance, and we saw all sorts of wildlife, from thousands of shorebirds to a majestic bald eagle, caribou, foxes, enormous flocks of geese, and many other birds. We rested for a while leaning against an eroding gravel bank by the shore. The smell of the seawater, the washed-up seaweed, and the mud flats were so full of memories, that I started to feel nostalgic for far off places and times, and for the people who were with me then. Flocks of sanderlings and dunlins probed the mud for small entities of sea life. Every now and then, a flock of snow geese would noisily take to the sky, only to settle down again a mile or two down the coast. The sun, the wind, the sky.....I heard the elements in song. The wind-blown beds of sea lime grass, the endless mud and boulder flats, and the blue-green water of Hudson Bay to the horizon and beyond. When we felt re-energised, we walked across the flats to the open water. We rolled stones over, and found sandhoppers2 and periwinkles3, played with bits of seaweed, licked the brine off our fingers, and laughed. Then, closer to shore we searched successfully for some 350 million year old remnants of a different sea world among the eroding Devonian dolomite bedrock which is crumbling near the high water line. Sarah found a well-preserved section of what I think is the stem of a long extinct sea-lily4, which is a distant relative of the starfishes.

I want to mention again the vastness of this landscape. It is so flat and featureless on the mega-scale, that one has a very poor sense of distance. One can walk for hours, and then stop, and all around, the landscape looks the same: gravel ridges, fens, small lakes, willow thickets. I find this environment very serene, very all-embracing, very invigorating. In fact, of course, it is very vast. Wapusk Park covers only a very small bit of the Hudson Bay Lowlands tundra, but at 16,000 square kilometers it is anything but small; at this time of year, it has a population of some 1200 polar bears. This evening we are the only four people in the park: 4,000 square kilometers and 300 bears each!

Who are the other three people? Phil and Sarah make the perfect couple. Phil is intense and intellectual, Sarah is more happy-go-lucky, but they are both adventurous, ready to try anything, and very effective in anything they try. Phil was a grad student of mine and is now doing a post-doc in the US, prior to returning to New Zealand where he will undoubtedly have a great academic career. The fourth member of our group is Tove Christensen, a young woman who has spent the past summer as a volunteer at the CNSC. She is a biologist who has developed a considerable passion for, and knowledge of the local flora. I asked her along, because we were only three, and the helicopter takes four, and because of her knowledge of the local sedges in particular. I also find her a sympathetic person. She is very quiet, responds intelligently to what is being said or done, but takes little initiative. She does not talk about her personal life. She more than pulls her weight, and is a good companion. All in all she is a very comfortable and congenial person to be with, but I do not think I really know her.


6 September, 9 a.m.

Grey, grey sky - a persistent, eye-watering westerly is blowing from horizon to horizon. We are taking it easy today after a fantastic, amazing day yesterday. We hiked the 20-km or so to Cape Churchill, and, of course, back again. Tove had never hiked that far in one day, and was amazed that she could do so. It took us just over nine hours, but that included a fair number of stops, some just to sit, admire the landscape and chew a mini Mars bar; others, with adrenaline surging through our veins, to reach an agreement with a somewhat overly aggressive bear. In all, we encountered six of the white hairy monsters of the arctic, but only one made life difficult for us. We were about an hour out of camp following a gravel ridge northwards, and as we approached an area with willow bushes, I did my usual ‘Yo Bear!’ and hand-clapping routine. Nothing happened, but as we walked on a bit Sarah decided she was overheating, and stopped to take off her parka. We all stood there, taking off this or that garment, when Phil said ‘we have a bear’. And there, no more than 25 meter from us, a very large scarred white face with tattered round ears, mean looking small eyes and a big black nose was protruding above the willows. My imagination saw the enormous muscular body, which undoubtedly supported that head. This was not any old bear; it was one of those thousand pound plus dominant males.

We were much too close to him to retreat, or for a safe detour, and I realised when the others started to take pictures that they were not aware of the severity of our predicament. That bear should have run away. Instead, he threatened us by standing up on his hind legs, and only then did I see how gargantuan he was; he stood a full eight feet high, and I estimated his weight as at least 1200 pounds. I said ‘put the bloody cameras away, and Phil, be ready to shoot!’ Not a second too early, because the bear dropped back onto four feet, started to shake his head and shift his weight from one front foot onto the other and back again. This is the behaviour they do just before a charge, and I realised we had to act immediately. I said ‘Phil, shoot over his head NOW’, which thank God he did: BANG! That should have sent the bear running, but no, he jumped back a step, and then just stood there. We had exhausted our weapons of intimidation; short of shooting him dead, we were out of options. Our only chance to avoid a violent interaction was to try and play bear psychology. Retreat would encourage him to attack, while further aggressive posturing on our side would lead to escalation and disaster. Somehow we had to communicate to him that we were not afraid of him (which was not true) but that neither were we a threat to him (which was true, as long as he didn’t charge us). We had to give him space, if not real space then at least psychological space. We decided to walk at a 90-degree angle to him, slowly putting a bit more distance between him and us. So, with Phil holding him in his sight, we slowly started to move. To my horror, the bear decided on the same strategy, so that we and the bear walked along two parallel routes, about 20 meter apart. But that way, the distance between us remained the same. Despite the tenseness of the moment, I did admire the graceful tension and power of that body. The beauty of destructive power once again forced itself on me; here was the largest terrestrial predator a mere three seconds away, playing a game of cat and mouse with me, both of us bragging about not being afraid, posturing, and not wanting to give an inch. The moment seemed an eternity, yet now, safely in the cabin, I wish that I had experienced that encounter for longer, that I had a clearer image, a stronger memory, that I could say I knew him better.

To our relief, after a while the bear stopped, and as we moved on, he turned around, and went back to his willow patch. For the next kilometer we kept looking over our shoulder, but our friend was out of sight, and had in all probability gone back to sleep.

Our other two bear encounters were far more benign, and far more typical. Close to the cape we spotted a sow with a small cub of the year, and observed them for a while at a safe distance. As soon as the mother bear got wind of us she withdrew, as most sows will do, in an attempt to keep their cubs as far from danger as possible. We thoroughly enjoyed seeing the cub, he was very playful and ran all over the place, hiding in bushes, bumping into things, and rolling on the ground. We were sorry when they disappeared behind a small rise in the landscape. The last encounter was of a sow with two yearling cubs. We saw them well before they spotted us. They came towards us, so we stood perfectly still, but before they came to within danger range they got wind of us, and they were off at a fast run. From a fair distance, they endeared themselves to us by running behind some willows, where they stopped, and stood up on their hind legs looking at us. It was very comical seeing those three bears standing upright looking at us over a willow bush. We did of course make many other worthwhile sightings, of birds and beasts, from longspurs to phalaropes, to tundra swans and sandhill cranes. At one point we had a very realistic reminder of how dangerous those bears can be, as we came upon the freshly killed remains of a caribou. It did not demand a great deal of imagination to see the bloody, chewed spine and ribcage as not that different from a human one. I was quite nervous about coming upon this freshly devoured carcass, because bears have the habit of sleeping near a kill they have partly eaten, and they are very defensive of such a kill, and can be quite dangerous. Needless to say, we withdrew in a hurry.

I could describe many other interactions with the landscape we traversed, and the plants and animals we encountered, but I am getting antsy. I need fresh air, the sky is clearing up a bit; we must go for a walk.

7 p.m.

The wind howls around the cabin, and sings mournful songs in the chimney of the oil stove. Everything flaps or creaks as the north-westerly tugs and pulls at every object in its path. This is the second arctic low of the season coming through, and I guess we are lucky that it is nine degrees and blowing drizzle and fog, instead of two degrees and sleet. The day is fading; any moment now we will have to light our candles. The four of us are sitting with glowing faces around the trestle table. Sarah is reading, Phil plays with the GPS, Tove wants to do a sketch, but so far she merely stares at a blank page with a pencil in her hand, and I will try to write a few pages before I nod off.

Today we made the last hike of this exploration of Wapusk Park, and it was great, despite the gale force winds and driving rain. We went inland, westwards that is. The route took us through a low lying area to a complex of old beach ridges that is some five to ten meter higher than the surrounding landscape. Up to roughly a thousand years ago, when most of the area around Nestor 1 was still under water, these ridges formed an island in the Bay. We circumnavigated a dozen lakes and an uncounted number of ponds, and sloshed through an awful lot of wet fen and bog country, but it was worth it. The elevated area is very different, with a more diverse vegetation, higher willows, and to my surprise there are a couple of kettle lakes indicating that it originated during the ice age as a kame or moraine system. It was good to be able to shelter in the lee of one of the ridges, but the rain kept coming. In fact, it came and went all day, and at times I was a bit nervous when fog banks blew in off the Bay, since we did not bring the GPS, and the prospect of spending the night lost on the tundra in this weather did not appeal to me. It was good to see and feel the tundra on a day like this, but as one would expect, we hardly saw any wildlife. I was quite content not to encounter any more bears, but I sensed that the others would have liked to see one more.

The above description of the past five days could easily lead to the conclusion that the objective of the entire trip was simply to go hiking and look for bears. That, however, would ignore the other objective briefly mentioned earlier. I have been spending some time each day doing a follow-up study on the vegetation of salt marshes and fens in this area. On our hikes we stopped at a number of sties where over the past sixteen years I have made quantitative descriptions of the species composition of the vegetation. The objective of this project was to record the effect of grazing, primarily by snow geese, on the vegetation. When I first came to the Hudson Bay Lowlands in 1982, the region around La Pérouse Bay was lusciously vegetated, full of flowers, and very rich in bird life. The centrepiece of its natural history, of course, was the colony of some six thousand snow geese. A major research project was under way with Fred Cooke focussing on the population ecology and genetics of the snow goose, and Bob Jefferies who studied the physiological ecology of the goose-vegetation interaction. I joined the team to start a long-term study of the changes in the community ecology of the various ecosystems in the area under the influence of goose grazing. In the early eighties, we were fascinated by what appeared to be a stable, co-evolved ecosystem with the geese being the ‘keystone’ species of the system. The geese arrived on the colony every year just before snowmelt, nested, raised their goslings and flew south for the winter. The heavy grazing of the geese was focused on the extensive saltmarshes of the Mast River delta, with very little grazing on adjacent fresh water meadows and fens. Bob had shown that the grazing stimulated the grasses and sedges into much higher growth and productivity, made possible by the rapid recycling of the nutrients, as the geese ingested and digested the vegetation, and then defecated the nutrients back onto the saltmarsh swards. It was what we jokingly called ‘farming’ by the geese. The reason for the geese not grazing the freshwater meadows was the lower nutrient level in the meadow and fen vegetation, and the lack of nutrient recycling. In other words, the geese preferred to graze swards that were already grazed, rather than tackle new meadows that despite their higher standing biomass were less nutritive per hour grazing. However, already in the early eighties cracks started to appear in this theory, in that there was growing evidence that it was not stable.

As the goose colony grew over the years, the availability of saltmarsh fodder did not suffice for the growth of the goslings, which led both to overgrazing of the saltmarshes, and to the geese starting to graze on the other meadows. Especially a grazing method called ‘grubbing’, which the geese do mostly very early in the season, is very damaging to the vegetation, as it involves digging with their bills into the ground, and pulling plants out by the roots. Soon the grazing spread from the saltmarshes into the fens further inland, and also away from the Mast River delta towards areas further east and south, all the way down the coast. For several years, as the goose colony grew to over forty thousand pairs, we watched the grazing degrade thousands of hectares of saltmarsh and fen into mudflats. Other areas near Churchill, for instance Button Bay and Bird Cove soon followed the fate of La Pérouse Bay. The worst discovery came in the early nineties, when it became apparent that the entire shore from James Bay to Southampton Island was now becoming one giant goose colony. Overgrazing has destroyed so much of the vegetation, that other species of birds are becoming rare. Even at the earlier stage, which we thought was stable, I became aware that some plant species in the saltmarshes were being eliminated by the geese, while other less favoured species were gaining prominence. Since there already was a goose colony when I first started working at the Mast River delta, I had to establish some research plots at a different site to see what the saltmarsh vegetation was like in the absence of grazing. Hence my plots near the Nestor 1 location.

Over the years, as the colony spread to the Nestor 1 area, I returned, and recorded the changes in the vegetation. Now, over the past few days I have done so for the last time. We walked around with a ‘quadrat’ (a 50x50-cm frame with monofilament fish line dividing the area into 100 5x5-cm squares) and a notebook. At various habitats I have put the quadrat down, and recorded the vegetation quantitatively, species by species. Comparing the current results with the previously made observations allows me to make authoritative statements about what is happening; and a lot is happening. In the Nestor 1 region, there is not as yet any sign of the large-scale destruction so obvious at La Pérouse Bay. In fact, the casual observer would not notice very much in the way of overgrazing at all. The reason for this is that the grazing pressure has caused the grazing-sensitive species to disappear, only to be replaced by grazing-tolerant species or poisonous species. As a result, the world looks green, but the species diversity is much lower than it was, and the actual composition of the different plant communities has changed. Some of the near-shore saltmarshes, for instance, have completely lost several previously common species of grasses and sedges, while others have gained dominance. Both Egede’s cinquefoil5 and low chickweed6 are much reduced. The only salt-marsh species, which seems to have increased, is the unpalatable seaside buttercup7. Here, and also in the less saline marshes away from the shoreline, the highly favoured seaside plantain8 has completely disappeared. In shallow pools, most aquatic grasses are gone, while both species of mare’s tail9 have become local ‘monocultures’. Also in the fresh water marshes and fens, some species of grasses and sedges are replaced by others, and some previously rare species are now very rare or absent, while toxic species such as marsh cinquefoil10 are more common than before. In the nutrient poor fens, grazing is limited, most grasses and sedges are suffering. There is even some evidence of grazing on sea lime grass on beach ridges, and on some of the minor grass species of bog vegetation. I am somewhat hesitant to come to firm conclusions now, because I am not able to do the quantitative analysis of any of this until I get home and can use the computer, and do the comparison with the data from previous years.

Well, that will have to be it for today, it is getting very late, and chances are that Steve will pick us up early tomorrow, so that my next entry will be from some place in or near civilisation. I feel both sad at having to leave this place which has become so much a part of me.


The Study Centre, 7 September 1998, 7 p.m.

It certainly is easier to write by electric light, but I miss our cabin and its candlelight. This complex building is a marvellous facility for researchers, and has served me once again as a base camp form which to strike out into more inhospitable, but also more stimulating places. Now we are back on the fringe of civilisation, and within a couple of days I will have to face life in retirement, with new challenges. I don’t know why, but I feel very insecure about this change in my life. Building and developing a career has been my life for over forty years, and what wonderful years they have been. The knowledge that I will not be back here again weighs much heavier on my consciousness than the tempting realisation that new and perhaps wonderful opportunities are awaiting me.

This morning we packed up, cleaned the cabin, watched the weather anxiously, and waited for Steve. It was well after noon when we finally heard the helicopter, and within minutes we were off. This last flight over the to me so familiar tundra was a sad farewell to an area where I have been very happy for several research seasons. We flew right over the Nestor 2 site, and my eye followed the Mast River into La Pérouse Bay, and then I saw the R-Chain Islands, and my mind drifted back to a day in 1984, when Mark Woolhouse and I recorded the vegetation on one of those mini-islands in the bay. This necklace of small green islands is the remnant of an old beach ridge, which due to geodesic uplift now lies in a shallow brackish lagoon, separated from the salt water of Hudson Bay by a new beach ridge. That day, which still lives so vividly in my memory, we sloshed out of camp in our hip-waders and headed for the island on which we had established 30 marked 50x50 cm plots the year before. It was a miserably cold day; under a low, leaden gray sky, a nasty north wind blew fog off the bay into our faces. We proceeded on a rough compass route, stopping occasionally to scan up ahead for possible bears among the scattered erratics, and for the faint silhouettes of the first islands materialising out of the fog, to guide us to our destination. The day before we had been disturbed by an inquisitive young male bear who showed an unwanted interest in our work. He had followed us around and sat on an adjacent island watching us, which did not make for a relaxed work environment. This morning, we did not want to come face to face with him in the fog. Over the rush of wind and water, we could hear the distant calls of unseen geese and occasional gulls. The utter loneliness of this flat, featureless landscape seemed to take hold of us, it came to us carried on the wind, and settled into our very souls. Once on our island, we set to work in silence, taking turns, one on his knees leaning over the quardrat, staring at small bits of vegetation, calling out the identity of the piece directly under the cross hairs: Puccinellia, Puccinellia, Ranunculus, Puccinellia, Carex, Puccinellia,. while the other sat on a stone scribbling the words into the appropriate squares on the data sheet. Every fifteeen minutes or so we stood up, ran around to warm up, and scanned our surroundings for possible unwanted visitors. Gradually, the wind, fog and the seven degree temperature started to bite through my jacket, sweater one, sweater two, wool shirt, T-shirt, me and into my bones, till I was chilled to the point of painful stiffness. The resident waders (I prefer to call them mudbirds) slowly forgot about those two nearly immobile yellow-clad men crouching over the saltmarsh, and little dunlins or semipalmates, or not so little whimbrels would perform their mud probing act to within only a few meters of us. Overhead, a few arctic terns decided to re-discover us every now and then, and noisily announced our presence to no one. The arctic wilderness, endless and deserted, seemed to have swallowed us up.

By early afternoon, the wind shifted to the west, the sun started to penetrate through the cloud and into the fog, which broke into swirls of mist, drifting around us or lifting upwards like the spirits of the explorers of ages past, who went into the arctic and never returned home. The air warmed up, wild flowers lifted their faces to the sun, and the mud birds decided to celebrate by putting on a show of aerial acrobatics. Flocks of thousands of dunlins rose suddenly from the mud flats, flew hither and yon in tight formations, making spectacular sudden turns or steep dives, until they suddenly fell out of formation and spiralled down to continue feeding, only to repeat the acrobatics again some time later. The arctic terns came fully alive, and fished nearby, or squabbled overhead; herring gulls called loudly, seemingly just for the effect, while phalaropes, golden plovers, whimbrels, yellowlegs, and a pair of hunting long-tailed jaegers added variety to the aerial display. The day became an absolutely heavenly experience. All around us the horizon re-appeared, with Knight’s Hill and the rooftops of Nestor 2 as the only obvious landmarks. But we, who knew the land, could also follow the horizon and spot minor distant landscape features, or point in the exact direction of all the hidden places that even now I can recall, and see in my mind as they were in those days.


1 A low, creeping shrub of the heath family (Arctostaphylos alpina)

2 Members of the Crustacean order Amphipoda

3 Marine snails of the genus Littorina.

4 A deep-water stalked echinoderm of the class Crinoidea

5 A low, creeping species, Potentilla egedii, with showy yellow flowers, of the rose family.

6 A low, creeping species, Stellaria humifusa, with tiny white flowers, of the pink family.

7 A low, creeping species, Ranunculus cymbellaria, with tiny yellow flowers.

8 A small erect species, Plantago maritima, with fleshy, grass-like leaves and insignificant brown flowers

9 Stout, emergent aquatic plants, Hippuris vulgaris and H. tetrophylla, which form beds on mud or in shallow water.

10 A mid-sized species, Potentilla palustris, with smallish purple-brown flowers, of the rose family.


  dolf@harmsen.net +1 613 544 3626