For the first time ever, Wapusk National Park is allowing back-country travel without the accompaniment of a shotgun-toting guide.
The northern Manitoba park is opening up a 166-kilometre stretch of the Owl River to paddlers during the month of June, when polar bear activity within the Wapusk interior is low because the dangerous predators are still out on Hudson Bay.
"That's the time we're recommending. Mid-June is ideal, because it's not too cold and the water (level) is decreasing," said Karyne Jolicoeur-Funk, a Wapusk interpreter who paddled the Owl River in 2008. "The chance of encountering bears is really, really minute. There's still ice on Hudson Bay and they're out there hunting seals, which is what they like to do."
The Owl River flows northeast through the centre of Wapusk to Hudson Bay. Canoeists and kayakers can access the river from the Hudson Bay Railway stop at Herchmer, several kilometres outside the park, and then paddle downstream to the bay.
The first half of the river moves quickly before it widens to a slower pace, said Jolicoeur-Funk, who described the Owl as less technical than pool-and-drop Canadian Shield rivers such as the Bloodvein. There are about 100 sets of rapids along the 160-kilometre route, the vast majority of them swifts, Class I or Class II.
The trip could be undertaken in as few as six days, but Jolicoeur-Funk advised anyone who hasn't visited northern Manitoba to take their time and go on day hikes across the terrain, which ranges from northern boreal forest to open tundra. There are also post-glacial beach ridges near the coast and several expanses of tundra polygons, the geometric patterns that result from the heaving of permafrozen soil. The route also offers a chance of spotting caribou, moose and seals.
The new back-country permit offered by Parks Canada allows paddlers to camp along the Owl River without the need for electric fencing at night. Five kilometres from Hudson Bay, a fenced-in compound offers protection from the polar bears that might patrol the coastal area even when there is ice on Hudson Bay.
"It provides a safe place to sleep at night," says Jolicoeur-Funk, who advised paddlers who want to see the bay make the final five-kilometre trek on foot.
Owl River paddlers will be required to carry bear bangers -- that is, bear-deterring noisemakers. Firearms are not allowed within the park, though paddlers can arrange to be accompanied by an accredited, shotgun-carrying guide.
In 2011, when Parks Canada decided to open up Wapusk to back-country travel, the intention was only to sanction fully guided tours. But the expense deterred visitors, leading park administrators to consider self-guided visits, starting on the Owl River.
Only four known trips have been made along the Owl since Wapusk National Park was established in 1996. Parks Canada staff first paddled the river in the late 1990s, and Jolicoeur-Funk went on a research trip in 2008. Two groups -- one conducting a bird count, the other a mix of parks staff and American tourists -- served as guinea pigs for self-guided trips in 2011.
"With all the different modelling and research, enough people have looked at this river and we know it's safe," Jolicoeur-Funk said.
Nonetheless, Owl River paddlers will be required to sit through an orientation session, either in person in Churchill or over the phone, and have their gear list approved by Parks Canada in advance. A satellite phone will be compulsory, as will an arranged helicopter takeout, which will prove to be the most expensive portion of the trip.
While accessing the put-in by rail from Winnipeg or Thompson is not expensive, helicopter flights from the fenced enclosure to Churchill or Gillam may run in the thousands. Split between a group, that would still prove cheaper than a trip to a remote Arctic destination.
Jolicoeur-Funk estimates the cost of the entire trip should work out to about $1,800 a person, based on the 2011 trips. "That's more than the experiences you would have on southern Manitoba rivers, but it won't be as expensive as the High Arctic," she said.
Wapusk will charge back-country paddlers $25 per day, up to a maximum of $150 per person. To apply for a permit for this June, contact Parks Canada at 204.675.8863 or firstname.lastname@example.org.