One of the most frustrating facets of tourism in Manitoba is the most famous park in the province is all but off limits to human visitors.
Wapusk National Park exists primarily to protect the polar bears that hang out along the coast of Hudson Bay and build their summer dens several kilometres away from shore.
For obvious reasons, it isn't safe to wander around this place. Polar bears are considered among the most dangerous predators on the planet, given their speed, strength, intelligence and incredible sense of smell.
But since Churchill is Manitoba's top ecotourism destination, people have longed to visit this 11,000-square-kilometre park ever since it was created in 1996. Wapusk may be remote, but its proximity to rail-accessible Churchill means there are plenty of curious travellers who inquire about actually making the visit every year.
Right now, their only spontaneous option is to take a helicopter tour. But that's about to change, thanks to an exciting plan by the cautious but increasingly creative people at Parks Canada.
If all goes well with a pilot project this summer, guided day hikes and backpacking trips inside Wapusk National Park may be possible as soon as 2011.
"Ideally, we'll have operators that can take people into the park next year," Wapusk superintendent Cam Elliott says.
Over the past five years, University of Manitoba students have been going on guided day hikes inside the park during the summer, when the bears hang out on land. As a result, Parks Canada has gathered valuable experience about how to manage the presence of people inside the park.
Actively avoiding bears is the key tactic. So is not doing anything that may attract the animals, such as being careless with cooking scents.
Armed with this knowledge, Parks Canada has partnered up with Churchill tour operators to take four lucky guinea pigs on a three-day guided trip inside the park.
The pilot project participants -- all winners of a charity auction prize -- will spend their days on guided walks, accompanied by a bear spotter armed with pistol-banger and shotgun. At night, they'll sleep inside at a Broad River enclosure that's surrounded by a bear-proof, wire-and-cement fence.
Parks Canada is also building a second enclosure at Owl River. If all goes well, both enclosures will open as back-country campsites in 2011. Wapusk National Park even has a proposed fee schedule for the visits: $24.50 per person, $61.25 for a family of five or $147.20 for an entire year, plus tour costs.
Under the proposed fee schedule, half-day tours with a park interpreter and bear monitor will cost $267, while full-day tours will be $490.65. Most people will take helicopters into the park, but Parks Canada is also looking at float plane or boat access to make Wapusk more accessible to ordinary tourists.
"We'd like to have an opportunity for a broad range of people to visit," Elliott says.
The environmental impact of putting people inside the park is a lot smaller than you'd guess. The bear-proof enclosures are being built on rocky ancient beach ridges, as opposed to the spongy tundra. And some of the walking routes will be caribou trails.
"One of the surprising things is we look at the tundra as pristine habitat, but it is already highly disturbed. You get a couple of thousand caribou walking down a beach ridge and they tear it up pretty good," Elliott says.
"So instead of creating a hiking trail, we have the opportunity to put people on caribou trails."
Parks Canada may also build a bear-proof enclosure to serve as a winter dogsled camp at a site called White Wale. The bear danger is minimal during the winter, but the cold presents different challenges.
At the same time, Parks Canada is looking at expanding the range of tourism opportunities at Prince of Wales Fort National Historic Site, which is located across the Churchill River from the town of Churchill.
About 1,600 tourists visit the fur trade-era fort every year, most arriving on boat tours. After spending $4 million stabilizing the 269-year-old stone fort over the past decade, Parks Canada may build more interpretive displays, place more live interpreters in period costume, license guided hikes around the fort and even allow overnight stays.
Parks Canada may also start levying a $3.90-a-day visitor fee for Prince of Wales Fort. Open houses about the changes are planned for Churchill on July 5 and Winnipeg for Aug. 29.
Elliott says the changes within Wapusk and at Prince of Wales Fort are part of an effort to improve the visitor experience at all parks and historic sites managed by Parks Canada.
And contrary to popular belief, Wapusk was never intended to be only for the polar bears.
"Keeping people in the park safe from bears is the No. 1 priority," Elliott says. "But presenting polar bears to the human population is also part of the park's mandate."