That Damned Churchill River
In 1976 the Churchill River water flow was diverted into the Nelson River at Missi falls at the mouth of South Indian Lake. This diversion, caused the Churchill River to have 15% of the original flow and created controversy stemming mainly from Cree and aboriginal groups concern over their native lands resources.
Affects on wildlife habitat and communities along the river to the north have never been adequately measured so affects on fish and the beluga whale population are relatively unknown. In Churchill, a weir and marina was constructed as part of the mitigation process by Manitoba Hydro. Although the observation tower the marina gives a nice view of the inlet off the river, the marina gets minimal usage. The weir allows the regulation of water levels south of that point for fishing and boating excursions. The beluga whale population ventures shorter distances up-river in summertime due to the tidal flow and shallow water. This might have had some affects on the population or it may have caused some whales to change habitat location and venture to other estuaries with warm rivers flowing into them. When belugas give birth and nurture their young they have an easier time with the moderate temperature warm waters flowing from the south.
I can’t imagine what the flow of the Churchill River would be like at 85% more pressure. Guiding over a decade of Churchill Arctic summer seasons I have experienced just about every type of conditions on the river and in the Hudson Bay. Although higher water flow would not have a profound affect within the main part of the river, the mouth and inlets would be very different at tidal changes. It’s very tricky at times to maneuver through the mouth of the river due to the currents and topography below. With more flow this could be easier or harder but would most likely have a bearing on fish and whales. Inlets and calving/ nurseries would be larger and deeper farther up-river…that is a surety.
The affects on southern communities associated with the diversion have been quite harmful in many instances. South Indian Lake was forced to relocate and has since lost most of their original one million pound whitefish production…down to 100,000 pounds at last count.In the end, the benefits of the diversion and Nelson River power plants output have not been without issues. Having to ship the power to far southern communities has taken more resources and money than originally planned. The original water levels negotiated by Manitoba hydro have been disregarded and a push to adopt the newer levels by law is underway. One has to wonder, as with all these massive projects that alter our natural environment, are the benefits worth the effects felt by our wildlife populations?
Who Found Button Bay-Was It Lost?
If you have been to Churchill you probably have heard of Button Bay. If you have been to Churchill in the Summer you might have even ventured by boat to the bay itself.
Button Bay lies northwest of Churchill just a short spin by zodiac around the tip of Eskimo Point and Fort Prince of Wales. From the fort you can gaze across the thickets of willows and wildflowers to the often glassy surface of the secluded inlet. It’s also possible to look across the Churchill River past Fort Prince of Wales on the point and see the glimmering surface of the bay.
The bay was commemorated by Sir Thomas Button in 1612 when he and the crew of the Resolution ventured to “New Wales”, as he named it for England. He is credited with securing the lands along the west coast of the Hudson Bay for England. The Nelson River estuary and Port Nelson within those lands, were named after the Master of the Resolution who perished on the journey and is buried there.
On May 15, 1912, 300 years later, when Manitoba’s boundaries were extended, Port Nelson was included in the new territory designated to the province. Thomas Button is therefore known to be the first white man to visit this area in Manitoba.
Button Bay is a well known beluga whale hot spot in the summer. On the fairly rare occasions when whales are scarce in the Churchill River and mouth of the Hudson Bay, the 20 minute motor over to Button Bay usually produces pods of whales following the capelin run. On the journey by boat or zodiac, there’s always the chance of spotting a polar bear or two nestled along the rocky coast. I have often seen bears dipping paws into the bay or pulling up onto the rocks after a swim.
Button Bay is a little secret gem of the region. the bay itself is considered part of the Nunavut territory.
Come see the whales and bears of Button Bay! Arctic summer trips are still available.
Why Polar Bears Congregate In Churchill
Polar bears congregate every year around Churchill, Manitoba to await ice formation in the western and southern Hudson Bay. By early to mid November, polar bears are omnipresent in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area with travelers on polar rovers seeing more than 50 polar bears in a single excursion to the tundra.
There are a few major factors for the bears anticipating the freeze-up in the Churchill region.First and foremost is simple topography relating to the location of the town of Churchill and the jutting land that extends into the bay known as Cape Churchill. As you can see by the map the shelf is quite evident.
While this shelf extension is not all that crucial in itself as a major congregating hot-spot, the contributing factors qualify it as such. Counter-clockwise sea currents cause ice formation to get hung up there. The stalling affect on the flow of water coupled with fresh water flow from the Churchill and Nelson Rivers, to name two of the biggest in the area, create the perfect formula for ice formation here. Since fresh water freezes faster than salt water, the ice will build early off the coast and then combine with the northern ice formed in the colder regions. That pack ice is pushed in by the currents and south winds. All this make for a “perfect storm” of ice formation at the most accessible place in the sub-Arctic.
Of course, there is another reason polar bears like Churchill. Human population. A community of humans brings all the side benefits for animals…and in this case hungry polar bears trying to survive to the next seal-hunting season on fat reserves. The aromas and food by-products associated with human life attract every opportunistic species around. Around Churchill, top of the list are the polar bears. Before the old dump was closed down some years ago, polar bears would forage there all day and became a zoo-like attraction to travelers and locals alike. With the majority of that facility closed down, polar bear activity in town escalated over the years. The Polar Bear Alert program has become quite active in attempts to keep up with the burgeoning polar bear appearances in the town.
Global warming indications have also caused polar bears to appear on land earlier in the summer months. With sea ice coverage decreasing recently in the Hudson Bay, polar bears are being forced to come on land and seek alternative food sources. I can say from first-hand experience that polar bear sightings in Churchill have increased over the past 15 years. Guiding summer beluga whale trips for over a decade has allowed me to witness the firsthand increase in bear numbers. Bears have also become more successful at seal hunting in the shallow tidal coastal areas around the Churchill region.
Overall, the changes in polar bear numbers year-round have spurred Manitoba Conservation officers to adjust their strategy regarding bear management in Churchill. The feeling is this will continue to be readjusted even more over the coming years.