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Wapusk National Park of Canada

Maintaining a Remote Wildlife Research Camp in Wapusk National Park

Murray Gillespie, Youth educator, Photographer and Field Biologist; Wapusk Management Board Member, Province of Manitoba Representative

Wapusk News - Volume 5, Number 1, 2012

Lambair Twin Otter at Nester One research station, June, 1974 Lambair Twin Otter at Nester One research station, June, 1974
© Murray Gillespie

Wapusk National Park (NP), managed by Parks Canada, was created in 1996. This wilderness park, part of a national system, represents the Hudson-James Lowlands natural region. Located between the town of Churchill and the Nelson River, Wapusk NP is remote and only accessible by helicopter or snow machine.

Parks Canada’s mandate is to protect and present Canada’s historic and natural heritage. Within Wapusk NP, scientific research plays an important part in protecting the park’s ecological integrity. There are four small isolated field camps in the park that support research and monitoring activities. Researchers spend weeks and even months at these remote camps, so the facilities must be completely self-contained.

The birth of “Nester One”

Nester One camp in the spring of 1973 Nester One camp in the spring of 1973
© Murray Gillespie

Scientific research in the area goes back a long way. In 1969, long before Wapusk NP was created, a research station was established just south of Cape Churchill by a consortium of wildlife agencies including the Province of Manitoba. Its main purpose was to support the study of Canada geese that nested along the Hudson Bay coast. The camp consisted of a military Quonset hut with an electric fence to keep wandering polar bears out. At that time, Churchill was an important aviation hub for the north. Lambair maintained a fleet of aircraft at the Churchill airport, and provided reliable transportation for resupply of many remote camps such as this. The famous de Havilland single-engine Otter and Twin Otter bush planes were the mainstay of these supply missions. In 1973, concern about high numbers of polar bears near the camp resulted in a decision to install radio communication between the camp and Churchill. The camp needed a call sign, and the name “Nester One” was born (Nester referring to the focus on nesting Canada geese in the area).

Clifford arriving at Broad River compound with a load of lumber in April, 2009 Clifford arriving at Broad River compound with a load of lumber in April, 2009
© Murray Gillespie

By the late 1970s, the availability of aircraft in Churchill was not dependable, so other means of transport were needed. In May 1978, Lindy Lee, a Churchill resident, left the town with a D9 Caterpillar pulling two large sleighs of supplies, and headed east for Nester One. Returning to Churchill after 30 hours of struggling and shovelling his Cat out of snow banks, Lindy said he would never do that again, so now the research team needed to find another way to supply the camp. The solution was Clifford Paddock, a knowledgeable local resident with a legendary Bombardier-tracked snow machine. Clifford, then an employee of the Churchill Rocket Range, was familiar with operating heavy equipment in all kinds of weather situations and was hired to haul supplies to Nester One. Thus began a long and amicable relationship with Clifford.

Clifford Paddock preparing his bologna lunch while hauling freight in April, 2009 Clifford Paddock preparing his bologna lunch while hauling freight in April, 2009
© Murray Gillespie

Hauling everything from aircraft fuel to heating oil to groceries, toilet paper and building supplies (including the kitchen sink) in all kinds of weather was Clifford’s trademark. Most of these trips Clifford made alone, often leaving at night and returning before sunup in order to have the best snow conditions for travel. Prior to the advent of global positioning system technology, navigation was by “dead reckoning”, or by trying to use the sun or the distant glare of lights from Churchill to find one’s way across the snow-covered tundra. An inexperienced traveller could easily become disoriented and lost, but Clifford always found his way. The back of the Bombardier was always well stocked with spare parts, jerry cans of gas, tools, a sleeping bag and of course, bologna and rye bread to be cooked on the Coleman stove he kept in the back of the machine.

Over the decades, Nester One has supported studies by numerous students and scientists on many subjects including polar bears, arctic foxes, frogs, caribou, water quality, snow monitoring and permafrost. The important research done at Nester One could not have been undertaken without Clifford’s commitment and perseverance. As a former Province of Manitoba Conservation employee responsible for taking care of the camp, it has been a joy to work with such a dedicated and talented man.

Today, Clifford works at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, using his vast range of skills and knowledge to maintain a long list of equipment and to keep the many mechanical systems operating at the Centre. He still makes trips into Wapusk NP, hauling camp supplies and fuel drums for a number of camps.

Nester One field camp has changed considerably over the last 40 years and it continues to support a wide range of research (including its initial core focus on nesting Canada geese) and provides a secure site for university students and Parks Canada staff to monitor and study this important ecosystem. While there are many challenges to operating and supplying a camp like Nester One, the work done there is important and staying there is an opportunity of a lifetime. Although the facilities have been modernized, the nearest neighbour is still more than 20 kilometers away, and perhaps best of all, there is still no cell phone service or Internet access.