The History of Nestor Two: A Long-term study of a Snow Goose Colony

Fred Cooke
Member of the Order Canada (C.M.)
Professor Emeritus, Simon Fraser University

Wapusk News - Volume 6, 2013

Travelling east from Churchill for about 40 km, you will find a collection of small buildings on an island in the Mast River, which flows out of Norton Lake near La Pérouse Bay in the northern part of what is now Wapusk National Park.

This camp, known variously as Camp Finney, Nestor Two, Queen’s University Tundra Biology Station and the Snow Goose Camp has a long history. It was established more than 40 years ago and is still in use today. In this article I describe some of that history, the people who played important parts in the camp’s foundation and early history, and some of the contacts between researchers and the Churchill residents who played such an important role in its success.

The beginnings were in 1968, 45 years ago, when two young and rather naive Queen’s University biologists, Ken Ross and myself, came to Churchill with funds from the Canadian Wildlife Service to study the then recently discovered snow goose colony near Cape Churchill. With logistical help from Pat Worth of the Churchill Rocket Research Range, we established that La Pérouse Bay would be a good place for a long-term study.

In the first few years, we lived in a cabin called Camp Flicek, which earlier had been built on Knight’s Hill Esker. However, it was some distance from the snow goose colony, so George Finney, a graduate student who was leading the project in 1972, decided that a new camp nearer the colony was essential. With the help of Dave Yetman and Lindy Lee, who worked at the Rocket Range in Fort Churchill, a building was prefabricated and dragged out on a huge track vehicle in early May before the ice had melted, along with two trailers brought out as sleeping accommodation.

The cabin, subsequently called Camp Finney, had been located on some islands in the middle of the Mast River. From that point on, those working at Camp Finney always had to put on hip waders before starting work. Typically the researchers arrived at camp in late April before the geese arrived and stayed until late July after large numbers of flightless geese had been rounded up and banded.

The researchers maintained good relationships with the people in Churchill and Fort Churchill. The Rocket Research Range staff helped with radio communications, which was our lifeline in case of emergencies. To reach Camp Finney we either flew or travelled on tundra vehicles as far as the Knight’s Hill Esker, then walked through the boggy tundra to the camp itself.

In the mid-1970s, I was heavily involved in the development of the Churchill Northern Studies Centre (CNSC) as its first Scientific Director, and one of my roles was to encourage universities to teach courses in the Churchill area. This gave me closer contact with the Churchill community. A course on Arctic Biology given by Queen’s University not only brought students from the south but also attracted several Churchill residents. Rev. Jerry Stretch, Bonnie Chartier, Diane Erikson and Louise Laurie were all enthusiastic students in the course. Bill Erikson, Bishop Robidoux and Lorraine Brandson were active with the CNSC at the time and I got to know them well. We used Camp Finney for the field courses too, with students spending a week in Churchill and a week at La Pérouse Bay. It was at this time that the camp became the more prestigious sounding Queen’s University Tundra Biology Station.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the station continued to expand. We carried out studies on other species of birds and the research was becoming widely known and respected internationally. Several television films of the work done there were produced by CBC, BBC and Télévision Française. The goose study was recognised as the largest avian population study in the world and it received several international awards.

At the same time, snow goose numbers were increasing rapidly by about 8% annually, causing many environmental problems. The geese were destroying large areas of the arctic salt-marsh, which in turn resulted in the reduction of other wildlife in the area. Consequently, research at La Pérouse Bay became more focussed on the interaction between geese and the vegetation. This work was led by Bob Jefferies from the University of Toronto, who continued until his death in 2010. I left the project in 1992, but the goose research continued under the leadership of Rocky Rockwell from the American Museum of Natural History, who continues to work there to this day.

A snow goose cull was attempted in North America in the 1990s to reduce the numbers; however, goose numbers continued to increase. Many snow geese can still be found in Wapusk National Park, but few now nest in the La Pérouse Bay area itself, as the vegetation they depend upon to raise their goslings has largely disappeared.