"More than half of Wapusk is peat bog, and some of the peat is 12 feet thick," says Cam Elliott, superintendent of Wapusk. "It's perfect for polar bear maternity dens. Females have dug more than 1,200 in the area, one of the largest concentrations in the world."
Land and ice are bound together for the polar bears of Wapusk, "white bear" in the Cree language. But the 4,431-square-mile park (nearly the size of Yellowstone and Yosemite combined) also holds plenty of other species. "It is the ecotone, the transition zone, between the boreal forest and the open tundra," says Andrew Derocher, a University of Alberta biologist who studies polar bears. "There are few places where polar bears, black bears, the occasional grizzly bear, moose, caribou, red fox, arctic fox, beluga whales offshore, and others overlap. The biological diversity of the area is huge." Almost 200 bird species breed here, or migrate through, including boreal owls, hawk owls, snowy owls, gyrfalcons, and peregrine falcons—a bonanza for bird lovers.
Yet visitors to the area, more than 15,000 a year, stay west of Wapusk, in or near the town of Churchill. Fewer than a hundred visitors a year have come to Wapusk since it was created in 1996, partly for the protection of the bears and their denning habitat. "The two areas are right next to each other, yet they're so different they might be two separate countries," says Elliott.
Simply put: The Churchill area, which lies along a bend of the coast running west from Cape Churchill, is underlain by bedrock near the surface, which makes it much ﬁrmer than Wapusk to the south (where the bedrock is deeper). So the Churchill area is terra ﬁrma, easier to walk on, drive on, even build a town on (they did). Since the retreat of the last continental glacier some 8,000 years ago, the land has been springing upward. This is some of the youngest land in Canada—and some of the soggiest. There are thousands of lakes and ponds in Wapusk. Bog, bog, bog. There is peat bog, or muskeg, dangerous if you take a misstep and fall into a muskeg hole. All of this is seasoned with an enormous and aggressive population of biting invertebrates.
In Wapusk there are no roads, no trails, no motels, indeed no tourist facilities of any kind. The terrain is too daunting, the bears too dangerous, and the liability too high for Parks Canada, Wapusk's overseer, in case of attack. A few people pay a thousand dollars (U.S.) an hour for a short helicopter flight in summer to view an unoccupied den, or visit a small temporary camp in the fall to watch the bears, or ride snowmobiles in late winter hoping to glimpse newborn cubs.