It’s home to the world’s southernmost population of polar bears, but that’s only part of the Polar Bear Provincial Park’s ecological importance on a global scale.
The 23,552-square-kilometre park on the western shore of Ontario, where the James and Hudson Bays join, features the world’s third-largest wetland. As Ontario’s largest park and its furthest north, it’s been designated a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention since May 1987.
Polar Bear Provincial Park shelters a vast assortment of wildlife, in addition to the 200-plus polar bears that known to be roaming the sub-arctic terrain. Woodland caribou and moose, marten, fox, and beaver are also found across the land. The Park is of international significance for migratory birds and the coasts and estuarial areas are popular among seals, walruses, and beluga.
The world’s most temperately located tundra, the terrain is carpeted in peat soils, bogs and muskeg, and much of it’s given to permafrost. In the spring and summer, certain plants – Lapland rhododendron, crowberry and mountain cranberry – flourish. And a distinct tree-line encircles the bays. To its north, no trees grow, but south of it, trees like willows, spruce and tamarack slowly rise.
It’s a park not easily accessed by visitors. It takes special permission to get in, and then, is reachable only by air. There’s no visitor’s centers or any amenities to speak of. In fact, those who do make the trek are encouraged to be prepared for …anything. Since bad weather can delay flights, a week’s worth of extra supplies is encouraged. And tents can’t be too high – they can easily be lost to strong winds.
Polar Bear Provincial Park’s primary purpose is to preserve its most unique habitat. To that end, the park was the focus of a massive remediation project – the largest ecological restoration project in Ontario’s history – to remove the remnants of its Cold War history. The Mid Canada Line Project spanned, all told, over 15 years with the goal of returning the land to its natural state.
It was a huge job. In the 1950s and 1960s, numerous military radar sites were built in the park – known as the Mid Canada Line – as a means of detecting potential incursions from the Soviet Union. When the radar systems were rendered obsolete by new technologies, the radar stations were abandoned. However, left behind were contaminated steel and cement buildings, abandoned machinery and radio towers. Not only were they an eyesore, but they were sources of chemical and physical hazards.
The workers removed:
● 7,070 empty drums;
● 1,640 litres of PCB liquids;
● 292 metric tonnes of PCB hazardous soils and debris;
● 3,970 tonnes of low-level PCB contaminated soils;
● 10 petroleum, oil, lubricant tanks;
● 2 buried septic tanks.
The park is within the traditional territories of a number of First Nations. The project was delivered in partnership with both the First Nations communities of Weenusk at Peawanuck, Fort Severn, Taykwa Tagamou, Moose Cree and Attawapiskat First Nations and the Muskegowuk Tribal Council. There were a number of community members actively working with MNRF to the tune of over 1,800 hours of training and 27,000 hours of work at the site.
The project was a huge undertaking that has earned significant kudos for its impact. Earlier this year, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry won the prestigious Environmental Commissioner of Ontario Recognition Award for its cleanup efforts.
In presenting it, Dianne Saxe, Ontario’s Environmental Commissioner, said: “This was an effort that took about 15 years. It’s a more than $80 million cleanup, and to come up with that amount of resources on top of everything else that the ministry was doing in times of, basically, continuous cutback, was a real achievement.”
“To plan it, to organize, to do the environmental assessment, to get the money, to keep the money … and the weather, and the ice roads becoming unreliable, and polar bears sniffing around, they had all kinds of obstacles,” she said. “And you had to take the material so far away — there’s nowhere local up there that can safely handle mercury and PCBs and toxic soil.”
“They did a tremendous job.”