Remote, and accessible only by air, Ontario’s largest and most northerly park features unspoiled low-lying tundra. Sub-arctic conditions prevail in the park, which is the domain of woodland caribou, moose, marten, fox, beaver, goose, black bear, and polar bear. Seals, walruses, beluga and white whales frequent coastal and esturial areas. As many as 200 polar bears lumber through coastal areas at certain times. The peak period is early November. In late spring, hundreds of species of bird descend upon the region. White geese can be seen rising gracefully above the sear barren. Until roughly 4000 years ago, the mid-Silurian limestone bedrock (450 million years old) here was submerged beneath the Tyrrell Sea, a massive body of water that has retreated into the present Hudson and James Bays. Postglacial gravels and sands are overlain by a layer of sedimentary clay. The land is basically flat with a few inland ridges that indicate the location of former shorelines. It tends to flood when the ice breaks up in late spring. No longer oppressed by the weight of mega-glaciers, the land is slowly rising at a rate estimated at 1.2 m per century. Caribou lichen, reindeer and sphagnum moss grow along the tundra. This is considered the most temperately located mainland tundra in the world. The simple plant cover decomposes into the uppermost layers of the peat soils, bogs, and muskeg that carpet the terrain, much of which is given to permafrost. The treeline encircles the bays like a necklace. North of this invisible limit, no trees grow. South of the line, stunted willow, spruce and tamarack masquerade as scrub, gradually rising in height, with distance travelled south. Lapland rhododendron, crowberry, and mountain cranberry also flourish here. In early summer, the tundra becomes an exquisite heath of plants in delirious bloom. Adding to the spectacle, the many ponds that dot the landscape turn rust, yellow, green, turquoise, black, ivory, brown, and other colours, depending on the plant micro-organisms and minerals in the water. Archeologists have determined that Algonquian people lived here perhaps 1000 years ago. Their descendents are the present-day Cree who reside in the coastal settlement of Winisk.
There are no visitors’ facilities. Landing permits must be obtained in advance for each of the park’s four airstrips. The only evidence of human habitation in the park is an abandoned radar station, part of a former military defence line. It consists of squat metal buildings, oil tanks, radio towers, and a few radar dishes and a landing airstrip. Visitors to Polar Bear should be prepared for any eventuality. They should bring at least one week’s extra supplies in case their departure is delayed due to bad weather. Tents should not rise any higher than necessary, due to the possibility of strong winds.
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