A Seven Day Journey Back in Time: An Adventure in the Proposed Tawich Marine Protected Area, Quebec – Canada.
by Troy Glover
James Bay is one of the worlds largest estuaries of the Arctic Ocean and the fourth largest bay in the world – a smaller bay on the larger Hudson Bay which serves as the second largest bay in the world next to the Bay of Bengal in the Indian Ocean. If size is to serve as any indicator, the diversity of James Bay is extreme – both historically and in the modern. I had a good friend who claimed the most interesting and significant places in the world lie at extremes, or transition zones. James Bay is no exception. It lies on a number of significant borders such as the border between the subarctic and arctic biomes, the tree line a short distance to the north, the Southern limit of the permafrost, as well as cultural borders such as the Southern limits of the Inuit and Northern limits of the Cree people. In a political sense, it also marks the union of the Canadian Provinces of Ontario and Québec, as well as Nunavut Territory. Ecologically speaking James Bay marks the Southernmost limit of polar bears in the world, as well as many arctic fish species such as arctic char and arctic cod.
Historically, it served as the gateway to inland Canada where fur trade with the Cree originated. Canada’s infamous Hudson Bay Company chose James Bay for its headquarters in Rupert House (presently the Cree Nation of Waskaganish), for its value as a centre in the fur trade. Thousands of years earlier, the Inuit migrated into the region during the most recent glaciation event. A small population of Inuit still live in the Cree Nation of Chisasibi. Based on archaeological evidence, however, their Southern extreme ran to the far south of James Bay to Charlton Island near Waskaganish. Likewise, the Cree have been present along the shores of James Bay and inland for thousands of years, making the trip to the coast annually in order to seek coastal hunting, practices they still rely on.
Today, the marine ecosystem acts as a critical lifeline for over sixty species of fish including arctic char, whitefish, sea-run speckled trout, and arctic cod; ringed seals, bearded seals, beluga whales, and the southernmost population of polar bears in the world inhabiting the Solomon Temple Islands, as well as both the South and North Twin Islands. The coastal marshes which dominate the James Bay coastline act as a major migration pathway for many species of geese and ducks, many of which are either threatened or endangered. Approximately 2.5 million lesser snow geese and 200 000 Canada geese use the Hudson Bay lowlands (including James Bay) as staging areas. Damage caused to this highly sensitive ecosystem could directly threaten migratory bird species traveling as far south as the tropics in the Southern United States and Mexico. Indirectly, damages to the entire food chain would be difficult to predict and extend much further North and South than the limits of the Hudson Bay watershed.
As I lay in my tent with my trip partner Alison Smith, I contemplate the significance of the region, pristine arctic islands such as the one I was laying on. This ecosystem is not static. From a few kilometers away we can spot the raised beaches, evidence of times much different than now. These raised beaches serve as environmental indicators, baselines, or waypoints if you will – If we treat them in the context of navigation, it allows us to see where we have gone based on where we were.
One beautiful evening as we were drawing in on the little blue flag marked on my GPS (Global Positioning System) unit, we spotted the island we had flagged weeks earlier, not knowing what we might find there. I watched intently as the grey line on the horizon split into a dichromatic topography of green grasses and grey rocks or sand. Then the raised beaches of weathered driftwood from over 500 km to the south emerged atop beautiful shelves of sea-rounded rocks from hundreds of thousands of years of erosion. I could see the energy in the air and feel the energy in the seat of my kayak. Massive tidal currents appearing as rapid bursts of water surging 5-6 feet stretched across the kilometer or so separating us from the island. The island came in and out of view as the kayak dropped into the amplitude between surges – nose first. We had no choice but to paddle through the current in order to reach the sandy oasis that awaited.
Near the top of the island lied a beautiful grassy strip overlooking a narrow channel of water between the island and mainland which served as a perfect location to pitch the tent. Once pitched, we followed our daily routine of seeking a small tundra pool of fresh water to refill our daily 4L or so of fresh water needed. We had to hike a little further than normal, but the evening was calm, fresh, and the scenery inviting. Energy was present and embraced us – and we did it: The hike took us along sprawling tundra ridges, granite cliffs, salt water marshes, and the ancient raised beaches. We stopped suddenly at what laid before our eyes.
There was a small circle of rocks perfectly placed on a flat exposed sheet of bedrock. Too small to be a tent ring, it was likely a cache at one point which would have been covered in a layer of moss, bone, driftwood, or any combination of the latter. Further along lay a series of large raised beaches of rounded rocks. Drawn towards it, we saw a much smaller ring of stones first, before seeing that it was indeed surrounded by a circular wall of similar stones. We had found the remains of an ancient Inuit tent ring. Our heads immediately lifted and as if appearing from a foggy abyss a series of five tent rings suddenly became visible along this stretch of raised beach. We had in fact found what must have been a significant summer hunting location for the Inuit who had inhabited the region thousands of years prior on their southern expansion into the frozen lands of the time.
The geography of the island was suddenly given context. The channel between it and the mainland which was deep and fast moving would have acted as a perfect location to hunt beluga and fish. The tundra pools along the rocky ridges would have been used to hunt geese on their annual migration. Lone caribou stranded on the island following the seasonal melt would have provided much needed furs, food, and bone for the making of tools. All of this information came from a small series of Inuit tent rings found on a raised beach. From these rings, we can learn about the climate of the time, human migration routes, glaciation events and the speed of such events. Within a modern context, however, they can be used as a baseline or waypoint to position us within our place and time. What is the climate like now compared to then? Do belugas still swim through the channel between the island and mainland? What fish species are present and in what abundance? What are water levels like now compared to then? These are questions which we could be seeking answers to; questions which would serve to enrich our understanding of the lives of these ancient people, but more importantly, the lives of ourselves and what we are doing to the environment that sustains us.
Time is running out, though. Development is approaching more rapid than ever. The Federal Government of Canada and Provincial Government of Québec is presently implementing its Plan Nord, a multibillion dollar development project to exploit the region of its so-called natural resources. What about arguably the greatest natural resource of all: The rich ecology in which the Hudson Bay watershed supports? How about the cultural legacy left by the Cree and Inuit that remains exactly as it was left by their ancestors and likely very much how it appeared to them when they first arrived?
These simple rings of stones are trying to tell us something before its too late. They are trying to tell us to stop what we are doing, evaluate the situation, examine such sites as waypoints within a much larger network of similar sites. As Yvon Chouinard comments in the film 180º South, “[…] the solution maybe, for a lot of the world’s problems, is to turn around and take a forward step; you can’t just keep trying to make a flawed system work”. Perhaps this is what we should be doing; turning around and examining that which came before us in order to understand where we are today and how to proceed from here.
“The best journeys answer questions that in the beginning you didn’t even think to ask”
– Jeff Johnson, 180º South
The Tawich Development Corporation in Wemindji, Québec where our seven day adventure began, has proposed a National Marine Protected Area extending from Old Factory and Weston Island South of Wemindji to Big Island just south of Chisasibi, Québec in order to preserve the cultural and environmental significance of this highly sensitive ecosystem. According to a report by CPAWS (Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society), out of 12 proposed Marine Protected Areas active in 2012, not a single site was legally protected and only 8 showed any sign of progress with 4 showing no signs of progress. Among these 4 was the proposed Tawich Marine Protected Area. When I think back to the 7 days of a seemingly endless horizon of smooth flat bedrock islands, salt water marshes, fields of icebergs, the song of thousands of geese and ducks, and the magic of an unnamed island containing 5 Inuit tent rings and a food cache I fear for the future of this sacred stretch of subarctic coastline. My hope is that out of expeditions such as this, attention will be generated towards the need for Marine Protected Areas such as Tawich leading to the preservation of the cultural and environmental heritage left by both the Cree and Inuit ancestors. We have all been left with a pristine wilderness that has and will continue to sustain us and all that we rely on, if only we can look back and learn from what sites such as these have to teach us.
by Troy Glover. 26 July 2013
Useful links provided by Troy: