A Journey Down the Nelson River with Fox Lake Cree Nation

On August 15th and 16th, the Tim Poole, Manitoba IBA Program Coordinator, was invited to attend the Gathering of the Fox Lake Cree Nation. This was funded through the generous support of Nature Canada’s IBA Local Action Fund (LAF), and coordinated with the Centre for Indigenous Environmental Resources (CIER). Our intention was to reach out to members of the community in relation to the Nelson River Estuary and Marsh Point IBA, part of which is in Fox Lake’s territory. This is first part of the story of a fantastic journey in the north.

As a program, we have a strong interest in building relationships with communities living on the land, working on the land, and using the land in their local IBA. We are currently into the second year of a three year project to reach out to communities around the four Manitoba Hudson Bay coastline IBAs. Before moving on, it would be worth giving a summary description of these IBAs for readers unfamiliar with this area.

The most well known Manitoban IBA in Hudson Bay is the Churchill and Vicinity IBA. In year 1 of our grant, Bonnie Chartier and I delivered a number of outreach activities in the IBA (to read more about our trip, see blog 1, blog 2, blog 3, blog 4, blog 5). In 2018, Bonnie returned in early August, and a university professor from the USA, Kit Schnaars, was moving forward with setting up a local birding group for the summer months.

Churchill is a well known birding spot, and was designated IBA for a number of species, namely Ross’s Gull, Little Gull (Churchill hosts a large proportion of North America’s small breeding population of both these species), Snow Goose, Whimbrel and Ruddy Turnstone, among others.

North of Churchill and Vicinity IBA is the Seal River Estuary IBA. Bonnie actually managed to visit the Seal River this summer for a day, thanks to the generosity of Churchill Wild, and was able to promote the glories of this spectacular area for birds and birding. The Seal River Estuary was designated due to its large concentrations of Pectoral Sandpiper and Black Scoter, but is also a major stopover for other shorebirds. For more information on this area, see this piece by Dr Christian Artuso on the birds of this area.

Close to the Ontario border is the Kaskattama River Estuary IBA. This IBA is our remotest one, a tough achievement given the competition! There is a hunting lodge, but little else. In fact, it is so remote, no one during the Manitoba Breeding Bird Atlas made it here, even though there was attempts! It was designated for large migratory concentrations of Cackling Goose and Hudsonian Godwit.

Finally, we come to the Nelson River Estuary and Marsh Point IBA. This includes York Factory, the old fur trading post. The IBA was designated for incredible concentrations of Red Knot and Black Scoter, and takes in parts of Wapusk National Park, all the way across the Nelson and Hayes Estauries, almost as far as Cape Tatnum.

All these IBA’s are known for their high concentrations of birds. What many of us living in the south of Manitoba forget though, is that these IBAs are not just about birds. They are about people. Manitoba’s northern indigenous communities have lived here for longer than any reference can be found to an IBA, and long before any European touched down in North America. For thousands of years, people have lived in these IBAs, taking advantage of the bountiful natural resources to live and thrive. The IBAs are therefore not just special for birds, they are also part of the cultural and social traditions for Manitoba’s northern Cree First Nations, and not just part of tradition, but also part of these communities present lives.

Fox Lake is one of these communites. Their band office is in Gillam, their main reserve around 30 minutes north of the town, but their territory is in the vast boreal and coastal areas along the Nelson River up the estuary. Members of this community still use these lands, and for this reason, we are interested in talking with them, about the IBA.

Arriving in Gillam on the 14th August, I was driven from the airport by Joanne from Fox Lake, to Kettle Camp, a place used by contractors working on Hydro Projects. This was on the recommendation of Val from Fox Lake. Joanne also drove me in to Gillam next morning to meet my ride up to the launch on the Nelson River. As someone who needs to stretch his legs and go exploring, I found Kettle Camp somewhat claustrophobic. Why? Well, let’s just say that this is apparently also a favourite haunt of bears! A short walk around the grounds indicated that birds were already thin on the ground, a few Common Raven, Ring-billed Gulls and the occasional Bald Eagle being all I could find. Mid-August in the northern boreal is probably not the liveliest time to go I suppose!


Signs of the wearing summer, and the early coming of fall? A very worn late summer fritillary (identification to follow). Copyright Tim Poole

I was to drive to the boat launch on the Nelson River with Gord Bluesky. I had come across Gord’s name previously as he was the Land and Resources Manager for Brokenhead Ojibway Nation. Brokenhead is on the edge of the Netley-Libau Marsh, so Gord has long lived in the shadow of an IBA! Although he is a band member of Brokenhead in Treaty 1, he is now based in Thompson with his young family doing a similar role for Fox Lake. This hour was an important learning experience for me. Gord explained about the history of Fox Lake, the relationship with the land, and many of the injustices that have been faced by this community, since colonialism, and more recently, the development of hydroelectric dams. Gord used the word ‘resilient’ to describe Manitoba’s northern First Nations in the face of what must have been overwhelming social and environmental change. Since my visit, this abuse was documented in a report from the Clean Environment Commission.


Kettle Dam just outside Gillam. Hydroelectric development dominates this northern landscape, leading to now well-documented environmental and social change. Copyright Tim Poole

The drive also gave us the opportunity to view some of the developments in this area, including the Longspruce Hydro Dam, where pelicans gathered to feed on fish, and Bald Eagles sat along the dykes, and even posed on the bridge, looking for a bite to eat.


A young Bald Eagle which was sitting nonchalantly on the Longspruce Dam. Copyright Tim Poole


View north of Longspruce Hydroelectric Dam. Note how the water takes on the appearance of a resevoir rather than a flowing river. The pelicans and eagles seemed to like it, but as with all development, their are winners, and their are losers. Copyright Tim Poole

We arrived at the boat launch at 10:30 at Keewatinohk Converter Station. The boat drivers were already there, but there was a bit of a problem. Not enough water! Apparently, in summer, the water at the hydro dams is held back overnight, and released slowly throughout the day to feed air conditioners in Winnipeg (and no doubt elsewhere in the south, they just mentioned Winnipeg). Interestingly, the exposed rocks and gravel at this time was ideal habitat for foraging shorebirds, and about an hour later, it was pretty obvious, that these birds had been displaced – a number of shorebirds were seen flying along the river in small flocks. Although the initial foraging conditions were ideal for these migrating birds, the ever rising water levels must eventually displace them throughout the day.


The boat launch on the Nelson. Copyright Tim Poole

The boat trip was uneventful – well, for our boat anyway! The guys from Fox Lake certainly seemed to know the river, and were able to pass through smoothly. Another boat carrying some other non-indigenous people unfortunately managed to knock its propeller on some rocks – more than once! Needless to say, the driver of this boat did not come from Fox Lake! There were good numbers of shorebirds, including Sanderling, Least Sandpiper, Semipalmated Plover and Greater Yellowlegs. I also picked out an Arctic Tern in among the Common Terns. I expected to see more ducks. There were a few small groups, but given the timing, I had hoped I might see some movement of mergansers and other northern and boreal ducks. Timing is everything when doing migration counts.


The banks of the mighty Nelson from the boat. The banks certainly showed signs of erosion in numerous places. Copyright Tim Poole

The boat trip to Deer Island lasted about one hour. The Nelson is a steep banked river, and not surprisingly for northern Manitoba, surrounded by boreal forest. The steep banks were  showing signs of erosion, and in some places I was told that this was happening fast. For example, a trail along the edge of the Fox Lake Camp on Deer Island had completely fallen into the Nelson River since 2017. I am no expert on these matters, but I did wonder whether the unnatural hold back and release of water was having an impact. Certainly, it must be doing so behind the dams, and one area near the boat launch appeared to be hollowing out quickly.


Signs of erosion on Deer Island. Copyright Tim Poole

Needless to say, this is not a conversation about the good and bad of energy policy, merely an eyewitness account of the current state of the river from a short journey.

Deer Island is located to the south and west of the Nelson River Estuary and Marsh Point IBA boundary, and in the middle of the Nelson River. It is a large rocky island covered in conifer trees, with a ground flora of blueberries, Labrador Tea, and other ericaceous shrubs. Just to the north is Wapusk National Park, and this area is full of wildlife. The bear watcher would spot caribou on the mainland coming down to drink from the river each morning. Black bear are present, and one was spotted near some blueberry pickers on the first afternoon of our visit. Moose are also present in this area.

Fox Lake Cree Nation - Deer Island area

Deer Island is the large island to the right of centre, splitting the Nelson River to north and south.

Earlier in the summer, members of Fox Lake had demolished an old camp and built a new one. The rebuild took four days to complete. The camp was small, about enough for around thirty people to stay the night, and included a kitchen/eating cabin, a generator, and that all important outhouse. The first person that one would meet on entering the camp was the bear guard. The bear guard was to be on duty all night – no rest for this critical person!


Bear guard spot to the right, camp to the rear. Copyright Tim Poole


Cabins in the forest. Copyright Tim Poole

The organisation of this gathering was down to a number of people from within the Fox Lake Band. Initially, I was going to deliver a talk on that first afternoon, but we decided to delay it until the next morning. Instead, I made my way back up stream with Gord, Stephanie, part of the environmental team at Fox Lake, and her husband Jimmy. Jimmy is someone who has boated on the Nelson River for most of his life, and knew the river really well. He also knew his birds, having assisted with some Species at Risk monitoring with the Keeyask Hydro Project. We came to the spot where the Nelson River was joined by a smaller river – I cannot remeber which river, but I do remember everyone commenting on how the river conditions were much rougher when the Weir River joined the Nelson.


Back on a boat. Copyright Tim Poole

Jimmy and Gord fished, and Stephanie showed me one of the Fox Lake hunting cabins above the shore. I found Spruce Grouse poop – did I ever mention that I was a co-author on a study on the impacts of recreational disturbance on grouse – we used poop as a proxy for distribution of birds? I know my grouse poop! Red-breasted Merganser, Greater Scaup, Osprey and Least Sandpipers were noted in this area. The guys were failing to catch anything, so Stephanie showed them how it was done, catching a pike. The guys also caught walleye afterwards – but due to their small size, all fish were returned to the water.


A view of the Nelson from the land, this time from Deer Island. Copyright Tim Poole

We headed back to camp once another boat made its way downriver – we had been waiting for this boat to return. On return to camp, and following an excellent supper, three boats headed up river. It was now 7:30, and we were leaving later than we hoped, mainly because we had to wait for the tide to move out at the estuary – this is after all a very large river! We were to travel downriver for an hour and then turn around – darkness was after all closing in. A Polar Bear had been spotted on Gillam Island well within the IBA boundary, and there was some hope we might almost get that far. Well, we could see Gillam Island by 8:30, and Hudson Bay, so we did get pretty close. But did we make it to the IBA? Jimmy thought maybe, just, but maybe not. I had my GPS on track, and later downloaded it, and here is the result (drum roll please).

Fox Lake Cree Nation - IBA trip

Blue line to the left, IBA to the right – so so close!

By my reckoning, we were within a few hundred metres of the IBA. Gutting! It was though a useful trip, and along with the rest of this visit, will hopefully will open up future opportunities for working together. We did get to point out some birds as the darkness closed in, including a small flock of Sanderling, no doubt looking for a spot to roost for the night. A Great Blue Heron flew overhead, and Semipalmated Sandpiper whipped around the shorelines. The Bald Eagle total for the day must, if I had included the birds seen on the morning drive, have tipped almost 50. Greater Yellowlegs and Ring-billed Gulls were also around, but the teasing prospect of the estuary left me wanting more! Maybe next year I will finally get to enter this special IBA!


A look into the IBA as the sun sets. The large rock is Gillam Island. Copyright Tim Poole

Returning to camp, we slept in the new huts, made by members of the community specially for the gathering. The following morning, I awoke early wake-up to see if any wildlife was wandering along the shoreline. Alas, maybe due to the strong winds whipping up the river, there was little to be spotted. Later in the morning, I did spot a Peregrine Falcon swooping along the river, and a Northern Harrier swooping over, what I suspect was some open bog habitat to the east. The newly named Canada Jay, called Whisky Jack by the people at Fox Lake, started calling midway through the morning as well.


Call the alarm. A Gray Jay, er Whisky Jack, er Canada Jay, er who knows anymore! This bird was obviously not photographed on Deer Island but near the boat launch the previous day. Copyright Tim Poole

After breakfast, I gave a presentation about the IBA Program and the significance of the Nelson River Estuary for birds. I hope they enjoyed it! For certain, there is already a heap of knowledge within the community, and the community shared about some of the birds they recognised and had seen previously in good numbers in the estuary. As we had done the birding part of the workshop over the previous day, that was my official time over.

The remainder of the day was spent talking with people, birdwatching, and waiting for the boat to come back. There was an appearance by a Blackpoll Warbler and Yellow Warbler. I was also given a lesson in how to make a dream catcher by two wonderful sisters from out west, who had come to share their knowledge of medicines. A Golden Eagle was the highlight of the boat ride back, and then a great conversation with a member of the community on my way back to Gillam – did I mention the topnotch organisation, with shuttle vehicles taking members of the community from the Fox Lake Reserve and Gillam to the boat launch and back?


Gord, leaving the island on the boat. Copyright Tim Poole

Another night in Gillam was unadventurous – although I did achieve a unique experience riding to the airport in the local garbage truck! Before my flight out, I had time to head to Gillam Beach, and find Wilson’s Warbler, Sharp-shinned Hawk and a nice photogenic group of Greaterr Yellowlegs to finish off a successful trip.

As with any trip such as this, there are many people who worked hard to make it work. Special thanks to Shianne McKay from CIER for setting this up. Val was the primary organiser of our participation at Fox Lake, but also thank you to Conway, and Joanne for their help. Finally to Gord, Stephanie, Jimmy, Brandy, John, and everyone else involved in organising the gathering, and for Fox Lake for being so welcoming.

I hope that this will be the start of something, that we can work together to highlight the Nelson River Estuary, it’s unique place in Manitoba’s wildlife, and just maybe show Manitoban’s in the south, a flavour of the north, its rich natural treasures and its wonderful people.