In Manitoba’s far north lies one of our most vast and little known wilderness areas, the Seal River watershed.
Covering 50,000 square km (an area nearly the size of Nova Scotia), this pristine landscape encircles a realm of unimaginable natural beauty with a richness of geography and ecology unparalleled in our province.
As the northernmost of Manitoba’s great rivers, the Seal River still flows freely, unhindered by dams and other industrial developments.
Its path spans 260 km from its source (Shethanei Lake) to Hudson Bay, yet it is roughly 200 km from the coast that the waters are first greeted by eager and unexpected ambassadors of the ocean: harbour seals. In this location, the river’s namesake animal likely strays further from their marine environment than anywhere else on earth.
Carving a path east through untouched subarctic forest the surrounding landscape plays host to black bear, wolf, fox and wolverine, as well as moose, beaver, otter, eagle, osprey and boreal songbirds. Swooping from cliffs along the river’s edge, cliff swallows nest here at the northern limit of their range.
The scents of spruce and lichen mingle as the landscape transitions to tundra (where the long extirpated grizzly bear is making a comeback) and to the peat rich soils of the Hudson Bay lowlands, North America’s largest wetland.
Within the Seal River region there are at least 22 known species at risk — including wolverines, grizzly bears, killer whales, olive-sided flycatchers and lake sturgeon — and at least 260 identified mammal, aquatic, bird, plant and insect species.
Conserving the spectacularly beautiful and pristine Seal River Watershed will protect caribou, Beluga whales, polar bears and other threatened species.
An overwhelmingly crucial presence on the physical and cultural landscape are the 400,000 caribou which travel south from Nunavut to winter near the Seal River.
The Beverly herd is considered highly vulnerable while the Qamanirjuaq herd has been declining by 2% a year since 2008. Traditionally hunted by Inuit and Dene communities of present day Nunavut and northern Manitoba, these majestic animals are an irreplaceable part of the ecosystem and a spectacular representation of Canada’s wild landscape that we cannot afford to compromise.
Polar bears come ashore in spring as the ice in Hudson Bay retreats. The bears conserve their energy in the summer sun, before making their way back to the coast of Hudson Bay to wait for the formation of winter ice. Some 3,000 Beluga whales find refuge in the Seal River estuary to breed, calve and prepare for their winter migration.
An Important Bird Area
Seemingly endless mud and sand flats are formed by the four-meter tides which govern the Seal River’s estuary, which is designated an Important Bird Area.
On a single spring day, birders can delight in the sight of more than 3,000 Black Scoters, 1,000 white-winged Scoters, 300 Arctic Terns, 250 Tundra Swans and more than 200 Pacific Loons.
The fall migration brings thousands of High Arctic shorebirds. An August’s day can bring more than 2,000 Sandpipers, nearly 500 Hudsonian Godwits, more than 300 Dunlins and nearly 200 Semipalmated Plovers.
Those hungry shorebirds compete with thousands of waterfowl and tundra-breeding passerines, including more than 9,000 Canada Geese, 2,500 Snow Geese, nearly 900 Lapland Longspurs and nearly 600 American Black Ducks.
A Canadian Heritage River
Recognized as the “last truly wild river in Manitoba” the Seal was designated a Canadian Heritage River in 1992.
The Seal River offers an outstanding white-water canoeing and kayaking experience for the small number of adventurers willing to fly 1,000 kilometers north of Winnipeg. The challenging trip includes long sets of rapids and a boulder-strewn tidal estuary. It offers spectacular views, including 300 metre-wide eskers which extend several hundred kilometres in a north-south direction.
The Seal’s cultural heritage dates back thousands of years. Prehistoric artefacts have been found dating from the Paleo-Indian peoples of 7,000 years ago, to the Taltheili who existed from 1 C.E. to 1700 C.E.
The river also forms an important chapter in the story of a historic overland trek to the Arctic coast by European explorer Samuel Hearne, who sought the Northwest Passage for the Hudson’s Bay Company. Hern left Prince of Wales Fort, near Churchill, in February 1771 and followed the Seal River inland on foot to Shethanei Lake. There he encountered the Sayisi Dene, who assisted him on his journey.
Mitigating Climate Change
The watershed also acts as a massive carbon sink. A provincial assessment of the proposed Polar Bear Park—which is similar in geography but significantly smaller at 2.9 million hectares—found it stored more than 2.4 billion tonnes of carbon.