Thoughts and Reflections from the Hudson Bay Project by Robert F. Rockwell

 

Dr. Rockwell is a population biologist and ecologist working primarily on the dynamics of interacting species in the Hudson Bay Lowlands. While the main theme of his field project has centered on lesser snow geese, work has expanded in the last 20 years to include various non-goose herbivores (e.g. caribou) and predators including arctic foxes, wolves and both grizzly and, especially, polar bears. He and his students and colleagues integrate field approaches, laboratory assessments and state-of-the-art analytical and modeling techniques. 

He is a member of the Hudson Bay Project, an international team dedicated to research in remote, coastal arctic tundra. He is a colleague and a great friend of Donnie, Marilyn and the rest of the Walkoski Clan. 

 May of 1994, Paul Matulonis called me from Churchill and said we would not be able to transport our gear and supplies to the La Pérouse Bay Station. This was terrible news, as I knew of no other options for transport that year. Paul then informed me that he had met a fellow named Don Walkoski (Donnie), who had an enormous orange machine with a flatbed, whom he thought might do the job. I gave the go-ahead and Paul made it to camp with the gear and supplies. 

I made it to town shortly thereafter with Dr. Bob Jeffereis and five students, all with gear and supplies. I met Donnie Walkoski and his wife Marilyn and arranged for transport of the gear and people. The cab held only three but Donnie bolted two car bench seats to the flatbed for the students after tying down the load. We set off for La Pérouse Bay from the Northern Studies Centre. I rode in the cab with Donnie and his friend Richard, where it was warm and conversation was incredibly enjoyable.

 

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"One of the earlier machines" 

That began a relationship that endures to this day. 

Donnie annually improved and refined his freight vehicles and moved our gear and students into and out of the camp for many years. He also provided help when it came to fixing almost anything we managed to break. What started as purely a business arrangement quickly morphed into a personal one on may levels, and it is hard to say whether we became part of the Walkoski Clan or they became part of the Hudson Bay Project – likely a bit of both. 


Donnie and Marilyn were not interested in simply freighting gear for a research camp. They were interested in tourism that, while centered on polar bears, offered a full glimpse of the north. I think much of that had to do with Donnie’s life-long appreciation for the Land and all that it holds. As with his first unsightly freight machine, the first bear tourism machines were equally rough and primitive. As with the freight machines, they improved annually with yet a newer model being built, first in Churchill and later in Winnipeg. It had become an annual event at the end of our field season for Donnie to say something along the lines of “that’s the last one I am building”. And, each spring I would arrive to find he was finishing up yet another on that was bigger, better and badder. The newest generation are the Polar Rovers – well appointed and capable of going over almost any terrain. 

As the equipment improved and the fleet grew, so did the company. However, the basic principals underlying their operation never changed. As one of the ecologists working in the area, I remain impressed that stewardship of the Land and safety of the polar bears and other animals by this company remains paramount. While I am sure that Donnie grew tired of my detailed explanations of ecological intricacies of the system, he and Marilyn always made sure that their drivers and crew presented the tourists with up-to-date and correct explanations of the bears and their biology. In my opinion, theirs is a model for what successful tourism operations should be.

Beyond the business aspects of our relationship, my wife and I were accepted as part of the family. I have spent many enjoyable hours around the dining room table eating drinking and solving the word’s problems. Great White Bear Tours has always been a family adventure, as their three sons and later their partners and wives joined the conversation. Everyone was fair game to be picked on and teased (Donnie’s favourite sport)­­ – but he got it as good as he gave. 

As I complete my 50th year working in the region as an ecologist, I hold watching this business and family grow and mature among my fondest memories. I feel privileged to have been a part of it.

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