Eight years in Pukaskwa’s backcountry

Pukaskwa National Park

By Courtney Irvine

When I showed up to my first day of work at Pukaskwa National Park in 2014, I was nervous. I had accepted an offer for a 6-month summer term as a “Resource Management Officer.” What on earth did that even mean? In what has become eight adventurous years, I learned exactly what that means… variety!

Each day offers a different experience and learning opportunity, often in remote locations of the park. The list of projects I’ve worked on during my time at Pukaskwa is incredibly diverse. I have surveyed flora and fauna of nearly every major taxon – from tiny aquatic plants to soaring peregrine falcons and everything in between. I’ve been involved in ecological integrity monitoring, infrastructure impact assessments, search and rescue operations, external research projects, and even quality visitor experiences. Through it all, the dependable highlight for me has been spending time in Pukaskwa’s expansive and impressive backcountry.

“The wild shore of an inland sea” is an appropriate description for the 1,878 km2 of land and 120 km of Lake Superior coastline. Every nook and cranny of the park is breathtaking, and every day unpredictable. Though the days are long, the insects sometimes relentless, and the field equipment often heavy, the challenges that come with working in remote locations of the park bring a sense of relief, satisfaction, and reward. Off the beaten path, the locations where ecological field work occurs offer unparalleled opportunities to appreciate what makes Pukaskwa special. Here are a few of my favourite spots in the park:

Calm waters at North Swallow River (Giiwednong zhaaashawinibiis wi ziibi)
Credit: Courtney Irvine

North Swallow is a protected sandy bay, perfect for landing a vessel and having a break before getting to work! We sample the adjacent river three times per year for water quality, and once each fall for aquatic invertebrates. We also set up bird and bat audio recording stations and a wildlife camera to record animals using the vicinity. 

Otter Cove (Nigi shtgwaaning) cloaked in fog
Credit: Courtney Irvine

While working in the south end of the park, we stay at a patrol cabin in Otter Cove. The sound of Swainson’s thrushes, loons, and spring peepers lull us to sleep. On this occasion, we awoke to thick fog billowing in and out of the cove following a storm. The fog makes navigation challenging, but the moody feeling and accompanying calm waters of Lake Superior are uniquely beautiful.

Spring flush at Oiseau Bay (Wiso wikwedon)

Credit: Courtney Irvine

The vibrant green in spring, when the leaves of deciduous trees burst from buds that have endured eight months of winter, is a spectacular sight in Pukaskwa. With this comes the reliable appearance of insects, and the loyal return of migratory birds. On this particular day, I was lucky to see a Marbled Godwit, a rare shorebird in the park, foraging along the beach.  Wildlife sightings are a great bonus to any day.

Hattie Cove (Bii to bii gong) from above
Credit: Parks Canada

Only 2 km from the Visitor Centre, the wetland at the back of Hattie Cove is an uncommon and remarkable ecosystem within Pukaskwa. Coastal wetlands of the Great Lakes are important fish nurseries, and home to a diversity of plants and animals. Recently, we used a drone to create high resolution maps of wetland areas in the park; seeing the vegetation communities from the air has really improved my understanding and respect for these complex environments.

Water quality sampling at the Pukaskwa River (Bii-skikaag saateg ziibi)
Credit: Parks Canada

Working at the park, I’ve collaborated with thoughtful, kind, and knowledgeable colleagues and partners. None of my experiences would have been the same without their cooperation and company. Thank you, merci, miigwetch for your dedication to sharing the stewardship of this superior shore.

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