Exploring the Hudson Bay Lowlands with Chris Brackley

Canadian Geographic’s cartographer explores the many facets of the Hudson Bay Lowlands, one of the world’s most significant wetlands

  • Published Aug 19, 2022
  • Updated May 02, 2023
  • 1,933 words
  • 8 minutes
Satellite image: June/July Landsat 8 Mosaic Images 2014, 2017, 2018: NASA
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I first truly noticed the Hudson Bay Lowlands while I was creating a map that was focused on North America’s land cover. I was choosing colours for each land cover type — adding various greens for forests and yellows for cropland. But this time, instead of colouring wetlands green, I chose turquoise, a hue that reflected the space they occupy between aquatic and terrestrial environments. A turquoise that really popped. And then: bam! It appeared. A massive swath of wetlands in northern Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba, the like of which exists nowhere else in North America. I had found the Hudson Bay Lowlands.

Except the term “lowlands” really doesn’t do this region justice. I think the area should be called the Hudson Bay Wetlands. “Lowlands” simply describes the elevation of a landscape; “wetlands” describes its nature. We all have a sense of wetlands: they are flat, mucky, green places teeming with wildlife. And, increasingly, we are beginning to understand that while they may sometimes be buggy and stinky and sloppy, they are also critically important environments for supporting biodiversity and for capturing and sequestering carbon.

Imagery © Google
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While so many of the world’s wetlands have been drained to make way for development, the Hudson Bay Lowlands remain intact. And yet, it is a region and habitat that few Canadians know much about. I thought it was high time to bring the world’s third largest wetland (and second largest peatland) to our collective attention.

These wetlands are having a bit of a moment in our climate change-focused world for being critical carbon sinks. While that story is increasingly important, there are plenty of other fascinating tales to be told about this particular boggy territory, from glacial drama to ecological impacts, from contentious industrial development to a place more than 15,000 people call home.

Landscape from space

Pattern, form, colour and texture are implicit joys in the craft of map-making. When I sit down to make a map, I never begin with a blank canvas; I start with the interconnected, ever-beautiful patterns of our planet. Though these satellite images are not maps (a map requires some level of categorization and symbolization), they speak to the diversity of form found in the Hudson Bay Lowlands. And while, from the ground, this massive expanse of flat land slowly draining towards the sea can appear less than dramatic, a cartographer is privileged to be able to share the crow’s perspective, opening readers’ eyes to the beauty of the view from above.

Image: Glacial retreat data via Dalton, AS; Marigold, M; Stokes, CR; Et al. Quaternary Science Reviews, March 9, 2020
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The age makes its mark

Like much of the Canadian landscape, the Hudson Bay Lowlands is a child of the Laurentide Ice Sheet. For thousands of years during the last ice age, the weight of the kilometres-thick ice sheet slowly pushed the land down towards the centre of the Earth. As the ice retreated, it held back a massive freshwater lake, bigger than all of today’s Great Lakes combined. In what must have been a dramatic event, the ice sheet broke in two, releasing an enormous torrent of fresh water into the ocean and transforming the lake into a sea.

The sediment that collected on the bottom of the lake, and later the sea, formed the fertile and gentle sloping terrain that define the Hudson Bay Lowlands as we know them today. And the land continues to rebound from the event that saw the ice sheet crack in two. It rises about six millimetres a year.

A hub gone quiet

It’s hard to imagine Hudson Bay as Canada’s front door, but in the early years of European trade and settlement in North America, it rivalled the St. Lawrence River and the Eastern Seaboard as a gateway to the continent. York Factory, one of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s first and eventually most important trading posts, was built at the mouth of the Hayes River just 14 years after a Royal Charter granted it exclusive trading rights to the Hudson Bay watershed (eventually known as Rupert’s Land).

For Indigenous peoples who have lived on this landscape since the sea retreated thousands of years ago, the influx of Europeans to the area brought, among many other things, an expansion of their trade networks, with lucrative trading to be had at bayside posts. Unlike the French coureurs de bois who travelled inland to trade with First Nations, the Hudson’s Bay Company traders generally preferred to remain near the bay, leaving the inland movement of furs and European trade goods to the Cree (see the First Nations trade routes in purple on this map, while British routes are in red). Though bayside trade continued to ebb and flow well into the 20th century, colonial settlement never followed — leaving the shores of Hudson and James bays much as they have been since the end of the last ice age.

Hudson's Bay data via Historical Atlas of Canada Vol 1, plates 61 and 62 and Archives of Manitoba Maps;
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Wetlands matter 

Wetlands have not always been well loved. In fact, for much of the last century, they were reviled and actively drained, the removal of their odoriferous bugginess clearing the path for colonization and large-scale farming. Canada, which currently contains about one quarter of the world’s remaining wetlands, has lost an estimated 13 per cent of wetlands in the time since contact. The Hudson Bay Lowlands, almost never having had the pressure of permanent colonial settlement, have been entirely spared the fate that so many wetlands have suffered. As a result, they remain a linchpin in our global environment, regulating, cleaning and enriching water as it flows to the ocean (creating a food- and habitat-rich environment) and capturing, storing and sequestering carbon from the atmosphere. 

From carbon sink to carbon source? 

Peat is the accumulated muck that forms from slowly decomposing carbon-rich plant matter. In the Hudson Bay Lowlands, peat has been accumulating for thousands of years. Unlike forest ecosystems, which release sequestered carbon within 100 to 500 years, peatlands act as carbon sinks, burying carbon underground and keeping it out of the atmosphere for up to 10,000 years. Direct human impacts, like wildfires and drainage, lead to a significant release of carbon, but the net impact of global warming and the consequent thawing of permafrost is less definitive. Thawing peat is sure to release more of this stored carbon, but the increased density of plant life that can be grown in the newly thawed ground may help to balance this release by sequestering atmospheric carbon in its living cells. 


The wetlands feed the rivers; the rivers feed the sea

The densest populations of marine phytoplankton in the world’s oceans occur where nutrients
well up from the ocean floor or where they flow off the land. And nowhere in Canadian waters are there greater densities of phytoplankton than at the great Mackenzie Delta in Northwest Territories (a river that also runs its course through extensive wetlands) and the deltas of the Hudson Bay Lowlands’ rivers. This productivity can be seen in the phytoplankton blooms in Hudson and James bays, but is also evidenced by the convergence of birds and marine animals that stop at the tidal shores to feed along their seasonal migration routes.

Main map: 2015 Land Cover: © ESA Climate Change Initiative - Land Cover Project 2017; 2015 Land Cover: Edition 2.0 CCRS/CCMEO/NRCAN; Carbon map: Carbon-based production model (average annual 2003-2017) by Robert O'Malley,; Permafrost map: Natural Resources Canada: Open Government licence - Canada V. 2.0; Temperature change map: Prairie Climate Centre: 2051-2080 projected change in mean temperature: December. Published 2017.
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Lands in the balance

Who has a stake in the Hudson Bay Lowlands? There’s the natural world, which seeks nothing but perhaps the space to exist. There are Indigenous Peoples who have called this area home since it rose up from the sea to become terra firma. There are those involved in the industries that strive to profit from the riches of the land. And there are the various levels of government tasked with balancing the wants and needs of the aforementioned parties. 

Managing the land

Land-use decisions in the North are primarily dictated by provincial and territorial governments. The lines they draw are often straight, though sometimes hugging rivers and shorelines. Some lands are set aside for protection, while others are developed for their resources. On the surface, this map shows the implicit challenges in having one government department to protect land and one department to exploit it. Otoskwin-Attawapiskat Provincial Park has been set aside to preserve nature, yet it is next to one mine and upstream of another. And if mineral development in the so-called “Ring of Fire” moves forward, it would completely surround this protected area, severely undermining its protection.

It is encouraging to see proposed Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas in each of the three provinces of the Hudson Bay Lowlands, potentially moving Canada towards its goal of protecting 30 per cent of its lands and waters by 2030. And yet, the balance between protection and resource exploitation must be carefully struck to ensure meaningful compromise between the interests of nature, First Nations and non-Indigenous Canadians.

Exploiting the land — to save the planet? 

Industrial interests often describe nature — plants, animals and minerals — as resources and, as such, their value lies only in what they can do for us once they’ve been exploited. But the Ring of Fire mineral development project is hinging its forward progress on selling the exploitation of scarce resources (nickel, cobalt, lithium, manganese, graphite and copper) not on the grounds of profit or jobs creation, but as part of a climate-change solution, given that most of these minerals are used to make batteries for electric vehicles.

Though a meaningful cost-benefit analysis for the Ring of Fire and other mineral extraction projects in the wetlands is a nearly impossible task, what I see through a cartographic lens is clear: a permanent road built into the heart of this now nearly roadless land would be the thin edge of the wedge. Where one road goes, more are sure to follow, releasing more carbon in their construction and exposing the Hudson Bay Lowlands to further development.

Protected areas: Canadian Protected and Conserved Areas Database, Canadian Wildlife Service; Mining Claims: Ontario: Operational cell claims, Ontario Geological Survey. Downloaded March, 2022; Quebec: Titles Data, Énergie et de Ressources Naturelles Québec, downloaded June 2022; Trapline data: Ontario Ministry of Northern Development, Mines, Natural Resources and Forestry ; Grand Council of the Crees/Cree Regional Authority (Quebec); 2019-2020 Trapping Guide, Sustainable Development in Manitoba.
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Living on the land since time immemorial 

Mapping the breadth of connection between Indigenous Peoples and this landscape is no easy task. Treaty boundaries hint at it; the very idea that a treaty was necessary between settler society and First Nations is a recognition that the land at the time of treaty-making was, and remains, First Nations land. But the form of the Treaty boundaries — dominated by straight lines — are not a reflection of First Nations concepts of space and place.

A better reflection of Indigenous understanding and stewardship of the land are commercial trapline areas. Known as “family traditional territories” in Quebec, they were developed in the decades following the 1940s and imply a greater recognition by governments of the knowledge and practices of Indigenous Peoples.

The coloured areas representing the “areas of interest” for different communities describe an important aspect of First Nations’ experience today. They are outgrowths of the integrated planning exercise called the Far North Act, 2010, in which individual First Nations were asked by the Ontario government to define the land they use today to aid in planning their future. The fact that only seven of the 37 Nations within the Far North Act boundary have delineated their areas of interest (roughly equatable to traditional territories) reflects the reluctance that many First Nations have to participate in government-led land-use initiatives.

A subtle allusion to the relationship between modern First Nations people and the land is the inclusion on this map of many communities that lie outside the formal Hudson Bay Lowlands region. For example, Constance Lake First Nation’s area of interest is mainly within the Hudson Bay Lowlands, though the community is not. Undoubtedly, other border communities have ties to the lowlands. These relationships are rarely shown explicitly on maps, as First Nations territories are often not formally (or publicly) delineated.

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This story is from the September/October 2022 Issue

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