Exploring Hudson Bay: A Visitor's Guide

Aurora Borealis, Hudson Bay
Aurora Borealis, Hudson Bay

Hudson Bay, in northeast Canada, is the world's largest inland sea - extending between 63 and 51 degrees latitude north. Partly within the Arctic Circle, it connects with the Atlantic Ocean via the Hudson Strait and Sea of Labrador, and with the Arctic Ocean via the Foxe Channel, Foxe Basin, and Gulf of Boothia. Its vastness is barely imaginable. The isolated and wild bay measures 1,350 kilometers from north to south and 830 kilometers across, covering a total area of 637,000 square kilometers. Hudson Bay has an average depth of 128 meters and a maximum depth of 259 meters. This means there are many treasures to explore on land and underwater.


Sunrise over the tundra
Sunrise over the tundra

Hudson Bay, edged by the glacial elevations of the Canadian Shield with Pre-Cambrian gneiss and granite, has a hinterland with the typical flat ground-moraine landscape of Arctic tundra stretching to the timberline in the north and the James Bay area to the south. Baffin Island, a remainder of the crystalline mountains of the Canadian Shield, rises to heights of 2,000 meters.


The climate is subpolar-continental. During the long winter, with temperatures as low as -60°C, Hudson Bay is covered with ice one to two meters thick. When there are strong north-westerly winds, the pack-ice can tower as high as eight meters. During the brief summer, when temperatures can reach 20°C, the permafrost on land thaws down to depths of 60 meters, transforming the landscape into a broad, impassable bog. The constant process of freezing and thawing has led to the formation of special phenomena such as pingos, which are mounds of earth formed through pressure from a layer of water trapped between newly frozen ice and underlying permafrost.

Wildlife and Vegetation

Polar bear, Hudson Bay
Polar bear, Hudson Bay

Although the growing season is generally less than five months, there is still an astounding variety of Arctic vegetation. In fact, more than 800 plant species have been identified, including mosses, lichens, ferns, and flowers such as polar poppies, purple saxifrage, Arctic campanulas, and Arctic lupine. But the harsh climate means there is less wildlife. Migratory birds and seals are abundant, and polar bears occasionally venture into the settlements in search of food. In summer, the marshy landscape swarms with midges and flies. Hudson Bay has vast fish stocks, as yet largely untapped, and the occasional school of white Beluga whales.


Hudson Bay was discovered in 1610 by Henry Hudson and later named after him. The first European to reach Hudson Bay overland was Pierre Esprit Radisson, in 1662, and the first trading post followed at the mouth of the Rupert River in 1668.


The area around Hudson Bay is very sparsely populated. The biggest sector of the population is the Inuit, who have largely given up their traditional way of life as hunters, now living from fishing and handicrafts in the few small communities along the coast.


The Hudson Bay region is rich in natural resources, but their exploitation and transport have been so seriously curtailed by the nature of the terrain and the harsh living conditions as to make their extraction uneconomical. The fact that this potentially good waterway freezes over brings shipping to a standstill from October to June.

It was 1929 before what is still the only railway line was opened between Winnipeg and Churchill, a newly created port for getting wheat out of the Canadian Prairie provinces. No roads are passable all year round. The most important means of transport is currently by plane. The fur trade, and cod and salmon fishing are still of economic importance.

Hudson's Bay Company

The oldest company still trading in North America, Hudson's Bay Company can look back over a 350-year history. On May 2nd 1670, King Charles II granted a team of Englishmen led by his cousin, Prince Rupert of Bohemia, full mining and trading rights for the territories draining into Hudson Bay. The company thus acquired control of a territory of around eight million square kilometers, or one twelfth of the earth's surface, with rich mineral resources and fabulous fur-hunting grounds.

The fur of the beaver, widespread here, was a sought-after luxury in Europe at that time, used for making beaver hats and other articles of clothing. The Hudson's Bay Company established a network of trading posts over the largely unexplored north and west of Canada, bases for the later settlement and development of the country.

The English traders' almost total monopoly of the fur trade did not run into any serious competition until a century later, when the North West Company was founded in 1779. After a bitter struggle, however, this new rival was forced into a merger in 1821. Nevertheless the changed technical, political, and social circumstances meant the powerful company could no longer maintain its hegemony and, in 1870, it had to sell its land to the Canadian government. Other holdings, including the fur trading company, have been disposed of in recent decades. Nowadays the former fur traders own many big department stores throughout Canada and employ thousands of people.

Puvirnituq, Canada

The Nunavik village of Puvirnituq has about 1,400 residents, mostly Inuit. It has become well known as a handicraft center producing stone sculptures, prints, and decorated textiles.

Salluit, Canada

Some 300 kilometers further north from Puvirnituq, Salluit lies in the Perpetual Ice near the Hudson Strait. For three hundred years ships have passed by here as they entered Hudson Bay from the Atlantic, often looking for the port of Churchill in the southwest of Hudson Bay.

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