The post is the first in a series of posts from the NWT in Canada.
I thought I was lucky to get within 100 feet of grizzly bears in the Khutzeymateen Valley outside Prince Rupert in British Columbia (and as you can see by the cub photos in that post, I was). Little did I know that I would get even closer – as in, within 3 feet – to black bears in the NWT.
For Americans who might not have Canadian lingo down, the NWT stands for the Northwest Territories, a monster swath of land north of Alberta, Saskatchewan and part of British Columbia. There are only 41,000 people in 500,000 square miles.
And apparently, plenty of wildlife. In one day, I saw three black bears, two herds of bison, a moose, a garter snake, a red-tailed hawk and a flock of pelicans that live in rapids. Unfortunately, it’s hard to plan to see wildlife in the NWT; we saw most of the animals as we drove along the isolated roads within the territory.
Our route through NWT took us southeast from Hay River to the Wood Buffalo National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site and Canada’s largest, on the Alberta border. It was a long haul. I’ll share pictures and write more about the park in a later post, but believe me when I say that this is a remote corner of the world.
If you come out here, be prepared for long drives, few people on the road and very small towns that close up well before the sun sets. Tourism infrastructure is still under development, and Value Luxury travelers might want to consider renting an RV.
If you look at a map of the Northwest Territories, you’ll notice that it’s pockmarked with lakes. Unfortunately, that comes with a nasty side effect: An incredible amount of mosquitoes. I had never seen so many (and I grew up in Minnesota). At times, it was unbearable.
Noticing our distress, a ranger at Wood Buffalo National Park lent us a “bug shirt,” which helped. The area is also plagued by black horseflies in the summer.
It’s best to view wildlife at night – and with the midnight sun, dusk lasts a long time. This is how the horizon looked at 12:45 a.m. Within a few hours, the sun was back up. On the solstice, Fort Smith, where the park is located, has 18 hours of daylight.
Now, about that bear. Our driver, Tyler Peterson of Hay River, is a passionate hunter, a talent which stood us in good stead when we were looking for wildlife. He saw the bear near the road several hundred yards before we came upon it.
Because she was eating calmly by the side of the road, Tyler said we could get out and snap some photos. Black bears are notoriously volatile, however, and so when she started moving toward us, he ordered us in the car, quickly.
The bear walked up to the car and sat down within three feet, looking at us. We cranked our windows down as far as we could, and snapped away. Although Tyler cautioned that she might lunge, she remained calm and waddled away after about 10 minutes.We speculated that she could have been looking for something to eat. If so, that’s a shame. A human-habituated bear is a dangerous bear.
We saw two more bears later that night. While it’s fun to take photos of them from the car, I’ve heard enough gruesome stories of maulings to have a healthy fear of them. They might look cuter and smaller than grizzly or polar bears, but even a black bear can be deadly. Just look at those powerful paws.
The wood buffalo were a little easier to handle (although Tyler was still watching to make sure they didn’t charge). I’ve seen plenty of Great Plains bison, but had no idea that there was a species of buffalo that lived near forests.
It’s a heavier buffalo, with males weighing up to 2,000 pounds. It’s also rarer than their Plains cousin, with many suffering from diseases such as tuberculosis.
The second herd we saw had several calves. While they stuck close to their mothers, they showed a little curiosity about the people on the road pointing cameras at them.
Most longtime readers know that I spent several years in Louisiana, the Pelican State. I’ve usually only seen the birds soaring over the placid Gulf of Mexico. But the NWT has a colony of white pelicans who live in the middle of the Slave River rapids, where they scoop up fish that come over the rocks.
Because you can walk out on the rocks and get close to them, the area is very popular for birders (it’s also popular for extreme kayakers).
I wish I had a photo of a moose to show you. Tyler spotted it as we were driving back, late at night. It was bathing in a pond under the full moon, and ran out into the woods as soon as we stopped (I saw it in the water, but wasn’t quick enough with my camera couldn’t capture it).
So instead, I’ll leave you with a photo of Veronique Sabourin, an Aboriginal craftwoman that we met, tanning the hide of a moose that her husband shot. As you might imagine, hunting is a way of life here – and caribou, moose and bison are eaten regularly.