This is second in a series about NWT, Canada’s Northwest Territories.
Besides seeing bears and other Canadian animals, the highlight of my trip to the Northwest Territories had to be exploring Wood Buffalo National Park.
The park, which straddles the NWT/Alberta border, is the largest in Canada, and one of the largest in the world. It’s an UNESCO World Heritage site, formed to protect some of the last wild herds of bison in Canada. As you can see from the photos, it’s a unique landscape, with salt plains, boreal forest and one of the last natural habitats for the rare whooping crane.
Our guide for this portion of the trip was Richard Zaiden, manager of visitor experience for the park. While the park’s sheer size makes it difficult to estimate visitors, it’s estimated that fewer than 1,500 foreign travelers come to Wood Buffalo annually, even though it’s essentially the size of Switzerland.
Part of the reason that so few people come to the park is because some of its attractions are tough to access from regular trails. The world’s largest beaver dam – at 2,790 feet, it’s so big that you can see it from space – is here, but you can only reach it by float plane.
Likewise, it’s extremely unlikely that you’ll see a whooping crane here, as their nesting habitat is deep within the park. At least their story is a happy one: once on the brink of extinction, with only 14 birds, the whooping cranes have increased in number. Richard said that there’s now 300 birds within the park, on 75 nests.
At one point, the park was a focal point for the Hudson Bay Company, who saw the naturally forming salt piles as a possible commodity to be exploited. The deposits form when salt bubbles up to the surface from the local springs, forming mounds. It’s then dispersed across the plains, coating the ground with white that can look like snow from a distance.
Richard told us that the salt acted as a natural spa treatment, similar to the effect that you get from floating in the Dead Sea. I took off my shoes to give it a go. The salt felt strangely smooth against my feet, and if you squished beneath the surface, you’d reach a healing mud. My feet did feel softer after I stomped around a bit.
While we didn’t see much wildlife within the park, we noted their presence in the tracks along the salt. Above is a wolf track, recognizable by its non-retractable claws. Wood Buffalo National Park recently had a cameo in the documentary Frozen Planet, when photographers captured the rare sight of a pack of wolves taking down a buffalo.
Similarly, the bison that the park is named for had also left their mark. Check out the giant buffalo patty above (while I didn’t see any bison within the park, we passed two herds along the road on the way in).
The park is also known for its red-tailed garter snakes, which undergo a special ritual in mid-April and early May. When a female snake comes out of her den, the male snakes in the area jump on her like white on rice, turning into a “mating ball.”
While it sounds a little bit like a reptile gang bang, Richard told us not to worry about the female – of all of the males surrounding her, she’ll only pick one. The males will then disperse until another female enters the area. The park bills the phenomena as a “snake awakening” – and people come from miles around to watch, Richard said.
The park does have an amazing amount of biting insects. Richard lent us bug shirts to deter the mosquitoes and horseflies. I felt a little like a beekeeper (plus the shirts were warm), but they did make walking around a little more bearable. Make sure you have something like this before you visit, as well as plenty of repellent.
Besides visiting the salt plains, we took a quick hike to Grosbeak Lake. Here, the salt flats are strewn with boulders carried here by glaciers, and left behind as the Ice Age retreated. It has a moonscape look to it that has a unique beauty.
So how do you get here anyway? It’s not easy. You can either fly to Edmonton and drive the 813 miles north to the Alberta park entrance. Or you do as we did, and come south from Hay River. It’s the type of place that you’d include on a road trip north, instead of a destination unto itself.
This isolated area of the NWT seems made for a RV trip. Another option is to stay in nearby Fort Smith, although tourist services are limited. Richard recommended the Whooping Crane Inn as a bed & breakfast. (Our hotel was in Hay River, which is way too far away from the park for a proper day trip).