Wood Buffalo National Park- Part I

A landscape awash in color and shaped by ancient waters, designated a World Heritage site for three important features.

A wood bison bull walks away from the camera, with yellow-leaved aspen and poplar trees lining the forest along which the large, dark brown animal walks.
The beleaguered wood bison was the initial trigger for planning a trip to Wood Buffalo National Park. But there is much, much more to see here! Photo ©Van der Vieren

The world is made up of people who live to plan trips, and those who do not. I belong to the planners. I spend off-seasons charting routes on maps, researching places to stay, unearthing unique experiences, reading about wildlife and landscapes. There really is not an off-season, just in-between.

But the best part of travel is what we never plan. Surprises. Changes in perspective. Little gifts wrapped up with big bows.

I reached Wood Buffalo National Park, the second largest national park in the world, only a week after I left home. This was the “trigger destination”- the reason for charting a road trip in the first place. By the time I reached it, I had so many unanticipated moments I might as well have been an astronaut wandering the moon. All those moments were created by water, some that flowed in ancient times, some flowing today.

Watercolor basemap, bright green and blue for water, showing a route from Hay River, NWT, to the Entrance of Wood Buffalo National Park, just north of the Alberta border.
The drive from Hay River to Fort Smith and the entrance to Wood Buffalo National Park. The drive winds in and out of the park on the way. The Parks Canada headquarters are in Forth Smith, NWT.

I traveled to the second largest national park in the world to see its namesake, the wood bison. This park is a World Heritage site for those bison, a dramatic landscape, and the last stand of an endangered species. Water is the creator and the life of this place.

Lands shaped by water

Water shaped much of North America for hundreds of millions of years. Whether liquid or ice, water left traces you can find across many different landscapes today. Beneath the surface, water still shapes some lands with unexpected and sometimes sudden results.

Laurentia, or the North American Craton, is a chunk of earth’s crust that has been around in one form or another for billions of years. As it crashed into other chunks of crust traveling from South Pole toward the north, Laurentia was pushed downward and covered with ancient seas. Seaways alternated with ice sheets to cover the land with water in one form or another.

A colored map of North America, with the North American Craton on roughly east of the Rockies and south into the coastal plain.
The North American Craton -a chunk of crust that has been moving around the planet hobnobbing with other chunks of crust for billions of years. United States Geological Survey, public domain.

This watery history left its mark. Wood Buffalo National Park features karst topography, composed of gypsum, limestone, and dolomite: soft rock dissolved by water and sculpted into sinkholes, caves, hidden holes waiting to swallow the living.

Visual poetry describes karst landscapes. Cave flowers are not plants. There are cave blisters, hanging blades, half-blind valleys. Karst window, karst valley, cockpit karst, cone karst, syngenetic karst. This three-dimensional mosaic requires a montage of visual terms.

A circular water basin sits at the bottom of a deep funnel. The upper walls are tan with block lines running horizontally. Rocks and gravel cover the lower part, with some red, yellow, and green plants.
You can visit this massive sinkhole by the Angus Fire Tower pulloff. It is a collapse sinkhole, which occurs when water has been dissolving layer upon layer underneath and an unsupported ceiling finally falls in.

Karst landscapes hold that most precious resource for life: water. About 25% of the United States is karst landscape, and 20% of groundwater comes from karst reserves. People around the world depend on the fresh water running through undergound seams and pockets.

A map of the US and territories, showing karst formations that hold water. Florida is almost completely blue with karst formations.
From the Karst Waters Institute, whose mission is to “improve the fundamental understanding of karst water systems for professionals and the public”.

A karst landscape is dotted with water features. Pine Lake, where I stayed in Wood Buffalo National Park, is a uvula lake, comprised of multiple sinkholes that converged.

A view of a picnic table, firepit, and long Pine Lake over the grassy knoll outside my cabin. A bison bull grazes the knoll by a line of trees fringing the lake.
This view of Pine Lake is from the screened porch where I was eating dinner when a herd of bison ambled by to snack on the lawn. A bull is grazing in front of the yellow-leaved tree to the right in the background.

Karst landscapes are continually being reshaped. Surface and groundwater dissolves soluble rocks- limestone, gypsum, dolomite. The ground doesn’t dissolve in a planar fashion and just shrink like a collapsed souffle. Water worms its way through cracks underground, forming complex water systems. The Maligne River flows underground for 16 kilometers before it resurfaces in a canyon of the same name in Jasper National Park.

Karst features can form suddenly- and catastrophically. Collapse sinkholes can do just that, as the unsupported roof of an underground cave falls in. A sinkhole swallowed part of a house and sleeping resident in Florida. Libby Gunn, author of Thebacha Trails, describes the saga of a local resident whose dog suddenly disappeared into a 45-foot deep hole hidden under moss on the Rainbow Lakes trail in Wood Buffalo.

Fireweed and shrubs hang over a sinkhole where the trunks of fallen trees lay.
This sinkhole on the Karst Trail is one step off-trail- you can see the brown trail surface at the base of the red-leaved plant in the lower left. There was even a hole in the middle of trail here, and a sinkhole to the left!

Hiking the trails in Wood Buffalo NP, I quickly found myself more afraid of the landscape than any animal. While the lure of caves may attract some, they are largely uncharted and very dangerous, according to Parks Canada cave expert Greg Horne.

A light colored wooden stairway with railing winds around a tree, letting the visitor walk to a river overlook from the top of a steep ledge.
Best to follow paths set by Parks Canada when traveling through karst country. This stairway helps you navigate the rolling landscape. In other places, you may see tape or arrows. Follow them!

I found that good ankle support was important hiking the Karstland Trail, and wished I had taken my heavier boots when I got inspired to hike the whole Salt Pan Lake/Meadows loop in one day. My ankles are pretty flexible after years of heavy use and injuries, but they were frankly sore in low hiking shoes that are usually just fine.

Parks Canada map showing the Salt Plains in tan, with Salt Pan Lake and Grosbeak Lake shown as blue circular forms.
This map can be found on Parks Canada’s Web and in hard copy from their office in Fort Smith- you can also get a more detailed topo map from GoTrekkers.

Salt Plains

Ancient waters left life today a gift when they vanished about 270 million years ago. A vast North American seaway slowly evaporated, concentrating saline water in pools as it disappeared. Specialized plants live in the salt plains, painting them with color.

View of the Salt Plains, with a stream winding through flats that have white splotches, red blooms of salt plants, and a dark green and gold forest lining the right side.
Salt Plains Lookout Wood Buffalo National Park © J. McKinnon , Creative Commons 2.0 , link to photo in credits.

The salt from this ancient sea attracts life today- including people. The first peoples to live in North America harvested this salt. Commercial interests took over during the fur trade era. Today, the Salt Plains now attract wildlife and travelers who readily remove their shoes to roam barefoot across the surface.

Geometric salt blooms decorate clay red colored surface on the salt plains.
Salt creates art in blooms on the Salt Plains at Wood Buffalo National Park. Photo Monica Van der Vieren

The area looks almost moon-like in places, with rocks covering the white surface. The salt eats at them, pitting some in almost coral patterns.

Dark rocks are randomly strewn across the whitish salt plain.
Rocks stranded on the Salt Plain give the area a moon-like appearance. Photo Monica Van der Vieren

Walking across the Salt Plains, you will wonder how things came to be what they are- was that hole once a cloven hoofprint? Or did a rock dissolve away? Or spirit away? This is a magical place to let your imagination wander.

Whooping Cranes

Large white bird with red-capped head and black mask and wingtips, flying with wings outstretched and neck stooped for balance.
Whooping Crane in flight, John Noll, United States Department of Agriculture, Texas, U.S.A.

Whooping cranes contribute another element of World Heritage designation for Wood Buffalo National Park. The complex of wetlands provide the last natural nesting site for wild whooping cranes. These majestic cranes, which stand 4-5 feet tall, migrate from Aransas, Texas to wetlands in the Wood Buffalo area, where they can safely raise their young before flying south for the winter.

Map showing whopping crane migration route as a line extending from coastal Texas in the US to Wood Buffalo National Park.
Whooping crane migration route (map: Leandra N. Taylor) from Counting the Wild Whoopers, USFWS

The whooping crane remains critically endangered, and could easily disappear forever. Never a huge population, there were an estimated 10,000 whooping cranes flying over North America when European settlers arrived. Hunting, agriculture, and other human activities reduced the population to 60 by 1976.

Old postage stamp in "woven" style showing two whooping crane adults taking care of two chicks.
Charles R. Chickering (1891–1970) [Public domain]

At that time, ornithologist George Archibald took a fresh and innovative approach to captive breeding of endangered cranes: he became a crane “husband”. Challenges didn’t end there: saving the first viable egg and resulting chick, named Gee Whiz, took heroic effort. Watch George talk about the pioneering work that changed whooping crane conservation efforts, courtesy of the International Crane Foundation:

In partnership with the U.S. government, ICF’s work has helped the whooping crane recover to about 826 birds today. The future of these birds is not guaranteed: they are threatened by impacts to their breeding grounds from hydroelectric projects in the Peace-Athabasca delta, illegal shootings, sea level rise, and predation from bobcats flourishing after humans decimated the Florida panther and red wolf.

Photo of a whooping crane puppet head feeding a little orange-brown chick wearing a leg band.
Whooping crane hand puppet feeding a chick. Credit: Jonathan Fiely, USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. Public domain.

When you drive through Fort Smith, do visit the Northern Life Museum. Never a weeper, I teared up when I entered, only to be greeted by Canus, an iconic whooping crane survivor. Canus was rescued in an unprecedented international effort in 1964.

Photo of a whooping crane mount (stuffed bird) standing in a glass case and looking out at the viewer, head facing left.
Canus, an iconic whooping crane, has returned home to greet visitors at the Northern Life Museum in Fort Smith, NWT.

Canus was sighted during aerial surveys at Wood Buffalo with an injured wing and embedded piece of charred wood, likely the result of hitting a burnt tree during flight practice. He was captured and brought to Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. Despite a few more rounds of bad luck, Canus lived to 39 and became the sire/grandsire of 186 chicks.

After Canus’ passing, his stuffed body was returned to his birthplace. He now greets visitors in a whooping crane display at the Northern Life Museum and Cultural Centre in Fort Smith. Where he brings tears to the eyes of people like me, who never want to see our natural heritage disappear.

Photo of a whooping crane and sandhill crane from underneath, flying wingtip to wingtip with a deep blue sky in the background.
A whooping crane and smaller sandhill crane fly together over the Platte River in Nebraska, U.S. Photo Van der Vieren.

Wood Buffalo

I will talk more about the beleaguered Wood Buffalo in other posts, and I’ve added their history to this Story Map. This iconic animal, the namesake of the National Park and World Heritage site, was the reason for my travel and will be the reason I return again (pandemic allowing).

Photo of a wood bison bull walking right through grass with aspen starts.
Photo ©Van der Vieren.

I’ll close this chapter with a video from Pierre-Emmanuel Chaillon, a brilliant photographer and videographer, and resident of Fort Smith. Mr. Chaillon notes that drone footage was acquired under a permit from Wood Buffalo National Park. More of Chaillon’s superb work can be found at http://www.pierreemmanuelchaillon.com/ .


A Glossary of Karst Terminology, compiled by Watson H. Monroe for the United States Department of Interior, 1899. https://pubs.usgs.gov/wsp/1899k/report.pdf

What is karst? And why is it important? https://karstwaters.org/educational-resources/what-is-karst-and-why-is-it-important/

A ‘Honking Big Cave in Canada’ Lures Geologist to its Mouth- New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/08/science/canada-cave-british-columbia.html

Cave explorer takes stock of hidden holes in Wood Buffalo National Park, Northern Journal, March 31, 2014.

End of an Era-Our Deepest Gratitude to the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, International Crane Foundation, March 2, 2018 https://www.savingcranes.org/end-of-an-era-our-deepest-gratitude-to-the-patuxent-wildlife-research-center/

Melinaguene [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

Ansgar Walk [CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D

Salt Plains Lookout, Wood Buffalo National Park, © J. McKinnon https://www.flickr.com/photos/iucnweb/9552353373/in/photostream/

Hay River Day 3: Exploring ancient waterways

Contemplating Deep Time and life as a chimera

Monday dawned clear, an invitation to explore. The sun rose on a chilly and serene morning as I walked the shores of Great Slave Lake. After a late night watching the aurora, rolling out of a warm sleeping bag to catch the sunrise seemed like a stretch. But I had planned a day following water. Strolling the beach by the campground with a cup of coffee and a camera seemed like a good start.

You have to stand on the shores of the Great Slave to feel its draw. North America’s deepest lake stretches across the horizon like the ocean, and back in time to the last ice age.

The beach by Hay River Campground curves, leading to a spit where seagulls nest. Morning light turned the sands to bronze.

An arc of lakes from Great Bear Lake to the Great Lakes tells the story of the Ice Age that started about 2.5 million years ago and ended only recently. The Laurentide Ice Sheet covered northeastern North America, millions of square miles (or kms) shaping the landscape. The Laurentide butted up against the “smaller” Cordilleran Ice Sheet that covered almost a million square miles in the west.

In the last glacial maximum, from about 95,000-20,000 years ago, the Laurentide Ice Sheet scraped the basins of North America’s various Great Lakes, including the Slave.

Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Land Rapid Response Team, NASA/GSFC [Public domain]

The western boundary is marked by a change in geology even today. The Ice Sheet scraped away the surface to some of the oldest known rocks on the earth’s surface, shown in shades of orange and red below (along the line that cuts the Great Slave Lake in two, if you are color vision-impaired).


Those surfaces include stromatolites from about Precambrian times 2.5 billion years ago. Stromatolites are rare, appearing in Western Australia and as fossils in a few other places, including Northwest Territories. They are evidence of the beginnings of life, rock-like mounds built by lime-secreting cyanobacteria and trapped sediment. If you are not appropriately grateful, know that cyanobacteria were the first organisms to create an atmosphere rich enough in oxygen to support life as we know it.

Artist Tim Bertelink depicts a time long ago when stromatolites formed. You see the moon much closer to the earth than it is today, and flaming space debris plummeting through the Earth’s thin atmosphere. Stromatolits are layered in the foreground and mounded in the water. Tim Bertelink [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

The Hay River Visitor Centre has a display of stromatolites that I will examine more closely on my return visit next year. This time, I barely registered that I stood on the floor of ancient tropical seas, transported back to Deep Time.

Lands west of Great Slave Lake feature relatively younger rock than Archean lands to the east. In exposed areas, the western surface is a modest 358-419 million years-ish, the remains of the Devonian period. This area is shown in blue on the geologic map above.

We call the Devonian period the Age of Fishes, when water covered the planet and complex reefs hosted diverse and sometimes monstrous-looking leviathans.

Dunkleosteus is renowned as the most fearsome of fishes, with armored plates and bone-mashing teeth. This fossil reconstruction shows the massive plates on its head and teeth.
Dunkleosteus is the most fearsome and legendary of Devonian fishes, armored and three times the size of a modern Great White Shark, with bone-crushing teeth. Photo from Royal Tyrell Museum, Van der Vieren.

I would discover evidence of other ancient fish at the Hay River Visitor Centre. The Visitor Centre is open during the week in off-season, so I had to skip it when I arrived on a Saturday. I’m going to tell you to plan your trip to arrive there first. You need to get local travel tips, history, and environmental issues from Peter Magill. You should peruse the exhibits and local artisan work for sale.

When a large family from Yellowknife came in to the Centre, I turned away from brochures and gifts to investigate exhibits. I discovered that the waterfall route I had visited on my Sunday drive held a giant secret.

Full disclosure: I stopped at the waterfalls on the route to Mackenzie Bison Sanctuary because they are a tourist attraction. I am not one of those people who finds spiritual serenity in falling water. Instead, I sit at waterfalls contemplating natural history, geological forces and hydraulics. I find them fascinating as a force of nature, not of spirit. I know that peoples from time immemorial see and hear more than I can. I’ve given up on the divine where waterfalls are concerned.

The waterfalls are well worth your visit no matter what you see in them. In mid-September, I had them to myself. Perhaps because I wasn’t feeling well, I enjoyed just sitting in the warm sun and watching water flow over rock shelves sculpted by ancient ice. Lady Evelyn Falls was perhaps the loveliest of the three with a gentle arc sweeping from bank to bank. Alexandra was the most dramatic. Louise Falls featured the most interesting formation, a shelf of blocks.

What I missed during my Sunday waterfall drop-ins were fossilized trackways from Sarcopterygians, the first fish to set lobed fin on land.

This exhibit in the Hay River Visitor Centre shows a fossil trackway upstream from Alexandra Falls.

Casts of individual tracks sit on the floor. I knelt down and felt them with my fingertips. I imagined a massive lobe-finned fish, the first tetrapod, hauling its huge body from a drying pool and moving slowly across the land to find more water.

Of course, I had to go and see the trackway. I now felt well enough to make the hike between Alexandra and Louise Falls. I could make it a day. I had food for lunch in the car. After talking with Peter awhile and buying local gifts for friends, I headed out.

Alexandra Falls is easy to reach from the road. There is a parking lot I walked the trail to the river, but instead of turning downstream to the falls, I walked upstream. The bank and trackways erode every spring with battering by the Hay River. But the tracks from the display are still there. Further upstream I found more tracks, and fossil shells embedded in limestone.

I brushed fine debris from the depressions as I sat by the finprints drinking water-primordial, life-giving water. Water that beckoned fish to grow primordial hands and crawl onto the land.

I sat in the sun struggling to comprehend time. I always think of North America’s West Coast as young compared to the East, where old homes are a century older than my area. This all looks adolescent compared to parts of Europe, where crumbling stone tells of life a thousand years back. But this is age as measured by human occupation, not real time.

The Hay River cuts into rock laid down in Deep Time. View from river bank at Alexandra Falls, looking downstream.

The rock I sat on bore traces of fish that lived almost 400 million years ago. I felt like dust- or the dust mites that appear only under electron microscope. We are really nothing in the face of Deep Time. A throwaway moment in the history of life. We seem so large and loud and destructive- but we are meaningless and small on a geologic scale.

We are, in fact, a chimera of ancient life. I sat there with my mess of flawed DNA that includes junk sequences from earlier beings and ghosts left behind by viruses. My body hosts microscopic flora, early life forms. Friendly flora help me digest my food and protect me from pathogens. Animal studies say that I would die in a sterile environment.

I sat in the thin fall sunlight with my hands resting in those fossil tracks and simply dissolved. What it meant to be human, to be me, vanished in colored droplets rising with the mist from the falls.

This realization might frighten or depress some people. I was glad I didn’t have a travel companion at that point.

Personally, I found this liberating. Soothing. All those to-dos and must-dos, the fears and hurt and failures. All the small successes that seemed so hard won. The looming questions about becoming an old person with an irritable immune system in a country threatening to cancel health care.

Nothing mattered, not really. Not in Earth’s impassive regard. The sheer act of being alive and touching deep time at that moment was more than a miracle. I could live in this precious moment experiencing dissolution and absolution. I could relax.

There are living Sarcopterygians, remnants of Deep Time still swimming in today’s oceans. The coelacanth, a Lazarus fish thought to be extinct 66 million years ago, was rediscovered off the east coast of South Africa in 1938. I learned about these ghosts of an unimaginable time in grade school. I loved that the world was so much larger and older than me, that there were mysteries to be discovered in my fleeting time on earth.

I love that feeling still. That is why I travel to places like this. That is also why I will return- to feel small and amazed once again. Next time, I will add a visit to Sambaa Deh Falls Territorial Park, where ancient coral tumbles down the river from the falls.

This reconstruction shows a sarcopterygian propelling itself on the surface as it leaves the water. The massive lobed fins brace the upper body of the fish.

I walked the trail between Alexandra and Louise Falls and back, reading every interpretive sign along the way. The signs tell the journey of young Dene people on a portage past the barriers of the Twin Falls.

When you reach Tucho, the elders of all clans in the region will gather to hold ceremonies, celebrate, and give thanks. Every elder there will be called upon to use special healing gifts. There will be many new stories to tell and legends to retell to educate the young.

Interpretive sign, Twin Falls Gorge trail.

The restored portage trail is well-maintained and used heavily by modern life, including beavers, black bears, and likely other furtive creatures. A sturdy spiral stairway safely transports hikers from the trail to an overlook at Louise Falls. I have no idea how First Peoples made this trek, but I do know they would be more fit, agile, and adept at cross-country navigation than most of us modern folk.

I had one last night to spend at Hay River Territorial Park. One late night to brave the sneaky foxes and creep down to the beach to try my hand at photographing the aurora. The Northern Lights were softer, greener, and the light show more brief. I was still entranced. I had spent the day becoming so small and insignificant. I could be one of those atoms in the sky, struck by charged particles from the sun, emitting light on humanity as I calmed.

For an easy, fun look at Deep Time, watch this PBS video.


Spectacular NWT- 19 reasons to see Great Slave Lake. https://spectacularnwt.com/story/19-reasons-to-see-great-slave-lake-now

What causes the aurora borealis, by EarthSky. https://earthsky.org/earth/what-causes-the-aurora-borealis-or-northern-lights

Twin Falls Gorge Territorial Park and Waterfall Routes. https://www.nwtparks.ca/explore/waterfalls-route

Chapter 3: Grand Prairie to the 60th Parallel

Finding myself back in a long-forgotten place I once knew

My third day included driving from the Grand Prairie area in Alberta into a new province: Northwest Territories.

As I continued north in Alberta, something felt hauntingly familiar. You worry about this feeling as you get older, wondering if some sort of neurological decline is setting in. It did not really gel for me until I reached the 60th Parallel that I had traveled to a place I already knew.

When I was 12, my mother decided abruptly- as, on a Tuesday- that we would leave the rat race of Chicago and move to northern Minnesota. By Thursday we were back at our apartment packing up. The move might have saved my brother who was going astray with too much opportunity for trouble in the city. It might save both my brothers in a neighborhood where boys were being stalked by a serial killer.

A few years before, my mother had purchased a small cabin at Hovland, Minnesota from some hippies. She had saved everything she could find to buy a tiny place with no running water or electricity. We had spent a few summers there, with family friends tagging along. My grandparents visited once, but stayed in a tourist cabin; our place was too basic. Now we would move for real, to a place that was no place for city folk to spend a winter.

  • Aerial view of rows upon rows of buildings on the left, with a green buffer and the shores of Lake Michigan on the right.
  • Aerial view of a forested area with some small roads and dispersed buildings, with Lake Superior in the right side of the photo.
  • Aerial view of farm area along a river. My property has a growing green buffer around it.

Our years in Minnesota were no Hallmark holiday special . My mother’s high-risk move didn’t resolve as pastoral bliss, with sunbeams radiating from parting clouds at the end of an hour minus commercials. I didn’t transform into a young Rachel Carson, an urban child suddenly enthralled with nature. I never even realized I was standing in the largest biome on the planet, the boreal forest.

Way back then, I didn’t know this forest is a huge carbon sink, home for significant wildlife– and being lost to products like toilet paper.

  • Map showing northern segment of North America and the southern tip of Greenland. The boreal forest is colored dark green and extends in a belt across Canada.
  • Map is the same as previous, with a belt of white creeping in at the south end of the belt, signifying loss of forest for farming and development.

Minnesota then was the place I just wanted to leave. In my own words from some years ago:

I sat on the shores of a frozen bay along massive Lake Superior, gazing at the Northern lights shimmering across the sky. I sat huddled in an oversized, ugly snowsuit, sorel boots, wool hat, and lined wool mittens.  I was as lonely and bent toward the future as any teenager stranded in a foreign and isolated place. I wanted to be far away from trailers, cabins and shacks. I wanted to breathe without the smell of propane heaters in ice fishing huts, and the choking fumes of diesel, gas and oil that ran buzzing chainsaws, growling logging skidders, and screaming snowmobiles. I wanted to run from a strange world of drunkenness and teen pregnancy and domestic violence punctuated seasonally by the puzzled eyes of well-appointed city tourists seeking natural beauty.

Aurora over Lake Superior, 2016. RomanKahler [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

If I could dissolve into light, I imagined, I could rise to the sky like the Northern lights and catch a ride on stratospheric winds to some faraway place where my mind’s eye could already see sunlight and hear laughing, chatter, music.

We lived in a land divided, with white folk living in Grand Marais at the foot of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and the Grand Portage band of Chippewa Indians on remnants of their former lands by the Pigeon River. Well-intentioned city dwellers streamed in to escape their rat race, bringing their culture with: they started community theaters, reading groups, and artisan shops. Tourists flooded in during the summer to visit Isle Royale, and to cross-country ski in the winter.

The rest of the year, local people were left facing each other and facing off. Nurses from the Grand Marais hospital were caught gossiping about their patients at the Blue Water Cafe. People gossiped about my mother, a single white parent living on the rez with her kids. I learned about domestic violence, alcoholism, and suicide from my classmates. I learned about turning in and eating your young from adults.

The reservation kids were slowly banished from school in Grand Marais. They would slump in the back seats in class, then slowly disappear. It wasn’t their fault. Palpable disapproval washed over them as they sat there. I could feel it sweep past and watch them turn away. We got scorned as children of a single parent, but my skin color exempted me from the worst of it. Maybe they thought we could be saved.

I spent a lot of time outdoors when I wasn’t reading or teaching myself to draw. I spent a lot of time alone. I was miserable but determined to get by. I got treed by rutting bull moose before an elder helped me understand that where wolves follow the trail moose stay away. I figured out how to deliver trash to the dump without ending up with a black bear cub in the truck. I learned to ski and fish, to skin a deer. I planted trees and worked at the local resort for money. I watched northern lights.

Bull moose are nothing to mess with. Here is a fine bull looking for someone to beat up or mate with in Minnesota’s Superior National Forest. USDA Forest Service [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons.

The natural experience shaped me into the person I am today while the human experience left me focused on one thing: getting an education and getting out. I finally did, returning once when my mother was killed by drunk-driving teenagers and then when my brothers threw their share of her ashes into Lake Superior from the Hovland Dock.

The noise, glare, and claustrophobia of city life never suited me after that. Decades later, I bought the only house I’ve owned in river flood plain, where only a few crazy folk like me would chance it. I have spent almost two decades planting a green barrier with only wildlife and few trusted people welcome.

  • A rusty yellow cedar waxwing with black mask and beak faces left. On its head feathers rests a fragment of plant fluff, sparkling against a blue sky.
  • An adult bald eagle is flying toward a small tree with its wings spread and talons dropped for landing.
  • A flicker with red streak below its cheek looks back over its shoulder. It is standing on a rough grey surface.
  • A dark garter snake is curled up with face pointed right, eye focused on the viewer.
  • A male duck with a striking square crown flaps its wings to stand up on the water.
  • A group of white swans are feeding among brown corn stubble while one spreads its wings over them.
  • A dark hawk with striking red tail looks into the distance from its perch on a grey post.

But even in a farm with no farm lights, I will never watch the northern lights dance. A dome of artificial light from exploding communities around me obscures the night sky. We can never escape the light or the noise here.

Now here I was driving north, not fully aware I was heading to a place I already knew, a place that shaped who I am. In northern Alberta, I traveled through boreal forest, complete with moose, wolves, and bears, and northern lights. The difference this time was a lifetime of experience and real longing to be there, eyes wide open and ears listening for the call of birds and animals moving through the woods.

View from below of a dark golden eagle flying toward the right of the viewer.
A golden eagle cruises over the boreal forest hunting prey along AB 35.

The drive from Saskatoon Island Provincial Park to the 60th Parallel made for a long but interesting day. I headed northeast from Grand Prairie toward Peace River and eventually, north on AB 35.

Alberta’s roads are generally like Roman Great Ways. Vital links to resource-rich areas, they are wide, paved, and easy to drive. Hundreds of kilometers are treeless and mowed on each side to keep wildfire from jumping the road. Later in the trip, I talked to an Alberta rancher who harvested hay from the right-of-way.

Besides conferring some wildfire deterrence, the mowed areas provide great sightlines for wildlife. Ravens look as large as calves. It seems like Montana might benefit from this approach to avoid the slaughter that occurs spring and fall on their highways.

The drive changed character as I approached Dunvegan, Alberta on Hwy 2. I started to descend to the Peace River, with some warning of unstable geology.

An orange and black striped barricade blocks people from a broken part of the road.
A barricade prevents people who pull over for photos from ending up in a sinkhole.

The road is crossing the Dunvegan Formation, ancient sea bed with rich gas reserves and notorious instability. A geotechnical report from 1959 warned about conditions as a bridge across the Peace River was considered to replace a ferry system.

Eventually that bridge was built. The Dunvegan bridge, constructed of steel, was completed in 1960 as the longest vehicle suspension bridge in Alberta at 274 m.

Aerial view of Dunvegan bridge, by awmcphee [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D.

You can take a drive over the bridge and through the scenery in this YouTube video (pardon the puzzling dramatic music- and here I thought I was a little weird about road trips):

Or better yet, stop at Dunvegan Provincial Park for a visit or the night. The park is at the site of historic Fort Dunvegan, a fur trading post. While I’m no more a fan of the fur trade than I am of logging or war, I believe it is important for us to understand that history. The fur trade decimated wildlife and indigenous peoples coerced or forced to support it, and has had ramifications for the environment to today.

  • A grey sign with yellow text and graphic shows a Dunvegan Maple over three curving lines representing the Peace River.
  • An old maple with two main trunks and one broken trunk leaning to the left.
  • A cross and steeple rise above a wooden church building with fir trees as a backdrop.
  • A white statue of the Virgin Mary wearing a crown rises above a pedestal with sign, surrounded by wild rose shrubs.
  • Pink roses in bloom on a dense, yellow-green shrub.
  • A small white building with tidy picket fence stands before a sandy hill.
  • Interpretive signage and a plaque mark a view spot by the Peace River, with the yellow span of the Dunvegan suspension bridge overhead.

Historic Dunvegan District includes not just remnants of the fur trade, but also historic trees. You can touch the bark of Dunvegan Maples brought to the area from Manitoba in the late 1800’s. I wondered how many historic moments include these furrowed trees as silent witnesses in the backdrop.

I could easily spend a full day at Dunvegan, but I know there is one thing I won’t be doing: hiking the hills.

Turning onto Highway 35, I returned to parkway like-conditions alongside the road. I found that mowing is not a guarantee that epic wildfires won’t jump the highway. Increasing heat and drought create potentially explosive conditions for wildfire. All bets are off when a fire starts.

High Level looked like a good stopping point when I first put together my plan in March. But as I traveled through southern Alberta in May 2019, I heard reports that fire had engulfed the area. I decided not to risk it and set my eyes on 60th Parallel Territorial Park as my next stop.

Wildfire at high level.
This image from Wildfire Today, which I wish I had read before leaving.

What I didn’t realize is that the fire chased High Level residents out of town a couple of times, but what really burned was Paddle Prairie. As I drove through this Metis settlement, I saw people clearing burned debris and rebuilding houses. I wondered why Paddle Prairie burned while High Level was spared; some reports say that Paddle Prairie might have been more impacted by unequal distribution of firefighting resources.

Along this burned landscape, I saw people clearing charred remnants of their homes and rebuilding.

The settlers of North America were line drawers. When forced, they used natural features as boundaries. They preferred to slice and dice North America using squares, rectangles, polygons and placed abstract, sometimes arbitrary lines on paper and and on the ground.

The 60th Parallel is one of those lines. It divides the northern and southern provinces of Canada. “North of 60” is sometimes used to describe the provinces that lie closer to the pole, just as “Midwest” describes 12 states in the north-central U.S.

A simple map of Canada's provinces, with a red line marking the 60th parallel, marking a straight border between several provinces.
Bazonka [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

In addition to being an abitrary line, the 60th Parallel heralds your entry into a new province. This is marked with great fanfare as you enter Northwest Territories. Despite grey weather threatening rain and creeping tiredness, I felt welcome. I made it.

A large, colorful sign reads "60th Parallel- Welcome to the Northwest Territories". A compass pointing north is included at the right of the sign.

I stopped in the Visitor Center to check into my campsite. As usual, I looked a little silly, conditioned to reserve a spot even though I was traveling in off-season in a lightly traveled area. The woman behind the desk was friendly and funny, with great stories and good travel advice. I believe she was Metis from her stories, but I didn’t know if it was polite to ask.

The number of wildlife mounts increased at visitors centers as I moved northward. This may be due to the increased amount of wildlife you might encounter as a tourist, combined with the number of accidents and conflicts they have because of people. The nice employee gave me wildlife tips along with some tales of mistakes people made over the summer. There was the person who insisted on feeding the fox after she said it wasn’t allowed. And then a couple decided to camp in the backcountry with no preparation for bears. I would find signs of worse as I traveled.

There were few visitors. One couple making dinner in the day use area slept in their van. Another van drove up and stopped. The driver was a man who was all of 4 1/2 feet when I saw him on the ground. His van was modified to let him enjoy roadtripping like everyone else. He asked me if I knew how to pay for a site if the visitor’s center was closed. I told him I didn’t, but he could probably wait until morning. He said he had driven for eight hours and needed to turn in.

There was a potted cactus strapped into the passenger seat of his van.

A green-yellow tent with grey flaps is tied down on a light grey tent platform in a clearing with trees behind.. A matching grey picnic bench sits to the left of the tent along with a fire pit.
Tent platforms are a must in damp forested areas. I carry a ground cloth since most campgrounds don’t have them. 60th parallel was well set up for tent camping.

I set up camp on a chilly night, ate, and turned in after a walk to the river. Just as I snuggled in my bag, the raindrops started to tap on the tent fly, first a few, then rat-a-tat-a-tat. My sleeping bag was cozy and I dropped off to sleep.

Rain fell all night, then stopped at dawn. The sun was rising over the Hay River as I strolled to the lone outhouse, bundled up against the damp chill. The small man was walking with a camera to catch the sunrise. I came back with mine and we nodded hello in passing. We’re all a little different here, I thought. And that’s alright.

Sunrise illuminates the sky below a cloud layer. A wide, flat river winds among forested banks.

I walked down to the river and looked up to see a canoe on the bank. That’s when it hit me. I had come back willingly– even at risk– to a place I once refused to call home.

A deep yellow canoe lies hull upward among green, maroon, and yellow shrubs beneath an aspen forest.