The late August sun was already setting by the time I put my first paddle stroke in the water. A late start from Fort McMurray, two days and 1600 km of dusty northern highway earlier, had put me behind schedule.
It took longer than I thought it would to ferry across the Peace River, its slow and powerful current pushing me downstream as one bank grew larger while the other began to blend into the distant islands and the long gentle curve of the river.
I opt to make camp quickly before the light is gone. The sandy bank is marked by the tracks of tiny creatures, birds, and bears. All at once, the wildness of it all settled in. Here I was, all alone, in Canada’s largest national park.
I slept in—I think. I have a phone and a satellite messenger close by in a dry bag for emergencies, but I’m doing my best to stay “unplugged,” so I don’t check the time. (It’s crazy how our perceived need for technology can follow us into the wilderness). With lots of distance to make up ahead of me, I down a quick bowl of granola and an Aeropress coffee for breakfast.
It’s not long before the coffee works its magic, and I pull over to answer “nature’s call.” The sand and mud of the bank show again the evidence of the creatures that call this place home. This time the bear tracks look particularly fresh. After a quick climb up the bank, my eyes are quickly drawn to a black bear foraging in a dried-up channel in the distance. If he is aware of my presence, he doesn’t seem to mind. I watch him for a moment before returning to the canoe—it feels prudent to take care of business a little further upriver.
As I paddle, I pray. There’s something about being out here in the wilderness that strips you of all your pride, your false pretences. It’s just you and the Creator, the Divine, God in the present moment. As I pray, I weep. The heaviness of pandemic living, of the things I have “done and left undone” all carried away into the current. It’s repentance on the river. I’m no expert on the subject, but Celtic mystics talk about an idea called “thin places” where the space between heaven and earth seems to lift. I think this is one of those places.
As the sun, and my energy, begin to fade I am treated to a wide stretch of prime riverside real estate to watch the sunset with tea and dark chocolate in hand.
Before bed I write in my journal, “God, thanks for the gift of today. Please keep the bears away. Amen.”
I make it to Sweetgrass Landing by mid-afternoon. The forest is alive with the sound of woodpeckers and squirrels hard at work. I welcome a feast of Annie’s Mac and Cheese sitting at a picnic table sheltered from the long and enduring gaze of the late summer sun. The woodpeckers perform a funny dance in the trees while I read. Tomorrow, I’ll make the day hike into Sweetgrass Station.
The trail to Sweetgrass Station is a wide and easygoing fourteen kilometre path that winds through the boreal forest before opening up to Lake Claire and the Peace-Athabasca Delta.
Along the way I spot an eagle, a family of grouse, cranes, ravens, grey jays, squirrels, and best of all, a buffalo ahead of me on the trail. I give him plenty of space and obverse from a distance until he dashes off into the thick bush.
Before long I reach the open meadows and corrals of Sweetgrass Station.
The corrals are a vestige of the troubled and still recent history of Wood Buffalo National Park. The park was created in 1922 to protect the bison and preserve the land and water of the boreal plains. In the years that followed local indigenous peoples were forced off the land and disease was introduced to the wood bison herds by plains bison transported into the park from southern Alberta. An estimated 4000 bison were slaughtered and sold to meat packers, hotels, and restaurants in southern Canada in an attempt to cull the herd and manage the disease. The corrals and cabins at Sweetgrass were built in the 1960s for annual anthrax vaccinations where the buffalo were rounded up by helicopter, and many were trampled or died in shock.
Today the park remains under threat downstream from oil sands and hydroelectric dams.
As settler people, we have a responsibility to actively pursue reconciliation and to live in right relationship with the land and with the Indigenous people who have sustainably managed it for thousands of years.
I enjoy a lunch of trail mix and Cliff Bars at the cabins with Lake Claire shimmering in the distance. It would be a real treat to stay at the cabin for a few days and get a chance at observing the predator-prey relationship between the wolves and the buffalo, but my plans this time dictate that I must head back.
I wasn’t more than five minutes back down the trail when I felt a piercing pain in my right heel. Upon further inspection, I found that my foot had become covered in blisters and I had rubbed my heel completely raw inside my shoes. I patched myself up the best I could and made my way back to the canoe, albeit a little slower on the return. Loneliness was setting in fast, my first aid kit was understocked, and I worried about keeping my foot from getting infected over the course of many more days of wet and muddy travel up the Peace and Slave rivers, up to Fort Fitzgerald where I had left a bike to shuttle back down the long gravel road through the park to Peace Point. I was frustrated and embarrassed by my mistake, but equally relieved when I got the text on my InReach that there was a good chance I could get an early shuttle at Moose Island the next day, just a few hours up the river.
That night I watched as the sky slowly turned shades of faded purple and blue, casting its last light on a sandbar so wide, I couldn’t see the other side from where I made camp for the night.
It’s bittersweet waking up on the last morning of a trip. The skies threatened rain, so I packed up and ate quickly before continuing the final short stretch to Moose Island. Upon arrival, I was welcomed into a warm cabin by a couple of trappers, and enjoyed bacon and eggs while listening to stories about the buffalo and the park, its history, and the people who are fighting for its future. I am grateful for their hospitality, and especially their generosity in providing me and my red canoe with a shuttle back to Peace Point.
The trip ended much as it began. Leaving Fort Smith, I cranked the AC in the truck to fight the heat of the late August sun as it set. Ahead of me lay the long dusty highway back to Fort McMurray.
Perhaps sometime you would like to come and visit this wild and wonderful place. You might like to marvel at the prowess and the strength of the buffalo, delight in the strange behaviour of a family of grouse perched in trees like oversized ornaments, or run barefoot across sandbars as wide as the eye can see. Please tread lightly. Learn the rhythm of the water and the language of the trees. And when you drive back down the highway to your home, tell everyone how wonderful it was. We can’t afford to lose it.
The paddling on this route is not difficult. The biggest obstacles are strong winds (think big lake paddling) and sandbars. The difficulty (and beauty) of this trip is derived by its remoteness and isolation. You must be fully prepared to be self sufficient (food, water, first aid, bugs, bad weather, etc) and leave no trace. Carry bear spray and know how to use it. You should have some experience in backcountry travel. Park use permits are required and can be obtained by contacting the visitor center in Fort Smith, NWT. My permit was the third one issued all season.
The side trip into Sweetgrass Station is a great opportunity to spot local wildlife and enjoy views of the delta. If I was with a group, I would bring portage carts and portage the first four kilometres of the trail. From there you can paddle a creek up to the cabins and spend a few days there. Be sure to plan well ahead and arrange with Parks Canada for use of the cabins.
The gravel road(s) in the park can be rough. Bring a reliable vehicle and make shuttle arrangements far in advance, or better yet, bring two vehicles. If you are coming from Alberta, there are long stretches of remote highway travel. It wouldn’t hurt to bring an extra jerry can.
Further Reading about Wood Buffalo National Park
Albert Ohayon, The Troubled History of the North American Bison | Curator’s Perspective
Chloe Dragon Smith and Robert Grandjambe, To Wood Buffalo National Park, with love
Gillian Chow-Fraser, A Brief Indigenous History of Wood Buffalo National Park
John Sandlos, Northern Bison Sanctuary or Big Ranch? Wood Buffalo National Park
Parks Canada, Sweetgrass: A Prime Backcountry Destination
Sabina Trimble & Peter Fortna with Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, Honouring Oral Histories: Wood Buffalo National Park and the Dënesųłıné