travel / travel magazine / mar09


Forest turns to desert in the Northern extremes of Saskatchewan, where the storybook landscape of Athabasca Sand Dunes Provincial Wilderness Park lies virtually undiscovered, undisturbed
By Mark Abley with photography by Robin and Arlene Karpan

Click map to enlarge
THE BIG LAKE GLITTERS in the sun. A blue butterfly floats above a sand dune. I clamber to the top and look down at a white pond half enclosed by low willows. But this pond has no water in it. What turns the land white are thousands of cottongrass tufts — a shining illusion in a subarctic desert, and a scene that would have delighted Monet.

Of all the places I’ve travelled in Canada, the sand dunes that extend for about 100 kilometres along Lake Athabasca in the northwestern corner of Saskatchewan have to be the most surprising. They are the most northerly expanse of active dunes in the world, spreading across more than 30,000 hectares and containing an extraordinary array of wildlife. Nine varieties of plants, including four full species, exist nowhere else in the world. In 1992, the government of Saskatchewan designated much of the region as Athabasca Sand Dunes Provincial Wilderness Park.


Provincial parks don’t always get their due in Canada. Our most famous parks are national parks, many, such as Banff and Jasper, known throughout this country and far beyond. But with the exception of Algonquin in central Ontario — a park whose size, long history and association with the Group of Seven painters give it almost iconic status — most Canadians would be hard-pressed to name a single provincial park outside the province where they live. And that’s a shame. The unique plants that have evolved along the south shore of Lake Athabasca — endemics, to use the scientific term — make these constantly migrating dunes a biological treasure.

A fragile one, too. From the perspective of a felt-leaf willow or a floccose tansy, it’s fortunate that the dunes are hard for people to reach. They received more traffic in the early 1980s, when Uranium City, Sask., just north of Lake Athabasca, had a population of nearly 5,000. Today fewer than 100 people live there. Most visitors now enter the park by float plane. I arrived in an orange-and-white Cessna 185 accompanied by a guide, Tim Wintoniw of Churchill River Outfitters. Our two-and-a-half hour flight starts in the little town of Missinipe, a gateway to the many fly-in fishing camps of northern Saskatchewan.

Our pilot, Les Wilson, takes off at 4:35 a.m., the red sun of late July barely breaking the horizon. Until the sun climbs, the lakes below us remain draped in mist. Peering down, I find it hard to tell if we’re passing over land striped with water or water ribboned by land. I try to count the lakes in view, and give up at 200. On one, an islet shaped like a fish hook holds a single tree.

As we leave the interlaced Churchill River system behind, the bones of the land begin to jut through the forest. Trees become skimpier. Blackened expanses show the brute force of fire. Beyond lies Lake Athabasca — the fourth biggest lake whose waters are entirely within Canada, and the 20th by size in the world.

Wilson passes me a set of headphones. Without them, conversation inside the noisy cabin is almost impossible. He insisted on leaving Missinipe early because of the waves that agitate Lake Athabasca when the wind gets up. On large bodies of water, early morning is often the only time a float plane can safely land. “When I flew here before,” he says with a grin, “we bounced.”

Not this time. Wilson manoevres the plane above the sinuous course of the William River, its dark water braided with butterscotch swirls of sand as it prepares to empty into Lake Athabasca. The river splits a dramatic landscape: above one bank is the dark green of a boreal forest, above the other the pale yellow of a desert. Even by 7:15 a.m., a few whitecaps have risen on the lake as the Cessna turns and banks. But Wilson brings us smoothly down.


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