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
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.
|Click map to enlarge|
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
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
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.