TECHNICALLY, Wood Buffalo National Park is in the middle of nowhere. It’s an underpopulated 45,000-square-kilometre patch of wilderness that straddles the border between Alberta and the Northwest Territories. But this “nowhere” is home to a vast herd of wood bison — the continent’s largest land mammal — as well as the world’s biggest beaver dam and the last remaining population of migrating whooping cranes. It is also one of Alberta’s five UNESCO World Heritage sites.
A four-day round-trip slog through kneedeep swamp to see the beaver’s handiwork, for example, offers beautiful views of the Birch Mountains and countless wildlife encounters — just the kind of adventure thrill-seekers yearn for.
Mike Guertin, who runs the Fort McMurray-based Wood Buffalo Wilderness Tours with his wife, Patricia Whiteknife, has spent his life in the area as a trapper. The Métis man used to focus on hunting trips, but found that ecotourism is easier and more profitable. He now specializes in experiences as diverse as safari-like camping trips and journeys through expanses of boreal forest where rivers and lakes are the only roadways. “I barely take out hunters anymore,” he says.
The trip to see the gigantic beaver dam differs vastly depending on the season. (The site, discovered by a researcher scanning Google Earth images, created a media buzz a few years back.) In the summer, the adventurous must boat up lakes and rivers before what Guertin calls “the worst walk in your life” through bog and muskeg. Winter makes for easier travel. The two-day snowmobile roundtrip from Fort Chipewyan also lets travellers appreciate the size of the dam when the water is frozen — it’s around 1½ to two kilometres long with a drop of 2½ to four metres. “It’s been there forever,” Guertin says.
“There are spruce trees growing on it that you can barely put your arms around.”
But the dam itself is only a small portion of a tour, summer or winter, that promises spectacular views and wilderness encounters. And it’s a very small portion of a vast landscape that features a karst sinkhole topography made from limestone and gypsum, the immense inland freshwater delta of the Peace and Athabasca rivers and Canada’s only salt plains.
“Everything about Wood Buffalo is size,” says Tim Gauthier, the park’s communication officer. Although visitors can “pretty much go anywhere your feet or a canoe will take you,” the park also features a network of marked trails, campgrounds and the world’s largest dark-sky preserve. “It’s essentially a huge adventure ready to be discovered.”
Which all makes Wood Buffalo National Park perhaps the middle of somewhere after all.