Spilling across Alberta’s northern border into the Northwest Territories, Wood Buffalo encompasses a large area of the subarctic plain. It is a huge national park, certainly the largest in Canada and one of the largest in the world. The park extends 176 miles at its greatest length and averages about 100 miles in width, taking in more than 17,000 square miles – an area five times that of Yellowstone.
At 44,807 square kilometres, Wood Buffalo National Park is Canada’s biggest national park and one of the largest in the world. The park was established in 1922 to protect the free-roaming bison herds of the region. The plains in the park are on the historic northern limit of the bison’s range, and several thousand plains bison were shipped north to join the native wood bison herd already there. The park is also home to the world’s last remaining wild flock of endangered whooping cranes.
Today, the park supports and protects many distinctive natural and cultural resources, from varied ecosystems and exceptional species to the customary activities of Aboriginal residents. As an isolated wilderness park and World Heritage Site, Wood Buffalo National Park attracts Canadian and international visitors who desire to experience and learn about the distinctive cultures, landscapes and flora and fauna of the boreal north.
Frommer’s National Parks of the American West
A park lover’s must-have, the information provided in this behemoth of a book is almost as impressive as the redwoods that grace its cover. With a focus on helping visitors avoid the crowds, National Parks of the American West provides painstakingly researched details on more than 40 national parks, monuments, seashores, and preserves.
There is probably not a question you have that this book doesn’t answer: each park listing includes tips from park rangers, ideas especially for kids, excellent maps, entrance fee information, the best driving and walking tours, campground overviews, food and other lodging, contacts for activities and recreation, and interesting sidebars.
Except for some small uplands, the terrain here seems more waterscape than landscape. Countless ponds and lakes dot the vast expanse, and serpentine rivers and streams crisscross it. The park is largely roadless: Only about 150 miles of roads connect Fort Smith to Peace Point and to Pine Lake and other recreation areas. In winter, an ice road links Fort Smith and Fort Chipewyan, the sites of the park’s two offices. Motorized boats or canoes provide access in the delta area.
As Wood Buffalo’s name suggests, bison have an important place here. Even as the plains bison were nearly exterminated farther south, a small herd of wood bison – a larger, darker variety – survived in northern Alberta. By 1893 even that herd had dwindled to a few hundred animals. In order to preserve them, a reserve was established. The animals thrived, and by the time Wood Buffalo was established, in 1922, they numbered 1,500.
The animals that live in this ecosystem are typical of the northern boreal forest. Uncommon or endangered species such as bison, whooping cranes and peregrine falcons are also found. A total of 227 bird species have been recorded which include great grey owl and snowy owl, willow ptarmigan, redpoll crossbill and boreal chickadee. This is the only breeding site of whooping crane; peregrine falcon and bald eagle also breed within the park. The Peace-Athabasca Delta is an important area for migrant waterfowl including snow geese, white-fronted geese and Canada geese, whistling swan, diver, all seven species of North American grebe and species of duck.
Archaeological evidence of stone artifacts and flint instruments places man in the park area for 9000 years. Europeans arrived in the region in the 18th century searching for the Northwest Passage through the Canadian Arctic; most notably, Samuel Hearne visited the region in 1771 and Alexander Mackenzie in 1789.
Fur traders were attracted by the rich store of wildlife, and the logging industry, commercial fishery and wildlife harvesting continued until the modern phase of conservation and resource protection was instigated as part of the park’s policy. Local natives still hunt, fish and trap within the park boundaries; at Peace Point, a typical native settlement in the midst of the park, five families live in the wilderness following their traditional lifestyle.
Places to Stay
Front country campsites are available at Pine Lake (60 km south of Fort Smith) on a first-come, first-serve basis. Large groups can use the Kettle Point Group Camp located at the south end of Pine Lake (reservations required). Backcountry camping is available throughout the park, with permits required for overnight stays in the backcountry.
Whatever your preference for paddling, you are likely to find a canoe route to suit your style. Pine Lake provides easy day paddling. The Peace, Athabasca and Slave rivers offer wilderness adventure for experienced backcountry paddlers. The Buffalo, Little Buffalo and Salt rivers can be enjoyed during spring run-off. Canoe rentals are available in Fort Smith. Contact the Visitor Reception Centre in Fort Smith or Fort Chipewyan for further information on canoeing in the park. Park use permits are required for any overnight stays in the backcountry.
UNESCO World Heritage Site
A closer look reveals attributes that gained Wood Buffalo UNESCO world heritage status. Most of the 1,700-square mile Peace-Athabasca Delta, a complex drainage system of ponds, lakes, and rivers, lies within park boundaries. Four major North American fly ways converge here, and perhaps a million waterfowl touch down to rest and feed during migration. Here also is some of the most extensive karst topography in North America. As groundwater dissolves the underlying gypsum and limestone, the surface collapses into craterlike sinkholes. Some fill with water to form ponds; others shelter lush vegetation. Azure-tinted Pine Lake formed when water-filled sinkholes connected with each other. And there are eerie plains where saltwater springs and rivers well up from below, frosting the surface with thick layers of salt.