In the 1920s, officials had the idea of introducing 6,000 plains buffalo that were overcrowding their habitat in central Alberta. There was some interbreeding, creating a kind of hybrid, but the plains bison's biggest legacies were tuberculosis and brucellosis, which once again devastated the wood buffalo.
With care and monitoring, the numbers have climbed back to about 5,000 in the park, and the healthier but still at-risk herd is mostly pure wood buffalo, with only occasional animals showing traces of their squat barrel-shaped cousins.
Besides the bison, the quirky white pelicans are the creatures perhaps most associated with Wood Buffalo – a reminder that the park sits on several migratory flyways. Like the cranes, they fly north each spring from their winter habitat around the Gulf of Mexico. Their northernmost nesting site is, bizarrely, along tumbling river rapids around Fort Smith. On the islands in Mountain Rapids at twilight (basically, all night in June), you can spy hundreds of nesting, sleeping birds.
Fort Smith is not an easy place to get to – 15 to 18 hours by car from Edmonton, or a commercial airplane ride that is efficient but not cheap. But Fort Chipewyan (known as Fort Chip) is another world, a community with road access only in winter, and where traditional aboriginal life exists in uneasy tension with an industrial powerhouse in the oil sands to the south.
Flying in from Fort Smith, I get a boat ride from Fort Chip out into Lake Athabasca to spot nesting peregrine falcons and talk to some aboriginal fishers pulling in nets of whitefish and pickerel. Then I travel up the Peace-Athabasca delta to a tiny river settlement called Dog Camp, where park wardens once kept their sled dogs in the summer.
David Campbell, a Scots-Métis employee of Parks Canada, explains that when he was a boy, his family came out here in the summer, and the children ran free while the parents fished, hunted and told stories.
He points out a few houses and a single forlorn trailer sitting on the bank, laughing that “it must be tourist season” – a gentle reference to the undeveloped travel market here.
Although ignored by tourists, the delta is a precarious environment – water levels are falling and thistles are taking over, pushing out plants native to the rich meadowlands. Park ecologists see three big potential threats to precious water supply – uncertain flows from existing and proposed upriver dams; the still unknowable impact of future oil sands projects; and climate change that is creating the driest conditions in more than a century.
As my visit winds down, I wonder: What about my stick? I take it to Sonny MacDonald, an aboriginal carver in Fort Smith who crafts masterpieces from piles of antlers, branches and exotic minerals in his yard and workshop.
At 72, he has been a jack of all trades, a construction tradesman, a resources officer and a native leader, but always an artist. Sonny sizes up the beaver-gnawed wood and the sculpture that results is magical – a walleye made of jack pine fused into my driftwood base. As a park employee says, it's a work created by two master carvers, one animal, one human. In that sense, very much like Wood Buffalo National Park.
IF YOU GO
Where to stay
There are not a lot of beds in Fort Smith or Fort Chipewyan, but there is a growing bed-and-breakfast trade. In Fort Smith, R House ( rhousefortsmith.com; 867-872-5354 ) is a new B&B, originally built as a residential school house (thus reflecting another historical reality). Rates vary with lodging; my comfortable room in June cost $110 with shared bath and run of the kitchen. Another great-looking place is the Whooping Crane Guest House ( whoopingcraneguesthouse.ca; 867-872-3426), with base rates of $100 a night.
Fort Smith has a hotel, Pelican Rapids Inn (867-872-2789), which contains a classic Chinese-and-Canadian food restaurant. Rooms are $150 and up.
Campers might drive deep into the park to gorgeous Pine Lake with its Caribbean-turquoise water. The sites are basic, but there are flush toilets – and many buffalo nearby. The truly adventurous might approach Parks Canada about heading to Sweetwater Station, an isolated former bison-management site at the south of the park. A fascinating wild place with an exciting history.
For more information on the park, visit pc.gc.ca/woodbuffalo.
Where to eat?
What is lacking, though, is a restaurant that offers a taste of indigenous meat or fish. The bison are, of course, protected in the park, but can be hunted outside its boundaries. Moral of the story? Make friends with the locals fast and hope for an invite.