The days when the huge, shaggy herds of Plains Bisons rumbled in their millions from Canada down to Mexico ended over a century ago. But there is still a timeless place, a land where the ecological clock has been turned back, where you can witness herds of Wood Bisons roaming in the wild. Once thought to be extinct, these larger genetic cousins of the Plains Bisons have remarkably defied the odds. In Wood Buffalo National Park, thousands of Wood Buffalo still amble freely across an inspiring landscape. Weighing in at more than 900 kilograms – about the weight of a SUV – this bison is the largest land mammal in North America. And this stunning creature isn’t alone. The Park, the second largest on the planet and which is easily driveable via the Mackenzie Highway, is also home to a Noah’s Ark like roster of wilderness all-stars including bears, wolves, moose, lynx, wolverines, foxes, hawks, eagles, owls and sandhill cranes. It is also the only natural nesting habitat left for the endangered whooping crane and contains stunning stretches of salt flats. No wonder the United Nations named the Park a World Heritage Site.
The Park is lined on the eastern edge by the muscular Slave River, which for 200 years was the original highway to the north. In a 25 kilometre stretch, the fast flowing river drops 33 metres through a gnarly set of four rapids. The favourite is the Pelican Rapids, where a colony of imperious white pelicans nest next to the roar of the white water, raising their chicks on the rocky chunks that poke up through middle of the river. For serious kayakers, the Slave River rapids are considered some of the most challenging river rides in North America. To get an insiders guide to the river and a better sense of the local history, spend some time at Fort Smith, which curls along Slave River above the rapids . Founded in 1874 by the Hudson’s Bay Company, the town is home to a fine museum and is the starting point for great trails into the Park and along the water. Try to catch Fort Smith’s lively arts and music festival which runs in late summer.
And don’t stop your journey at the Park. Connect with the neighbouring Dehcho Waterfalls Route, another amazing collection of natural wonders that are conveniently threaded along the highway. Check out Twin Rivers Territorial Park near the Alberta border and soak up the misty spray from two spectacular waterfalls that are coloured gold from the clays carried by the Hay River. Or travel a little further west to the Sambaa Deh Falls Territorial Park on the Trout River to see the dancing water and to search for the ancient fossils left behind by the ocean which once lapped these shores. One of the waterfalls is easily visible from the highway and the other is just a short hike up river. Drop by one of the tiny Dene communities the dot the Route, places like Enterprise, Fort Providence, Fort Liard and Jean Marie River, where you can meet the locals and shop at the craft stores. Keep an eye out for the classics - beaded moccasins, unique porcupine quill embroidery and moose hair tufting embroideries and birch bark baskets. All treasured keepsakes from a trip to spectacular Northwest Territories.
Drive to the top of the world!
Read all about one of North America’s greatest road trips in our next Northwest Territories story which will be posted later in February. Buckle up as we cruise along the legendary highway that cuts through mountain passes and then winds north of the Arctic Circle to the top of the world with stops at some of the Northwest Territories’ timeless town and villages.
For more information on planning a trip to the Northwest Territories, go to: www.spectacularnwt.com.