I stand on the beach by the Rapids of the Drowned, just outside the boundaries of Wood Buffalo National Park, watching white pelicans flip ass-end-upward to snatch fish out of the swirling water of the Slave River.
Beyond the cavorting pelicans, I spy a clutter of driftwood and pull out a 20-centimetre-long stick, chewed at both ends by a beaver so that, seemingly by design, it has left two pencil-perfect points.
For the next three days, I keep examining that stick, wondering where it has been before washing up on the mighty Slave, near the town of Fort Smith, NWT – at the gateway to Canada's largest national park.
Has it tumbled over the four rapids that constitute one of the great spectacles of the North? Has it meandered through the southern regions of the park on the wide, graceful Peace River, or even started its journey far upriver at the massive Bennett Dam in British Columbia?
Did it come from Fort Chipewyan, the park's southern gateway, where great rivers lace an intricate delta of channels and shallow lakes replete with animal and bird life – not just pelicans, but occasional outliers from the continent's last reproducing flock of endangered whooping cranes, which nest in the northern reaches of the park.
Or could the stick be traced all the way up the Athabasca River to Fort McMurray, Alta., where swaths of the boreal forest are being swept away by voracious oil sands development?
I soon realize I am not in some isolated place on the Alberta-Northwest Territories boundary, but at the epicentre of trade routes, power shifts, the ebb and flow of societies and climates. You come to Wood Buffalo if you want to understand Canada, its past, present and future.
The park is largely untouched by tourism, drawing fewer than 1,500 visitors from outside the local area annually, even though it covers an expanse the size of Switzerland, and contains pristine lakes and roaring rivers – a playground for rafters, kayakers, canoeists and hikers, but also cultural adventurers who want to know where we have travelled as a country.
Because the park has so few visitors, I receive unusually attentive service from the Parks Canada staff. By truck, boat and light airplane, I trace the canoe routes of voyageurs, of 19th-century York boats, and water bombers that today battle the largest forest fires in memory.
My visit starts at the Rapids of the Drowned, so named because in the 1780s five voyageurs misread a signal, took a wrong channel and paid with their lives. Just upstream, I try to imagine hauling over 2,700 kilograms of cargo with the hulking York boats up and down the back-breaking Mountain Portage. From the air, I follow the passage of the majestic Pelican Rapids, a torrent of power and noise.
The next morning, I get a guided tour of the park's exotic salt plains, the remnants of prehistoric seas of 250 million years ago, which have left behind 370 square kilometres of stark white flatland, giving the appearance of a winter landscape in the middle of summer.
Along the way, I scan the sky for a whooping crane – Wood Buffalo is the summer home of 270 of the birds, more than half the surviving world population, including 75 nesting pairs. I see no cranes, but I am not alone – some people see them the first day; for others, it takes a decade.
Wood Buffalo is, as its name denotes, all about buffalo, and I was able to see hundreds of the big brown shaggy beasts with their reddish-hued calves – hulking shadows in the poplars as you drive by. These are not the squat plains buffalo that were gunned down in vast numbers to the south, but the rangier cousins that have suffered their own travails.
Janna Jaque, who develops visitor experiences in the park, likes to make this distinction: The plains buffalo are like the short hairy guys who wear Speedos to the beach while the park's wood buffalo are tall, dark and handsome.
Herds of 20 to 30 bison often clog up the roads, and you have to wait as they finally amble away with a bored shrug, clearly unimpressed with man and civilization.
When the European settlers first arrived, there were about 6,000 bison in the area, but for unknown reasons, perhaps heavy hunting and harsh winters, the numbers fell to 250 by the turn of the 20th century. By the time the park was created in 1922 to preserve the buffalo, the population had climbed back to a still endangered 1,250.
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.