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Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park

The bison are relics from the past, and the wolves know no fear. Welcome to Wood Buffalo National Park, where time stands still and the land shrugs off man's attempts to alter its primitive spirit.

Larry Marten and I are hunched over the paw prints of a lynx. And the dinner plate-size marks of a black bear. And the claw-footed indentations of a timber wolf. The melange of prints in the sand converges upon a pile of fur and bones, the remnants of an unlucky snowshoe hare. All morning, we’ve trailed the movements of predators up and down a wilderness beachhead on the fringe of Wood Buffalo National Park, trying to discern how a parade of four-legged hunters could have slipped through our camp in the middle of the night and wandered undetected onto the adjacent shoreline of Lake Athabasca.

Larry, who is wearing a cap hewn from tanned muskrat hide, isn’t surprised. Although he has remained silent for most of our time together, the discovery of fresh wildcat spoor summons a shy, toothy grin. “Them lynx, they can sneak up on you, eh,” he says reaching into his jacket and popping a piece of moose jerky into his mouth. “They’re smart animals, them lynx.”

A fur trapper who proudly takes his last name from a sleek, mink-like creature, Larry also moonlights during the summer as a backcountry guide in Wood Buffalo. He is a member of the Mikisew Cree Nation, a band of native Canadians that has survived in the boreal forests of the New World for thousands of years. Larry is in his element here. And me, as I stare at the diary of predators’ prints at my feet, I’m finally beginning to understand the magnetism of his remote ancestral provenance.

Stretched out before us is a humbling expanse of freshwater so vast we can’t see half way to the other side. Behind us protrude the bedrock hills of the Canadian Shield lit by a blaze of yellow aspen leaves. It’s September and the seasons are in transition here. With the last loons yodeling from a nearby cove, Larry notes that winter is not far off.

Filtering down from above are the stray honks of geese headed south, fleeing the cold that will soon barrel down from the north and make life here at times intolerable. To grasp the intensity of the Wood Buffalo winters, look at a map and notice that Siberia, home to some of the most brutal winter weather on earth, is not that far away–as the goose flies, that is.

As I gaze northward, thinking how remarkably peaceful and inviting the land looks, a voice slices through my daydreams and yanks me back to reality. “You head that way, eh, and nobody will ever find you once you get lost,” Larry says in a matter-of-fact tone that breaks to a chuckle. “Up here, eh, people can disappear and never be seen again.”

Half the adventure in visiting Wood Buffalo National Park merely is getting there. Driving from my home in Bozeman, Montana, it took two full days to reach Fort McMurray, Alberta. From there I traveled by boat another full day up the Athabasca and Embarras rivers to Fort Chipewyan, the entryway to the park. Created in 1922 primarily as a sanctuary for the world’s last free-roaming herds of wood bison (the larger forest cousins of the behemoths that once ranged across the Great Plains), Wood Buffalo is Canada’s wilderness giant and, as I found out the hard way, one of the least-accessible sprawls of public wilderness. At 17,000 square miles, the park could swallow five Yellowstone National Parks with room to spare. All of this space, and yet fewer than 100 (you read that right, one hundred) overnight hikers and canoeists will explore the park’s interior this year.

My Canadian friends told me that Wood Buffalo brings new meaning to the phrase “utter solitude”-a worthy excuse for visiting in its own right. But the reason I went north, and then north some more, was because I had wolves on my mind. I was determined to observe the deadly interaction between the park’s bison and packs of wolves, which are among the largest canid carnivores in North America.

For years, I’d read about Wood Buffalo’s thriving wolf packs through the work of noted zoologist Ludwig Carbyn. During one memorable trip into the park’s Sweetgrass region, Carbyn chronicled a remarkable instance of 26 wolves stalking a small group of bison and eventually taking down three woolly animals in the span of a day. This I had to see for myself.

The Mecca of bison watching in the park is the Peace-Athabasca Delta, and Sweetgrass Station, an old bison ranch surrounded by grassland and pockets of forest, is its temple. I would stay at Sweetgrass Station twice during my visit, first by myself and later with bison expert Earl Wilson. To reach the viewing grounds, I hire a water shuttle to deliver me to Peace Point along the Slave River, from which I plan to spend the remainder of the day bushwhacking 8 miles to Sweetgrass. I’m at about mile 6 or 7 in my solo hike, when I practically stumble into a large, grunting animal. I can’t see it through the thick fog and equally thick grass.

My mind races. Could it possibly be a grizzly, this far from the Canadian Rockies amid water-locked Sweetgrass? Should I yell? Run? Move closer to investigate? Perhaps it is a misguided woodland caribou, which are fairly common in the northern reaches of the park. Or possibly a moose, also plentiful in these parts.

Most likely, I figure, the interloper is a black bear, which gives me little comfort considering the earful of local lore I got at the Fort Chip Lodge earlier in the week. Northern Canada’s black bears are not the same as we know them at lower latitudes, suggested a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The bears here have no fear of humans, and they’ve been known to stalk and attack. Staring into the fog and towering grass, I recall Larry Marten’s words: “People can disappear and never be seen again.”

In the end, I do what I always do in tense situations. I freeze. Whatever is lurking in the grass lumbers off, and after regaining my composure I continue. As afternoon approaches, the sun burns off the fog, and I relish the remaining hours of daylight while crossing one meadow after another. Dusk finds me seated on a buck-and-rail fence at Sweetgrass Station waiting for the nocturnal show to begin. The howling soon commences. Wolves are all about, yet none are in sight. With shrill canid song filling the air, the day ends with ducks and geese silhouetted against a brilliant vermilion sky.

As it does throughout much of Canada’s continent-spanning boreal forest belt, water defines the character of this park. Jeweled glacial lakes speckle the Alberta Plateau, which wraps around the western and northern edges of the park, unveiling a tapestry of spruce and aspen forests, salt plains, and moose-filled muskeg. Poking into the park’s eastern flank near Fort Chipewyan are the headwaters of Lake Athabasca and the Canadian Shield, dotted with tarns deposited 10,000 years ago by receding continental glaciers.

It’s the park’s third main topographical feature, the watery Peace-Athabasca Delta, that attracts intrepid paddlers and off-trail hikers. Formed by the convergence of three great rivers-the Peace, Slave, and Athabasca-the delta supports an impressive array of wildlife in a tangled maze of channels, shallow lakes, and tall grass meadows. As you might guess, Wood Buffalo is not your typical hiker’s park, since there’s no infrastructure of developed trails. There are slightly less than 30 miles of well-maintained routes, most of them near Fort Smith in the Northwest Territories, where the park headquarters is located.

Bushwhacking opportunities are unlimited, though, and the hikers who brave the remote reaches usually do so with one thing in mind: buffalo. Like Yellowstone National Park, Wood Buffalo has played an instrumental role in the effort to save the bison. The difference up here is that you’re talking about a subspecies known as wood bison, which are larger, less shaggy, and have a more pronounced hump than the plains bison. Along with its southern counterpart, Wood Buffalo is grappling with political fallout stemming from ranchers’ concern that free-ranging buffalo will infect their cattle with a harmful disease.

The fact that there are any buffalo in this Canadian park is, in itself, a small miracle. By the end of the nineteenth century, only a few hundred wood bison persisted in remote pockets of the park that were beyond the reach of hunters. In 1907, in an action designed to bolster the remaining wild herd, the Canadian government purchased 700 plains bison from a rancher in northwest Montana and shipped them to a fenced enclosure near Wainwright, Alberta, called Buffalo Park. By 1925 the Wainwright herd numbered 10,000.

Amid charges that the plains bison corralled at Wainwright had outstripped their range, proposals were floated to slaughter the “excess” animals. The resulting public outcry nixed any bison harvesting, but the herd was thinned by shipping nearly 7,000 animals to Wood Buffalo in 1925-1927. They joined a wood bison herd of roughly 1,500, located mostly in the northern part of the park. Scientists protested in vain that introducing the plains buffalo would lead to inbreeding and the eventual dilution of genetic distinction among one of the last herds of wood bison. Indeed, the herds did interbreed, producing the hybrid bison that now roam the park.

For the next six decades the wood bison population in the northern part of the park remained steady, while the plains bison herds around the Peace-Athabasca Delta fluctuated wildly. The calm state of affairs was interrupted when it was learned that the Wainwright behemoths brought with them brucellosis and tuberculosis, which, ironically, they caught from infected cattle. Ranchers outside the park wanted to eliminate the threat, even though it has never been proved that wild bison can transmit the disease back to cattle.

As political pressure mounted, several controversial options were proposed in the 1980s, including one radical idea to empty Wood Buffalo of its bison and replace them with certified disease-free animals. The proposal, designed to placate the livestock industry, made worldwide headlines, particularly when it was revealed that the nearest cattle were 60 miles away near Fort Vermilion. Neither brucellosis or TB is transmitted over such distances, but that didn’t stop ranchers’ calls to annihilate Wood Buffalo’s icons. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed.

On a brooding, overcast day, Earl Wilson, Wood Buffalo’s resident bison expert, and I cruise away from the boat landing at Fort Chip in hot pursuit of a bison herd reportedly massed at Lynx Stand. Engulfing our view as we penetrate into a labyrinth of narrow channels are the domes of beaver lodges and reeds 7 feet tall. Passing us in another boat is a Cree hunting party hoping to find a moose or two to feed them over the winter.

Eventually, we break into the open waters of Lake Mamawi and then the muddy sea of Lake Claire, an oversize wash that extends many miles across, but is shallow enough to bury a motor prop. I feel swallowed up by the expanse of sky and water, but Earl holds his course based on some inner compass. Two hours later, we reach Lynx Stand. “Don’t let a jack (northern pike) bite your toes or anything else,” Earl says as we step into the crotch-deep lagoon.

We wade ashore and pick our way through a jungle of Ophirous sedges. The quiet vanishes when a pair of mallards explodes from a puddle. The flushing continues intermittently, and then we hear the snorting of bison cows and the baying of yearling calves. The herd cannot see us, nor can we see it. We slip blindly between the grunts of Volkswagen-size bovines equipped with horns. No sooner does Earl turn around to advise staying alert, than a lion-like roar reverberates through a clearing just ahead. Solitary bulls, Earl informs me, don’t take kindly to trespassers. Slowly, we back off.

After 4 miles of hiking we reach an island of trees with an elevated vantage point for spying on another herd. “I have a good feeling about this,” Earl says. “I’ve seen wolves here before.” An hour passes, then two, and still no sign of Canis lupus. Again the words of Larry Marten come to mind: “Keep your eyes open and let the animals come to you. Remember, them wolves like to hang around them buffalo. That’s why they’re so big, eh. Got to be to take the buffalo down.”

I spot a tail wagging 200 yards out. The animal is black as coal. “Wolf,” Earl whispers. “More than one, eh.” Loping at the perimeter of the 30-member buffalo herd is a pack of five predators. The largest of them dodges in and out of the grazing cluster, attempting to panic the adults into hastily abandoning their frightened offspring. “This,” Earl says, “is what you might see one day in Yellowstone.”

The ploy of the alpha male wolf appears to work as a collective panic sets in among the bison. Hooves kick up dust. Ground rumbles. Waterfowl flush in the ruckus. The wolf pack swarms a yearling bison left vulnerable. I expect to see the 200-pound animal topple in a flash of teeth and blood, but a large cow lowers her head and charges, scattering the wolves.

Earl explains that wolves in Wood Buffalo have developed a “search image,” which in simple terms is the keen ability to key in on a calf when it’s most vulnerable. However, they are not great risk-takers. Reckoning that the chance of getting gored is too great, the pack backs off and disappears.

After the commotion settles, we continue to hike through the glades, where more ducks and geese are gathering in the bays for the southern migration. In all, we covered 10 miles scouting the hinter meadows of Lynx Stand. No other place I’ve hiked compares to this land. Pastoral it is, idyllic it’s not. Some ecologists fear the delta is dying, or at the least, radically changing. In the late 1960s, the British Columbia provincial government approved construction of the W.A.C. Bennett hydroelectric dam several hundred miles upstream on the Peace River. The dam has caused the delta to dry out, turning marshes into meadows, altering the face of the land’s flora, and sending populations of muskrats, beavers, and moose into decline.

The drier environmental conditions have also made it easier for wolves to claim bison calves, and researchers have noted a dramatic reduction in the park’s population. Fortunately, attitudes have changed and plans are afoot to “correct” the mistake by creating ice dams, or possibly even an “ecological dam” on the Slave River, which would simulate the moist conditions of pre-dam days.

Flying south toward Fort McMurray on an Air Mikisew prop jet, I think about Larry Marten and how his daily ritual, his life, is tied so closely to a land few outsiders see. I remember, too, what Earl told me while we stood on a rocky landing at Lynx Stand. “Until the bison controversy began, then the draw down of the delta, the park had a low profile. It was probably better known among Europeans than Americans.”

The plane swings wide over the seamless fabric of water and land. Somewhere down below, another bison is fending off a pack of hungry wolves in a life-and-death dance no one will witness. I try to recall wildlands I’ve visited in the Lower 48 that are similar to Wood Buffalo, places where the solitude is so deep and never ending, where you realize the true meaning of isolation and know what it’s like to be in a place devoid of humans. “You’re not going to stumble across people here,” Earl said. “There may not be another person within 50 miles in any direction. OK, maybe one, but we call that a crowd.”

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