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TRAVEL JOURNAL INDEX > Bigger is Weirder

Yellowknife to Wood Buffalo Nat'l Park, Northwest Territories 08/20-22/06 (Day 117-119)
Bigger is Weirder

The road into and out of Yellowknife is so straight and flat that we can see for miles ahead of us. It’s also a safe bet that we’re the only car on the road, so when we see a speck in the distance our first assumption is that it’s a buffalo, not a car. And we’re usually right. We pass more than 15 of them on our way out of Yellowknife vs. only about three vehicles.

Eight hours later we finally arrive at Wood Buffalo National Park, passing a red fox and a small herd of buffalo (most in the park are not pure Wood Buffalo anymore, but an intermixed hybrid of Wood Buffalo their American Buffalo cousins) blocking the road not far beyond the entrance with its non-existent pay station. Surprisingly there is no entrance fee for Wood Buffalo National Park.

Thank goodness there are so many hours of daylight at this time of year since we don’t pull into the park’s Pine Lake Campground until well past 10. But there’s still enough light left in the sky to quickly set up camp and we don’t have to worry too much about disturbing other sleeping campers since only two of the campground’s 36 sites are occupied.  No wonder they’ve stopped maintaining a dozen or so sites and just given them back to nature to take over.

In fact, the whole park seems deserted despite the fact that this is the heart of summer vacation season and this is one of the most unique places in the world. At 17,300 square miles, it’s Canada’s largest park and one of the biggest in the world—so huge that it straddles two provinces: the Northwest Territories and Alberta.

All that land is home to some real oddities including mysterious rocks, salt mounds and giant balls of mating garter snakes that thrive in the nook and cranny filled karst that the park is riddled with. After a good night’s sleep, we head out on the South Loop Trail to check it all out. The trail has been mercilessly churned up by endless buffalo hooves as the massive animals meander along leaving huge ankle-twisting holes in their wake. Other hazards include those garter snakes, a few of which we nearly step on. Thankfully, mating ball season is over.

Further into the eight mile hike, the trail skirts around bone-dry Grosbeak Lake which is littered with eerie rocks that have been scarred, scraped, pock-marked and eroded by the high salt content left behind in the dry lakebed. They look like they were dropped there from the moon.

Back at camp we walk from our tent to the sandy shore of Pine Lake—which is the exact same color as the Caribbean, if not the same temperature. After a very brief  “bath,” we break out the whole salmon we bought yesterday in Yellowknife for less than $5 and take it to an unused campsite to scale and filet. Hey! There are bears around here. The thing yields enough meat for three meals and it tastes fantastic and we’re not just saying that because we’re starving from our hike, which we are.

Most campgrounds in Canada are stocked with free firewood (a lovely touch) and the Pine Lake Campground is no exception, so we build a fire—in part for warmth and, in part, to ward off the mosquitoes which turn up the moment the sun starts setting—at about 10:45.

We wake up at 1:30 am and stumble sleepily to the lakeshore to watch an Aurora Borealis display that puts the weak effort we witnessed back in Yellowknife to shame. The cold—and a strange bear-like rustling in the bushes—eventually sends us back to bed, but it’s a sight we will never forget. It is as if someone is finger painting in the sky just for us.

In the morning we head to a different section of the park where the Lane Lake trail takes us through terrain that’s a mix of Borneo rainforest with a smattering of pine trees and a whole host of North American animals thrown in. It’s damp and thick and full of clear signs that all manner of those animals have been rooting around right where we are standing within the past few hours.

The trail itself is clearly an animal track that the park has simply tacked a few (very few) signs up along in an attempt to make it seem like it’s there for human use. We half expect to have to step aside to let a buffalo or a black bear pass.

There are droppings everywhere (delicate little piles from the deer to foot wide steaming mounds from the buffalo) and we can’t walk more than a few dozen feet without stumbling over another offering or encountering a distinct set of black bear prints. Heeding the advice of countless park rangers and naturalists, we take turns shouting “Hey Bear!” at the top of our lungs (Eric is much better at this) as we move down the trail. This feels incredibly silly (thank goodness we are the only hikers around), but not as silly as getting mauled.

As if our heart rates aren’t already elevated enough, we keep flushing well-camouflaged ptarmigans out of the undergrowth and they all seem to wait until we are right next to them before they fly straight up into the air in a flurry of beating wings and frantic screeching. We jump every single time.

And then it happens. On our way out of the park a big road works truck towing a grader blade comes barreling down the main gravel road toward us. As he flies past he kicks up a rock which bounces off the blade and hits our windshield with a brain-rattling pop. Over the next few hundred miles we watch our very first crack develop then slowly amble its way down our windshield.

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