Day 117-119 of the Journey

The road into and out of Yellowknife is so straight and flat that we could see for miles ahead of us. It was also a safe bet that we were the only car on the road, so when we saw a speck in the distance our first assumption was that there was another buffalo on the road. And we were usually right. We passed more than 15 buffalo on our way out of Yellowknife but saw only three vehicles.

Welcome to Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada.

Eight hours after leaving Yellowknife we finally arrived at Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Canada, passing a red fox and a small herd of buffalo which was blocking the road not far beyond the park entrance. Surprisingly there was no entrance fee for Wood Buffalo National Park which is the largest national park in Canada and the second largest park in the world. It’s also a UNESCO World Heritage site and it protects the largest free-roaming herd of Wood Buffalo, though in-breeding with American Buffalo means that most of the buffalo in the park are not pure Wood Buffalo anymore.

This park also provides the only remaining nesting ground for the endangered whooping crane and contains one of the world’s largest inland freshwater deltas.

A herd of Wood Buffalo.

We pulled into the park’s Pine Lake Campground well past 10 pm, but at this time of year we still had enough light in the sky to quickly set up camp and we didn’t have to worry too much about disturbing other sleeping campers since only two of the campground’s 36 sites were occupied.

In fact, the whole park seemed deserted despite the fact that it was the heart of summer vacation season and this is one of the most unique places in the world. At 17,300 square miles (4,806 square km) this park is larger than Switwerland and 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.

Karen on a trail in Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada.

After a good night’s sleep, we headed out on the South Loop Trail to check it all out. The trail had been mercilessly churned up by buffalo hooves as the massive animals meandered along leaving huge ankle-twisting holes in their wake. Other hazards included those garter snakes, a few of which we nearly step on. Thankfully, mating ball season was over.

Further into the 8 mile (12 km) hike, the trail skirted around bone-dry Grosbeak Lake which was littered with eerie rocks that had been scarred, scraped, pock-marked, and eroded by the high salt content left behind in the dry lakebed. They looked like they’d been dropped there from the moon.

The salt has etched patterns onto the rocks located in the salt plain of Grosbeak Lake.

Back at camp we walked from our tent to the sandy shore of Pine Lak which is the exact same color as the Caribbean, if not the same temperature. After a very brief  “bath,” we broke out the whole salmon we bought in Yellowknife for less than $5 and took it to an unused campsite to scale and filet. Hey! There are bears around here. The fish yielded enough meat for three meals and it tasted fantastic and we’re not just saying that because we were starving after our hike.

The shores of Pine Lake where we had the whole campground practically to ourselves.

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

Aurora Borealis over Pine Lake in Wood Buffalo National Park.

We woke up at 1:30 am and stumbled sleepily to the lakeshore to watch an Aurora Borealis display that put the weak effort we witnessed back in Yellowknife to shame.

Aurora Borealis over Pine Lake in Wood Buffalo National Park.

The cold—and a strange bear-like rustling in the bushes—eventually sent us back to bed, but it was a sight we will never forget. It was as if someone was finger painting in the sky just for us.

Aurora Borealis over Pine Lake in Wood Buffalo National Park.

In the morning we headed to a different section of the park where the Lane Lake Trail took us through terrain that was a mix of Boreal rainforest with a smattering of pine trees and a whole host of North American animals thrown in. It was damp and thick and full of clear signs that all manner of those animals had been rooting around right where we are standing within the past few hours.

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

An Aspen forest in Wood Buffalo National Park.

There were droppings everywhere (delicate little piles from the deer to foot wide steaming mounds from the buffalo) and we couldn’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 took turns shouting “Hey Bear!” at the top of our lungs (Eric is much better at this) as we moved down the trail. It felt incredibly silly (thank goodness we were the only hikers around), but not as silly as getting mauled.

Wood Buffalo National Park.

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

Here’s more about travel in Canada