A Travellerspoint blog

July 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 - Wood Buffalo National Park

Pelicans, Bison, Natural wonders.

July 9:

Both of us were road weary from the long run to get to Hay River, so today is a day of rest. A breakfast of poached eggs, bacon and toast, followed by a few hours of taking care of the blog entry and keeping our finances up to date. Jenny's job is to keep track of our spending, so we know where we are in relation to the budget we built to finance this trip. After 40 days we are just slightly over budget, but we should get ourselves back on track over the time at Wood Buffalo. There is very little on which to spend money out there in the wilds.

The license plates in the NWT are pretty cool:


The town of Hay River has a fence where pictures of people who lived here but have passed on can be posted, kind of like an ongoing monument to those who came before:


Hay River has a lovely museum, dedicated to the history of the area so we took that in for part of the day.



Meal planning for 4 days with a small fridge also requires a bit of negotiation. What can we carry with us, what do we want to eat, etc? What easy meals do we have available in our larder of extra food? We got that sorted out and now have a meal plan in place and the food to fulfil it in our fridge.

The Hay River Campground is on the shores of Great Slave Lake, the 9th largest lake in the world and is a shipping centre for getting goods all the way across, around the lake and up the Mackenzie River to the Arctic Ocean. Massive barges are pushed upriver and lake by 150 powerful push boats. The CNR has a rail terminal here, the northernmost rail terminal in the country. All summer long goods are barged to the north, to communities and individuals along the shores of the lake and the river. Some of the older push boats are parked permanently on the shore.


There is a public beach right at the mouth of the Hay River and it is teeming with locals on this hot summer day and we took a walk along the boardwalk for a bit of exercise. The temperature peaked at 30 degrees C this afternoon and is now cooling off nicely as the wind comes in off the lake. The cooler weather slows down the horse flies. Jenny got a couple of shots of them swarming alongside our car earlier today.

July 10:

We did the 270 kilometer drive from Hay River to our next campground, Queen Elizabeth Territorial Campground, at Fort Smith.


The road was not easy, with a long gravel section, with active gravel trucks going back and forth as they built new roadbed. We made it without any damage to either Sully or TaJ, although both ended up pretty muddy by the time we finished the drive.


The scenery gradually gave way from boreal forest to boreal prairie. The area is pockmarked with sinkholes:


Because of all the construction activity, the animals have made themselves scarce on the road into the park. We went to the Visitor Centre to get updates on where we might find some good hiking as well as wildlife. We did some work on the blog at the local library and checked out the town. Fort Smith is surprisingly active for a town at the end of the road. About 2500 people live and work here. The town also has an awesome population of horse flies, and the heat drives them crazy.

July 11:

The campground is very quiet and we both slept very well. At this time of year it does not get dark at night. About 10:30 pm the sun finally sets, but twilight lasts until 1:00am. Between then and 3:00 am it is somewhat dark, but I could clearly see across the campground when I went out to take a look around. After 3:00 am dawn begins to break. The sun is up before 5:00am and the day starts again.

Today we got really active. We did 4 walks/hikes at various locations around Fort Smith and in the National Park. As you leave Fort Smith towards Fort Resolution, about 24 kilometers down the road, you cross back into Alberta. We have been back and forth from territory to province 6 times today.

Our first hike was to the Rapids of the Drowned, so named by Alexander Mackenzie, who discovered them (for the white race). At that time, one canoe was sent down the rapids to see if they were navigable. The man piloting this canoe was supposed to fire off one round if it was safe. While he was still working his way downriver, another member of the team shot a duck. The other canoes, thinking the way was safe left and 5 voyageurs were drowned in the un-navigable rapids. A sad tale!

Here you see White Pelicans, and this is their northernmost nesting place. Hundreds of them, plying the river rapids for fish. These are the same pelicans we will see when we get Texas this fall. They begin the migration south in late September. This hike was about 2.2 kilometers along the shores of the Slave River.



Later in the morning we did our biggest hike of the day, about 4.8 kilometers, to the Cassette Rapids at Fort Resolution. Some lovely rapids. The hike was marred by the presence of thousands of mosquitoes. We were told there are about 100 varieties of them up here, and at least one of them will find you tasty. Bug spray keeps them from biting, but not from being annoying throughout the whole hike. It was also hot, about 28 C and humid. We were soaked with sweat when we finished that hike. The scenery, once again, was amazing.


We came upon this farm garden. A real rarity around here. These people can really get things to grow:


We stopped for lunch at Anna's, a small local restaurant. After lunch we decided to head out to the Salt Lake Day Use area, where we did a short hike around the garter snake hibernaculum. This is the most northern place in all of Canada where garter snakes live. They spent 7 months a year hibernating in the cave system is this one particular area of the park. They mate, then disperse for summer hunting of frogs and other tasty meals before returning in the fall to join their thousands of mates in a quivering mass of snakes. We did not see any snakes on this portion of our day. This hike was another kilometer or so.

We then drove almost 70 kilometers to pick up the Salt Plains Lookout, on the road back towards Hay River. Much of this area of the park is salt flats. We hiked downhill (which means we had to climb back up) in 30 C heat and full sunlight. This area used to be a vast ocean eons ago and underneath lies thick layers of salt. Fresh water from rains and run off liquifies the salt and brings it to the surface where it dries into cakes of salt on the surface. While there we spotted 4 Sandhill cranes walking just a 100 meters or so away from us.



We were exhausted by the time we climbed back up to the car. Thank goodness for air conditioning, which cooled us off nicely on the drive back to Fort Smith.

We had a quiet evening back at the campground. One thing irks us a bit. You can not rely on hot water in the showers. You get started in nice warmth, then it turns, and stays, icy cold. At least it was a bit refreshing today after all our exertions. Other than that one tiny thing, this is a prime place to stay, big spacious sites, 30 amp power and just a short jaunt into the town of Fort Smith for supplies. The town has amazing services for a place so remote and off the beaten track.

July 12:

We decided to do an early morning walk back down to the Rapids of the Drowned, to see if we could catch better pictures of pelicans. Unfortunately, our efforts (again a downhill, followed by an uphill return) were not rewarded. Yesterday's photos of pelicans will have to suffice. We did get in 2 kilometers of hiking before breakfast however, so all was not a waste. We will do one more hike to see pelicans tomorrow, at a different location, closer to where they nest on the river.

After breakfast (french toast & bacon) we headed out towards the Pine Lake Day Use area, about 60 kilometers away down a gravel road. We'd stopped yesterday after 24 kilometers without seeing a single bison, and hoped to see some today.

Our initial stop was at the Salt Lake Day Use area, where we hiked in to Grosbeak Lake, another salt marsh area. The full hike is a 9 kilometer loop that ends back at the day use area. We decided to hike in to the lake and then return to our car. After all we have already done 2 kilometers this morning before breakfast and it is going to be another scorcher, with temperatures in the low 30's. There is no wind on this hike and we are sweat soaked by the time we reach out turnaround point. Beautiful scenery once again.




Our total hike was just over 4 kilometers, strenuous enough for today's heat. We were done by noon and then continued on to Pine Lake, where we came across this monster, our only bison sighting for the day.



The road out and back is good gravel, with very little traffic. Any approaching vehicle can be seen from miles away by their rooster tail of dust. All drivers slow down to about 30 kph when approaching another vehicle to reduce the chance of stone damage. In any event we only saw two other vehicles on this entire stretch of road in the three hours we were out there.

We stopped at the Wood Buffalo visitor centre once back in town. There we were told that the buffalo have moved deeper into the park at the moment, so the big male we saw at Pine Lake may be our only sighting on this leg of our trip. This might be the biggest buffalo either of us have ever seen.

We took the rest of the afternoon off, reading and doing a bit of laundry. The campground here has laundry so that helps, especially when it is so hot that we sweat though our hiking clothes each day. Wood Buffalo is a wonderful park to visit and this will be a highlight of our trip.

July 13:

This morning we went for one last visit to the Pelicans. This time at their nesting site along the river, at the mountain rapids. The hike down was very steep.


No pelicans were not feeding when we got there, but they were flying around, and sitting on their nesting island. The young are now near fully grown and are working on their flight and fishing skills. Jenny got to use her tele-photo lens for a bit in an attempt to get some decent pictures.



After this excursion, we gassed up to be ready for tomorrow's departure back towards civilization. Gas here is about $1.08 a litre, much lower than we were expecting. The local native band operates a gas bar/Tim Hortons franchise. This raven seems to like hanging out here:


We toured the local museum where we learned about the history of the area. The area has a rich Metis heritage and even today, the Metis are putting forward claims for ancestral rights on the lands in the area.



The campground has it's own version of chairs for tourists to take pictures in...these are camp chairs:


Following the museum we shopped for supplies for our outward journey and settled in to write the blog entry and download and sort pictures. The blog is being sent from the Fort Simpson Library. We expect to be in Grande Prairie in 3 days.

Posted by Rooseboom-Scott 14:36 Archived in Canada Tagged pelicans wood bison

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I love those Sandhill Cranes. We saw some in Texas last year.

by Karmen Reid

Hi, are you going through BC soon? We just got back from Haida Gwaii , absolutely gorgeous. Take in the Grizzly bear sanctuary in Prince Rupert, sighting many grizzles. I assume you are reading news but just in case, many roads are closed in BC due to fires. We had to reroute to 16 near Jasper and Valemont to get back to Vancouver. 97,99 and parts of Highway 1 are closed.
safe travels

by Dianne

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