“I’m assuming this is bear territory.” – Me
“Well, yes . . . but we haven’t seen him in about a month.” – Campsite registrar
As I head north, the towns thin out and the trees move in, hugging the two-lane black top. Nearing the territorial border, I spy the unmistakeable red saddlebags of my friend Jacques’ bike. I slow and pull in front and we agree to meet at the nearest pull-out. I met Jacques Sirat in Winnipeg on my way east where he was waiting out some weather and working on his third book “Les Rayons de la Liberté”. Jacques had cycled 121 countries over the past 20 years and Canada was his latest to conquer (the book’s been released and he’s presently back in France). After reviewing our itineraries, it seemed we’d probably meet on this road and I promised him a cold beer if that happened.
I’m sure we raised some eyebrows, sitting on my coolers along the side of the road – he with a beer and me with a bottle of water, flies buzzing around our heads, map laid out between us as we surveyed his planned route through B.C. The fires burning in the province had closed Highway 97 and I suggest some detours to avoid the worst of it. As is often the case with travellers, our meeting was short and we say our goodbyes and buen caminos, both heading north but with different agendas.
Crossing the Alberta border into the Northwest Territories (NWT), the cloud of horseflies descends the moment the car stops, as if alighting on the rotting carcass of some unfortunate roadkill. Perhaps they are drawn by the bugs smeared like paint splashes across my grill and windshield. Or maybe they’ve come to pay homage to their brethren who met their demise playing chicken with a grey Chevy bullet. All I really know is I’m happy they’re more interested in the car than in me.
I’ve stopped at the visitor’s centre just across the Alberta/NWT border and am greeted by a gorgeous grey wolf – stuffed of course – with a sign hanging around his neck. “Please don’t touch.” My hand reaches instinctively to pet its soft fur.
“He doesn’t bite, but I do,” the staff member smiles and I step back, feeling like a toddler caught with my hand in the cookie jar.
“Is this your first time to the Northwest Territories,” she asks.
I admit that it is and she whips out the pre-made certificate. With a flick of her pen, I have been inducted into the “Order of Arctic Adventurers, North of 60° Chapter”, an honour bestowed on those who have “demonstrated the initiative, integrity and bold adventurous spirit of the true Arctic explorers.” While I wouldn’t put myself in the same class as Sir John Franklin, I will accept with the appropriate humility.
Formalities past, we talk about my plans and, handing me a guide, she walks me through the various routes and the sites along the road, circling certain locations in pen. “Get gas here. Get gas here.” The message is clear – keep the tank full. With hundreds of kilometers of nothing but boreal forest between towns and light traffic on the roads, it’s always best to have more than you need.
I’ve chosen the waterfall route with a detour to Wood Buffalo National Park.
When the Bear Comes Calling
It’s midnight when the rattle of my camp stove startles me awake. A moment later, the plastic bin containing pots, pans, and camp tools rattles as well. Something bigger than a squirrel is in my campsite and far too close for comfort.
I lie frozen, wrapped in my mummy bag like a human burrito, eyes wide as my mind races. “If I’m real quiet, whatever it is won’t notice me” is what I’m hoping. No such luck. The animal moves behind my tent, large by the sound of it, but still questionable. Bear? Wolf? The legendary Sasquatch?
I can hear it breathing, then the snuffle. I know that sound. It’s one my old dog would make, mouth open, when it caught scent of something unfamiliar. Another snuffle and the corner of my tent is pushed in beside my head, the inner fabric brushing against my temple. Huff, huff, now beside me, a few inches and the thin nylon all that separates the beast from my internal organs.
Whether from fear, frustration at my vulnerable state, or the channeling of a Scottish warrior ancestor, the deep-throated sound that escapes my lips unbidden is a battle cry. “Aaarrgh!” In reality, it sounded like a pissed-off pirate whose booty had just been stolen and totally ridiculous in hindsight. Did I honestly think I could take on whatever loomed outside my tent?
Silence descends on my campsite. In that moment, I am determined I will not be in my tent should whatever it is come back, if it is gone at all. Just one problem – I actually have to leave the tent to know. Not an appealing prospect.
It happens on occasion that I experience a moment of brilliance. I have my car keys so I hit the lock button, setting off the horn. Once, twice, and a third to be sure. Then I wait, listening with every fibre of my being. Silence. I unzip the door and pause. Nothing. The canopy flap is next and I peek out into the dusky light, the ultra-long days a blessing in that moment. The campsite – what I can see from my perch – is empty. Heart pounding in my ears, I bolt for the safety of my car, parked 40 feet away because of the damn flies that have now disappeared.
I see him a few minutes later, a big black bear – sleek and gorgeous in the still-fading light – strolling across from the washrooms to the site next to mine, sniffing at the trailer where the family and their dog sleep blissfully unaware of their nocturnal visitor. His casual meandering is that of a nighttime security guard, checking to see that all are tucked in tight.
Over the next half hour, I hear another horn, then another, his presence not only noticed but unwelcome by other campers. Sleep comes only with exhaustion, every rustle and snap of a twig sending my fight or flight instincts into overdrive. It’s a restless night, curled up in the back seat of my car, chilled because I’ve left the sleeping bag in the tent and there is no way in hell I’m going back to get it before the sun comes up.
The only indication the next morning that he’d been there at all are the teeth marks in the blue bin where he’d tried – and failed – to open the lid. Not that he would have found anything of interest had he succeeded . . . unless he was planning to chop some wood and build a camp-fire? I pack up and, letting the registrar know their bear was back, head east to Fort Smith. I’ll be camping again in Wood Buffalo National Park, but I doubt I’ll be setting up the tent again anytime soon.
Wood Buffalo National Park.
Straddling the Alberta and NWT border, Wood Buffalo National Park, Canada’s largest national park (larger than Switzerland), was established in 1922 to protect the last of the wood bison herds in the north. The park is also the only nesting site in the world for the endangered whooping crane whose numbers had dwindled to 21 worldwide when conservation efforts began in 1941. Protection of the nesting sites has allowed the population to increase to 329 in 2016 and resulted in an optimistic 98 nests counted in 2017.
We like to do things big in Canada. Boasting the largest inland freshwater delta in North America, Wood Buffalo is also home to the world’s largest beaver dam, unknown even to Parks’ staff until a researcher discovered it while viewing satellite images. Inaccessible by plane or road, the dam has yet to be explored.
At 44,807 km², the park is also the largest dark sky preserve in the world and the largest of the 12 dark sky preserves in Canada. The Salt Plains Lookout along Highway 3 the perfect spot to sit and study the constellations or experience the aurora borealis with an unhindered view. Late August and September are the best summer opportunities to view the night sky, but I’m there in July when there is no real “night”, the light in the sky only fading to dusk before beginning to rise again.
Then there are the snakes – red-sided garter snakes that can grow up to a meter long. A tourist attraction in their own right, the most northernly reptile makes its home in the underground caves and grottos created by the gypsum karst, allowing them to winter here. In the spring, they leave the den and congregate near the Salt River day use area, writhing masses of breeding balls as the males vie for the females’ attention. Once they breed, they tend to disappear, travelling long distances in their hunt for food, rarely to be seen in the summer.
I guess that I saw one makes me lucky?
My main issue with snakes is you don’t see them until they move, usually as you’re about to step on them. After my bear encounter, my nerves are already a little frayed and the sudden movement causes me to jump and utter a curse. Well, maybe not “utter” . . . they probably heard me back at the Parks’ Canada office! The garter pauses just off the trail and I’m able to get a good look, its yellow stripes and blood-red diamond pattern vibrant against the deep green of the undergrowth. Mature, almost three feet long and as thick as a garden hose, it eyes me carefully, tongue flicking in and out as it tastes the air. I reach for my camera, hoping it will stay long enough for a photo, only to watch it slither further into the bush before I can get the lens cap off.
Heart rate returning to normal, I continue through the thick bush, the trail to Grosbeak Lake narrow and rugged, when it suddenly opens upon another world, the land below me parched and glistening white.
The remains of an inland sea that covered much of North America 270 million years ago, the salt plains are just one reason the park was designated a Unesco World Heritage Site. The salt is pushed to the surface by underground springs, creating pillars that can rise two meters in spots, and spread across the land in the spring run-off. The Hudson’s Bay Company harvested the salt for commercial use prior to the establishment of the park. A quick taste proves it’s no different than the salt I find at my table.
I’m told the best way to experience the flats is barefoot – a natural pedicure they say – so I slip off my sandals and step onto the salt encrusted mud, cracked and parched in the stifling heat, the footprints of bison and birds preserved in the drying terrain. The salt has eaten away at the rocks left behind when the glaciers retreated after the last ice-age. (featured image) Small plants like the sarcocornia thrive in the salty environment, their rose colour blending with the red of the earth. They’re edible, I’m told, and harvested by local First Nations.
An hour exploration leads me to a fairly recent print that once again rankles the nerves. Had I arrived a day earlier, I could have joined the Parks Canada tour of the flats and not been standing in the middle of nowhere, alone (barefoot) and totally exposed to any wild thing that might take an interest, including the bear that had recently crossed the flats where I now stood.
Time to go! Hand gripping my bear banger and bear spray on my belt, I start back to the trail, head on a pivot as I scan the tree line. I’m beginning to think if I’m going to spend more time in the wilds of the north, I should consider getting my PAL (possession and acquisition licence) and a rifle. Or a dog. Or a friend – who runs slower than I do!
Back in Fort Smith, I check in at the Visitor Centre to let them know I made it back safe and sound, then follow the community trail down to the Slave River and the Rapids of the Drowned.
The name stems from a tragic incident in 1788 when a miscommunication sent a boat of men into the rapids where it capsized and all 5 were lost. The river is a favourite among paddlers, with kayakers from around the world coming to take advantage of the turbulent waters during the Slave River Paddlefest in August. It’s also the best spot to view the white pelicans.
My first encounter with pelicans in Canada came in Northern Manitoba when I saw something large and white land in the pond beside the highway, catching me off-guard. I’d assumed pelicans were only found by the ocean. I was wrong.
Unlike other white pelican colonies that make their homes on calm lakes and ponds, the Fort Smith colony returns every spring to breed and feed in the whitewater of the Slave River. The flat granite rocks along the shoreline provide the perfect spot to sit and watch the birds maneuvering the rapids like expert kayakers, dipping into the roiling waters with their long beaks and scooping up their prey in their large pouch.
I ask the fisherman sitting nearby who’s doing better and he points to the birds paddling effortlessly against the current. “You see more in the evenings,” he tells me. They nest further up-river and a short hike will take you to the lookout at the Mountain Portage rapids where you can watch them come and go.
Waterfalls and Ferry Crossings
Leaving Fort Smith and Wood Buffalo behind, I head back to Highway 1 and the waterfall route that will take me to Fort Simpson. It’s in Fort Simpson at the convergence of the Liard and Mackenzie Rivers that I can charter a flight into the Nahanni National Park. There are only three ways in during the summer – by river, by foot or by air. My interest is Virginia Falls and there’s no road that will take me there.
I meet Gilles at the Liard River ferry crossing when I have to ask if I’m in the right place, the gravel road ending in the river and no apparent dock in sight. He’s from Montreal, spent years in Inuvik, and now lives in Hay River.
“It’s better in the winter,” Gilles says, “when you don’t have to wait and can just use the ice road.” Ice roads are common up here where the rivers and lakes freeze over, preventing the ferry from running.
We talk about Inuvik and the Yukon, my intended next destination. He eyes my car. “You should be okay if you take it slow.”
I ask if he would ever go back to Montreal and he shakes his head. “I wouldn’t leave the north again,” he tells me. I’ve heard that before. Those who live above the 60th speak of the north with a the passion of a lover. I can understand the appeal of the untamed wilderness, the wildlife, the northern lights, and the solitude. I’m not sure I could handle it myself though, my interests too varied to be appeased in such an isolated place.
It’s late afternoon by the time I reach Fort Simpson. The weather has turned and there are no flights the next day into Nahanni. I could stay and hope for a change or I could go and maybe get a charter at Muncho Lake on the Alaska Highway.
My inner princess raises her dusty tiara and declares “Enough!”. Enough of the tent and the bears and the dust and the bugs. After two weeks straight of camping, civilization is what I need, the closest city heading west almost 700 kilometers away. I call a friend who lives there and ask if I can impose. With only 12 days left and a lot of region to cover, I need to sort my next steps and make some decisions.
I head southwest, past a prickly porcupine who raises his quills to my car; past the black bear that doesn’t even glance my way; past the bison strolling along the side of the road, oblivious to the dust I’m kicking up behind me. I may have failed in my first attempt as an “Arctic Adventurer” but I will be back. Inuvik awaits.