In celebration of the 150th year of Confederation, we are trying to visit every Canadian National Park that we can drive to. This is the western portion of that tour.
My sleep was not a good one. I mean, the front seat of a Corolla is not the most comfortable place to sleep but the night was punctuated by shouts and screams from somewhere nearby. I drifted off then woke to the sound of rain falling against the car before going back asleep only to jerk awake to the sound of Jack making really wet-sounding chewing sounds behind me. Oh no. He’s done this before throwing up so I reached behind me to open the door and let him out. He ran out onto the grass and as I suspected, he threw up. When I went to check on him, I saw a pile of red frothy goop in the grass. Oh noooo is he throwing up blood? Am I going to have to find a vet in the middle of nowhere? My mind was spinning as I went through a checklist of what could have caused bloody vomit. Did he eat anything new? Anything that could cause a puncture? Any changes in behaviour? Has he been listless or depressed? Then I had a true face palm moment while standing in the rain. I had started feeding my senior citizens a goji joint supplement treat for the trip. That was what caused the red since he had gotten his night treat only a few hours before. A much more relaxed Jack jumped back into the car and we dozed a little until just after dawn.
There was a light drizzle when I decided that it was time to stop trying to sleep and just get moving. I let the dogs out onto lawn and offered them some food which they picked at. I was happy to see that Jack eagerly devoured his morning treat and some of his kibble. I loaded them back into the car and decided to take up the offer from the R.C.M.P. officers the night before when they had told me to let them know if I needed anything. Since nature is one call that cannot be put on hold, I went knocking at the door to make use of the facilities only to find that the detachment was locked right up. Oh boy. We began driving around town to try and get the lay of the land (and find a restroom). That was when I saw that there were two motels right around the corner from where we had been parked. Part of me was a little upset with the local constabulatory for not mentioning the motels but this looked like it may have been the source of the commotion during the night so maybe there weren’t the most peaceful places to sleep.
We ended up back on the same road as our Airbnb and the R.C.M.P. detachment and I tried calling the Airbnb host again. This time she picked up and told me that my Airbnb was actually at another address that was literally right around the corner. Well it would have been nice if I had been told that before I arrived. Fortunately she agreed to reimburse me the lost night. As I was talking to her, I looked to my left and noticed that we were parked next to The Rusty Raven Gallery & Gift, a coffeeshop and gallery. What are the odds that I would just happen to be stopped there? I jumped out and ordered a caramel latte at the recommendation of the young man behind the counter before scurrying down the hall to take care of business. I had hoped to also get something to eat, but all they had were cookies and squares. Hardly sufficient for a day of exploration.
With coffee in hand, we went to the Airbnb to check it out and have a quick lay down in a proper bed. While I thought I was staying in a private room, we actually had the run of an entire house complete with a fenced back yard. Leo went through the house and tried out all the beds and couches, while Jack and Piper followed me into the room I chose to sleep in. They climbed up next to me and sprawled out. Naturally I flopped down next to them and took a few minutes to relax before trying to find a place to eat. We weren’t too far from Anna’s Home Cooking. Sounds like our kind of place.
We were a bit early since the website says they open at 9:00 am so I took the dogs out for a short walk and then sat in the car waiting for the open sign to light up. When I saw several people going in and out, I figured that it was safe to pop inside. I was greeted by a woman at the front who welcomed me as though I was a long lost friend and I quickly learned about the people who worked there, the family connections between them, the fitness studio that runs in the back of the building; it was like information overload. She recommended the Frontier breakfast of eggs, bacon (since they were out of sausage), toast, and potatoes. I was a little surprised when the plate landed in front of me since I did not expect to see purple potatoes in a small town restaurant. I love those little touches. With a full belly, and a piece of bacon I had squirrelled away for the dogs, I went out to the car and we drove back to Wood Buffalo National Park.
Since we were going to have to drive out along Highway 5, I decided to drive through the only other road in the park: Pine Lake Road. Pine Lake Road runs south from Fort Smith and ends at Fort Chipewyan.
Our first stop was at the Salt River Day Use area and as we rounded a corner to the parking lot, I noticed that one of the larger park inhabitants had already laid claim to the area. I think it was the largest bison I had ever seen. He calmly moved away from the car while barely looking me. If it wasn’t for the fact that I had to make use of the facilities (maybe the large coffee was a bad idea) I would have stayed in the car. When I emerged, I tiptoed to stand behind a sign and take a few photos before scurrying to the car and continuing the drive.
When I saw the sign for the Karstland Interpretive Trail, I decided to stop so that I could get a good look at karst topography. I wasn’t quite sure what karst was, but the short trail of less than one kilometre led us past the sinkholes that define the landscape. The sinkholes are caused by water dissolving caves in the rock that eventually collapse.
We stopped at Grosbeak Lake Trail for a walk since there was a break in the rain. I was transfixed by all the lichen hanging from the branches of the trees. When the trail started getting a bit hilly I turned around to avoid stressing Piper’s legs. It was a good thing because the rain started coming down harder once we were near the car.
It was a little unnerving to be driving down the gravel road and top a low rise to see a bison walking down the road. The dogs were excited every time they saw one, especially Jack. Piper would whine and whine, Jack barked, and I don’t even know if Leo noticed. I think he was confused about all the commotion. Then again, I used to take Jack and Piper with me when I used to ride horses and they have played with cows so they think that the big animals are more play buddies. Leo hasn’t had that experience.
When we arrived at Pine Lake, I brought the dogs out and we walked to the shore. Blue-green algae in the lake lends it a pretty blue hue. It was also completely devoid of human and animal activity with a large buffer zone around the lake meaning nothing would be able to sneak up on us so I let the pups run in the water. I mean Piper needed to ice those legs after all (nudge nudge wink wink). Once they stopped playing, we went back to the car and continued on.
Our last stop was at Peace Point. I was a little wary of the road beyond that point and did not want to risk getting stuck in the mud. There were signs that said to stay off the road if it was wet and my little Corolla with no cell service and deep mud roads are a bad combination. We stopped at a high bank that looked out over the river then walked down to the water’s edge to get in another short walk. The sky was getting darker and darker and I was expecting that the skies were going to open and pour at some point so I wanted to get as much exercise as possible. Finally we got back into the car and started the return trip to Fort Smith.
We saw more bison walking along the road and even saw a black bear sitting on the shoulder. The bear was kind enough to stay there and let me take photo after photo. The dogs knew there was something out there because I had stopped but I don’t think they saw the bear itself.
We emerged from the park and drove into Fort Smith. I decided to go back to Anna’s to grab a really late lunch or really early dinner. I figured if I was still hungry I could order something later but as with any little town the options are limited and I wasn’t really feeling like getting pizza this early in the trip.
Since Anna’s was getting ready to close, there wasn’t much in the way of food. After all the traipsing around through a damp forest, the Buffalo Chicken soup was looking really good. A nice big bowl of spicy tomato-based soup with loads of chicken was just perfect. The only thing that would have made it better would have been a grilled cheese sandwich but since they had been so accommodating, I wasn’t about to be demanding they re-open the kitchen.
We drove back to the house and the dogs passed out after eating their dinner while I was making the most of an ample supply of hot water. I was able to wiggle down between Jack and Piper and put on the TV but fell asleep in no time. Leo wanted to have his own bed and I heard him padding around and nesting until he found somewhere comfy.
Wood Buffalo National Park (44 972 sq km/11 112 832 acres)
Fort Smith Visitor Reception Centre: 149 McDougal Road, Fort Smith, N.W.T.
Telephone: (867) 872-7960
Fort Chipewyan Visitor Reception Centre: MacKenzie Avenue, Fort Chipewyan, AB
Telephone: (780) 697-3662
HOW TO GET THERE
Highway 5 is the only year-round road that will lead you into the park. There is an ice road that is used to connect the southern gate in Fort Chipewyan to Fort Smith and Fort McMurray for a few months of the year. The only other way to access the southern gate is by air or water.
WHAT TO DO
Watch for buffalo. There are plenty of hiking trails and the ones that we explored were not particularly difficult or technical. There are several lakes to explore by canoe or boat and canoes can be rented in Fort Smith. While fishing permits can be purchased, the fish stocks are poor and there are catch and possession regulations in effect.
There are front and back country camping sites. The front camping sites are not serviced with electricity.
WHERE TO EAT
There aren’t any restaurants in the park but Fort Smith is not far from the boundary and there are some restaurants in town. I can vouch for the Rusty Raven for coffee and Anna’s for more substantial fare.