Ah, Switzerland – a 41,285 km2 haven of punctuality, secure, reliable banking, and a penchant for fine chocolate. Indeed, the Swiss have quite a lot going for them. All of this (and more) can fit into the largest National Park in Canada. With three-quarters of the park in Alberta and the other quarter in the North West Territories, Wood Buffalo National Park in Alberta covers a whopping 44,807 km2 – it is rivaled in size only by Northeast Greenland National Park. Though it is not known for its cheese fondue, this UNESCO World Heritage site protects some of the most beautiful and varied landscape in the whole world.
While you could walk for days across this behemoth of a park and practically never see the same thing twice, the territory is primarily made up of forest-scarred forest uplands, plateau dotted with bogs and streams, as well as the Peace-Athabasca Delta, which is one of the largest inland deltas in the world. The park is also home to a fantastic example of Karst landforms – which is characterized by limestone, dolomite, and gypsum with ample sinkholes and caves.
At one time, it is thought that around 168,000 wood bison roamed their namesake territory. Due to excessive hunting and harsh weather conditions, their populations dropped to a piddly 10,000 – consequently sparking the push to protect the dwindling herds in 1922. Though they brought in close to 7,000 bison from other parts of North America in the park’s infancy, huge numbers were lost due to introduced diseases. The fun doesn’t stop there, though. In addition to these first bison, you can also find other elusive creatures such as moose, caribou, black bears, muskrats, beavers, mink thrive, foxes, lynx, red squirrels, and many more.
If you’re interested in taking what very well might be the hardest hike of your life – over 16kms of dense forest which breaks only to make room for knee-deep bogs – this is the vacation destination for you. This trek, whose difficulty is proclaimed by committed explorer Rob Mark, takes you to a colossal 850-metre long beaver damn. Fortunately, this Versailles of dams is accessible year-round, and actually a lot easier in the winter.
Erected in 1922, the land for Wood Buffalo National Park was acquired by Canada (at the time, Queen Victoria signed the deed) through Treaty 8 in 1899. Wood Buffalo National Park surrounds the traditional territories and reserves of multiple Indigenous bands. The Mikisew Cree First Nation of Peace Point Reserve and the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation of Fort Chipewyan live within the border of the National Park. Each of these bands continue to incorporate elements of their traditional lifestyles, including maintaining a diet of fish, birds, and moose and, fundamentally, maintaining a strong understanding of nature. If you’re interested in learning more about the Mikisew Cree First Nation or the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations, you can follow the links at the bottom!
You might have noticed that the park is called Wood Buffalo National Park, but exists to protect the wood bison. This is not a typo! In short, it seems that what we in North America frequently refer to as ‘buffalo’ are, in actuality, ‘bison.’ The origins of this little misnomer might have something to do with the (very, very distant) genetic connection between the Asian water buffalo and the American bison (a cousin to our good friend the wood bison.) The more likely culprit, however, may have to do with the fact that both terms have virtually identical etymologies. The word ‘bison’ comes from the Greek word for ‘ox-like;’ French settlers in what is now called Canada referred to the bison as boeuf, which also means ox or bull-like. (See – there you go!) Either way, Wikipedia says that it is okay to call them either, so you can whip that out this Holiday season if the conversation gets a bit slow. If you are curious, I have included a David Attenborough-grade comparison sheet down below.
The Park has minimal drive-in points, and is accessible primarily on-foot, which not only gives you ultimate mobility it increases your chances of seeing a more honest nature! You can travel virtually anywhere in the park that your adventurous little legs can carry you, but for those of us who are perhaps a little less ‘Crocodile Dundee’ about travel, there are marked trails you can follow. The park is also a Dark Sky Preserve, keeping the largely free of light pollution, which means that you have spectacular views of stars and, if you’re lucky, the Northern Lights.
If you do visit Wood Buffalo National Park, send us your pictures!
The difference between bison and buffalo: http://www.diffen.com/difference/Bison_vs_Buffalo
More on the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation: http://atc97.org/first-nations/athabasca-chipewyan-first-nation
More on the Mikisew Cree First Nation: http://mikisewcree.ca/
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