Travel Blog – Northwest Territories Part 2 – Wood Buffalo National Park (Hay River to and around Fort Smith)

This is a continuation of my travel blog from my trip to the Northwest Territories. Part 1 is here, and Part 3 will automatically link in a comment below when I post it.  These were written en route and are being posted on a few week delay.

The next day was a shorter driving day – from Hay River to Fort Smith, allowing time to explore the NWT portion of Wood Buffalo National Park.  I also budgeted extra time since a good chunk of this road is not paved – I wasn’t sure what condition it would be in or how fast I’d be able to travel.  Fortunately (or not, depending on how you look at it), it hasn’t rained the entire time I’ve been up here so the road was clear and dry.

The first stop of the day was Angus Fire Tower, which has a giant sinkhole beside it – described as “evidence of the unique karst topography of this area.” It was, indeed, a giant hole in the ground.  It was interesting, but only so much.  I decided to have lunch here, but the mosquitoes were so bad I ended up eating in the car.  Soon after, the road turns to dirt and gravel, and I continued the very long drive onwards.

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I was following directions from a few different guides, and one (Moon Guide) suggested stopping at Nyarling River, which is an underground river on top of which lies only an empty riverbed.  The pullout for this stop has a couple of signs explaining this fact (containing all the information I had already read in my guide), but it’s about 100m past where the road crosses the river itself, and there’s no logical trail to get to the river.  It’s possible the trail was just blocked by downed trees (there are a lot of those up here), but combined with no signage towards the river, I eventually gave up and moved on.

The next stop was supposed to be Salt Plains Overlook, which by most accounts is the highlight of this part of the park (besides, of course, the wood bison that roam it freely).  As I prepared to turn onto the road that leads to this spot, though, I was confronted with large barricades saying “Road closed.”  Major disappointment.

After this, my only other real stop was Fort Smith itself.  I checked into my hotel and headed across the street to the Government of Canada building, which contains the National Parks information centre.  I wanted a map of the stops in the park (there’s not much information about this anywhere) and a sense of where to go the next day… and now I wanted to know why the road to Salt Plains Overlook was closed. I got the maps and some guidance on where to go the next day (as well as that evening).  The story on the Salt Plains Overlook was that some minor flooding from rain a week earlier had washed out a couple small parts of the road, and the crews hadn’t gotten to it yet – they were hoping to fix it up some time later this week. He asked what I was driving and he said they were letting trucks and vans through (though there was nothing indicating that on the road), and that I might be able to try it in my car and should give it a go.  I wasn’t really willing to risk getting stuck so I decided to see if it was open on my way back a couple days later.

I began to realise that public parks in this part of the country are not well-maintained – I’m not sure if this is a new thing or not, but missing signs, damaged signs, downed trees, damaged or half-repaired roads, and out of date information are commonplace.  This is true of both Wood Buffalo National Park (which is run by Parks Canada), and the various territorial parks, which are run by the NWT government (or “GNWT” as it’s referred to here).  Obviously, all of these things are normal – trees fall, roads get washed out.  But in most other places, these things are repaired promptly – fallen trees are cleared from trails, roads get repaired.  Granted, it’s early in the season, but on at least one occasion I was advised there would be fallen trees in the trail I was headed to that had fallen in last spring’s floods – over a year ago now.

Anyway, I also got directions for how to go see pelicans in the nearby rapids.  I wandered a bit from the route the Parks employee suggested… I first wanted to see the Fort Smith Mission Historical site, which I rapidly discovered is contained behind a locked fence, so I never got into it.  From there, I headed to the waterfront boardwalk which gives a distant view of the Rapids of the Drowned, which are nearest to the town.

The trails on the map showed that you could walk down close to the riverfront from this viewpoint and then walk all the way along to the base of the rapids themselves.  I got down to the riverfront area and walked along a little way and eventually the trail just sort of… ended.  I’m not sure if trees had fallen to block the trail, or if there had been cave-ins along the water, but there was definitely no trail anymore.  I eventually found a route back up a steep stretch and found my way back towards where I had been directed to go originally.  I skipped past the steep option and went to the “easier access” side, which was further along and then switched back along a slower grade.

I eventually made my way down to the water (after accidentally plunging into mud right near the bottom) and found literally dozens of pelicans swimming around in the rapids diving for fish.  There are a bunch of rocks nearby that you can walk on safely and get fairly close to the rapids without actually going in them, and I wandered out there.  You can only get so close to the pelicans, but I was definitely within 10 metres or so of them.  I sat and watched (and took way too many photos of) them for a while, and found my way back up (this time avoiding the mud).  I had dinner at the only restaurant that wasn’t in my hotel – a little pizza place a short walk away – and called it a night.

The next day (Tuesday), I headed into the Alberta portion of Wood Buffalo National Park.  Before I start on this part of the story, I should mention that after having spotted a handful of bears along the roadside a few times, I began to worry I wasn’t prepared for encountering an actual bear (I wasn’t, really).  Of course, the bears here are mostly black bears which are pretty harmless if you don’t piss them off.  Either way, the notion of walking in the woods alone, with the nearest human possibly hundreds of kilometres away, was beginning to terrify me.  I did it anyway, but only with an intense amount of nerves and regular looking over my shoulder… and making lots of noise so as not to startle any creatures.

Anyway, my first stop was Salt River, where I took the short (800m) walk along the Karstland Interpretive Trail – which features a breeding ground for garter snakes, though they apparently leave in late spring and there were none to be seen.  It was an interesting exploration of some of the karst topography of the area – more big holes in the ground, this time with trees.

I then went across the highway for the Salt River Meadows trail, which is 1.3 km (or 1.5km, depending on which sign you look at) long.  It heads out towards the river, where I spotted a couple of bison grazing, and then over a small creek, through the woods in a loop, and then back over the creek and back to the road.  I got to the first crossing on the small creek, near where I’d spotted one of the bison grazing earlier (it had since moved on), only to discover the bridge in pieces on one bank of the creek.  I didn’t stop to figure out what caused it to be in that condition, but when I arrived I hadn’t yet figured out that the trail was supposed to cross the creek, so I spent some time figuring out where I was actually supposed to go. Once I spotted a small bit of the remains of the bridge on the other side, and looked again at the map I’d taken a photo of on my iPhone, I realised I was supposed to cross.

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I crossed, and then followed the trail along and back – when it got back around on its loop, it leads to a clearing with a great view of the meadows and the creek bed, which was quite lovely.  Around the time I arrived at that spot, though, I heard a loud rustling on the trail ahead of me, and spotted something big and dark… I eventually figured out it was a bison (or perhaps a moose), as I could see its hind legs, but I nearly had a panic attack when I thought it was something more dangerous.  Just to be safe, and so as not to annoy the bison, I walked back along the creek bed instead of along the trail through the woods.  The bridge to go back was, fortunately, still intact.

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The next stop was just a couple kilometres later, at Grosbeak Lake.  Another bear-paranoia-hampered 1.5 km hike later I found myself at the lake itself.  The lake itself is underground, and at the surface is a coating of salt – it’s quite beautiful (and tasty).  And it’s huge – salt as far as the eye can see!!  I really can’t compare it to anything – but either way, I’m glad I went there, especially after missing Salt Plains.

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The only other stop within a reasonable drive of Fort Smith is Pine Lake, which is a big lake about 25km South.  At this point in the day I had encountered literally zero people after entering the park boundaries, so I went for a quick skinny dip (I didn’t go very far in though as after a few metres the lake was rather algae-filled).  I soon headed back to Fort Smith, and got there earlier than expected so decided to explore one of the other nearby rapids.

A friend had recommended Pelican Rapids, as well as Mountain Portage Rapids – the former for the rapids, the latter for more pelicans (strangely, Pelican Rapids are apparently not known for their pelicans).  I was, at this point, quite tired and not in the mood for another lengthy hike in the middle of nowhere, so I chose Mountain Portage Rapids which the map I was given at the information centre suggested was much closer to the road (Pelican Rapids are apparently a 45 minute hike from the nearest place to park).  I drove out there, and the directions provided were accurate… except there was no logical or easy route to actually get down to the rapids themselves.  One easy/logical route leads about 20 m past the rapids, and there’s no way to get up to them without swimming (against the current, I might add!)… the other route involved going uphill, which I tried, and then back down a steep cliff (at least, I think that’s where the route takes you – again, the trail was blocked numerous times so it was hard to tell if I was going the right way). I eventually opted against this after being unable to find a reasonable way down.  It was a bit frustrating to say the least – but I figured I had a good time the day before so it was fine. I had dinner in the hotel and called it a night…. My shoulder was getting quite tired from all the dirt road driving (I broke my clavicle a few months ago and the muscles are still recovering), and I needed the rest.
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