Posted by: Bob Fisher | May 6, 2009

Away and Beyond in Northern Alberta

Regaining perspective in a Canadian wilderness

West of Edmonton, Alberta we turn right off the Trans-Canada Highway and follow the Cowboy Trail north. The long, perfectly straight highway stretches before us, rising and falling rhythmically. A dimly remembered state of mind begins to emerge.

We are heading into Northern Alberta — Peace Country, Big Lake Country, Athabasca Country.

The Canadian prairie embraces us, offering 360 degrees of sight lines and unobstructed horizons. It is an eloquent landscape of deep green and gold enhanced by the intense blue of the dome-like sky. It takes time to process the dimensions of this wide open environment, as if our sense of place has been dulled somehow. The visual freedom challenges our urban sensibilities; we are awkward travellers in a new space.

Athabaska

At Whitecourt, a typical western town with a wide main street down which you can envision a herd of cattle being driven, we first cross the Athabasca River. One of the most prominent rivers in Canada, the vigorous Athabasca is born in the Columbia icefields in the Rocky Mountains to the west.

It winds its way throughout northern Alberta — our paths will cross several times in the next few days — and flows north, eventually becoming part of the great Mackenzie River system which empties into the Arctic Ocean. Athabasca is a Cree word meaning “where there are reeds.” This great freshwater river flows over 1200 kilometres from the Rockies to Lake Athabasca, and as one of the longest undammed rivers in North America, it feeds the second largest river system on the continent (after the Mississippi). Along the way, it also nourishes one of the great unspoiled wilderness regions of the world.

Because we are southern Canadians, this northward-flowing river requires some altering of our mental frame of reference. Albertans, however, are fond of saying that the province “feeds water to the world” through three oceans: the Atlantic (by way of Hudson’s Bay), the Arctic, and the Pacific (by way of the great Mackenzie Delta on Canada’s northern coast). This is no landlocked province but one which confirms the validity of Canada’s revised motto “From sea to sea to sea.” The area is also a primeval transit zone. When the last ice age occurred here 10,000 years ago, the trans-Siberian migrants, from whom all aboriginal people of the Americas are descended, moved south through channels that had formed in the several-kilometres thick ice of the region.

Pishing

Continuing north we pass road signs that evoke the topography: Red Earth Creek, High Prairie, Little Smoky, Peace River, and Swan Hills — the latter a blueish ridge of rolling terrain that blends like water colours into the skyline. By afternoon we have arrived in McLennan, the “Bird Capital of Canada,” on the shores of Kimiwan Lake. The lake is located at the intersection of three major North American Flyways: the Mississippi, Central, and Pacific.

Our guide is Mark Heckbert a committed conservationist, wildlife biologist, and father of two young boys, both of whom are already acculturated to what Mark calls “the immediate realities of nature.” As he guides us along the raised marsh “birdwalk” over the shallow reedy lake, he initiates us to birding by ear, listening as much as watching. With the checklist of the birds of Kimiwan Lake area in hand, we follow Mark like eager ducklings; his passion is infectious.

This day we will eventually see, hear, and identify over 30 species of birds although this is relatively slim pickings because it is August and the birds are already “staging” for the mass migrations that are not that far off. Over 200 species of birds nest here; many more use the area as a stopping off point for their hemispheric travels. Of those we see, we are especially impressed with the Mountain Bluebird, the Savannah Sparrow, the Blue-winged Teal, and the “Spoonbill” Northern Shoveller.

Mark teaches us to “pish”; together we make soft,  swishing sounds that reassure the birds, allowing us to approach them without menace. He identifies individual birds for us and gives us detailed information about each species. Every now and then we ask what a particular bird is and Mark identifies it as an LLB. (By the end of our walk, most of us have figured out that he is referring to a “Little Brown Bird”; he too enjoys just watching them and feels under no obligation to obsessively categorize each.)

The extensive wetlands of Kimiwan are always in a state of flux and depending on the year they can attract between 15 to 20,000 waterfowl and as many as 25,000 shorebirds. Today there are 500-600 geese on the lake, both Canada and White-fronted. In the distance we pick out American White Pelicans that many of us have seen in our travels to southern climes but are astonished to see here.

As if the setting were not stimulating enough, Mark tantalizes us with recollections of cold October days when he has seen the lake covered with tundra and trumpeter swans. Recognized by the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network as of global and regional significance, Kimiwan Lake also plays host to five per cent of the world population of Long-billed Dowagers and Pectoral Sandpipers. As if we have been admitted to some secret realm, we leave McLennan elated and enlightened.

Outpost of the fur trade

In the small community of Grouard we stay the night at the Buffalo Bay Centre, an innovative resource centre for aboriginal, Métis, and nature studies. Next door is the Grouard Historical Village and Native Cultural Arts Museum, a unique local initiative and facility that reflects some of the earliest history of Alberta and of Canada. A key post in the all-important fur trade — one of the principal preoccupations of European powers in the New World — Grouard was also an Oblate mission in this frontier region. Working for the North West Company (which later joined forces with The Hudson’s Bay Company), fur traders first came to the area in 1799. The “HBC” was comprised of “The Governor and Company of Adventurers of England trading into Hudson’s Bay” and was granted a charter by King Charles II. To a great extent, this 18th-century private commercial enterprise set the course of Canadian history and expansion into the north and west.

Grouard is also the site where the largest land settlement undertaken in the 19th century by the Canadian government and First Nations peoples was effected. Treaty No 8 was one of the most important of Canada’s 11 “numbered treaties.” Following Canadian Confederation in 1867 and the turning over to the government of Canada of Rupert’s Land (the name given to the immense area of northern and western Canada granted to the Hudson’s Bay Company by the British Crown in 1670), these treaties negotiated aboriginal land rights. Concluded in 1899, Treaty No 8 covered an area of some 840,000 square kilometres (three and half times the size of Great Britain). Athabasca Country was known at the time as “Canada’s Great Reserve” and was an immense commercial resource for wildlife and a key target for western expansionism.

Government rhetoric of the time emphasized a benevolent government attending to the needs of aboriginal people but many critics today point to the commercial and land settlement benefits as being its real goal. More than a century old, Treaty No 8 is significant in that it formally identified “aboriginal title” as being the right of both First Nations people and Métis. It is also an agreement that impacts on the lives of these people today. Some historians point to the fact that since Confederation the Canadian government has recognized Native land claims only when their lands were required for settlement or economic development. It is hardly a coincidence that government interest in settling land claims in the Athabasca region increased when the Klondike Gold Rush to the north and west began.

Pure Alberta

Today the area is part of “Big Lake Country” and is accessible vacation country of special interest for naturalists, hikers, campers, and RV enthusiasts. But the pristine wilderness, a remedy for life in the madding crowd, has been carefully preserved and still evokes a profound sense of history as well as the call to adventure and discovery that brought early explorers to the area.

The natural order of things and equanimity of Northern Alberta are also inherent to Lesser Slave Lake, “Alberta’s Fresh Water Ocean.” Promoted as “Northern Alberta’s Family Playground,” (just two and a half hours by car from Edmonton) the lake and the wilderness area surrounding it are an environment in which only the quietest form of “play” is appropriate. The non-invasive interplay of humans and nature is its raison d’être.

The quiet town of Slave Lake is the kind of community that manages to give access to its surrounding natural resources without encroaching on them. The lake itself is truly “the way it used to be”: no raucous commercialism here, no exploitative hype, just an easy-as-it-goes lifestyle. If adrenalin is your holiday drug of choice, you should probably look elsewhere. If however, you want to just slip into something comfortable and natural, this is your kind of holiday destination.

Lesser Slave Lake is soft adventure of the most mellow kind. As Kelly Harlton of Wildside Wilderness Connection, puts it, “Our goal is to help you connect to the wilderness and your personal ‘wildside’.” And so we set off with Kelly for a half-day kayak excursion across the lake to Dog Island. We are first-time kayakers but Kelly’s low-key approach soon has us paddling rhythmically and in unison on the gently ruffled surface of this idyllic 107-kilometre long lake. Matching my strokes to his, I engage him in quiet conversation appropriate to the mood and the venue. Like many in Northern Alberta, Kelly has come here from elsewhere — to reconnect.

As we paddle, we chat quietly about contemporary culture and media and how they can obscure our awareness of what Kelly refers to as “other realities.” I respond with a questioning, “Primal realities?” Kelly nods and utters a low vocalization somewhere between a sigh and a hum.

On a small island in the lake, Kelly gives us a mini-course in the indigenous edible vegetation. He also encourages us to “spread out” on the island, reminding us that every step we take creates a new ecosystem and that there is no need to stick to the path or take the pre-determined way. In doing so, he points out that we will minimize our impact on the environment. His is a permissive, and low-key style of eco-adventure.

Northwestern hospitality

Kayaking is an appetite builder and calls for some major protein. So in the evening we head for the North Shore Homestead, a multi-purpose travel resource: part bison ranch, B&B, suites and cabins, beachfront getaway, and family museum.

Operated by Roland and Brenda Eben-Ebenau, it is the kind of we-do-it-all-for-you establishment that epitomizes the self-sufficiency ingrained in the culture of Northern Alberta. Roland piles us into a tractor-drawn wagon and off we go to inspect his bison herd. We bounce over rutted fields and soon are in the thick of things, surrounded by the massive beasts and the insects that swarm around their immense hairy heads. The bison have come to us because Roland means food, however he warns us not to get out of the wagon. This is not your usual domesticated herd of cattle; the bison are still in their natural state.

Dinner awaits us back in Roland and Brenda’s post and beam house. Brenda has spent the day baking and preparing salads, yummy hi-carb dishes, and desserts-to-die-for to accompany the thick and juicy buffalo steaks that our chauffeur-tour guide-executive chef Roland cooks to perfection on his enormous barbecue overlooking the lake.

Sitting at long tables on the deck, we chow down, chatting, musing about sights we have seen, and playing with the cats and dogs who rub against our legs. Haute or nouvelle cuisine it isn’t — thank goodness — but authentic Albertan hospitality and affable ambiance it is. The wine is as smooth as satin and its deep burgundy tone compliments the full spectrum sunset over the lake, a splendorous and consummate digestif.

And yet there is more to come. Roland also operates a small natural history museum in which many indigenous species of mammals and birds are displayed — all of them stuffed and mounted. This is just as well, because the focal point is an enormous grizzly bear who, as the story goes, one dark night ran afoul of Bella, a diminutive elderly Cree woman with a perfect aim. Apparently, it was just one of those things: a single path through the woods, one bear, one woman, no turning back. Entranced by the lore of the area, we walk out into a pitch-dark night; the Lesser Slave Lake area is free from the light pollution of cities. Every star in the heavens awaits us.

The celestial dance

And then, as if on cue, they are there. The celestial dance of the Northern Lights begins; one more stupendous sight for southern visitors. The deep black night is illuminated by great multi-hued plumes and gauzy veils of colour that shimmer and float like spirits across the vaulted sky. It is the Tai Chi of the firmament, slow, graceful, and cadenced. We sleep deeply in Northern Alberta, a recuperative sleep that re-energizes and prepares us for the next day’s delights in the Boreal forest. In the morning we make our way to Marten Mountain (elevation: 1020 metres) overlooking Lesser Slave Lake. We meet Aaron Lehman, a retired biology teacher who gives interpretive tours to visitors. With Aaron we walk and talk quietly as he leads us along mossy trails through this frontier forest.

The boreal forest

We are surprised to learn that 48 per cent of Alberta is boreal forest (314, 298 square kilometres) and that almost 75 per cent of the vertebrate life of these northern woods is composed of birds.

The boreal forest is the northernmost and coldest forested zone in the Northern Hemisphere. Averaging 1000 kilometres in width it extends across North America, Europe, and Asia. In Canada it encompasses 2.5 million square kilometres and is the most extensive vegetation zone in the country covering significant amounts of land in every province and territory. Its broad swath of continuous greenery stretches from Alaska to the Atlantic Ocean. Canada’s most important commercial forest region, it is home to soaring white and black spruces, mixed with small-leaf deciduous trees that include paper birch, trembling aspen and balsam poplar. Over the last 8000 years this is all that remains of the frontier forests that once covered most of North and Central America. And from these forests comes the wood that is turned into pulp and paper, lumber, and a variety of other forest products. However, its commercial resources represent a mixed blessing. There is a delicate balance between the commercial forestry industry and the environmental well-being of the boreal forest which is also a sanctuary for unique flora and fauna.

We eventually emerge from the woods to a southward-facing peak from which the total expanse of Lesser Slave Lake is visible. From this height the long white sandy beaches accentuate the intense blue of the lake over which we recently glided in our agile kayaks. Complementary perspectives create a sense of integrated space.

Marten Mountain and the surrounding boreal forest is an all-seasons escape destination for those who want outdoor activities that take them into the heart of nature. Despite the area’s easy accessibility, this is not a cheek-by-jowl, faux-wilderness experience where crowd control has become part of the dynamic.

This is not nature as a theme park. Camping, hiking, small craft sailing, and in the winter endless cross country skiing are organized amenities that are a means to an end; the end being a genuine and up-close experience of one of the most beautiful wilderness areas on the continent.

An avian crossroads

Making our way back down the mountain we head for the Lesser Slave Lake Bird Observatory. This is Canada’s northernmost bird observatory, a birding area of global significance, and a research and banding facility. It is also a partnership of the provincial department of Alberta Environment, the forest industry, and conservationists. The Observatory itself is a non-profit society that was established in 1994 and is operated primarily by volunteers. As an important banding centre, part of the Canadian Migration Monitoring Network, and a partner with the Institute for Bird Populations in California, this facility is dedicated to bird conservation in all the Americas.

Since 1994, over 2000 birds have been banded here. Being at the juncture of major North American flyways, the area is therefore a passageway for a wonderful variety of migrating birds, especially song birds. And as we learn later, over half the birds worldwide — about 4000 species — are songbirds. At the Lesser Slave Lake Bird Observatory over 237 species of birds have been observed including an impressive 23 Wood Warblers. The latter include the Canada Warbler (the Observatory’s icon bird), the Cape May Warbler, and the Magnolia Warbler. Because of habitat loss — deforestation in tropical rainforests in particular — and other factors such as forestry and oil and gas exploration, song bird populations have decreased at an alarming rate. Data from banding are therefore crucial to creating conservation plans that protect bird habitats throughout our hemisphere. And it is dedicated volunteers who make up the principal workforce of these conservation initiatives. The good news is that birdwatching as a travel and tourism “product” has grown in leaps and bounds. (In North America more people are involved in birding than in golf!) And you can even apply to be a volunteer at the Lesser Slave Lake Bird Observatory.

Feeling rather environmentally right-minded we arrive at the Observatory where we meet our hosts Frank Fraser, the Lesser Slave Lake Provincial Park naturalist, and Jul Wojnowksi, a biologist and ornithologist. Our initial introductory discussion is suitably earnest; we ask all the right questions and nod in agreement when Frank and Jul explain the mandate of the Observatory. As they speak, a bald eagle passes two metres above our heads. Our jaws drop and the thread of the discussion is lost. I hear Jul comment teasingly in a low voice, “Just another bald eagle.” And then, itching to get going, he sets off along a wide path through the woods and we scramble to get our camera gear together and follow.

The sudden shift in pace has made us a little less adroit. Jul sets a quick pace, then abruptly leaves the path and plunges into the woods. He leads us to a fine black banding net in which a bird has been caught. With care Jul delicately extricates the bird from the net, and holding it gently but firmly, he presents it to us to admire. Our usual aplomb as seasoned travellers vanishes. Wide-eyed we stare at a Sharp-shinned Hawk. Seen from a distance of less than a metre, the hawk is mesmerizing. Being able to examine its extraordinary beauty up close is a once-in-a-lifetime privilege. Its blue-grey back and upper wings blend and at the same time contrast with its white breast, belly and underwings which are highlighted by thin reddish hairs. Its flight feathers are distinctive for their black bars as are its black cap and long, squared off and black-banded tail. The bird’s small round head and short, dark, hooked beak crown its symmetrical shape. It does not struggle in Jul’s trained grasp; its regal composure is not ruffled. The look in its small keen eyes is not of disdain but of pride.

After an initial quick examination, Jul takes the hawk to the banding recording station in a small hut nearby. There he examines it closely, entering the bird’s data in the log, bands it, and heads back outdoors. We follow and watch as he releases the hawk with an upward gesture as if he were making an offering to some deity. The hawk takes to the air with a graceful flourish its compact body borne aloft on a 50-centimetre wingspan. Jul gives us time to appreciate the moment and then moves off along another path.

The area surrounding Lesser Slave Lake Bird Observatory is also known for its natural funnelling effect. With the lake on one side and Marten Mountain on the other, migrating birds avoid crossing the lake and are therefore directed along the northeastern shore of the lake. Observatory staff also call this the “Point Pelee effect,” referring to the southernmost point in Canada, a long narrow piece of land that juts out into Lake Erie funnelling migrating birds in a similar way.

The Boreal Centre for Bird Conservation

In 2005 the Boreal Centre for Bird Conservation was opened. The Centre provides full facilities for the research and study of boreal birds and the ecosystem of the same name. Integrating with other international resources, this unique facility focusses primarily on monitoring and research. However, its secondary goals are public education and ecotourism. Accommodations are planned for researchers, long-term volunteers, post-secondary students working in the field, and anyone who wants to stay “in the nest.”

A Yellow-rumped Warbler

Returning to the main path we again follow Jul who, as before, suddenly plunges into the woods. It is as if he has foreknowledge that another bird awaits our inspection. At another net we find a Yellow-rumped Warbler. With the touch of a surgeon, Jul separates this 12-15 centimetre songbird from the thin strands of the nest and carrying it in his protective grasp he returns to the banding station to repeat the process. This time, the procedures are considerably more delicate given the size and fragility of the Warbler. And the release this time is also different. Holding it lovingly by its tiny feet, Jul whispers to the warbler then releases it. The bird flutters away.

Natural rhythms

Our day at the Observatory has also released something unexpected in us. The sensations and awareness of being permitted direct access to an inclusive and natural world continues as we leave the Lesser Slave Lake area and head east into the Athabasca River Valley. Once again we cross the Athabasca as it snakes its way northward A half an hour later we enter the town of Athabasca where we pause for lunch by the banks of the river, by now an old friend. We are now in the heart of of Athabasca Country where the picture-perfect and omnipresent river is the focal point for an easy-on-the-mind and wholesome holiday time. Here daily activities conform to the rhythms of the land.

The town of Athabasca (once called Athabasca Landing) is also at the epicentre of some of the most vigorous moments in Canadian history. Shaped by many distinct forces, the nation of Canada was created from the corollary spirit of frontierism, and there is no better place to get a sense of this than in Athabasca.

Once known as the “Gateway to the Great North Country,” Athabasca was the point of departure between 1880 and the beginning of the First World War for the great trading ventures of the Northwest. As a transportation hub for the Hudson’s Bay Company (and for aboriginal people long before the arrival of Europeans on the continent), Athabasca Landing and the Athabasca Landing Trail were major routes for the trade in furs that was the principal commercial preoccupation of the European powers who struggled for dominance in the New World.

In Athabasca, the modern-day traveller gets a real sense of how far into the heart of the continent this entrepreneurial drive and passion for discovery was actualized. One also gets a sense of the travails and endurance of those who pursued frontier dreams. This was never more evident than during the Klondike Gold Rush. Eager Klondikers who were taking the “poor man’s overland route” to an anticipated source of wealth and prosperity turned Athabasca Landing into a boomtown. In the spring the town became one of Canada’s largest inland boat-building centres for scows, paddle-wheelers, and York boats transporting goods and men to and from their dreams. Today drama and dreams in Athabasca Country are played out in a much less commercial theatre.

Calling all discerning golfers

And for the urban fugitive, the play is the thing. In addition to the natural amenities of a leisure lifestyle far from commercial cacophony, Athabasca Country may well be the best kept golfing secret on the continent. Superb courses perfectly integrated into wilderness settings are the ideal environment for contemplative rounds of golf. The principal challenge of golf in the area, however, is not being distracted by the beauty of the surroundings. And playing around deer or other boreal residents on the fairways is something you also must adjust to. After lunch on the patio of the Athabasca Golf and Country Club and watching a small herd of deer grazing near the ninth hole, we return to our vehicle for the trip home.

Refreshed and re-energized we follow the highway south again to Edmonton. One last quick side trip however takes us to Elk Island National Park 45 minutes from the city. Here in another setting large herds of Plains and Woods Bison wander at will. As we sit on the shore of the park’s peaceful lake, another serene sunset, a flight of waterfowl, and the call of a loon remind us of where we have been.

For more information on Northern Alberta visit the following websites

Travel Alberta North

Kimiwan Lake

Lesser Slave Lake and Marten Mountain

Lesser Slave Lake Bird Observatory

North Shore Homestead

Town of Athabasca

Wildside Wilderness Connection

Big Lake Country Tourism

The Canadian Boreal Initiative

The CBI is an independent organization working with conservationists, First Nations, industry and others to link science, policy and conservation activities in Canada’s boreal region.

The Boreal Centre for Bird Conservation

Canadian Migration Monitoring Network

Carson Tours

This family business is operated by Mike and Diane Lorentz who, being Albertans themselves, know the province well. They also represent the kind of local business that can provide in-depth service and personal connections as only locals can.

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