The North West Territories

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Predominately flat, very buggy and covered in scrawny trees, the North West Territories was a bit of a challenge for us. Perhaps a lot of it had to do with the fact that we were already very dusty and very dirty from our excellent four week stint in the Yukon. As a result, the North West Territories likely didn't get the chance it deserved and, although we enjoyed it, when the mosquitoes of Wood Buffalo National Park forced themselves inside our bug jackets, pride did not prevent us from packing up and leaving. Of course, these weren't the back-yard mosquitoes that draw most mosquito-based complaints. We are talking some 20 mosquitoes landing on exposed skin every 30 seconds. I know, I was there, and I counted.

July 17 2004, Blackstone Territorial Park:  Our Fort Nelson hotel clean up was short lived as we started another long and dusty drive, this time up the Liard Highway (Hwy #77) into the Northwest Territories. The BC part of the road was a mess... not gravel and not paved, it had big, sharp sided potholes that really hit hard. Once in the NWT however, the road cleaned up and we could make good time with the usual cloud of dust billowing from behind. We ran into a few sections that were dust controlled for a stretch and it was awhile before we realized that these were NWT passing lanes! After stopping at the nice looking native community of Liard, we finished the day at the Blackstone Territorial Park which had showers and real staff (a nice change from the Yukon). This particular park had an old native fellow running it and despite some language difficulties, it was evident he took great pride in the park and his heritage (as he should). The Blackstone Park sits on the shores of the Liard River at the southern end of the MacKenzie Mountains. It is supposed to have some excellent views but was cloudy when we were there.

June 18 2004, to Hay River:   We made the intersection of the Liard and MacKenzie Highways and headed east. One thing worse than a dusty highway was getting stuck behind the calcium trucks when they were in the process of dust controlling the highway. The truck, the trailer and the canoe were covered in mud and calcium. Anytime we touched anything we got covered and it took all kinds of effort to open the locks on the truck cap and trailer as we couldn't even get the key in the hole. There was not a lot to see - mile after mile of flat swampy country covered in scrawny trees with a straight road going through it. It was kind of like the prairies of the north. To break the monotony they have little rest stops at all the waterfalls along the route (it is in fact called the waterfall route) and Carol stopped at every one so we could stretch our legs. We stayed at Hay River - a busy town of around 3500 situated at the south-west end of Great Slave Lake, it takes care of shipping all along the MacKenzie River and up into Arctic waters.

June 19 2004, to Fort Smith and Wood Buffalo National Park:   The head quarters of Wood Buffalo National Park are located in Fort Smith so we stopped in to register. Like the staff at Blackstone Park, they seemed very proud of the park and we ended up watching a very fancy (and no doubt expensive) 3 projector slide show on the park. With over 30 staff and only 1400 annual visitors, this isn't one of the more economically viable parks, but economics is not of course why they exist. The park is huge and judging by the facilities, not well used. At one point, a lot of money went into it but today sites are overgrown and trails are kept open more by bison and bears than by people. The landscape looks similar to the rest of the NWT's but there is actually a lot here: one of the world's largest Karst landscapes, a huge freshwater delta of only water, willows and mudflats formed by the Athabasca and Peace Rivers, salt plains, a herd of Bison, Whooping Cranes and huge numbers of mosquitoes. Unfortunately, with the exception of the mosquitoes and bison, much of the above is hard to access (which is maybe a good thing or it would be covered in cottages). On this trip, it was even harder to access the park as one road was closed due to fires, one had been washed out in the spring (both which gave access to water for canoeing in the deltas) and one road was too dry (and sandy) to drive.

June 19-21 2004, Wood Buffalo National Park (Pine Lake Campground):   Among the natural features of interest in Wood Buffalo are the Karst landscapes and the salt plains. The former occur as water works its way through the soft limestone, slowly dissolving and eroding it. Underground caverns are formed which eventually collapse to form sinkholes, some of which are huge. The park also sports an underground river which disappears and runs for many kilometers underground.

The salt plains are another of the park's more accessible features and arguably one of the more interesting. These are formed where the ancient sedimentary sea-bed meets the Canadian shield. Ground water trickling through the old sea sediments can't continue when it hits the shield and gets pushed to the surface where it comes out at the foot of limestone escarpments. The results are salt mounds, large expanses of salty plains and pools of water many times saltier than the sea. We could pick up chunks of the stuff. Coastal plants that have adapted to a salty environment thrive, and animal tracks by the hundreds bare witness to numerous salt-licking expeditions. The Hudson Bay Company even used to trade salt obtained in the area. At Grosbeak Lake the salt plains are covered with glacial erratics into which the salt had eaten holes and gouges. In places all that was left were small pieces of the erratic distributed on the salty plain around the spot were it used to stand.

Bison! Of course with a name like Wood Buffalo, one would expect to see buffalo and we weren't disappointed. Buffalo wallows dot the roadside as well as herds of the animals themselves. Incidentally, Wood Buffalo National Park covers a landmass larger than Switzerland... neat eh!

June 21 2004, Wood Buffalo National Park to the NWT/Alberta boarder:   The plan was to spend four days exploring this remote park but after a day and a half, even pride wasn't enough to stop us from tearing out of there in an attempt to avoid the mosquitoes. In fairness to us, this wasn't your typical "there are so many bugs" complaint you hear in the majority of the country. A person couldn't survive 10 minutes here without clothes. And forget DEET. It was good but not good enough. We needed mosquito jackets, full clothing and nothing exposed. Have a look at the picture of Carol's back and count the mosquitoes - this was only 5 seconds after I wiped her back clean! The only saving grace was what I called Bison Flies. Like horse flies but bigger, these monsters thankfully didn't pay much attention to us but instead seemed to swarm us looking for the mosquitoes. I am only guessing that they ate mosquitoes but when we adopted our swarm of bison flies we seemed to lose our swarm of mosquitoes. There was a definite co-relation. If you have high speed, click on the video link to see (and hear) them in the tent.

So long as we got up wearing our bug jackets and went to bed with them on, good days were possible. But, the constant battle and the associated buzzing quickly wore us down and we left three days earlier than anticipated feeling salty, sweaty, dirty, bitten and tired. If you are following chronologically you might want to link to the Alberta page as that is where we headed next.

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