Part of being a Canadian, at least according to the likes of Mowat & Atwood, is connecting with the great outdoors; the wilderness that often lies just outside our front doors, but continues to remain elusive. Sometimes, as Canadians, we are awfully quick to be self-congratulatory (mountains! multiculturalism! moose!) but I think it is for good reason. For me, that’s what this Canada Day weekend was all about; experiencing the pieces of our beautiful country that are easy to pass by, but are worthy of appreciation, & celebration.
On Friday, Brian & I visited Elk Island National Park. We started with a Bison Backstage Tour, where our guide, Lauren, took us behind the scenes to learn about the management side of bison conservation in the park. For those of you not familiar with central Alberta, one of the great ironies of Elk Island is that it is not famous for elk at all, but rather for being a leader in bison conservation efforts! It is also the only completely fenced national park in Canada. On the south side of Highway 16, approximately 200 Woods Bison make their home, while the larger, north side of the park boasts over 800 Plains Bison!
Lauren filled us in on some of the historical forces that caused bison to reach the brink of extinction just over 100 years ago.
Then, we were able to explore the handling facility where the bison are captured, carefully managed & tested, then sent to auction or to other conservation sites around the world. Because the Plains Bison herd grows by 40% each year, & has no natural predators in the park, this is a necessary practice. I found it especially cool that last year the park donated two bison to the Enoch Elder’s Food Bank.
I drive through Elk Island quite frequently, & even stopped twice last fall to hike, but it had never occurred to be that there must be a handling facility on site, & I hadn’t given much thought to the care & effort that goes into managing animals as enormous & important as bison. If you are at all interested in the history & management of bison, I highly recommend this tour. They run all summer on Saturdays & Sundays.
This is what happens when you try to transport bison in a stock trailer!
After the tour, we headed across Highway 16 to the south side of the park, where there is one of the park’s 11 hiking trials; the Wood Bison Trail. One of my goals is to hike or snowshoe every trail at Elk Island, so I was pleased that Brian had agreed to come along on one of these adventures. The Wood Bison Trail is ~16 kilometres long & loops along Flying Shot Lake.
We set out around 2 o’clock & it took us just over three hours of hiking, plus a few breaks for geocaching to complete the trail. It was a beautiful day, & we combated the mosquitos with a few healthy doses of bug spray. Tiger lilies, my favourite wild flower, were blooming all along the trail, & I couldn’t stop exclaiming over their beauty. The orange was incredible!
About 4 km in, we stopped so I could snap a few photos of them, grab some water, & take a bathroom break . . . just as a trail runner rounded the corner. I’ve never got my shorts up so quickly! It suffices to say he had a story to tell that night when he got home!
After some serious stretching, we drove back through the north side of the park hoping to spot a bison (we did!) & to kick back for a few minutes at the iconic Park’s Canada red chairs.
Happy 149th birthday you beautiful country!