One might have imagined that I would feel cold, crunching barefoot through sheets of sparkling white stuff in Canada’s sub-Arctic Northwest Territories (NWT). But the summer sun was blazing and the white carpet that lined Wood Buffalo National Park was made entirely of salt, not the snow that covers it in winter.
My toes broke through the thin rough crust and sunk into the mushy red clay below. Salt crystals pushed into my soles, as jagged as the gems that have made the NWT’S chief city Yellowknife into the Diamond Capital of North America™.
An ancient sea flowed here 380 million years ago – now impenetrable bedrock pushes minerals back to the surface and on dry days the water evaporates and leaves cracked clay hexagons encrusted with a layer of sea salt. The bright white expanse is punctured by sparkling stalagmite-shaped salt mounds that spew out of the ground as a solid spring.
In places the crust has been trampled by a bear or wolf and a perfect impression of their soft but lethal pads have been imprinted into the earth. There are very few human footprints here. Despite being Canada’s largest National Park, one of the biggest in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Wood Buffalo is still relatively unknown.
The park stretches from northern Alberta across the border to the southern part of the Northwest Territories. In winter NWT is alight with aurora borealis and the snow-covered ground dances with dog-sleds. Come summer blue skies are punctuated by wisps of forest fires and the occasional drone of twin-prop bush planes. Lakes twinkle in the midnight sun and the trembling poplars flap like ticker-tape in the boreal forests.
The Salt Plains are home to the rare whooping crane; an elusive bird that feeds on crustaceans at the lakes and can reach 1.5m tall. Wood bison, a heavier subspecies of plains bison, give the area its name. The hump-necked beasts roam the park and the highway – grunting in herds as mothers feed their calves and bulls chomp along the edge of the forest.
Bison are protected in the park, but are fair game elsewhere and ‘tags’ are given to local Dene communities to hunt them. Up here in the NWT First Nations people make up nearly half the population. Black bears wander the roadside snuffling for berries and at the former Hudson Bay trading post of Fort Smith you’ll find more pelicans than people at the town’s rapids, where the birds surf the waves scouting for fish.
Back in the park, at Grosbeak Lake, a short hike through spindly spruces reveals another Martian landscape. Here sodium-eroded rocks that were dumped by a glacier several million years ago are now frosted with salt and sprinkled across a dry pink river bed.
Southern NWT’s other-worldly landscape and wildlife stays with you. I looked out over the salt plains: in the flat expanse between the seemingly endless swathes of forest they glinted in the sunshine like diamonds in the rough terrain.