Excerpts from 1,9000-word article

MY NORTHERN EXPOSURE (Wood Buffalo National Park)

by Pam Hobbs

I have come to Fort Smith, this sub-arctic community less than an hour by air from Yellowknife (743km by road) for access to Wood Buffalo National Park, and find all the friendliness of small towns as they used to be 40-50 years ago. Straddling the Northwest Territories/Alberta border, the park is roughly the size of Switzerland, slightly smaller than Nova Scotia. Jacques' enthusiasm bubbles like fast-boiling water as he tells me about the bisons and falcons and the world's rarest bird species we will see there. First though he wants to introduce me to his town, pop. 2,500.....

Once a strategic link in the portage route from the Prairies to the Mackenzie River, and site of a Hudson's Bay Company fort built in 1874, Fort Smith was until 1967 the unofficial Territorial government headquarters. Now residents depend largely on subsistence fishing, trapping, tourism and government employment......

At Wood Buffalo's headquarters in town we are shown an exciting slide presentation which makes me anxious to see the park itself. But we're not yet finished with Fort Smith. The river with its rapids and island pelican rookeries parallels the town for five kilometres, and the rapids continue for another 25-30 km. Jacques loves the river. He brings meditation groups here. Some stay overnight. Others walk from their lodgings in early morning to witness the sun rise over the rapids. Rafting trips can accommodate all levels of skill and energy. In the 1920s Hudson's Bay employees over-estimated their competency and lost a year's payroll in these rapids. It is still down there somewhere, in a little case........

Spread over 44,900 sq km, Wood Buffalo National Park was established in 1922 to protect resident buffalo herds. In l983 this preserve was granted World Heritage Site status by UNESCO for several reasons. As well as being home to the world's largest free-roaming herd of bison, it is the only remaining nesting ground for the whooping cranes. It has large undisturbed tracts of boreal plains ecosystem and extensive salt plains which are unique in Canada.........

We turn off on a narrow gravel road and I am immediately in awe of the park's size. Trees all round are tall and thick and look very unforgiving. I decide to stay close to Jacques. The road ends at a lookout above an escarpment. Below, spread out like a white bedsheet, are the salt plains. A telescope allows a fairly close look, but to be nearer we walk down the cliff. Although recent hoof and paw prints are clearly embedded in the crusty salt, there's nary a creature in sight.....