My partner and I slow down our vehicle to watch three young black bear cubs nosing around eating berries. In the backseat of the car, our dog is mesmerized by the scene and offers a running canine commentary on the little bruins. In the Northwest Territories, seeing wildlife is a part of living life so close to nature.
From imitating barking to poking a hole in a bag of dog food and extracting kibble, pesky ravens the size of house cats are truly the north’s tricksters and thieves. No matter how entertaining they can be, however, they aren’t the kind of birds that send visitors flocking to see them. Leave that to the bears, bison, white pelicans, reindeer, caribou and muskoxen.
Rush hour takes on new meaning in Wood Buffalo National Park in the southern part of the territory. Several vehicles are stopped as a herd of bison mills about in the middle of the highway. The animals aren’t in a rush to leave – and neither are the human occupants of the waiting cars, which are photographing North America’s largest land mammal.
Canada’s largest national park was created in 1922 to protect the world’s largest herd of free-roaming wood bison. There are now more than 5,000 of these big bovines. The community of Fort Smith is the gateway into Wood Buffalo National Park, but you may be lucky enough to see bison before you reach the community.
If you want to taste the animals, Anna’s Home Cooking, a small eatery in town, sometimes has bison chili on offer. And don’t worry. You won’t be eating the relatives of the bison you just saw.
The song Surfin’ USA by the 1960s American band the Beach Boys suddenly starts running through my head as I watch a white pelican surfing the waves in the Slave River near the community of Fort Smith. These beautiful white pelicans with orange beaks comprise the most northerly colony of nesting white pelicans.
The Slave River starts in northern Alberta and meanders north into the Northwest Territories. There are four sets of impassable rapids between the settlement of Fort Fitzgerald and the Town of Fort Smith. It’s on the rocky islands amid the rapids that the white pelicans nest.
Strangely, you won’t find these birds at the poorly named Pelican Rapids. Hike down to Mountain Rapids outside town or follow the trail to the rocks at Rapids of the Drowned to see the pelicans.
Muskoxen are large, 600-pound, shaggy animals that look like a cross between hippies with long stringy hair and something that prehistoric times forgot. They travel as a herd and have been living in the High Arctic for thousands of years, perfecting the art of roaming the tundra sustaining themselves with roots, mosses and lichen.
Their hooves are particularly handy in the winter for digging through snow to find vegetarian fare. They also have a prized undercoat called qiviut that’s spun into some of the warmest wool on earth.
Banks Island has a high concentration of muskoxen, although these shaggy beasts have been spotted further south.
Local artists, such as Lena Wolki (aka the queen of qiviut) create and sell beautiful scarves, gloves and sweaters from the undercoat the muskoxen naturally shed in summer. Some restaurants in Inuvik serve muskox burgers.
Dasher, Dancer, Prancer and Vixen may live at the North Pole with Santa Claus, but some of their friends gather together near Inuvik every year. Reindeer, semi-domesticated cousins of the caribou, aren’t native to the Mackenzie Delta. In a trek across the North that took five years, ancestors of the current herd were brought from Lapland and Alaska in 1935. It was part of the Canadian Reindeer Project to feed the local population and create jobs.
Today, the herd of about 3,000 animals is owned by Inuvialuit people. The reindeer spend the winter at a spot about halfway between Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk.
A local tourism business takes visitors out on a day trip by snowmobile to see the herd and have lunch with the chief herder. Each spring, visitors and locals gather one Sunday to watch the reindeer cross the ice road and disappear over the landscape as they travel to their summer grounds on nearby Richards Island.
Long before grocery stores appeared in communities across the North, local people would head out onto the land to hunt for their dinner. Caribou can be found in different parts of the Northwest Territories, Yukon and Nunavut. These ungulates have been a staple in the diet of local Aboriginal people, including the Gwich’in and Inuvialuit, for generations. Traditionally, every part of the animal was used. Meat fed families, bones became tools, and clothing was made from the hide. Drive down the Dempster Highway heading south from Inuvik, particularly in the fall. With any luck, you will get to see caribou grazing on lichen.
Wildlife is so much a part of our lives that we northerners occasionally take it for granted that we’ll see something on our journeys. We just aren’t sure what it will be until it appears.
On one Saturday night drive between the communities of Hay River and Fort Smith, it was one bear sighting after another including a beautiful and healthy cinnamon-coloured black bear.
Would it be bad of me to admit that I didn’t photograph the ninth bear I saw that night? When it comes to wildlife sightings can there really be too much of a good thing?
Helen Katz is a freelance writer who lives in the Northwest Territories of Canada