Alberta Adventure: Exploring Elk Island National Park

By Dave S. Clark

It’s easy to travel anywhere in the world these days, with the ability to book anything online, an abundance of information on every possible destination and technology to keep in touch with everything that’s going on back home. But with long distance travel now so accessible, it’s so easy to forget about what’s going on in your own backyard.

For years, I have driven across two and a half provinces to swim, canoe and boat around my favourite lake, which is just a few kilometers, as the crow flies, from the Manitoba-Ontario border. Twenty minutes into that 15-hour drive, I’d pass through Elk Island National Park. I’d be driving around 110 km/h, trying to make good time, and, if it was early enough, I might see some bison. They’d flash by as large, dark blobs that I never gave much thought to.

It wasn’t until I was standing on the beach of Astotin Lake, as the sun set over the mirror-still water which was only broken by two canoeists, that I realized I had been speeding by a gem right in my own backyard. I could do nearly everything I was doing in Manitoba – canoeing, sailing, hiking and just breathing fresh air – without even having to drive half an hour from my house.

As an added bonus, the one thing my faraway summer retreat never had was bison and driving past those dark blobs at highway speed hadn’t taught me how significant the herd at Elk Island actually is. Thankfully, the park staff are incredibly knowledgeable about their unique herd.

There were an estimated 20 to 30 million bison in North America at one point, but by 1890, numbers had been reduced to near extinction. Just 1,000 of the ungulates roamed the prairies or lived in captivity. At that point, a few people began to recognize that bison were on the brink of being eliminated and started a conservation effort. Montana ranchers Charles Allard and Michel Pablo were two of those people. They acquired bison from other ranchers who had collected the beasts from Montana, Manitoba, Kansas and Texas and started a herd of their own.

“Their herd had genetics from four different points in North America, so they were actually fairly diverse,” said park interpreter Lauren Markewicz. In 1907, the Canadian government bought the Allard-Pablo herd of more than 700 bison for $150,000 and brought them to what is now Elk Island National Park. The park now has roughly 650 plains bison and 350 wood bison, a number they keep low by sending animals to different parts of the world every year to populate new herds. It’s that genetic diversity is what makes them unique, according to Markewicz, as many other herds have bison that have been interbred at some point with cattle, or are hybrids of woods and plains bison.

“This makes Elk Island’s bison prime candidates to repopulate other herds, when their numbers get to big for the fenced in park,” she said. Bison from Elk Island have been sent to Riding Mountain National Park in Manitoba and Waterton National Park in Alberta and will soon populate the herd being reintroduced to Banff National Park. They’s also been sent to parks and reservations across the United States as well as to Russia.

With cooler temperatures on the horizon, it will be easier to spot the bison at Elk Island, as they usually keep to the shade of the trees during the day in the summer. Just past the park gate is a short road called the Bison Loop, which is usually a safe bet during the cooler parts of the day if you want to get a good look at the bison.

Whether you go to see bison, for a hike in the warmer months, or a snowshoe or ski in the winter months, it’s a park that definitely worth a visit. Being in our backyard is just a bonus.

(This article originally appeared in the Oct. 29, 2015 edition of the Fort Saskatchewan Record and the Nov. 20, 2015 edition of the Sherwood Park News.)

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