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Winters in Wood Buffalo

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A fresh snow has fallen over northern Alberta and Wood Buffalo. From the plane window, you look out over on the forest – an incomprehensible vastness, which stretches in every direction, to each horizon. The snow makes it easier to see the natural clearings, the remote lakes and bogs, and the strands of frozen rivers waiting patiently for the spring melt to stir them to life.

Occasionally, signs of civilization are there in the landscape – a straight road or a square building, each looking peculiar against the wilderness’ random geometry. The faint human imprint increases slightly as you near your destination, which lies at the confluence of the Athabasca and Clearwater rivers, each choked with ice. You begin your descent into the snowy urban grid of businesses and communities that breathe life and culture into Fort McMurray.

Your first impressions go deeper than the well-known narratives of the town’s fur trading past and vibrant economic future. There’s an affirming sense of community here. You see it in the families who are ice skating on a community rink and in the people snowmobiling across the frozen belly of the Snye River, towards the remote trails on its opposite shore. Most of all you see it in the 10-day long WinterPLAY festival, which is also happening along the Snye and at other venues in town. You catch the festival’s beloved community pond hockey game, the Shootout on the Snye, which has been played annually for decades; you also attend a freestyle snowboarding competition called the Snowdown on the Snye. Young Snowboarders are getting big air, spinning big tricks, tweaking grabs, and sliding handrails. It’s a thrill to watch such skill seem effortless. These aren’t just small events. Over the course of the festival, thousands attend and take part.

You ask around about places to eat and quickly learn there’s plenty of great food in Fort McMurray. On the advice of a local couple, you head to The Chefs Table by Mitchell’s for a yummy home-style lunch and hear about their amazing dining experience at Atmosfere Restaurant downtown. It’s an unassuming place that focuses on the art of food, using fresh ingredients and artisan skill that inspires the word-of-mouth praise that people have been offering so freely. You’ve also been advised to order the Wood Buffalo Brewing Company’s famous bacon cheddar burger. You’ve taken note and plan to try it all. Others recommend Fort McMurray’s steak houses, sushi restaurants, sports bars, chain establishments, and local pizzerias. There’s no question that this place has food to suit every mood and palate.

As night falls, you make your way to the Casman Centre, to catch an Oil Barons hockey game. Inside the arena, the players make their way onto the fresh ice, their skate blades cutting arcs and lines into its surface. From the moment the puck drops, the game is fast and physical. An Oil Barons’ forward streaks over the blue line, the puck gripped the tape of his stick. A defenseman squares up and checks him into the glass, but not before the forward passes the puck to a teammate who shovels it into the net. The red light flashes, a siren wails, and the fans erupt into a deafening cheer. This is the game’s pace for the three full periods of hockey and for most of the season too, from what I’m told.

The next morning, an ice fog lingers as the sun rises slowly behind the trees surrounding the Birchwood Trails. With a wax to match the temperatures, your cross-country skis slip freely on the snow. As you glide along the trail, you watch spindles of sunlight flicker through bare tree branches like an old film projector. Before long, the forest thickens to pine and spruce. The trees hide the sun but the trail is still brightly lit by blue sky above. At the Doug Barnes Cabin, you stop for a rest and a warm drink from your thermos. The only sounds are the creaking trees and the bursting rattle of a woodpecker’s beak upon bark. This day satisfies the part of you in search of a little solitude.

But in the relative quiet of the forest, you recall the snowmobilers and the whine of their machines as they crossed the Snye for the remote wilderness trails. The initial intrigue from that has grown into an urge to hire a guide and snowmobile into the vast square mileage of Wood Buffalo’s wilderness. And so the following day you do just that. At the trailhead, your guide talks of trail etiquette and safety before mounting his machine and leading you along a trail in the woods. You know the Boreal forest is too big to explore every inch, but travelling by snowmobile lets you go further and see more than you have before. It’s new territory for you, new frontier; and the experience evokes the spirit of the men and women who first settled these places.

A friend you’ve made along the way tells you about a big fishing derby being held in Fort Chipewyan – a remote community on the edge of Wood Buffalo National Park. In the summer, it can only be reached by plane or boat. During the winter, the municipality of Wood Buffalo builds an ice road connecting it to Fort McMurray. Your friend has a 4x4, extra fuel, and all the gear you’ll need if you have to pass a night in the wilderness. There’s no cellular service and there isn’t always a lot of traffic along the road, so it’s wise to be prepared. The two of you head out with only a few hours of daylight remaining, hopeful you’ll see the northern lights after nightfall. The ice road winds through forest and over frozen muskeg. At dusk, a pale white crescent moon and a scattering of stars appear over trees crowned by a pastel horizon. The dark comes quickly. The moon is luminescent now and glows alongside millions of stars. Sure enough, the northern lights begin waving silently overheard, pulsing and shifting across the sky. The snow faintly refracts the arresting beauty of the light dancing above.

On the day of the fishing derby, snow drifts across Lake Athabasca. More than a thousand people are waiting to take position on the ice, each of them eager to catch a fish that could win them one of the large cash prizes at stake. You clear the snow and ice from the pre-drilled holes, raise a collapsible enclosure, and prepare your lines. Hopeful you’ll catch the day’s largest fish, you tie on a green jig with a minnow for bait. The jig casts a lively glow as it sinks to the lake bottom. Lake Athabasca is known for giant lake trout and northern pike. You’re aware of its reputation, which adds to the suspenseful thrill as your keen eye watches the subtle action of your lure. Without warning, a massive northern pike ambushes your bait, striking forcefully and shaking its head. Line zips from your reel and your ice fishing rod doubles over as you wrestle with the weight of the fish. The lake has lived up to its reputation.

When it’s time for you to leave Ft. McMurray and Wood Buffalo, you have new impressions. A genuine sense of community prevails here, and people share deep connections to the land. Even in the urban heart of Fort McMurray, people are enlivened by the sense of freedom borne out of the vastness surrounding them. During the winter, when the forest, lakes, and rivers freeze, people can reach out further, explore new territory and feel the allure this place has held since it was first settled in the bygone age of the fur trade. But your strongest impression of this place is that it’s not exclusive. You don’t have to be from here to enjoy it. Everyone is welcome. And it’s something you feel as soon as you arrive.

For more information on our region or to help plan your stay or your visiting family’s stay in our region please contact the friendly team at Fort McMurray Tourism at 1-800-565-3947 or

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