On a foggy winter morning, my friends and I arrive to play in the snow at Elk Island National Park and immediately head for the Bison Trail Loop hoping for a glimpse of the giant beasts. More than 300 wood bison roam free in the park, a species that at one time was thought to be extinct. As the sun comes up, we peer through bare aspen groves and spot their shadows in the distance.
The bison dig their hooves into the deep snow, oversized shaggy heads swinging back and forth to get to the delicious grass underneath. These impressive creatures are slow, guarded and enormous even from a distance and after a few minutes, they retreat into the woods just as a young moose steps into the clearing to forage for breakfast. Thrilled at our luck, we drive on to meet our guide.
Nature on the edge of the city
My friends and I often meet here because it’s so close to Alberta’s capital city – the park is less than 40 minutes east of Edmonton. In the winter, it’s a hushed expanse of open snow with more than 80 km (50 mi) of trails that are perfect for snowshoeing.
We meet our guides at an open-air pavilion and gather around a fire, drink hot chocolate and learn about the park’s long history and the wildlife that lives here. Elk Island National Park was established in 1906 as one of the first big game sanctuaries in Canada, fenced to protect native elk, moose and mule deer. A herd of 400 plains bison – some of the last remaining – arrived a year later. Today, preserves around the world are the happy recipients of some of the plains and wood bison protected here. More than 80 per cent of the planet’s population can trace their ancestry through Elk Island.
Our lead guide, Priscilla hands out wooden snowshoes – a light modern version of the classic style – and suggests we take a practice spin on flat ground to get the straps nice and tight. After a few steps, we’re already comfortable with our new wider and longer feet and are raring to go.
Out on the lake, the wind picks up and the wild landscape absorbs us as we stride surefooted atop the frozen surface. We pose for the camera – raising our hands in victory like we just conquered the Arctic Circle. What a silly bunch we are!
The trek takes about an hour and we returned to a warming tent Priscilla had set up on the shore. We huddled around the wood stove, inhaling the smoky warmth and feasting on warm baguettes with melted honey.
As we leave, we walk along the boardwalk and listen to the sounds of the park: chickadee peeps, squirrel chatter, rustling reeds and our footsteps echoing on the hollow wooden boardwalk. As our snow day ends, we tramp back to the car, invigorated by our walk, warmed by camaraderie and awed by the frozen beauty of Elk Island.