We were driving along Highway 16 just east of Edmonton. The sun had begun its descent in the sky casting long shadows of the trees across the landscape. My eyes, squinting in the evening sun glanced towards Q as we chatted about where we would stay on our Edmonton adventure. It was then in between a broken wall of a forest I saw what I thought was a herd of buffalo. They appeared as though they had been caught in the act, like naughty children sneaking out of bed. I sat up quickly rubbing my eyes unsure if my mind was playing games. “What’s wrong?” Q asked. “I think I saw a herd of buffalo,” I answered in almost a questionable tone. “It must have been a farm,” Q offered up. But I was unconvinced. Firstly, the forest we had been passing seemed much too thick to be a farm and secondly, I thought I had seen a park sign flash by me in the fading sun. When he pooh-poohed my idea that it was a possible wild herd I began googling whether there were in fact wild buffalo in this prairie province.
It turns out I was right. We had seen a wild herd of bison (mistakenly called buffalo in North America) and they live in Elk Island National Park. The name itself is a bit confusing in that it is not a physical island but one of conservation and although it does contain Elk it is most famous for its herd of pure North American bison. The park has played a pivotal role in bringing its famous tenants back from the brink of extinction. The only national park in Canada that is fully enclosed, it contains the second largest population of hoofed wildlife.
We returned to the park two days later to learn about the conservation efforts and try to find my buffalo. Elk Island offers many activities in all seasons including tours of their conservation efforts, camping, hiking, wildlife viewing and is a designated dark sky preserve. Q and I decided to take the conservation tour since we had pledged money years back to the Nature Conservancy of Canada for the NA bison. The tour takes you through the process of how the bison are handled to this day with a history on how they saved this magnificent animal. Unfortunately, we did not see any bison on the tour and when I told the guide how we had seen a herd south of the highway just days before, we were told we were lucky. That particular herd is located where there are not many trails and as such are much shyer than their cousins in the northern part of the park.
Desperately trying to find a herd of buffalo, Q and I drove the scenic Bison loop road to see if any buffalo were roaming on the open range. No such luck. The park is beautiful and full of trails to meander and opportunities galore to photograph but I was hell-bent on finding my lost bison herd. We headed to the south side of the park which only contains a parking lot and trailhead at the end of the entry road. A warning sign is posted expressing how to keep yourself safe as the bison when standing are as tall as a human and can weigh upwards of 620 kg or over 1300 lbs. Although they look like gentle giants, the bison are wild and may charge without warning. Undeterred and possibly a bit foolhardy Q and I began hiking the trail. We were deep in the woods and enthralled with the prospect of finding our hide and seek hosts when we came across a rather large pile of bison dung. And when I say rather large, I mean lose a dog knee-deep large. Ok, that may be a bit of an exaggeration but let’s just settle on “you’ve never seen a pile of shit as big as this one”. The poop seemed pretty fresh and Q and I had our hopes up that the bison were not far. We continued on our journey when we realized the forest was growing dark as the sun began to set. We struggled with the decision to turn around or risk being stuck in the forest in the dark. Sensibility prevailed and we turned around heavy-hearted and headed the two hours back towards the truck.
It was just as we had loaded ourselves into the truck and began driving away that Q suddenly wrenched the steering wheel turning us around a good 180° while yelling “I think I saw one beside the fence!” We hopped out of the truck and scampered down the embankment and sure enough, there lay a gorgeous bison enjoying the afternoon setting sun. I may not have found the herd but we had found the lone wolf or lone bison as is the case and he was just magnificent.
To enjoy the park whether it be by casual stroll or jog, snowshoeing or viewing the wildlife, you will find Elk Island National Park located approximately 30 km east of Edmonton, Alberta on the Yellowhead Highway #16.
~True North Nomad
Have you been to Elk Island National Park and spotted the famed bison? Tell us where you located them in the park in the comments below.
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