My Search for the Bison of Elk Island National Park

“Did you know that there are more bison at Elk Island National Park today than the whole of North America in 1890?”

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Welcome to Elk Island National Park. Photo Credit: Tyler Dixon

Half an hour east of Edmonton is the natural oasis known as Elk Island National Park. This 194-square-kilometre national park is an important refuge for wildlife and birds, but its most famous residents are the bison. Bison are North America’s largest terrestrial mammals and two separate species, Wood Bison and Plains Bison, call the park home. Elk Island is Canada’s only fully fenced national park and the two species are kept in separate enclosures to ensure they don’t interbreed. The park is bisected by Highway 16, dividing the park into two areas. Wood Bison are larger than Plains Bison and can be found on the south side of the highway. The northern portion of the park is bigger and is home to the Plains variety. Even though the park is completely fenced, the animals are free to roam within its confines, so spotting them can be difficult. Searching out and photographing these creatures was the reason I ventured to the park on an overcast, rainy day and my first stop was the Bison Loop Road, which is supposed to be a hot spot for viewing the park’s burliest inhabitants.

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There wasn’t any wildlife along the Bison Loop Road, but I did find a set of the Parks Canada Red Chairs. Photo Credit: Tyler Dixon
After coming up short along the road I continued north to the Amisk Wuche Trailhead. If I couldn’t see any bison from my vehicle, then it was time to get out and attempt to find them on foot. Amisk Wuche is a 2.7km easy trail that winds through aspen, birch, and spruce stands. There are a series of floating boardwalks that assist in crossing small lakes and beaver ponds. The trail also provides some elevated views of the surrounding forest and grassland habitat. Due to the weather I only saw two other people the entire time, but I did share the trail with hoards of hungry mosquitoes and dozens of Wood Frogs. The informative sign at the trailhead provides a little background for the trail and its unique name,

“‘Amisk Wuch’ is Cree for ‘Beaver Hills’. Elk Island National Park is situated within these hills, 30-60 metres above the surrounding plains. For thousands of years these forested hills attracted Aboriginal people from the northern plains. Imagine the appeal as you follow ponds that harbour Ruddy Ducks and Mallards. The slosh of Moose feeding along the edge reminds us that the Beaver Hills have always sustained wildlife. Explore the rich cultural and natural heritage of the home of the amisk (beaver) in Elk Island National Park.”

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A beaver lodge along the trail. Photo Credit: Tyler Dixon
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A section of the Amisk Wuche Trail. Photo Credit: Tyler Dixon

After completing the Amisk Wuche Trail, and again not seeing any bison, I made my way down to the Astotin Lake Area, which could be considered the hub of Elk Island. The area includes a visitor centre, beaches, a golf course, campground, boat launch, and more. It’s also home to several trailheads, including the one for my next hike; Lakeview Trail. This trail features panoramic views overlooking Astotin Lake and traverses through both Aspen and Black Spruce forest. The trail is considered easy with limited steep sections and a distance of 3.7km.

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Astotin Lake. Photo Credit: Tyler Dixon
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Near the beginning of the Lakeview Trail you come across this sign. Although I didn’t see any bison, I did see evidence of them. Photo Credit: Tyler Dixon

As I was hiking along the Lakeview Trail I came around a corner and was hit with the unmistakable smell of bovine. Bison smell an awful lot like cattle, so I instantly became very aware of my surroundings as I didn’t want to surprise any wildlife. I didn’t end up seeing anything, but the tall grass beside the trail was trampled down, possibly the site of a bed, and there were tracks along this muddy section of trail, which look a lot like bison tracks. Take a look at the following photos and see for yourself. What do you think?

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Do you think this depression in the grass was made by a bison laying down? Photo Credit: Tyler Dixon
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These look like bison tracks to me. Photo Credit: Tyler Dixon

After hiking two trails in soggy weather I was wet and cold. I decided to put my quest for bison on hold and return at a later date to continue my search. I feel like my brief visit was a great introduction to the park, but I also barely scratched the surface of its full potential. I hope to return someday soon and do a lot more exploring. I would love to hike one of the longer trails, such as Tawayik Lake Trail or Wood Bison Trail, or spend some time paddling on the lakes, to get the full experience of what this park truly has to offer. Elk Island is also part of the Beaver Hills Dark Sky Preserve, which provides some of the best stargazing in central Alberta.

As I was leaving I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed that I didn’t see any of the park’s famous wildlife, but Elk Island still had one last surprise for me. After exiting the park I spotted three large bulls grazing just inside the fence. It wasn’t exactly what I was hoping for in terms of photos, but still very cool seeing them in their traditional territory.

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One of three Plains Bison bulls I saw grazing just inside the fence. Photo Credit: Tyler Dixon
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Bull close-up. Photo Credit: Tyler Dixon

Make sure you stay connected with everything Elk Island by following them on Twitter. You can also find Parks Canada on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Did you know the bison that were reintroduced to Banff National Park in 2017 were originally from Elk Island National Park? It’s true, and you can read all about that historic homecoming in my previous story.

 

 

 

Tyler Dixon
About Tyler Dixon 102 Articles
Tyler is originally from Saskatchewan, and yes he cheers for the Roughriders, but don’t hold that against him as Calgary has been his home for the past eight years. He is a teacher working at a wilderness- based treatment program for youth working to overcome addiction. Tyler is also a volunteer with the GOT Parks initiative, which aims at reconnecting Canada’s youth with our national, provincial, and territorial parks. During his time away from work, Tyler enjoys outdoor activities, such as hiking, biking, and snowboarding, team sports, travelling, photography, spending time with good friends, and being at home with his wife and German Shepherd, Rome.