There’s a place in northern Saskatchewan that I have flown over but have never had the pleasure of visiting. It’s the Athabasca Sand Dunes on the south shore of Lake Athabasca. The Athabasca Sand Dunes Provincial Park is the province’s most remote wilderness park, accessible only by air or by boat.
The active sand dune area, which covers about a quarter of the provincial park, stretches for about 100 kilometres. The dunes are the most northerly sand dune area in the world and are Canada’s largest active sand dunes. Some of the dunes are up to 30 metres high and as much as a kilometre long. Other small, rounded dunes, called willow dunes, stretch for kilometres.
The sand in some of the areas between many of the larger dunes has been blown away, exposing rocks and pebbles that have been polished and carved by the drifting sand. Travel on these extensive fragile gravel pavement areas should be avoided.
“The local Dene Nations have a legend that says the dunes were created by a giant beaver while scientists say they actually began their life as part of a delta in a giant prehistoric lake and are the result of glacial activity that ground the local Athabasca sandstone into sand,” says Kevin Weatherbee, Manager, Athabasca Sand Dunes Provincial Wilderness Park. “People from the Fond du Lac First Nation have a reserve in the dunes adjacent to the park. A wide variety of traditional uses such as hunting, trapping, fishing and gathering plants for medicinal or ceremonial purposes occur in and out of the park.”
Three-quarters of the Athabasca Sand Dunes Provincial Wilderness Park is Canadian Shield made up of jackpine/lichen forests and muskeg along with many small lakes and potholes. The dune area is home to more than 300 plant species; 42 are rare and 10 others are found nowhere else in the world.
“The provincial park designation means those plants and this unique area is protected for now and into the future,” says Environment’s Weatherbee. “Although rain and snow quickly disappear into the sand out of the reach of the roots of most plants, the dune area is not a desert. The water table in the areas between the dunes is often high so they become productive nurseries where grass, trees and shrubs germinate from wind-blown seed. These areas, called slacks, provide homes for a host of birds, insects and animals.”
There are no communities, services, permanent residents, facilities or roads in or the near the park. Visitors must be fully equipped for self-contained wilderness travel and should be aware of the park management zoning and associated guidelines. They must also be prepared to protect the fragile environment and remember they are not allowed to pick any plants or take any artifacts.
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