In the middle of the night the lines of salt reflect the night sky with a kind of grey glow akin to a black and white movie. In the day, your vision stretches out across the flat plains that almost look as if they were sprinkled with snow in the middle of summer.
If it sounds like an alien landscape, that’s because in Canadian terms it is. The salt flats of Wood Buffalo National Park are unique in the country. They are in fact the last remnants of an ancient inland sea that used to cover large tracts of North America. As the sea evaporated, the water and salt it contained began to concentrate into smaller and smaller pools. It all but dried up in a particularly low-lying patch of northern Alberta spanning across 370 square kilometres around 270 million years ago.
What’s left is one of the reasons this Park has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site – an expansive, flat landscape dotted with the occasional copse of twisted trees.
Tim Gauthier, the park’s communications officer, says the flat nature of the area makes for great wildlife viewing opportunities because your vision stretches so far. Park interpretive staff offer guided tours where people can spot black bears, bison, lynx and even the rare whooping crane. But don’t bother to pack your hiking boots. Gauthier says the flats are best enjoyed in bare feet, with the briny pools full of salt and minerals providing “a Wood Buffalo spa from the ankle down.”
The viewing opportunities don’t end at sunset. The Park is also Canada’s largest dark sky preserve, meaning that once the cosmos turn a blacker pitch, there’s just as much to see above. From an escarpment overlooking the salt plains designated as one of the park’s dark sky viewing points, the stars and constellations reflect so brightly off the ground that you can make out the salt in patches of grey.
“If you’re lucky enough and weather is good, you can see some amazing northern lights,” says Wendy Swanson, who lived in the park for 10 years and even got married to her husband Marc on Pine Lake in 1999. Both Swanson and Gauthier say that it’s easy to make out some of the landscape once your eyes adjust to the darkness – the reflection of the stars and moon reveals the plains in a whole new light.
It all goes to show that an overdose of salt makes for just the right ingredient for a 24-hour tourism experience.