It makes you wonder if the white pelican has been secretly listening to the Beach Boys song Surfin’ Safari as it stands on the rocks for a moment before hopping into the Slave River and catching a wave. The most northerly colony of nesting white pelicans take up residence on islands in the river each summer. Visitors can sometimes see the birds feeding at Rapids of the Drowned, just steps from the centre of town in Fort Smith.
The local Dene people travelled along the Slave River with the seasons. Then explorers and fur traders used this watery highway as a gateway into the North, portaging around four sets of impassable rapids. Today, Fort Smith is a community of about 2,300 people that sits on the banks of the Slave River. Its Chipewyan name, Thebacha, means beside the rapids.
For a time, the community of Fort Smith was the administrative centre of the Northwest Territories. Remnants of this history can be seen during a town tour that includes Fort Smith Mission Historic Park and St. Joseph’s Cathedral, and during a stop at the Northern Life Museum and Cultural Centre.
Fort Smith is poised on the edge of Wood Buffalo National Park, Canada’s biggest national park and the world’s largest Dark Sky Preserve. The Salt Plains are one of the reasons that the park was also named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. At the Salt Plains viewpoint, breathe in the majesty of the sweeping landscape. Then hike down and take your shoes off. Walk barefoot on the Salt Plains while Mother Nature gives you a pedicure. Taste the salt from a saline spring and look for animal tracks.
A 20-minute flightseeing tour departing from Fort Smith’s airport gives you a bird’s-eye view of the town, the river and the Salt Plains. But, wait. There’s more sky to explore.
Watch homemade rockets streak into the sky, tour the new Fort Smith observatory, and participate in evening workshops during the Thebacha & Wood Buffalo Dark Sky Festival. This northern celebration of space and science for novice stargazers and seasoned astronomers of all ages is held in Fort Smith and Wood Buffalo National Park. If you’re particularly lucky, perhaps a bison will cruise by the festival during the day and the aurora borealis will dance for you at night.
Touch the Arctic Tours is offering a four-day Land & Sky Tour of Fort Smith and Wood Buffalo National Park, August 17-20, 2017. It includes tours of town and the park, a 20-minute flightseeing tour with Northwestern Air Lease, lunch with an Elder at the Northern Life Museum & Cultural Centre, and participation in the Thebacha & Wood Buffalo Dark Sky Festival.
Fort Smith: www.fortsmith.ca
Wood Buffalo National Park: www.pc.gc.ca/woodbuffalo
Northwestern Air Lease: www.flynwal.com
Northern Life Museum & Cultural Centre: www.nlmcc.ca
Thebacha & Wood Buffalo Dark Sky Festival: www.tawbas.ca