You might catch her writing recent Wood Buffalo National Park Reserve guests to answer questions they had during a nature hike. Or she could have her nose deep in a novel, conducting research to help prepare a personalized tour for an incoming group. The way Helen Panter sees it, it’s her job to make a connection with each and every guest she meets at the park to ensure their experience stands out. And when you talk to her, it becomes clear right away how much she loves what she does.
Since 2009, Panter has spent the bulk of her career with Parks Canada guiding tours and creating educational programs at Canada’s biggest national park. Her knowledge of Wood Buffalo’s history, ecology, geology and cultural importance grows with every tour because she’s always learning from colleagues and guests, following up on every question she’s asked.
So, don’t expect Panter to recite a memorized script when you head out with her to explore the park’s surreal Salt Plains or the otherworldly glacial erratic at Grosbeak Lake. “It’s good to learn the facts, the numbers, the dates—but it’s not just that. It’s about the people,” she says. “Even though we’re just together for an hour or two, I want to know who they are and what brings them to Wood Buffalo.”
Panter asks visitors early on what they want to learn, so she tailors her tours to each unique group. There’s nothing worse, she says, than guests who aren’t enjoying themselves. “You see that they’re just like, ‘oh my god, can we finish this?’” she says with a laugh.
Now, if she notices a group with a bunch of children, she keeps the tour moving and makes sure the energy level is high. She will also adapt her approach. For example, she learned that kids—for whatever reason—seemed to be fascinated by animal scat. So Panter developed a tour with that as a major focus. “And the kids loved it,” she says. “The parents were super happy too because the kids were entertained. They learned, and the parents learned at the same time.”
The Wood Buffalo experience doesn’t end when you leave the park. Panter stays in touch with guests, who often send her thank-you emails or photos from their trips. Some send along contact information of friends who are planning to visit the park, inspired by the stories the travellers came home with.
This happened two summers ago, when Panter took a group of older visitors to the Salt Plains—an ancient seabed found smack in the middle of the boreal forest. When the group reached the site, Panter began to take off her boots and socks. Her guest looked at her like she was crazy, but Panter explained this was the ultimate way to experience the Salt Plains—to feel the mud, and clay and salt between your toes. “It’s like a natural pedicure,” she told them. Always prepared, Panter pulled some water and a towel from her backpack, telling the group they could wash their feet afterwards to keep their socks and boots clean.
That’s all that some of them needed. “They ended up playing in the mud—up to their knees! They laughed and had a great time and they thanked me so many times,” says Panter. Although she never imposes or insists, she feels it’s her mission to make sure that people are getting the most out of their time at Wood Buffalo. “I don’t want you to go home and say, ‘well, I wish I would have done it,’” she says. “You’re here right now—do it!”
Even after more than a decade in the park, Panter still loves visiting Wood Buffalo’s main attractions, such as the Salt Plains. You can experience it with all the senses, she says—you taste the salt and feel it on your skin. She also tells guests to listen for the telltale whoop whoop call of the whooping crane, which she estimates about 10 percent of visitors are lucky enough to witness. When the majestic cranes make an appearance, she gets to talk about the park’s conservation efforts. (Wood Buffalo protects the nesting area of the last wild migratory flock on Earth!)
Panter also loves Grosbeak Lake, which appears Mars-like in contrast to its verdant surroundings. Here, boulders are strewn across a barren landscape, exactly where they were left by receding glaciers eons ago. When Panter brings groups here, she stays silent to let the setting sink in. She also enjoys bringing guests to Lane Lake—a 6.5-kilometre hike each way, through a boreal forest paradise and past a variety of sinkhole lakes.
But her absolute favourite place to visit is Sweetgrass Station—a historic and culturally important meadowland deep within the park. Unfortunately, it’s Wood Buffalo’s hardest destination to access—it’s a 2.5-hour drive from the town of Fort Smith, followed by a 30-minute boat ride to Sweetgrass Landing and a 14-kilometre hike to the station’s cabin.
It was at Sweetgrass where Panter had her most memorable Wood Buffalo experience.
What I like is when people reach out to us prior to coming,” she says. “Sometimes people go, ‘Oh, I’m sorry to bother you but I have questions.’ I’m like, ‘No, that’s why we’re here.’ Just ask us questions so we can tailor your trip according to what you want to see.”
In 2019, a couple from Edmonton got in touch with Panter about a trip they were planning to Wood Buffalo. They had read Buffalo Wolf, written by wolf biologist Lu Carbyn, which documented the relationship between bison and wolves from observations made at Sweetgrass, among other locations. “They really, really wanted to see bison and wolves together,” says Panter.
The email piqued Panter’s interest—it was something new. She began to ask around about possible trip options. “I’m not an expert. I don’t have a PhD in biology, geology, ecology, but I have a lot of colleagues that do,” she says. “If I need certain answers, I go grab the knowledge from these people.” Meanwhile, Panter read the 350-page book that sparked the couple’s interest. “Now, if they talk about that wolf that went over there on that carcass, I would know which one.”
Panter started to build an itinerary for the couple—"a five-day, full-on inclusive program and trip.” She and a colleague would boat the couple to Sweetgrass Landing, take care of the food, the cooking, the gear and supplies—everything. “I always tend to go above and beyond because I want to give them the million-percent experience,” she says. “We’re not just going to go halfway: we do it all or we don’t do it.”
Around that time, a couple from Hong Kong also serendipitously contacted Panter about wolves and bison. She asked the Edmonton couple if they would mind having another group join them. They were thrilled. (Unfortunately, a month before the trip, the first couple had to cancel.)
When the Hong Kong couple arrived, everything was so new to them, Panter says—from the humble boat ride into Sweetgrass Landing to starting a fire in a firepit, splitting firewood, and frying bannock on a stick.
“That trip was one of the best experiences I’ve had over my 11 years at Wood Buffalo,” says Panter. It was a lot of work, but her own personal reward was far greater. Over the next five days, they went on hikes and saw many bison and bears, but no wolves. “Every night, they were like, ‘you did all this for us?’”
One day, as the wind swept through the tall grasses at Sweetgrass Station, Panter turned to the couple. “I told them, maybe today we are the only ones in this entire park. Who knows?” This thought blew the couple away. In Hong Kong, they said, if there’s a picnic table, there are 40 or 50 people around it. “Here, we’re in the wilderness and there’s nobody else close to us. For kilometres and kilometres—it’s only us four.
Less is more in the North. Some southern parks might see a million or more visitors each year. Here, in the Northwest Territories, annual visitors are counted in the thousands—or maybe even the hundreds. That means every single person gets a little more attention, a little more time, and a more personalized experience.
That’s how Panter approaches every day. “I don’t think about the visitors I had last week or the other visitors that I will have next week. This hour or two of my time is for them—it’s precious time for them,” she says.
“You may never come here again, so what do you want your experience to be?”