Story by Shannon Leahy
FORT CHIPEWYAN, ALBERTA — “You are one confused young woman!”
Oliver Glanfield, my 80-something-year-old museum guide, is aghast at my ignorance.
How can someone who has flown over Alberta’s love-’em-or-loathe-’em oil sands, across the Peace-Athabasca Delta and landed on the northwestern shore of Lake Athabasca not know a darn thing about the bloody, brutal fur trade?
While Glanfield educates me, I continue to marvel at the setting for my impromptu tutorial on Canadian history.
This is Day 2 in Fort Chipewyan and the farthest north I’ve ever been — anywhere.
Just how north am I?
The border of the Northwest Territories is 228 kilometres (142 miles) away.
Fort McMurray, the country’s richest and boldest city, is about 280 km (174 miles) south of us.
If you stand by the water — 40 feet from our B&B patio — and look out between the boreal-green islands of Potato, Mouse, Cow and Lopstick, you can see the last remaining ice floes on Lake Athabasca. And this is in mid-May!
Stop talking and you’ll hear nothing but the lapping of waves against a shore littered with driftwood and rock.
Skies shift from gold to purple swiftly and softly, and hint at the green (sometimes red) northern lights that dance up here. The sun sets around 10:30 pm and glows again at 3:30 am.
Eagles and ravens fly above us in the morning. At dusk, great-horned owls wish us goodnight.
Nature is so wild in Fort Chip, so unbelievably close and fierce, that I forget we’re only 60 minutes by air from all that wild commerce happening downstream in Fort McMurray.
We’ve flown out of a booming city to a tiny fly-in hamlet, Alberta’s oldest community (established 1788) and once the richest and most powerful fur trading post in North America.
Today, Fort Chip is home to approximately 1,000 people; a close-knit and storied blending of Chipewyan/Dene, Mikisew (Woodland) Cree and Métis people. The fur wars are over but Fort Chip’s long-standing traditions, alliances and families have endured; cultural strongholds rooted deep into Alberta’s only slab of Canadian Shield.
We’re touring the most popular tourist attraction in town, the Bicentennial Museum, a refurbished white wooden storefront that houses thousands of artifacts tracing the history of the area’s First Nations people through to the arrival of the fur traders and the end of the trade wars.
(Don’t know your fur-trading trivia? Most fort burnings and hostage-taking events ended when the Hudson Bay Company absorbed the North West Company in 1821.)
Glanfield, our resident curator, humorist and storyteller, calls himself a lowly “caretaker” of the museum and threatens that I better get the facts right. He is neither the heart nor the head of this two-storey treasure chest. He is just one of many contributors who’ve made the Bicentennial Museum into a community (and provincial) success story.
He shows us the rusted tools of peltry — beaver, muskrat, fox and bear traps — dating to a time when Canada wasn’t even born.
The animal pelts on the wall are accompanied by hand-crafted snowshoes, canoes and paddles, beaded dog blankets, ribbons and bells, sleds and carioles. There are the black-and-white photographs of the first York boats used on the Athabasca; all of them built in Fort Chip.
The fearsome traps, silenced animals and First Nations’ voices blend into the stories about the men (and eventually their women and children) who transformed Fort Chip into the fur-trading “Emporium of the North.”
Dozens of their descendants still live here.
Wild, wild men like Peter Pond, Alexander Mackenzie, Simon Fraser, David Thompson and the members of the doomed Franklin Expedition.
In Fort Chip these characters aren’t Canadian icons, history-quiz questions or lonely ghosts.
They’re men who are the community’s fur traders, explorers, surveyors and guests. Some of Canada’s greatest adventurers helped build or passed through Fort Chip as they charted tree lines, traplines and bloodlines that have defined the north for centuries.
True Northern Exposure in Alberta
Up here, we’re introduced to the Peace-Athabasca Delta, the world’s largest inland freshwater delta, whose 4,000 square kilometres (1,545 square miles) unfold like an elaborate maze of sand bars, ponds, sedge meadows and meandering channels.
We’ve flown over the lushness of boreal forest and serpentine rivers, a manufactured landscape of oil sands, smokestacks and tailings ponds, and the tawny brown welcome of sand dunes and spring sun.
Getting to Fort Chip isn’t easy. The untwinned “Highway of Death” (Highway 63) between Edmonton and Fort Mac is a real treat.
But leaving Fort Chip is harder.
Blue ribbons of life, the delta’s streams and rivers, have guided us to dozens of water fowl in their river-bank love nests: American wigeons, plovers, green-winged teal ducks, Arctic terns and sandhill cranes.
We’ve fallen in love with an array of wildlife that is nothing less than staggering: 44 species of mammals, 18 species of fish and 213 species of birds. The ancient predator-prey relationship between bison and timber wolves unfolds daily. (Teaching tip from Glanfield: “Stop saying ‘buffalo’. Water buffalo live in Africa! These are American bison!”)
And then there is the kindness. Drivers wave, slow down, offer us a ride and ask if we’d like a tour of the town. The only exchange or transaction is story.
We are invited to sit on steps, step into boats and sit down in front of bonfires. Fort Chip storytellers share childhood memories or tales plucked from family trees. The dog teams that ran across Lake Athabasca pulling families, news and supplies. The tens of thousands of caribou — the last of the great migration — that ran through town on tiny hooves across thin ice. For two weeks straight.
And then they point to the northern lights above; spirits that seem to come out when the community gathers to celebrate, to grieve and to dream.
I might have arrived in Fort Chip a confused young woman.
But I left Fort Chip crystal clear on what life can feel like when you’re surrounded by people who love their community, their cultures and their land as much as they love one another.
I fly south, lonesome and sad, but filled with clear fresh hope that Fort Chip always remain true north strong and free.
MORE ABOUT FORT CHIPEWYAN
How To Get There: Fort Chipewyan is accessible year-round by air. Flights from Fort McMurray are daily, frequent and always include a window seat. (The majority of planes are nine-seater Cessena Caravans and you can ask to sit in the cockpit!). The 60-minute flight includes an aerial view of Alberta’s oil sands, the world’s largest inland freshwater delta and the biggest dune field in Canada. McMurray Aviation, based in Fort McMurray, offers return flights to Fort Chipewyan for $250. Book online or call 1-780-791-2182.
Helicopter Tour: If you really want to live (and spend) like a rock star consider taking a helicopter from Fort McMurray to the Athabasca Dunes Ecological Reserve just south of Fort Chip. Touch down and run around barefoot. The dunes are only accessible by helicopter or a full-day ATV excursion. Private helicopter tours with Wood Buffalo Helicopters in Fort McMurray start at $1,600/per hour. Book online or call toll-free 1-866-743-5588.
Be an Ice Road Trucker: From mid-December to mid-March the winter (ice) road connecting Fort McMurray to Fort Chipewyan is open. The winter driving isn’t for greenhorns. You need an SUV and nerves of steel to travel 280 kilometres (174 miles) over frozen muskeg, marshes and streams, through desolate boreal forest (wildlife!) and into the Peace-Athabasca Delta. For winter road information, including directions, weather conditions, wildlife warnings, etc., contact the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo website or Fort McMurray Tourism.
Where to Stay: Ignore online recommendations about staying at the Fort Chipewyan Lodge. The lodge burned down in 2010. Lily’s on Wylie B&B is a gorgeous lakeside house overlooking Lake Athabasca. (Walk 40 feet and dip your toes in!) Hosts Fred (aka “Jumbo”) and Lucy Fraser live a couple of doors down and stock the kitchen so you can make your own breakfast, lunch and dinner. Jumbo Fraser is a modest, kind man who knows just about everything about Fort Chip and Wood Buffalo National Park. His B&B and his storytelling are beautiful. Rooms start at $150 per night. Call 1-780-697-3010 to make a reservation.
If you prefer the bush more than the lake consider Wah Pun B&B. Tucked away on the outskirts of town, the inn is owned by Archie Waqun, a former long-time chief of the Mikisew Cree First Nation, and his wife, Dawn. When folks like David Suzuki, director James Cameron and Neil Young come to town, the Waquns help them get a lay of the land. Single-person rooms start at $180 per night. For reservations call 1-780-697-3030.
COOKING IS WILD IN FORT CHIP
In the early 1990s, the Fort Chipewyan Historical Society asked residents to share their favourite recipes. More than 130 recipes were contributed; dishes ranging from caribou stew, fried squirrel and moose-in-a-blanket to bannock and fried blueberries. Two tasty crowd-pleasers from Fort Chipewyan Traditional Cookery (1994) are below. Serve these dishes at your next party and watch your guests go wild.
Sweet and sour porcupine
Legs of a porcupine
1 cup cider vinegar
¾ cup brown sugar
2 small onions
½ teaspoon nutmeg
Brown the porcupine legs in a Dutch oven. In a saucepan, cook the onions in vinegar until clear in colour. Add the nutmeg and sugar. Pour mixture over porcupine legs. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and let simmer for three hours. Remove porcupine quills. Strip meat from the bones and serve with gravy over hot cooked rice. Serves four.
Pickled beaver tail
1 fresh beaver tail
1 cup pickling vinegar
Place beaver tail in a pot of boiling water. Boil beaver tail until bubbles appear under the skin. Remove the beaver tail from the water and peel off the skin, using a fork. Cut the meat into two-inch cubes and place in pickling jars. Cover the meat with vinegar and seal tightly. Store in a cool place and wait at least two weeks before serving. Yummy!
Want more wildlife in your kitchen? You can order Fort Chipewyan Traditional Cookery by calling the Fort Chipewyan Historical Society at 1-780-697-3844. All proceeds support the Bicentennial Museum.