I live, work and play in Alberta's Rocky Mountains, but it's the Prairies that sing to me of home. I was born and raised just two hours east of Edmonton, so taking in a flowing field of brilliant sun-soaked canola rolling open under an endless bluebird sky is like a tonic for my restless globetrotting soul.
Elk Island National Park, 194 square kilometres of prairie paradise, is a scant 45-minute drive east of Edmonton's downtown urban matrix; an ecological oasis just off the Yellowhead Highway. The grand mix of rolling boreal forest, aspen parkland, sedge meadows, lakes and wetlands that contains and sustains a jaw-dropping 3,000 grazing mammals (second only in density to Africa's Serengeti), and more than 250 species of birds, is ranked eighth in the world by National Geographic magazine for "best wildlife viewing" and provides a welcome wild sanctuary from the big city nearby.
On a recent drive across the province, I stopped there with my two young children to relieve them from their car seats and, I'll admit, relieve me from the screeching that had, by hour five in the car, reached fever pitch. It was enough for me to step out of the car and smell the sweetness of fall, to hear the leaves crinkling underfoot and to let the memories of so many long-ago weekends of camping, hiking, canoeing and picnicking in the park flood back. Not so for my wee ones. They wanted – no, needed – to run, explore, see things, poke things and breathe the air, so off we went to discover Elk Island through the eyes of four- and 1½-year-olds. Here are our Top 5 ways to enjoy one of Canada's most magnificent gems of a park.
1) Safari Alberta-style
Before clambering out of the car, we took a right turn after the park entrance and drove a one-kilometre twisting loop of open prairie scrub and grassland designed for optimal viewing of where the buffalo, er, bison, roam. Elk Island is Canada's only fully fenced national park, giving the bison free rein to wander to their heart's content, and have a little fun surprising unsuspecting visitors. It is not uncommon to be hiking along a trail, turn a corner and come face to face with an enormous shaggy brown beast. While not quite as disconcerting as perhaps a cougar or bear encounter, I was nonetheless relieved to have a few layers of steel and window between the bison and my brood. As the ungulates heaved and chuffed past the car outside, the silence on the inside of the car was heavenly. For the first time in hours, my kids were speechless and silent, mouths agape and eyes wide with awe. Their expressions of wonder at the minivan-size mammals meandering by was worth the trip.
2) Take a hike
The possibilities are endless and the routes amazing, but if you want to hold the attention of little people, I've learned it's best to stick to short walks they can actively engage in and enjoy. One of 11 self-guided trails in the park, the Living Waters boardwalk trail is a 300-metre floating boardwalk alongside and off the shores of Astotin Lake. Interpretive signs every few metres that highlight the wilderness and the water below were a big hit with my four-year-old, while lying on the boardwalk and dipping her hand, indeed entire arm, into the water was the highlight for my toddler.
3) Hug a tree
Easily convincing the kids that a furry little buck-toothed mammal sighting was worthwhile, we set off on another hike, this time down the aptly named Beaver Pond Trail. Beavers were reintroduced to the park after centuries of overtrapping and today more than 1,000 live here. While we never saw the real thing up close, we did spot plenty of lodges and chewed stumps. Explaining wildlife quirks is much more successful with props I've found, and stopping to touch downed stumps provided a great teachable moment, while a quick trip through the Astotin Lake Theatre afterward gave us a chance to pet, prod and pull the tail of a stuffed version of Canada's national animal.
4) Hit the beach
While Elk Island park plays host to a number of lakes, the beach at Astotin Lake is the big draw. Swimming in September was out of the question, but frolicking in the sand was great fun and a fantastic opportunity to marvel at some of the species of migratory birds heading by to a warmer locale. Watching two enormous bison trundle past the nearby playground enhanced the experience considerably.
5) Go for a ski
I didn't go for a ski that day with kids in tow, but I've spent many long hours schussing here. The cross-country community calls the park's trails "old school," meaning, in a word, fun. Throwing on the boards and setting out on any one of the numerous trails on a crisp midwinter morning is hard to beat. The trails are the polar opposite of the concrete-hard snow highways that dominate Nordic ski destinations now. At Elk Island, they shoot down narrow grooves, wind through the woods and threaten to wrap you around an aspen at any given moment. Throw in a potential bison encounter and suddenly your adrenalin levels are rocketing.