Heaven Below Me – Exploring Wood Buffalo National Park from the Air
My alarm goes off at 6 A.M. and I make a note of grabbing my circular polarizer as I load my slingshot camera bag over my good shoulder. My other shoulder is still giving me trouble from when I tore my rotary cuff tendon years ago; the doctor said it was a bad idea for me to haul heavy weight on my back, prompting me to get rid of any large backpack and streamline my gear for versatility. On cool mornings, unlike this warm breezy 28 degree Celsius, it becomes particularly stiff.
Despite being a 24 year old, some days my back and neck feel as if they belong to a 75 year old. I’m stubborn as a mule and twice as resilient, but even I know when to listen to the doc’s advice. I have since trimmed down my kit to include one camera body and a medium range telephoto lens with converter. Using a zoom saves the extra length of a longer lens, and I don’t require more lenses to fill in the ranges. I’m also packing a pancake lens for point of view video. Where I’m going today I need to be conscious of weight and size restrictions, the more compact the better.
I’m bringing a Canon 70-200mm F/2.8L with a 2x Kenko Tele-converter and a Canon 40mm F/2.8 STM pancake lens for video. Equipped on the end of the pancake lens is a circular polarizer by Tiffen. The circular polarizer will help reduce reflections and glare caused by the helicopter’s windows, allowing me to cancel them out and shoot the pristine wilderness of Wood Buffalo National Park from the air: areas I’ve never seen before and that few ever have the opportunity to see.
Wood Buffalo National Park covers a vast area of approximately 17,300 square miles (44,800 square kilometers) straddling the boundary of the southern Northwest Territories and northeastern Alberta. It is North America’s largest National Park and the second largest in the entire world. The park is larger than Switzerland or Denmark and was established in 1922 to protect the world’s largest free-roaming bison herd. Years after its founding, the world’s only natural whooping crane nesting site was discovered, as well as the most northerly snake hibernacula in North America, where red-sided garter snakes congregate communally in warm spots to make it through the frigid winters. The far southeastern corner of the park protects about 80 percent of the Peace-Athabasca Delta and it is in this area that four North American flyways converge where birds pass through each spring and fall for seasonal migration routes. The national park is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site list and home to a diverse ecosystem consisting of hundreds of different species of wildlife.
It’s 7:30 am and I’m riding in a Parks Canada truck out to the helicopter site where we would be rendezvousing with our pilot. The two resource conservation officers with me are also avid photographers and together we’re all packing gear. I’m hoping to get some shots of a whooping crane. I can’t hope to come nearly as close as Klaus Nigge’s work on the cranes because I won’t be lying in a blind in a swamp for a week. Klaus is a National Geographic photographer who I met when I was just beginning as a photographer. It’s my first time photographing these regions of the park and I’m excited at the prospect of getting a rare aerial look from a helicopter of a seldom seen area of the vast park.
The Slave River has nothing to do with slavery; its name is thought to come from the Athabasca Deh Gah Got’ine the name of the Slavey people of the Dene in the region. It is one of the traditional reasons for the two towns at the end of the road to exist. Fort Fitzgerald and Fort Smith were the two towns the traders from the Hudson’s Bay and Northwest Company settled to portage the class IV rapids that are the only barrier to river navigation between Edmonton and the Arctic Ocean. These mighty cataracts are named Cassette, Pelican, Mountain and Rapids of the Drowned, the last named for an unfortunate attempt to run boats through them by the famed explorer William Mackenzie.
Today Fort Smith is a very transient place, with thousands of visitors from all over the world coming to see Wood Buffalo National Park – home of about 5,600 free roaming bison; North America’s largest land mammal. We would fly over the Slave River to the north and up to the northwestern section of the park down over the salt plains. Thousands of sinkholes of all sizes dot the landscape, a result of the extensive gypsum and limestone karst topography in this part of the park.
It’s a good day for flying and we talk over the headsets about camera gear, video and of course – flying. I look out the window and slide my 70-200 out the slots of the windows just enough to get an unobstructed view of …everything.
As we’re flying I note in some of my photos I’m seeing white dots, far below, swimming in the water. I click the magnifier a few times and find out those white spots are whooping cranes and pelicans swimming together in the lakes. There are only 600 whooping cranes left in the world and half of them exist here in the most northerly area of the of the park. Their call has echoed through my dreams many times; encountering them is a rare and spectacular sight. They’re North America’s tallest bird and one of the most sacred in many cultures. I’ve formed many memories of this land in the time I’ve spent here and grown to love the existential feeling of being in the thick of it. To see it from the bird’s-eye view that the whoopers are used to is profoundly moving. One of the salt deposits can be hiked to by following the salt river down from the overlook viewing deck, it’s about a 1 kilometer walk hugging the tree line and following the salt river. There your feet can be soothed by walking in the cool mud, with calls of whooping and sand hill cranes pleasantly echoing on the wind. At one time I heard a mysterious piper, out here, playing what sounded like a flute melody. There was nobody parked in the parking area and no footsteps to be seen. We explored the trails and campgrounds, yet found nobody. It was after midnight during a late autumn aurora viewing experience; probably back in 2009 or 2010. I recorded it on my 5D mark II – you can faintly hear it playing. I never figured out the source behind that sound, which was unlike any natural sound I’ve ever heard.
My thoughts are interrupted by John McKinnon, an ecosystem support technician on our team who works in resource conservation. “Karl – Nyarling River- right below us!” I look out the window and sure enough the Nyarling, a river which is one of the first rivers you cross when driving from Hay River, is rushing below. It eventually drains into the Little Buffalo River, which I can see in the distance. We chat with the crew and pilot about his experiences as a helicopter pilot. We hear stories of his trips working in Los Angeles, California and Vancouver, British Columbia working on commercials with extreme heli-skiers in the mountains.
A variety of lakes are up ahead of us and we begin to pass over the 60th parallel into northern Alberta. John is a stellar photographer, and his collection of wildlife photos has me stuck to the computer chair at the office plenty of times. He’s carrying a Nikon D5000 with an AF-S Nikkor 18-200mm F/3.5-5.6 G ED attached. He also carries a separate HD camera with him. We’re able to fly open door for a time and that greatly saves my need for using the polarizer, though I still keep it on to give me some control with the glare off the lakes below. The blast of cool air assists in clearing away any airsickness one may develop. It’s still a warm, clear day.
We do a circuit down through the southern reaches of the park and see some rolling hills of the marshlands only to come back up again and make our way back up to Fort Smith through another section of the Karst Area. Areas of gypsum karst are found on all continents except for Antarctica. The largest known cave in Wood Buffalo National Park is 100 meters long, 30 meters wide and 15 meters high. There are two major types of sinkholes, one is known as a collapse sinkhole where underground water dissolves the limestone and gypsum bedrock. Whatever is on top is too heavy to support the chewed away roof of the water-filled hole below. The other type of sinkhole is known as a solution sinkhole, where the water on top slips through cracks in the bedrock and widens the cracks over time. A depression begins to form from the water sliding through the earth’s surface fissures. Wood Buffalo has some of the youngest karst regions in North America, allowing the landscape to reshape and evolve constantly.
The pilot changes course again and we’re moving north once more, nearing Grosbeak Lake. Grosbeak is also known to the locals as “the moon” because of its intriguing landscape. It looks like the surface of the moon during the night, when the sun has set and the moonlight turns the landscape pale blue. Stones are scattered through the ancient salty sea bed which were left behind from the last glacier to pass through. Over time the stones weather from the wind and salt, causing them to take on a Swiss-cheese look. Eventually they will wear down to nothing at all, just grains of sand amongst the salt and mud. I’ve often encountered the eerie calls of sand hill and whooping crane here. Seeing the lake from the air gave me a special perspective. I view several winding creeks and lakes as they fill up Grosbeak Lake. The salt coats over the ground like powdered sugar.
The chopper is panning around the lake; John is leaning out and grabbing footage with his HD cam. He calls to me to check something out. A flock of Canada geese have joined us in formation, at least 20 of them! They fly nearly alongside us, and then swoop over the lake and underneath us with their wings glinting in the sunlight. Sparkles from the lake reflect the sun and I fight to control the intensity of the glare using my hand around the brim of the telephoto to control light spill. I theorize it may work in a similar way to using a lens hood.
Through the combination of little tricks and techniques you can add them all up to get the results you need. Even something as small as using a tripod which is made of carbon fiber and not aluminum to reduce vibration can help make or break a photograph. Another example would be shooting in the morning, instead of dusk. Getting that magic hour light has always been a preference for me rather than shooting in the evening. Less heat rising off the surface, I figure, creates less distortion in the air and thus I’m able to – at least theoretically – get sharper photos. Klaus Nigge told me about that trick years ago, when I was just starting in photography. I manage to clamber over John and grab some of these shots of the once in a lifetime experience.
Known as the “King of the Aurora,” Karl Johnston has distinguished himself as one of the world’s top photographers of the Auora Borealis, the Northern Lights. His photographs are magical pieces of art that capture the phenomenal beauty of Canada’s night sky. What you don’t see in his photos is the absolute misery he goes through to capture them, as he trudges through deep snow in sub-zero temperatures, dodging bears and hockey players. Such is life in Canada’s far north.