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Doin' the dunes
What it's like and why it's possible to paddle in a northern desert


One of the main reasons for travelling to this remote part of Canada is the opportunity to see the vast Athabasca Sand Dunes. The dunes in this area are among the largest in north America and the region has one of the largest dune fields in any northern region of the world. What's most unique though, is the relative abundance of water. Throughout the dunes, pockets of water can be found, measuring in size from puddles to lakes large enough to land a float plane on.

Two significant rivers flow through the area and leave their own mark on the landscape. Our canoe trip will be taking advantage of the northerly flow of the William River to cut through the heart of the dunes. The fast moving river creates a unique landscape as it greatly reduces the easterly drift of the dunes. As the prevailing northwest winds march across the dunes, they constantly scoop sand from the west side of the drifts and deposit it on the east side.
The Athabasca sand dunes region, highlighted, covers several hundred square kilomtres on the south-central shore of Lake Athabasca, which is in the northwest corner of Saskatchewan. For a larger map, click here.
-- Kraiker family photo

This march of sand often buries entire forests completely from sight. Years, or even decades later, the shifting sands gradually reveal the skeleton trees in a ghostly shadow of the former forest. The fast-flowing Williams River puts a temporary and abrupt halt to the drifting process by moving the drifting sand quickly downstream. The result of this is that in the lower section of the river, there is a distinct difference between the east and west banks. On the west, bald sand dunes tower above the water. On the east side, a lush forest comes to the water's edge. However, all the sand being absorbed by the river creates a huge delta that extends far into Lake Athabasca. This delta will be a challenge to navigate as the river is separated into many channels and it becomes very shallow. We expect to run out of enough water to paddle often in this area of the river and we'll be wading and dragging quite a bit to reach the lake.

A huge area covered with sand dunes might sound like it would get boring to explore in a short while, but there's actually a lot of variety in the dune structures and we're looking forward to long exploratory walks. In some areas, there will be great examples of the classic sand dune, rippling snake-like across the landscape with the knife edge atop the dunes carved in sharp relief by wind and light. Many of them are said to resemble shifting mountains because of their height and bulk.

In other areas, there's a hard-packed surface that's both extremely unique and quite fragile. This is called desert pavement and visitors to the area are asked not to walk on it. In some regions of the dunes, we'll encounter cobble stones in the desert pavement. These are quite unusual as they're shaped by the wind. The constant movement of sand-laden wind will shape the rocks into a triangular shape. These wind-shaped rocks are called ventifacts and the ones found in the Athabasca Sand Dunes are unique for both for their abundance and in the beauty of the rocks that dot the pavement.
"In some areas, there will be great examples of the classic sand dune, rippling snake-like across the landscape with the knife edge atop the dunes carved in sharp relief by wind and light."
-- Sun Media file photo

Other areas of the dunes provide evidence of how long back in history the area has been covered with sand. In some places, the surface looks gently rippled at first glance, but on closer examination one discovers the sand has been compacted into hard rock by a process that began over a billion years ago. In other places, the beaches are covered with multi-coloured pebbles, remnants of rocks being broken back up into sand by the wind and waves to begin the process all over again.

The dunes are an inhospitable environment in which to live, but there are places among the sand that offer the right conditions for life. Scattered among the desert pavement, even deep inside the dunes, are the nest sites of Arctic Terns. These fabulous flyers migrate huge distances every year from their nesting grounds in the far north to their wintering grounds in the deep south. Some birds range from Arctic to Antarctic regions (pole to pole!) in their yearly migration.

Near the river, it's possible to find stands of delicate orchids growing among the dunes. The delicate bloom of orchids might seem out of place this far north, but most Canadian orchids prefer a colder environment.

The dunes area is home to some plants that are found nowhere else on Earth. Common everywhere in the dunes, the felt-leaved willow (salix silicicola) can be found virtually all over the area, yet it grows nowhere else. Another plant oddity found in the dunes area is sea lyme-grass which is normally found along the shore of the arctic seas. Changes in climate over the years may have allowed the plant to move into the area, but more romantic speculation has it that Viking may have brought the plant during their early explorations as sea lyme-grass may have been used as a food source by these ancient travellers.

All through the dunes, we'll expect to encounter many surpises.

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  • Rolf and Debra Kraiker are professional authors, photographers and wilderness guides who own and operate the Blazing Paddles school of canoe instruction in Shanty Bay, Ontario