Elk Island National Park, Alberta

For months, my sister Chantal and I have been looking forward to a weekend getaway in Edmonton after purchasing concert tickets to see one of our favorite bands. We planned to eat a lot of good food, relax in the hotel pool, and squeeze in a hike along the way!

Elk Island National Park is located about 30 minutes east of Edmonton and is well known for its bison conservation efforts. The parks has a healthy population of elk, deer, moose, and approximately 400 plains bison and 300 wood bison.

After being in the car for three hours, a longer hike sounded like a good way to stretch our legs. We decided to give the Shirley Lake Trail a try. It is about 11kms long and offers views of many marshes, ponds, and lakes. Perfect for observing waterfowl, and the signage also stated that it was great spot to see elk and bison.

There was plenty of evidence of bison as we drove in to the park. I wasn’t sure if we would see much wildlife because it was such a hot day out, but there were droppings and tracks all over the trail as we made our way, so we knew they frequented the area.

We powered through the first 7 kilometers, grateful for the tree cover and lovely weather. Breaks were short, enough to appreciate the views but not so long that the heat of the sun would get to us.

As we crossed over a bridge in a marshy area, what must have been a nearby beaver slapped its tail against the water to let us know that we were probably too close to it’s home.

Moving along, we saw even more evidence of busy beaver activity with downed trees across the trail. I stopped to snap a few photos and Chantal paused to drink some water. We could see the small beach for the backcountry campsite on Oster Lake was close and I was excited to check it out.

I took about 10 fast steps ahead, rounding a small bend, when I saw a dark, furry butt on the trail ahead. We were close, but not too close, to a bison! It meandered along without a care in the world. We had read in the pamphlet given to us by the park entry gate attendant that in order to determine that you are a safe distance from wildlife, you can extend your arm and hold your thumb up, it should be able to cover the animal you are looking at.

Although the bison seemed completely unbothered by us, it was on our trail with lake and marsh on either side preventing us from detouring around it, and we didn’t want to upset it by getting any closer. With the sun starting to set, we didn’t think that turning around was a very good idea either, so we decided to play the lazy bison waiting game.

We talked loudly to each other as we watched it slowly meander along the trail ahead of us. We estimated that it would need to move less than a kilometer forward before we would be able to pass it at the backcountry site. It moved lazily along, and eventually veered off deeper in to the the trees. Success! We safely passed a bison on the trail!

Proud of our accomplishments, I started again to moved quickly ahead. ‘Stop!!’, Chantal shouted at me, as I looked up and saw another bison on or trail. Luckily she was there or I may have walked right into it. This bison seemed a little more bothered by our presence than the last, maybe because it heard us shout, and it postured itself towards us to let us know.

I thought back to the news articles that I read almost weekly about people being gored by bison in Yellowstone, and we didn’t want to risk being the Canadian equivalent. Fortunately, we had reached the clearing before the campsite, and we were able to do large detour around him.

We reached the backcountry site and were immediately greeted by an ‘aggressive bison’ warning. I would guess that our friend, who was still giving us the stink-eye from the meadow, may have had a part in the sign placement. We watched a third bison lollygagging near the outhouses, much like the first one we had encountered, without a care in the world.

The backcountry site was beautiful, with plenty of covered firewood, a covered picnic area, and red chairs. There was a family setting up for the night and another hiker arriving at the same time as we did.

We appreciated the space for a few minutes, but it was getting dark and we were excited to get to Edmonton and eat some delicious food ,so we moved along.

The sun began to set quickly, and we hoped that we wouldn’t run in to any more furry traffic jams. Some nearby coyotes started yipping and barking, but we hiked the rest of the way out without meeting up with any more wildlife. The sunset was gorgeous and the temperate was perfect!

We piled in to the car, tired, but so happy that we had been able to see bison! It is an animal that we had both never seen on a hike before and it was awesome to check it off of the list.

We made our way in to Edmonton, ready to check in to the hotel an order some food. It was past 9pm and we were both more nervous about walking in a city in the dark than on a hiking trail, so we ordered in from Wow Bao. Yum! What a wonderful day!

Happy hiking!


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