An Autumn Afternoon at Elk Island Park

14 September 2019

Episodic watery visions. The soothing shores of Astotin Lake come into view as we emerge from time to time on our path through the woods. Imagine bees, berries, bison, beaver, birds and a poodle.

Enmeshed in the moment, we pick our way over tree roots marking the way. The earth is a sponge beneath our feet

Photo: Deb Verhoeven

This Saturday in September, grey and threatening rain mutates into a spectacular sunny autumn day. City dwellers, we gather with friends and family for walks, boating, or to share meals on the shore. We wear sun hats or hijab, rain gear or sweaters. Pants or long dresses. Take your pick.

We are latecomers here. According to Parks Canada, archeological evidence of Indigenous peoples in the Amiskwaciy area date back as far as 8,000 years ago.

Settlers renamed the area Beaver Hills. Though by the 1830s, this became a temporary misnomer. For the beaver was “almost trapped to extinction” during the Fur Trade.

In 1942, beavers were reintroduced in the park. Today they live in about 350 active beaver lodges.

The landscape is distinctive: this glacial moraine was created 12,000 years ago when a trio of glaciers met leaving behind melted debris. “Knob and kettle” topography is characterized by the formation of gouged out lakes and hollows and mirrored hills and islands. Buried ice remained as glaciers retreated. Marshy wetlands, lakes and ponds- all the water spaces – filled up in their absence.


Listen —

on the wetland shores of Astotin Lake

A Brief History

Elk Island is the first wildlife refuge, the only fully enclosed national park, and the sixth oldest in Canada.

What’s in a name?

  • In 1895, forest in the area was destroyed by fire. The Cooking Lake Forest Reserve was established in order to preserve the trees. But the hunting of elk and mule dear continued here.
  • Settler naming rites developed over time. “Elk Island” was initially named and established in 1906 to protect the elk. Two years later it became Elk Island Park. In 1913, it was designated a Dominion Park, and in 1930, a national park via the new National Parks Act.
  • There is no specific “Elk Island” – the invention derives from the beautiful small islands on Astotin Lake.

Originally the park was 42 square km (16 sq. mi.) and established with a herd of 24 elk, 2  to 3 moose and 35 mule deer.” In 1947, the park expanded. Wood Bison Reserve — an area 60 sq km south of the Yellowhead Highway provided additional grazing land.

During the Great Depression in the 1930’s, relief camps of unemployed men built infrastructure in Canada’s national parks. At Elk Island, they cleared the land for new roads and constructed “private and rental cabins, a dance hall, a youth hostel, and a Pavilion.”

No dance hall or youth hostel remains today. All that remains are public pathways and campsites.

Elk Island Park has long been home to a bison herd. Today there are between 400 Plains Bison and 300 Wood Bison in the park. But the history of the park bison takes a winding trail that begins after the virtual extermination of the local species.

Bison began to arrive in 1907 when Canada purchased Montana’s Pablo-Allard herd, one of the largest remaining in North America. Between 1907 and 1912, the Canadian government shipped by train over 700 bison to the refuge at Elk Island Park. This was a staging point as they were transported on to their final destination: Buffalo National Park in Wainwright, Alberta. While the last of that herd arrived in Elk Island in 1912, forty of these bison remained in Elk Island Park and are the basis of the herd today.

While protected from hunters, from the 1920s to the 1960s, Elk Island bison were slaughtered to make fur coats for the RCMP. 

Animals have flourished here. Once endangered, the trumpeter swan was reintroduced in 1987 and transported to the park. And in 1988, Wood bison were “down-listed from ‘rare’ to ‘threatened species.

(For a more detailed historical chronology of the park, see here.)

The Buffalo Treaty

Photos taken by Eadweard Muybridge, first published in 1887 at Philadelphia (Animal Locomotion).

“At one time, there had been as many as 50 million buffalo on the North American plains. Even in the early 1870s, there were herds so vast that it took several days to pass them.”

The Elk Island bison reserve, an enclosed prairie habitat, is part of what remains of the slaughter of about four million bison by the 1880s in Canada – the killing made possible in part by the invention of a repeating rifle. The death of the buffalo marked the end of the traditional nomadic life of plains Indians who had followed the tracks. Their lives depended on the hunting bison. The animal provided them with sustenance – shelter, clothing and food – for centuries.

With this key source of survival destroyed, starvation loomed, and treaty negotiations with White settlers soon followed.

Over the last few years, the growing acknowledgement of the violence of settler history and the task of reconciliation has led to some changes. The Indigenous page on the Elk Island National Park outlines how these bison are part of this process:

“Parks Canada is honored to play an active role in reconciliation by providing bison to facilitate cultural or socio-economic opportunities related to bison in an effort to bring the culturally significant animal back to their traditional rangeland. Past Indigenous translocations include 87 plains bison calves to the Blackfeet nation in Montana in 2016 through the buffalo treaty, 25 wood bison to Saulteaux First Nation near North Battleford, Saskatchewan in 2018 and 31 plains bison to Flying Dust First Nation in Saskatchewan in 2019. Individual surplus bison have also been donated to Treaty Six First Nations in Alberta and Indigenous organizations near the Park for cultural purposes or to contribute to Indigenous community food banks.”

Alberta Native News describes the historical significance of this buffalo treaty:

First Nation and Tribal Groups from U.S. and Canada … joined in solidarity to form an alliance to support the restoration of the North American bison and at the same time, renew their historic cultural and spiritual ties.

On September 23, 2014 dignitaries from U.S. Tribes and Canadian First Nations signed a landmark treaty – the first among them in more than 150 years – to establish intertribal alliances for cooperation in the restoration of American buffalo (or bison) on Tribal/First Nations Reserves or co-managed lands within the U.S. and Canada.

This historic signing of the “Northern Tribes Buffalo treaty” occurred in Blackfeet territory in Browning, Montana, and brought together members of the Blackfeet Nation, Blood Tribe, Siksika Nation, Piikani Nation, the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre Tribes of Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of Fort Peck Indian Reservation, the Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Indian Reservation, Tsuu T’ina Nation, and the Nakoda Nation.

Bison Bison Bison/Athabascae

Wood Bison

What is the difference between the Wood and Plains Bison? I thought you would never ask.

The wood bison is actually heavier than the plains bison, with large males weighing over 2,000 lbs., making it the largest terrestrial animal in North America. The highest point of the wood bison is well ahead of its front legs, while the plains bison’s highest point is directly above the front legs. Wood bison also have larger horn cores, darker and woollier pelages, longer tails, and less hair in their beards.

This summary is thanks to the National Park Service Biological Resources Division in Fort Collins, Colorado, that publishes a special blog on significant bison-related concerns. They explain in detail how to distinguish between the two American sub-species – not to be confused with the third European bison species:

Through extensive long-term natural history studies and scientific investigations, even to the genetic and cellular levels, we now understand that there is one species of bison that is comprised of two subspecies in North America and another species of bison in Europe. The American bison that evolved and lived across the vast plains and woodlands are aptly named – the plains bison (genus: Bison, species: bison, subspecies: bison) and wood bison (genus: Bison, species: bison, subspecies: athabascae). So for someone who really pays close attention to formal taxonomy, it is about as simple as it gets. Bison bison bison – for the animals that evolved and lived primarily on the Great Plains and Bison bison athabascae – for the animals that evolved and lived primarily in the boreal forest. “Athabascae” is a formal taxonomic name that recognizes the anglicized version of the Cree native name for vast Lake Athabasca and surrounding watershed in Canada, “athap-ask-a-w,” that means “grass or reeds here and there.”

We now recognize evidence of sufficient difference between plains bison and woods bison to warrant two different subspecies names. But what are these differences? We expect that this variation arose due to long-term geographic separation. In other words, the plains bison didn’t travel to Canada, just like the wood bison didn’t go to the Great Plains. While at first glance, it is clear that both sub-species are large with brown hair and black horns; upon more careful observation there are clearly distinct differences in their cranial and skeletal characteristics and variations in horns, head, hump, hair, and pelage coat. Plains bison have massive heads with short noses and have clearly defined shaggy capes that cover the upper portion of their bodies. Woods bison, on the other hand, have large triangular heads and have less defined shoulder capes and head hair, and they have more distinctive and bigger shoulder humps.

A Departing Gift: A Glimpse

On this September day, our search for bison is futile until we are about to leave the park. At the fenced eastern edge, we discover an elusive pair grazing. Since this encounter is in the south end of the park, the Wood Bison Reserve, I’m assuming these are indeed Bison Athabascae. One powerful animal is partly obscured in the bush, vigorously scratching their furry hide on Aspen tree branches, bark and trunk.


I can’t visit here without remembering my late dear friend Cathy Bray, a remarkable woman once headed up the Women’s Centre at the University of Alberta before the creation of Women’s and Gender Studies.

In the late 1980s, Cathy visited Elk Island at dawn to ritualistically mark the sad end of her domestic relationship with tears and lamentations. Her grief was assuaged by the early morning quiet beauty of the woods and water. But on this visit her sorrow turned into alarm when she witnessed a herd of bison crossing the road just south of Lake Astotin. Unaware the entire park was enclosed, she raced in a panic to warn a park warden about the bison – the warden was amused.

I too love this place. A tonic for almost anything that ails you. Over many years this place has been my all-season site of retreat and recovery from whatever inevitable stresses and strain arose. All the better to share this place today with friends who travel great distances.

Soon enough we head east along the Yellowhead Highway. Edmonton is about a half hour away.

On What Remains

As I drive, I remember my own history of settlement on Indigenous lands.

My maternal family, the McTavishes, originally arrived in Quebec City in 1832, from Perthshire, Scotland. Alexander McTavish died of cholera at sea during the long Atlantic crossing. Led by his widower Janet Stewart, the family of four teenage children cleared the bush to farm near Shakespeare, Ontario. Their success no doubt rested in part on the fact that they lived there among a 300-strong community of Scottish Highland settlers who all fled together the British Enclosure movement that banished them from their Perthshire land.

Later, Janet’s grandson Alex McTavish, one of fourteen children, travelled by cart and horse west to Manitoba to clear farmland in 1880 – about the same time bison were fast disappearing from the prairie.

Meanwhile in 1830, my paternal ancestor Zenus Williamson travelled north from Vermont to clear farmland near Darlington, Ontario, one of the first settlers there. In 1600, this family had initially arrived in what was once a Dutch settlement on the site of New York City. Twenty years later with the arrival of the British, they anglicized their name to Williamsen for several generations. And eventually to Williamson. Mary Bell’s family would arrive from Cumberland, England, to farm nearby Darlington in the early 1930s. Mary would eventually marry Zenus’s orphaned “illegitimate” son.

This naming of my ancestors rests on the sites of disappearances, the names of the Metis and First Nations who inhabited these places. I am at work on a project that explores this hidden history but the full story will escape me.

Images of this day are stored in my mind and machine, but I mourn the absent presence of what came before. And I honour the Indigenous lives and knowledge that remain.


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