Mid-Canadian Boreal Forests, Part B: Athabasca, Lac La Biche, and Oil Sands Areas

This article describes features of the boreal forests north of Edmonton in Alberta. The area is drained by the Athabasca and North Saskatchewan Rivers, and these are used to group the parks and public lands described. In addition to the boreal jack pine and spruce forests, natural features include transverse dunes, floating sedge mats, orchid fen, habitat for colonial nesting waterbirds, gorges,and the Grand Rapids of the Athabasca River.

Athabasca-Pembina River Area

Fort Assiniboine Sandhills Wildland Provincial Park is 7,903 ha on the Athabasca River. It contains upland dunes and riparian forests, along with Pemmican Island in the Athabasca River. In the sandhills are jack pine and fens. An extensive trail system has been developed. The north end of the park is at Athabasca Viewpoint (N54⁰26’ W114⁰31’) and the south end is at the Klondike Trail staging area (N54⁰21’ W114⁰39’). An additional southern tract (N54⁰19’ W114⁰40’) is on the Athabasca River. The Klondike Trail was an 1824-1825 historic route.

Bear Lake Natural Area (N54⁰14’ W114⁰52’) is a 94-ha tract of forested peatlands and aspen-balsam poplar uplands.

Bridge Lake Natural Area (N54⁰11’ W113⁰29’) is a 120-ha tract east of Clyde on Route 18. It is noted for waterfowl production. The topography is sandhills with jack pine, aspen, and sedge meadows.

Carnwood Modeste Natural Area (N53⁰10’ W114⁰39’) is 65 ha on Poplar Creek, with steep embankments and aspen-spruce-balsam poplar forests. It is on Range Road 53.

Centre of Alberta Natural Area (N54⁰30’ W115⁰0’) is 325 ha off Route 33. Mixed wood forests are found along Clearwater Creek, which flows through the tract.

Chain Lakes Provincial Recreation Area (N54⁰58’ W113⁰30’) is a 21-ha camping area on Range Road 235a north of Athabasca.

Clear Lake Natural Area (N54⁰14’ W114⁰47’) is 94 ha on township Road 605a off Route 763. Uplands include aspen, birch, and balsam poplar in the forests, while there is a floating sedge mat in the lake.

Crippsdale Natural Area (N54⁰6’ W113⁰7’) is 65 ha of aspen-balsam poplar forest on Township Road 592.

Cross Lake Provincial Park (N54⁰39’ W113⁰48’) is a 2,076-ha park with hiking trails. There is a fish ladder and weir at Steele Lake. It is northeast of Fawcett on Route 801 off Route 663.

Fawcett Lake Provincial Recreation Area (N55⁰19’ W114⁰4’) is 48 ha available for camping and lakeside recreation. It is north of Hondo on Range Road 12a.

Halfmoon Lake Natural Area is 331 ha in two tracts (N54⁰3’ W113⁰21’; N54⁰3’ W113⁰23’). Both are covered with sandy terrain with jack pine and black spruce peatlands.

Halfway Lake Natural Area is 130 ha in two tracts off Route 18 east of Clyde. The north tract (N54⁰8’ W113⁰27’) is a wetland with black spruce, dwarf birch and willow on Range Road 240. The south tract (N54⁰6’ W113⁰21’) is an aspen-jack pine upland on Township Road 592a.

Holmes Crossing Sandhills Ecological Reserve (N54⁰17’ W114⁰52’) is a 1,983-ha tract protecting the best occurrence of transverse dunes in Canada. The dunes are stabilized with jack pine-lichen forests.

Hondo Natural Area (N55⁰6’ W114⁰8’) is a 389-ha area on Route 2 west of Hondo. It is noted for sand ridges and wet depressions including black spruce-sphagnum patterned fens.

Hubert Lake Wildland Provincial Park (N54⁰34’ W114⁰14’) is 9,665 ha on the Athabasca River and Pembina Rivers west of Route 44 at Fawcett. Sand dunes with jack pine vegetation and fens are present. Nesting great blue herons and sandhill cranes have been noted.

Lawrence Lake Provincial Recreation Area (N55⁰1’ W113⁰42’) is 267 ha on Route 2 east of Hondo.

Mystery Lake Natural Area (N54⁰8’ W114⁰57’) is 49 ha of rolling topography south of the Athabasca River.

Newton Lake Natural Area (N54⁰0’ W114⁰12’) is 34 ha west of Route 777, providing good waterfowl habitat adjacent to the lake.

Lac La Nonne Natural Area (N53ᵒ58’ W114ᵒ21’) is 57 ha of balsam poplar, white spruce, white birch, and sedge wetlands on Route 651 off Route 33.

Noel Lake Natural Area (N54⁰21’ W115⁰2’) is 267 ha on Route 658. There is a trail system around the lake, which has sedge wetlands. Elsewhere are mature white spruce and aspen-balsam-poplar forests.

Otauwau Natural Area (N55⁰11’W114⁰21’) is on Route 2 east of Slave Lake. There are black spruce fens and white spruce uplands. The 256-ha tract is noted as being used for botany research.

Otter-Orloff Lakes Wildland Provincial Park (N55⁰22’ W113⁰33’) is 6,948 ha west of Route 813 and north of Calling Lake. The roadless area is accessible by a 4-km trail from the end of the road. The park features white spruce and aspen forests, and a great blue heron colony on Orloff Lake.

Paddle River Dam Provincial Recreation Area (N53ᵒ54’ W115ᵒ4’) is 70 ha off Route 43 at Evansburg used for day use reservoir recreation. It is operated by Lac Ste. Anne County municipal district.

Park Court Natural Area (N53⁰45’W114⁰54’) is 143 ha in two tracts west of Route 757 on the Pembina River. Uplands are of aspen or balsam poplar; the natural area includes a deep ravine.

Pembina River Natural Area is 80 ha west of Birch Cove in two tracts. There are aspen and sedge wetlands. The north tract on the Pembina River (N53ᵒ57’ W114ᵒ30’) has steep topography while the southern tract is flatter and near Majeau Lake (N53ᵒ56’ W114ᵒ27’).

Pembina River Provincial Park (N53⁰36’ W115⁰0’) is a 167-ha tract on Route 16A between Entwistle and Evansburg. The major scenic feature is the Pembina Gorge, with 60-m-high cliffs. There are 4 km of trails along the river and in uplands.

Roselea Natural Area (N54⁰5’ W114⁰43’) is 261 ha on Route 18. The rolling glacial outwash area has aspen, balsam poplar and paper birch vegetation.

Saulteaux Natural Area (N55⁰9’ W114⁰12’) is a 259-ha tract on Route 2 west of Hondo.  It is noted as being used for botany research.

Lesser Slave Lake Provincial Park (N55⁰30’ W114⁰55’) is 7,617 ha on the east shore of Lesser Slave Lake. Within the park, Marten Mountain, which soars 450 m above the lake, is in the Mid-Canadian forests ecoregion.

Spruce Island Lake Natural Area (N54⁰30’ W113⁰47’) is 648 ha east of Route 801. It includes Spruce island and Horseshoe Lakes and surrounding wetlands.

Tawatinaw Natural Area is 842 ha in two tracts (N54⁰17’ W113⁰19’; N54⁰16’ W113⁰22’). There are extensive peatlands.

Taylor Lake Natural Area (N54⁰6’ W113⁰20’) is a 42-ha black spruce-larch peatland accessed via Township Road 592.

Thunder Lake Provincial Park (N54⁰8’ W114⁰43’) is 208 ha on Route 18 west of Barrhead. Camping and lakeside recreation are available.

Utikuma Lake (N55⁰50’ W115⁰25’) and Utikumasis Lake (N55⁰55’W115⁰42’) make up an Important Bird Area for canvasback duck, double-crested cormorant, white pelican, common tern, Franklin’s gull, and western grebe. Utikuma Lake has 3 islands and is 1/5 covered with emergent vegetation. On the east side is a sphagnum bog and forested fen. The lake is on Route 88 north of Slave Lake.

Vega Natural Area (N54⁰25’ W114⁰31’) is 101 ha across the Athabasca River from Fort Assiniboine Sandhills Wildland Provincial Park. The terraces along the Athabasca River and sandy uplands are vegetated with aspen and jack pine.

Winagami Wildland Provincial Park is 12,667 ha in two units. The southern part, in the Heart River valley (N55⁰32’ W116⁰33’) consists of jack pine-dominated sand dunes. The northern part (N55⁰42’ W116⁰38’) surrounds the Heart River dam, and contains the McLennan sloping fen of sphagnum peat, small circular mounds, garter snake hibernacula, and white pelican, heron, and eagle habitat.

Lac La Biche-Smoky Lake Area

Bellis Lake Natural Area (N54⁰7’ W112⁰10’) is 62 ha south of Route 28. The dune complex is forested with jack pine.

Bellis North Natural Area (N54⁰8’ W112⁰12’) is 1,088 ha on Route 28 east of Smoky Lake. Jack-pine dominated sand dunes, wetlands, and patterned fen are notable features.

La Biche River Wildland Provincial Park (N55⁰0’ W112⁰35’) is a 17,314-ha undisturbed boreal forest of poplar, aspen, spruce, birch, and fir. It is off Route 63 north of Atmore and borders the Athabasca and La Biche Rivers. The area is large enough to provide good habitat for black bear, lynx, wolverine, woodland caribou, moose, and beaver. The Athabasca River through the park is a water route of the Trans-Canada Trail system.

North Bruderheim Provincial Recreation Area (N53⁰52’ W112⁰56’) is 443 ha on Beaverhill Creek south of Route 38. Sand dunes are covered with jack pine, and there are wetlands in depressions.

Northwest of Bruderheim Natural Area (N53⁰52’ W113⁰1’) is 259 ha on Township Road 562 west of Route 830. Sandy areas are covered with jack pine, while wetlands are of black spruce-larch-Labrador tea.

North Buck Lake Provincial Recreation Area (N54⁰40’ W112⁰31’) is 111 ha on Route 855 north of Caslan. It is noted as a bird nesting area.

Sir Winston Churchill Provincial Park includes 662 ha of islands in Lac La Biche. The island with facilities is called Big Island (N54⁰50’ W111⁰59’), which is reached by a 2.5-km-long causeway and features trails and a 300-year-old forest. Other islands in the park are High Island (N54⁰52’ W112⁰5’), noted for grassland vegetation and white pelican habitat; Black Fox Island (N54⁰51’ W112⁰4’), noted as a historic site for Grey Nuns in the Riel Rebellion; Current Island (N54⁰51’ W111⁰57’); Birch Island (N54⁰52’ W111⁰59’); and Red Fox Island (N54⁰53’ W111⁰57’). Lac La Biche is an Important Bird Area for concentrations of colonial waterbirds, including nesting California gull, western grebe, and double-crested cormorant.

Garner Orchid Fen Natural Area (N54⁰51’ W112⁰23’) is 166 ha east of Atmore off Route 55. Vegetation is black spruce-aspen. However, iron mineral springs feed fens which harbor 11 orchid species.

Long Lake Provincial Park (N54⁰26’ W112⁰46’) is a 764-ha park east of Route 831. It features a glacial meltwater channel through a boreal forest. From the park, the White Earth Trail leads south into White Earth Valley Natural Area.

Opal Natural Area is 372 ha in two tracts off Route 28 north of Edmonton (N53⁰59’ W113⁰15’; N53⁰59’ W113⁰19’). Sandy ridges are covered with jack pine, while wet areas are sedge or black spruce fen.

Poacher’s Landing Provincial Recreation Area (N54⁰58’ W112⁰53’) is 1,750 ha on the Athabasca River west of La Biche River Wildland Provincial Park.

Redwater Provincial Recreation Area (N53⁰55’ W112⁰57’) is 2,225 ha on the Redwater River off Route 38 east of the town of Redwater. Sand dunes are covered with jack pine, while intervening wetlands contain muskeg and fens.

Redwater River Natural Area (N54⁰5’ W113⁰18’) is 65 ha on Range Road 230 south of Route 18. Sand dunes are vegetated with jack pine; intervening wetlands are covered with willow/sedge shrublands.

Victoria Settlement Natural Area (N54⁰2’ W112⁰22’) is 14 ha on an island and on the north shore of the North Saskatchewan River. The area is southeast of Smoky Lake.

Oil Sands Area

Birch Mountains Wildland Provincial Park is a 144,505-ha tract with peatlands, a California gull colony, and free-roaming wood bison. Fly-in fishing lodges are available at Namur Lake and Island Lake. The northeast end of the park is at Sand Lake (N57⁰40’ W112⁰18’), the southeast end is at Namur Lake (N57⁰22’ W112⁰43’), and the southwest end is at Sputina River (N57⁰23’ W113⁰44’).

Buffalo Tower Provincial Recreation Area (N57⁰57’ W116⁰13’) is a 20-ha mountain top site on Buffalo Hill operated by Mackenzie County. The 2,500-foot hill offers views to the north of the Buffalo Head Prairie area.

Calling Lake Provincial Park (N55⁰11’ W113⁰16’) is 738 ha on Route 813 north of Athabasca. It is noted for nesting waterfowl, white pelicans and great blue herons.

Crow Lake Ecological Reserve (N55⁰47’ W112⁰7’) is 938 ha of old growth white spruce and balsam fir on Route 63 south of Fort McMurray.

Crow Lake Provincial Park (N55⁰48’ W112⁰10’) is 786 ha on Route 63 south of Fort McMurray. Steep valley sides are forested with white spruce and aspen; some trees are 150 years old. Bald eagles nest on the lake.

Grand Rapids Wildland Provincial Park is 26,332 ha of river corridor (north end N56⁰40’ W111⁰37’; south end N56⁰13’ W112⁰31’) including the rapids of the Athabasca River. The rapids include a 60-foot drop, with extensive rock outcrops and slump blocks. The park is reached by a five-hour boat ride north from the town of Athabasca. Grand Rapids Wilderness Adventures, a lodge and outfitter, is in the south of the park. The Athabasca River through the park is a water route of the Trans-Canada Trail.

Harper Creek Natural Area (N58⁰11’ W114⁰15’) is 2,620 ha just southwest of Wood Buffalo National Park. The area is noted for limestone caves, sulfur springs, oxbow lakes, and rapids in an aspen-spruce forest.

Pelican Lake (N55⁰48’ W113⁰15’) is an Important Bird Area noted for American white pelicans, double-crested cormorant, and California gull. This is the second largest breeding colony of white pelicans in Alberta.  There is no road access.