Northern Alberta is a region that covers the entire northern half of Alberta, Canada. Even more than the rest of Alberta, the North is relatively remote and sparsely populated. Most of Northern Alberta is part of the sparsely-populated boreal forest and is the focus of Canada's oil sands industry, especially near the Athabasca River. But there are some isolated patches of farmland in the Peace River valley separated from the main population centres of Alberta by the Swan Hills. This is the northernmost agricultural region of any size in North America, and is home to most of Canada's farmed bison (buffalo) and honeybees. The entire region, both farmed and forested, is dominated by its river systems. The Peace and the Athabasca both empty into the world's largest inland delta in Wood Buffalo National Park, part of the world's largest patch of protected boreal forest.
Many visitors (especially Americans) pass through this region on their way to the Alaska Highway. While here, you can blast through as fast as possible, or if you know where to look, you can find natural gems like Alberta's largest road-accessible lake (Lesser Slake Lake) or indoor actives like a huge new dinosaur museum (Philip J. Currie Museum in Wembley).
Some small farming towns and the road-accessible southern fringes of otherwise near-impenetrable boreal forest, known for its many small lakes.
|North Central Alberta |
Transitional zone between the agriculturally rich "parkland" (aspen poplar forest) in the south and the more remote boreal forest to the north. Many small towns and campgrounds acting as centres of outdoor life.
|Peace Country |
Drained by the Peace River, a mix of sparsely-populated boreal forest with northernmost agricultural region of any size in North America; anchored by Grande Prairie.
|Wood Buffalo |
Primarily sparsely populated boreal forest and the heart of Canada's Oilsands industry; anchored by Fort McMurray. Home to the namesake wood bison (buffalo) and the park of the same name.
Northern Alberta as only has three, small, "cities" (Cold Lake, Fort McMurray, and Grande Prairie) but they are just small towns by the standards of most of the rest of the world. The other places you would stop to buy supplies or look for a hotel are all small towns of one kind or another, ranging to small but well-serviced (Peace River, Slave Lake) to barely a crossroads (many others), to roadless communities with access only by air, boat, or ice road (Fort Chip).
- 1 Fort McMurray — long a metonym for Canada's oil sands industry, now rebuilding after a devastating May 2016 wildfire; population around 66,000
- 2 Grande Prairie – the largest city and economic hub of the Peace Country; pop. 63,000
- 3 High Level – midway point between Edmonton and Yellowknife and last "major" centre before the Northwest Territories; pop. 3,160
- 4 Cold Lake − pop. 15,000; situated on the southwestern shore its namesake lake.
- 5 Lac La Biche − pop. 2,500; situated on the southeastern shore its namesake lake.
- 6 Peace River – situated on the banks of the Peace River, at its confluence with the Smoky River, the Heart River; pop. 7,000
- 7 Slave Lake – situated on the southeastern shore of Lesser Slave Lake; pop. 6,650
- 8 Whitecourt – pop. 10,000, the main centre for food and lodging, along Highway 43 between Edmonton and Grande Prairie.
- 1 Lesser Slave Lake — Largest recreational lake in Alberta. Many areas with white-sand beaches and places where you can't see the other side of the lake; truly a surreal experience in land-locked Alberta!
- 2 Wood Buffalo National Park – This massive park is a UNESCO world heritage site as it protects the largest intact boreal forest on earth, contains the largest freshwater inland delta on earth, and is home to a herd of rare wood bison (or "wood buffalo").
Located where the Rocky Mountains give way to the vast Interior Plains of North America, where the southern fringe of the great subarctic boreal forest meets the northernmost tongue of prairie grasses, and deep in the interior of the continent, this vast region is quintessentially Canadian in it's wildness and remoteness.
Despite the sort growing season found this far north, the Peace Country is of one Canada's richest agricultural areas, with most of the land in cereal crops and hay. Other agriculture here includes beef and bison production, poultry, pork, and apiculture (honey). The Wood Buffalo area is almost totally reliant on the extraction of ''bitumen'' from the earth (often called "oil sands" or "tar sands", though it's not exactly oil or tar, chemically speaking).
This area has been inhabited for many millennia by indigenous bands. The Chipewyan people (who are part of the Dene or Athapascan language family) lived here at the beginnings of European contact (early 1700s). Their neighbours and rivals, the Cree people (from the Algonquian language family) may have migrated from the east (though when is not clear) but are now long-standing in the region. Both peoples were nomadic and hunted bison (also called "buffalo") and moose (known in Europe as "elk") and also harvested many smaller game animals, fish, berries, roots, and so on. Descendants of these original peoples, who are called the "First Nations" in Canada, still live in this region and it is possible to attend a "pow-wow" (a competition or festival centred around traditional music and dancing) here.
The region has been settled by westerners much more recently, and has been explored and lived in by many important figures in Canada's history such as Henry Fuller "Twelve-Foot" Davis, Sir Alexander Mackenzie, David Thompson, and Peter Fidler. These explorers worked for fur trading companies from England and eastern Canada seeking valuable beaver furs to send to Europe for the hat-making industries. The traders took the furs from the native people in exchange for exotic and manufactured goods such as flour, pots, knives, blankets, and so on. It is possible to visit several heritage sites related to the fur trade here, notably at Dunvegan.
Relations between the fur traders and the indigenous peoples were mostly peaceful and intermarriage was extremely common, leading to the creation of a new ethnic group, the Métis, of mixed European and indigenous culture and heritage. Many of Alberta's Métis today live in this region, and it is possible to hear their traditional Scottish- and French-influenced music and dance here.
In 1870 the Hudson's Bay Company sold its claim over the region to Canada, and Canada then negotiated treaties with the First Nations, confining them to small reserves in exchange for food and medicine (the bison were nearly extinct by this time due to overhunting).
While the rest of Alberta was rapidly being filled up with settlers in the 1890s and early 1900s, this region was still not connected to the rail system, and only a few white settlers made the trip overland to settle here. The railways arrived only during the Great War, meaning was still a region of pioneers on the frontier when the rest of the world was in the Roaring Twenties. Most Northern Alberta communities sprang up in response to the building of the railway, and most communities still exist along railway supply lines. The ethnicity of most of the western settlers here derive from England, Ukraine, France, and Germany. There are a few communities of primarily (even exclusively) French or German speaking people.
Since the 1940s, oil and gas exploration has been the region's major growth industry. Conventional oil and gas continues, but the majority of the investment has shifted to the oil sands, which are generally mined rather than drilled. It is possible to visit a science centre that explains the process in Fort McMurray, the centre of the industry. While many locals work in those industries, the repeated sudden oil booms have created labour shortages filled by transient and temporary workers from Eastern Canada and a variety of other countries. Whether and how these newcomers will change the communities that long-term settlers and the First Nations have built is an open and unresolved question.
Most of the people who live in this area reside in small towns and are (generally) conservative in nature, though quite hospitable and friendly.
English is the primary language spoken here, virtually everyone speaks fluent English. You may find that there are a few speakers of French, German, Ukrainian, and Cree (an indigenous language), but you should reasonably not expect the average waiter or hotel desk clerk to know anything but English. On the other hand, Canadians are from a diverse number of cultures and many are recent immigrants (or temporary migrant workers) and you should be prepared to interact with people whose first language is not English on a regular basis in restaurants and hotels, especially in Fort McMurray. By law, French services will be provided by federal government employees, but aside from police or perhaps postal clerks, most travellers would never meet one of those here.
The nearest major airport is in Edmonton which has connections to the rest of Canada, the US, Europe, and Asia. However Fort McMurray Airport also has connections to a variety of places across Canada (and sometimes to the USA) but the list grows and shrinks rapidly depending on the state of the oil industry. The other main airport for the region is Grande Prairie Airport (YQU IATA) with service to Edmonton and Calgary. Alternatively, High Level Airport (YOJ IATA) has connection to Edmonton, Hay River, and Fort Smith.
Most people, however, drive.
This region has no inter-town bus services of any kind. A private vehicle, whether bought, rented, or shared, is a must. The only exception might be if you're willing to canoe!
There are plenty of historical destinations, and plenty of wilderness and wildlife to see, museums, festivals (music and cultural), scenic views.
By far the best music festival in this area is the North Country Fair, a celebration of the summer solstice in Driftpile, near Joussard. It is a haven and a destination for alternative music lovers from all over Canada and even the world. It is usually a three day event punctuated by live folk, country, bluegrass, trance, tribal, and even Inuit musical talent 24 hours a day.
Roadside attractions which are popular include the World's Largest Beaver (in Beaverlodge, by Grande Prairie), Twelve-Foot Davis' grave site (Peace River).
For environmental tourists, there is also some of the world's largest and most densely populated bird migrating paths and nesting grounds, including the world's only site for the endangered Whooping Crane. There is plenty of wildlife all over Northern Alberta: deer, moose, beaver, coyotes, silver and red fox, black bear, weasel, bald eagle, various hawks and falcons, duck, loon, swan, pelican, bison, and elk are all very common sites in this area. Less common but also very present are lynx, mountain lion, wolf, egret, grizzly, and caribou.
Fishing,hunting, canoeing, kayaking, whitewater rafting, sledding, skiing, horseback riding, golfing, hiking, and even waterskiing.
There are also plenty of ghost towns to explore. You can also find local legend and character in the museums and from local people themselves involving haunted residences and places of healing.
Bison and honey are the local specialties.
Drink and smoke
Craft beer is harder to find here than elsewhere in Alberta, but every town still has at least one liquor store, often several, and perhaps a cannabis shop as well.
This area is a very safe part of Canada. The only place you might run into a bit of trouble is if you are impolite or aggressive towards others, especially in places which serve alcohol.
Most conflicts can be avoided through diplomacy, and most conflicts never get beyond verbal combat.
If you are openly homosexual, you will likely be received with mixed feelings; some will be very welcoming and polite, others indifferent and will not acknowledge you, and other may be downright hostile and defensive.
Strangers and travellers may find it hard to interact with locals at first, as locals may be wary of newcomers. This is not necessarily hostility, just hesitant curiosity for the most part. When they do open conversation, be prepared for many questions, some of which may be personal. It is not considered rude to decline to answer personal questions. Polite and talkative visitors are generally well received.