SpruceRoots Magazine - April, 1999

Birding the Deh Cho

by Margo Hearne

The Deh Cho Connection is a circle route. It begins at Dawson Creek, BC, runs north through Fort Liard, east across the Northwest Territories and south into Alberta. It is part of the wonderfully wild northern nature of Canada. "Deh Cho", "much moving water" or "big river" in the Slavey Dene language of the southern NWT is a land of black spruce, muskeg, quaking aspen, birds, bison and bears. Not here are the huge mountain ranges and alpine passes of the Alaska Highway, but here is the beauty of flatland, with it's broad, unending rivers and water forever falling. The names, "Deh Cho", "Saamba Deh", "Hatto deh Naili", "Nahanni" all indicate that you have dropped off the face of the world as you know it.

The highways in this country were rivers, and towns sprang up where rivers met. The Mackenzie, The Liard, The Hay and The Slave were the way to go, and why not? It makes perfect sense in flat country, just watch out for waterfalls. Watch out for moose too. Having lived on an island for most of my life, I get used to being surrounded by water, and any trip to the vast backcountry raises my antenna. There could be a moose around any tree for the next 3,000 miles, a bear just waiting to charge or even a cougar, tail snapping, in the tree above. There wasn't, just the first Yellow-bellied Flycatcher for BC north of Fort Nelson and a fabulous Northern Hawk-owl perched awkwardly on the very tip-top of a black spruce snag, tail in the air, just like it's picture. We did actually see a moose, way down a "seismic" cut, somewhere out there midst the black spruce and muskeg pines. A report from campers of "problems with bears all weekend" - cinnamon-coloured ones - caused us to rush to the spot hoping to see one. We found only Cedar Waxwings, Western Tanagers, Baltimore Orioles and a Rose-breasted Grosbeak, colourful, beautiful and harmlessly singing in the treetops. Face your fears and they might turn into songbirds.


Our journey started on the Liard Highway, a long, straight, dusty highway heading towards infinity. It begins at Fort Nelson and follows the Liard River north to where it joins the Mackenzie Highway just south of Fort Simpson at "The Junction". The cinnamon buns at The Junction Cafe were not great, but then we had just run through a thunder and lightening storm of rain, mud and mosquitoes so our outlook was somewhat blighted, despite the Purple Finches which sang cheerily from the telephone wires.

Instructions for driving the Liard. Slow down and pull over when another car approaches. (They all do, they are so courteous) otherwise everyone will get very angry and rocks will fly into your neigbours windshield. Stop every quarter-mile to listen for songbirds. Be prepared to get eaten alive by very large deer flies, very small mosquitoes, and blackflies. When you see a bison, open the truck door and all the flies trapped inside will fly out like arrows to embed themselves in the bison. Coyotes occasionally stop to look at you. Don't shoot them. Praise the rain. It keeps the dust down.

Fort Liard is a tidy, tiny hamlet where the Liard and Petitot Rivers converge. It's leafy Aspen laneways and river roads make it a lovely introduction to Nahanni National Park and Dene country. The blue river was eminently restful to gaze on after a day of dust. Yellow Warblers sang from the trees and a Least Flycatcher fly-caught acrobatically from the power lines. Hay Lake, on the outskirts of Fort Liard was dotted with yellow lily pads among which Red-necked Grebe chicks dove and swam. Sora Rails called from the rushes and a rain-shower introduced us to the night of a million mosquitoes. Never leave your tent flaps open when checking out that strange night owl.

North of Fort Liard we stopped for lunch at Blackstone Territorial Park. It provided an unparalleled view of Nahanni Butte so we unpacked the frying pan and built a tomato omelet while savouring the sight of a Spruce Grouse running to cover. The river, as large as a lake, moved lazily by while we ate, until our reverie was broken by a distraught Ruby-crowned Kinglet chasing a Grey Jay who had stolen a miniscule Kinglet chick from it's nest. There was nothing we could do except express our dismay and clean our picnic site thoroughly before we left to discourage the brazen Jays from hanging around.


At "The Junction" we left the unpaved Liard Highway, with it's black spruce and Magnolia Warblers, and drove east along the Mackenzie. Traffic increased and we passed many log house shelters, reminders of the harsh winter conditions, where running out of gas along the highway could kill you. Shelters are placed about every 50 miles or so, usually in small Aspen groves from which Black and White Warblers and Alder Flycatchers sing. The shelters themselves are for emergency use and not recommended for an overnight stop, being very basic and somewhat grungy. We had read about the wonderful campgrounds along the road and felt

they needed personal inspection.
When we drove into the Saamba Deh campground in the low light of a northern summers evening, the place shone with attention. Gravel walkways led to spotless campsites, the roar of Coral Falls drummed through the night and mosquitoes were at a minimum. The shower-rooms were spotless, although the signs were in Dene, which was why I showered in the men's washroom to the amusement of the friendly attendant, who locked out all comers until I was finished. Later, when walking along the canyon edge above Trout River, we noticed a stone cross and heard an unusual noise coming from the deep ravine. We crossed to the other side and looked down to where a young Raven was shouting from the base of the cliff. We found out later, that the cross marked the place where a young man had fallen to his death from the crumbling limestone cliffs into the river below.

The morning light found us dashing along the Mackenzie Highway towards Hay River. We stopped at Lady Evelyn Falls Park for lunch and watched a Bonaparte's Gull and a small flock of Ring-billed Gulls feed below the rainbow spray in a never-ending whirlpool created by the falls. Warbling Vireos sang and both a Northern Flicker and a Hairy Woodpecker nested in a dead snag beside the attendant's office. On we drove. past the turn-off to Fort Providence, past Twin Falls, Kakisa, and Enterprise to arrive in Hay River by the golden light of an endless sunset. With the help of a Snowshoe Rabbit we found a campsite, pitched our tents with advice from a squirrel and cooked supper a Merlin's heartbeat from Great Slave Lake while a Caspian Tern rasped above us. Sounds seemed thinner and clearer. Gone were the melodious songs of Purple Finch and Warbling Vireo, to be replaced by the high, thin Tennessee Warblers, the sharp Magpie's call, the high-pitched Merlin's scream. Dogs across a river howled like wolves. It seemed as though we sat by the lakeside for hours. A light breeze kept the mosquitoes down and the lake was blue-gold and calm as a mirror. Common and Caspian Terns drifted by in the amber light and a Short-eared Owl quartered the meadow behind us. A blue midnight finally cloaked the sky as a Great Horned Owl "hoo hooed" in the northern distance.


South-east and South
Having come this far it seemed a shame to turn south so soon, so we took a detour into Wood Buffalo National Park to look for Whooping Cranes. We didn't see any, and no one would tell us where to find them. We saw lots of Sandhill Cranes, but we could see those at home. The Salt Plains at Wood Buffalo are a great place to go blind and get sunstroke from the searing white flats. Driving through the Park gave us an opportunity to miss hundreds of suicidal Snowshoe Rabbits, who ran halfway across the road, hesitated, and then ran back again. The only Bison we saw was a sorry-looking hot one, surrounded by deer flies, wallowing in a sandy hollow by the side of the road. When we opened the window to take a picture, all the deer flies in the truck, which had gone "n-zzz n-zzz ti-ti-ti-ti n-zzz ti-ti" for hours against the back windows, shot out like arrows and joined the swarm already there. We hadn't done the Bison any favours. We carried on to Fort Smith, after a stop at Nyarling to look again for absent Whoopers, then found yet another spotless, friendly campground, close to the Athabasca River and the dramatic "Rapids of the Drowned". They were named after five hapless voyageurs who took the wrong channel through the falls many years ago.

Sometimes when travelling you find the strangest things in the most unexpected places. In my wildest dreams I didn't expect to see seventy-two White Pelicans bowing and dipping in the Athabasca River, perhaps people are so used to them that they pass unnoticed. But there they were, just off the flat rocks by the rapids. Eminently graceful, three of them bowed in unison in the water, then glided away to join the others in the centre of the rapids.

We returned to magical Great Slave Lake as thunder approached from the west. The campsite was almost full and the wind was up, the lake choppy and brown. We ate quickly before the storm hit, then explored the town of Hay River. It is a curious sort of town, strung out along the River, though it used to be situated on Vale Island until a flood in l963. A new town was built up the river. Hay River was once the Mecca for travellers to the Arctic Ocean before the advent of air travel, although tug-and-barge traffic is still very much in evidence, plying Great Slave, as big as an ocean, to the Mackenzie River. Fuel and dry goods are still delivered to the Eastern Arctic by the Northern Transportation Co. Ltd. and if you stowed away in June you would get there by Christmas. The high school is coloured purple. We went south.

Once we left the Northwest Territories and drove into Alberta, the northern wilderness became farmland. Kestrels were back on the telephone lines. We rejoined the Peace River at Dunvegan Provincial Park where we stopped after a long days drive and cooked up a steak dinner (this was Alberta after all). Strolling by the River later we heard another nesting Merlin. They seem to have an affinity for Provincial Parks; perhaps they are the only places where trees are left standing long enough for them to nest in. Robins appeared and Warbling Vireos were back. After a night next to the "campers from hell" who banged doors, shouted and drank half the night away we rushed away from Alberta and into the safety of Dawson Creek, BC to enjoy a decadent cappuccino and freshly baked muffins. We had completed our circle tour, back to the end and the beginning of the Deh Cho Connection.


SpruceRoots Magazine - April, 1999