More than 9,000 years ago, as legend has it, a giant in Canada followed the shore of Lake Athabasca, hunting giant beaver. The animals had built a dam on one side of the lake, and the giant had come to destroy it. In doing so, he came across just the right beaver to take home and attempted to spear it. In the throes of its demise, the beaver thrashed and pounded its giant tail all around, pummeling the surrounding soil into fine sand.
And, that’s how the Athabasca Sand Dunes were created, according to the local Denesuline (also known as Chipewyan) tribe lore.
The dunes now span about 62 miles across their own provincial park in Saskatchewan, with individual sand dunes rising up almost 100 feet in height and stretching out for nearly a mile. They are the northernmost active sand dunes in the world and are only accessible by floatplane or boat. (It’s recommended that you be experienced in wilderness situations prior to visiting, as there are no onsite services.) The dunes are tucked in between a lake and a boreal forest, comprising a geological landscape similar to desert dunes but in a quite different location. Once at the dunes, travelers can hike, fish in the lake, ride ATVs along the edge (motorized vehicles aren't allowed in the dunes themselves), and camp at primitive sites. Guided tours to hike the dunes and explore the scenery are available through various outfitters in the area.
“It’s unique; there’s really nothing like it pretty much anywhere else in the world,” Robin Karpan, author of Northern Sandscapes: Exploring Saskatchewan’s Athabasca Sand Dunes, told Vue Weekly. “Most major sand dune areas occur in deserts or very dry areas, whereas here you’ve got that interesting mix of water, sand and trees.”
The actual science behind the dunes’ creation is a bit different from legend. Native Indian use of the site dates back 7,000 to 8,000 years, and the dunes themselves are believed to have been formed about 8,000 to 9,000 years ago, during the last glacial period. As the ice sheet covering the area retreated, water from spillways and meltwater channels pushed a huge amount of sediment and sand into the glacial lake. Then the lake receded, leaving the deposits exposed. The wind pushed and pulled the sand into the huge dune formations visible today. And the wind continues to shape the dunes, which slowly seep into the surrounding forested areas. Plants and trees on the sand are routinely covered up, later appearing as skeletal shells of what they once were.
Some 300 plant species thrive in the area. Forty-two of them are considered rare in Saskatchewan. And ten of the species, including Athabasca thrift (pictured), field chickweed, Mackenzie hairgrass, Tyrrell’s willow, sand stitchwort and impoverished pinweed, are endemic, meaning they don’t exist anywhere else in the world.
“Although rain and snow quickly disappear into the sand out of the reach of the roots of most plants, the dune area is not a desert,” said Kevin Weatherbee, manager of the Athabasca Sand Dunes Provincial Wilderness Park, in an interview with Canadian adventure travel site Ya’Gotta. “The water table in the areas between the dunes is often high so they become productive nurseries where grass, trees and shrubs germinate from wind-blown seed. These areas, called slacks, provide homes for a host of birds, insects and animals.”
The shifting sand also produces gobi, or desert pavement. In these areas, a layer of worn pebbles sits atop the sand, appearing like little walkways through the dunes. Park guides, though, urge people not to step on those spots—footprints on non-active sand surfaces in the dunes can stay there for decades before being healed by the movement of the sand.