this weekOh! Canada!

July 3, 2004

Athabasca Sand Dunes

Saskatchewan’s shifting sands

Picture of a part of the world covered with enormous sand dunes. You may be thinking of a desert in Africa, Asia, or the southwestern United States. But there’s another place, above the 49th parallel, where you can find such sand dunes—Saskatchewan, Canada. Many of my compatriots from other parts of Canada love to make fun of how topographically dull Saskatchewan is; they say it’s an endless expanse of flatness, with no trees or hills. But this western Canadian province is full of surprises. Although the southern half of the province—where you’ll find major cities such as Regina and Saskatoon—is mostly prairie grasslands, the northern half is a wild expanse of rivers, lakes, and coniferous forests. It even has a salt lake with a mineral density greater than that of the Dead Sea, Lake Manitou (Cree for “Lake of Good Spirit”). And furthermore, Cypress Hills, in the southeastern corner of the province, is the highest point in Canada between Labrador and the Rockies. Besides, you can’t claim that a piece of land twice the size of Italy and almost as big as Texas could have so little range (pardon the pun). Is my defensiveness showing? And did I mention the glorious sunsets?

The sand dunes I mentioned earlier are associated with a body of water—Lake Athabasca, the province’s largest lake. Located in the far northwest of Saskatchewan, almost at the border with the Northwest Territories, Lake Athabasca is accessible only by floatplane, there being no roads that go that far north. On the south side of the lake, there is a natural geological formation that is unique and surprising to find at this northern latitude—the Athabasca Sand Dunes. In places 30 meters (98 feet) high, and stretching 100 km (62 miles) along the shore of Lake Athabasca, the Athabasca Sand Dunes are the world’s largest area of active sand dunes north of 58 degrees latitude.

Don’t Desert Me
Although we often associate sand dunes with deserts, in the case of the Athabasca Sand Dunes, this doesn’t hold true. For one thing, deserts are identified by their lack of water, and not only do these dunes border 7,850 square kilometers (3,030 square miles) of water, they also contain significant patches of water in places, percolating up from the shallow water table below. Another feature of deserts—limited plant and animal life—does not hold true for these sand dunes either. In fact, of the 300 plant species that grow in the dunes, there are 10 species that are endemic (found nowhere else in the world), and another 42 species that are considered rare in the province. Not that the dunes are entirely welcoming to the local flora. Because the dunes are active, shifted by wind and eroded by water, they are constantly on the move. Visitors to the region tell of seeing entire stands of skeletal trees emerging from the sand—once above ground and flourishing, these trees were slowly buried by the shifting sand, and now are revealed by further dune movements.

Icing on the Lake

So, if these sand dunes are not a desert ecosystem, created by extreme drought and aridity, how were they formed? The short answer is: the glaciers did it. The sand dunes are the product of the Athabasca sandstone formation, originally a delta in a freshwater lake created out of materials eroded from ancient mountain ranges by glaciers and rivers one billion years ago. These materials were eventually compressed into sandstone, and later still, eroded by wind, water, and glaciers to create the sand dunes that exist today. Of course, I find the native Dene legend about the dunes’ creation more interesting—that a giant man speared a giant beaver, which thrashed and ground the earth with its tail, making soil into sand.

Sand by Me
Although I’ve never been to the Athabasca Sand Dunes, I do hope to see them one day. Until I do, it makes me happy just to know that they are there, a concrete affront to all those who say that Saskatchewan is nothing more than a boring strip of land between the Alberta and Manitoba borders. And did I mention the sunsets? —Morgen Jahnke

Morgen Jahnke is a native of Saskatchewan, Canada, now living in Paris.

More Information about Athabasca Sand Dunes…

Saskatchewan has an area of 651,942 sq. km, compared to Italy at 301,230 sq. km and Texas at 695,673 sq. km.

The Athabascan Adventure site chronicles one family’s 23 day canoe trip odyssey in the Athabasca Sand Dunes area.

Athabasca Eco Expeditions gives guided tours of the Athabasca Sand Dunes.

To learn more about Manitou Lake, see Lake of the Healing Waters A History of Manitou Beach.

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For more information on the dunes, read Northern Sandscapes: Exploring Saskatchewan’s Athabasca Sand Dunes by Robin Karpan. Also see Northern Saskatchewan Canoe Trips: A Guide to Fifteen Wilderness Rivers by Laurel Archer.