As we worked our snowmobiles through the willows, pushing a foot of fresh snow underneath the big machines, I was encouraged knowing that we would soon be sitting at Jackfish Cabin, firing up the woodstove and warming ourselves with hot tea.
Jackfish is the oldest warden cabin in Wood Buffalo National Park and speaks to a time when it was not just a short stop on a long patrol but an abode, a dwelling that served the warden and his family year-round, with hand hewn logs and a root cellar built to last.
It was always a favourite, a welcome stop on our way to the small Cree community of Garden River on the southwest boundary of Wood Buffalo National Park and Timber Berth 408, the last remaining logging operation in a Canadian national park.
Thankfully that operation was put to rest in the early 1990s but prior to the cessation of logging, park wardens were responsible for monitoring the contractor’s work and enforcing the limited rules the company was required to follow as it took down some of the largest white spruce growing in Alberta.
Winter afforded the easiest access to Garden River and Timber Berth 408 was a purely winter operation, coming to a halt each year in April as the spring thaws prevented the use of the heavy feller-bunchers that cut down the massive trees and the skidders that yarded the logs which were transported from the park to the mill in High Level.
Making the trip to Garden River first required a two hour drive to Peace Point where snowmobiles were unloaded and hitched to toboggans topped with supplies for the Garden River Cabin. The next four to six hours would take us along an old route that had previously been proposed for an all-weather road to the park boundary.
The all-weather road never happened and the cleared right of way had long since been abandoned and allowed to grow in, but it made for a reasonable trail to a remote part of the park, kept open by First Nations hunters and trappers to allow passage of their small snowmobiles.
Being larger, the park machines barely had room to squeeze by the downed timber and alder thickets that lined the trail but we carefully made our way through the maze and in time found our way down the side trail to Jackfish.
Breaking out of the forest and into the clearing that surrounded the cabin, the first impression was of the commanding view offered by the cabin’s location high above the banks of the Peace River. A person standing or sitting on the porch could see for miles up and down river and the cabin’s southerly aspect took advantage of the limited daylight during a northern winter.
While the trail into the cabin could be covered with several feet of snow, the clearing around the cabin was often just that, “clear”. After wrestling a snowmobile through the bush it was easy enough to sit back against a tree and soak in the sunlight before we had to make our way back to the main trail and the miles of snowmobiling ahead of us.
Hunkered down on the machines in our Chimo boots, Yukon parkas and snowmobile pants it was tough to leave Jackfish behind for several more hours of biting cold and frost bitten faces but with any luck we would make a return visit on the way back home.
Jackfish was a haven in bad weather and heaven in good, one of the great old warden cabins in the national park system.
It never failed to provide a measure of comfort and some respite from the cold to generations of park wardens who were blessed with a stint in one of Canada’s most incredible protected areas – Wood Buffalo National Park.