The east bank of the William River is clothed in dark green jack pine forest typical of the north. But the west side seems like a totally different world, with massive banks of golden sand rising 30 metres straight out of the water.
We pull our canoe into shore and struggle up the steep slopes to the top. Sand stretches to the western horizon, as we gaze over the largest sand dunes in Canada, the largest this far north anywhere in the world.
Last summer, we returned to our favourite place on Earth, the Athabasca Sand Dunes of northern Saskatchewan.
It had been a few years since our last trip, and we were delighted to find that little had changed, other than some evidence of forest fires.
Isolation and protection in a provincial park are preserving this enchanting landscape so far.
Extending for 100 kilometres along the south shore of Lake Athabasca, these dunes are unique. It’s as if a chunk of desert had been plopped in the middle of northern forest and lake lands. And if that isn’t weird enough, rivers slice through the dunes, making a canoe the best way to get around.
We start with a float plane trip to the mouth of the William River. Many years ago, we canoed down the river as it raced over frothing rapids and cut through forest and sand.
This time we’re paddling upstream. The last 18 kilometres is rapid free, but rocks are replaced with the sand-choked river spreading into a shallow braided stream, a half kilometre wide in places.
Paddling against the current is always a struggle, but in shallow water it’s difficult to get our paddles deep enough for powerful strokes. We constantly zigzag across the wide river searching for deeper channels.
The next day, we reach the end of the rapids, a stunning landscape where the William makes its dramatic transformation from stone-filled torrent to watery sandbox.
Back of the banks are endemic plants that grow nowhere else in the world, along with dozens of rare plants for which these dunes are famous.
We find fuzzy felt-leaved willow, delicate strands of sand chickweed that seem to thrive in pure sand, and Athabasca thrift resembling tiny pink candy apples.
A two-hour hike west brings us to the giant dunes. About 40 monsters lie in the centre of the dune field, many rising over 30 metres high and stretching a kilometre long, their knife-edge crests flowing in sinuous curves.
Climbing to the top, we keep re-minding ourselves that we’re still in Saskatchewan, not the Sahara.
On Lake Athabasca’s south shore, we explore even more gems, endless beaches, dunes swallowing entire bushes and exhumed forests where ancient desiccated tree trunks stand like ghostly sentinels guarding the bay.
When our pilot, Cliff, picks us up, we load the canoe and gear, then swoop over the William River. Looking down over the braided section and expansive delta, the William magically becomes a giant abstract painting.
Multi-hued shades of gold, beige and copper reveal varying depths of underwater sandbars, while above-water sand appears white, and deep channels a chocolate brown.
Swirling colours remind us of butterscotch pudding marbled with whipped cream. The William is full of surprises, but saves its grand finale for those who fly over.
This certainly isn’t the easiest place to visit. There are no facilities. Options include chartering a float plane to drop you off or arranging boat transport from a Lake Athabasca community. We like to travel by canoe, but some visitors get around by hiking.
Either way, you have to be fully prepared for self-sufficient wilderness camping.