William River

River of Golden Sands, River Beyond Dreams

By Cliff Speer

Excerpted from Paddle Quest – Canada’s Best Canoe Routes
Edited by Alister Thomas, Boston Mills Press 2000
Reprinted by permission.

William River in northern Saskatchewan

William River in northern Saskatchewan’s Athabasca Sand Dunes (photo: canoeski.com)

I Knew I Was On Home Territory
But Felt Like I Had Been
Transported Into an Alien Land.

Such was my encounter with the exotic landscape of the William River. This “otherworldly” impression was created by the immense sand dunes bordering the final quarter of the river’s 200 kilometre navigable reach. “Marvellous is the word for the great sand dunes of northern Saskatchewan and adjacent Alberta. Viewed in the dazzling light of long summer days, they seem an enchanted landscape – a portion of Arabia magically transported to the boreal forest and displayed along the south shore of blue Lake Athabasca,” says Canadian ecologist Stan Rowe in his book, Home Place: Essays on Ecology.

The Athabasca Sand Dunes Provincial Wilderness Park contains the world’s largest northerly sand dunes, some of which are 30 metres high. The park is situated on the south shore of Lake Athabasca, in the northwest corner of Saskatchewan, not too far from the Northwest Territories border. The William River, which flows through the western portion of the park and empties into Lake Athabasca, takes in the Athabasca region’s largest dune field (about 17,000 hectares), about half the active sand surface in the park.

For wilderness canoeists, the seemingly contradictory elements of water, desert and forest are pleasantly bewildering. But the surreal experience of the William River is more than gigantic sand dunes. A unique ecosystem has developed in the windblown sediments of the former glacial lake that covered the region about 9000 years ago. Sixty species of plants that inhabit the dunes are considered rare; ten species are so rare that they exist nowhere else in the world. They’re called endemics. They gave me the feeling that I was travelling in a very special place – treading on hallowed ground.

Our party of six Saskatchewan paddlers launched into the supernatural world of the William River via Hale Lake, about 60 kilometres downstream of the river’s headwaters. La Loche Airways provided floatplane transport from its base in the Aboriginal community 650 kilometres northwest of Saskatoon. Apart from a few black flies and a relocation to avoid disturbing a nest of bald eagles, our camping time on Hale Lake was uneventful.

At the outlet of Hale Lake, the William River is a small, winding, willow-bordered stream with an easy-going gradient and a few riffles here and there. Beautiful pink and mauve blossoms of bog laurel line the banks. By midday the streambed had flattened and presented us with a major boulder garden. A quick scouting from shore revealed a narrow passage through the obstruction.

Moving on, we wound our way through more “gardens.” Most of the rapids in the upper reaches demand precise manoeuvring. It seemed like a mythical ice age stone thrower had peppered the river bottom with an impressive rock arsenal. Our group paddled Kevlar and ABS canoes which withstood the bump and grind of the Athabasca sandstone fairly well. Very few of the rapids are marked on the topo maps, so we had to keep our eyes and ears well tuned to the river’s signals.

The William is wild and remote, with very little evidence of other travellers. But there were a couple of exceptions. On the third day we stopped at a nice beach where, in mid-June at 59 degrees north latitude, we swam without shivering. Backed by a sandy pine-clad ridge with a view of distant boulder-strewn eskers, this beach had attracted others long ago. There were remains of rusted pails and domestic utensils at a very old cabin site. A few kilometres downstream we came across more recent evidence of an abandoned diamond drill camp. This blotch on the landscape is a relic of the uranium exploration industry and is to be rehabilitated, according to Saskatchewan Environment and Resource Management.

Campsites abound along the river. Riverbank sandstone ledges are backed by sandy lichen-covered ridges, while open jack pine stands create a naturally groomed, park-like atmosphere. One such site could be described as northern savannah, complete with low ground cover and widely spaced groupings of pine trees. Such were our campsites before reaching the dunes. After that, camping on the dunes was always an option, but one that we avoided, since we could get sandblasted if the wind got rowdy.

By day four, we were close to the junction of the William and Carswell rivers. En route we passed a federal water surveys monitoring station. Important data from this little building determines whether you canoe the river, or push, pull or drag through it. Because of its shallow, bouldery bottom, most “official” reports conclude that the William is not canoeable. A lot of the time it isn’t. Fortunately for us, the flow was almost double the 14-year average. Even with that margin of comfort, a few inches less would have made progress much more complicated.

Dunes Await

The Carswell River junction marks a demanding stretch of whitewater. After the Carswell rapids, we make our way toward the giant William dunes. Expectations rise. So far, apart from sandy shoreline ridges and golden beaches here and there, the William hasn’t revealed what awaits downstream. But as we round a bend, suddenly, smack in front of us stands a 15-metre-high wall of fine, golden Athabasca sand, blocking off the river and transcending the surrounding landscape. Climbing to the top of our first sand dune, we are treated to a strange, unearthly scene – expansive, undulating fields of sand and gravel, with huge dunes beckoning in the distance. We will be treated to many variations of this theme for the next three days.

Hiking on the William River Sand Dunes

Hiking on the William River Sand Dunes (photo: canoeski.com)

After running a few more rapids and lifting over a major ledge spanning the entire river, we reach the highest dunes – rising about 30 to 40 metres from the river. We climb up the closest one to view the surroundings. Another fabulous view, with immense dune fields stretching to the northwest. To the east, the river cuts off the marching sands. Then on the other side of the river, a spruce and pine forest extends to the horizon. The contrast is stunning. Endless fields of golden sand, a winding band of blue and white water, a carpet of green foliage – the juxtaposition is unearthly.

The overall sensory impact of the dunes is overpowering. But certain parts of this desert environment are vulnerable to heedless visitors, especially the desert pavements. These fragile gravel plains exist between major dunes. They are formed when the wind lifts the lighter surface material, leaving a thin layer of closely spaced, sandblasted pebbles covering the remaining sand. Disturbances to the delicate sand-gravel balance can apparently take years for nature to restore.

As we moved downriver the dunes got bigger, and so did the sandstone ledges and the boulders on the river bottom. The river picks up groundwater discharged from the dunes, and the increased flow makes the rapids more pushy. A major obstacle loomed on the river horizon. An extended series of falls is marked on the map, but it is actually several ledges on an S-bend, forcing our first portage of the trip. Scouting this section involves climbing up to a high point on the sand dunes to get a bird’s-eye view downstream. The sight is awesome. A half-kilometre of whitewater stretches to the next bend, with giant dunes sitting on the horizon.

Our scramble over the dunes brought us to a spot where a dune face was slowly, relentlessly burying the living forest. It looked devastating, but it is part of a process that occurs throughout the active “sandscape.” On the flipside, exhumation may occur eventually. As the sand moves on, buried trees are unearthed and left standing like forlorn phantoms in the desert.

On our last day on the river we saw fresh bear, moose and wolf tracks crisscrossing the beach where we landed. We expected an evening visitor, but none appeared. The next morning I photographed a moose in the river.

Bird life on the dunes is not prolific. Bald eagles are evident occasionally. I have a photo of an osprey touching down on her nest and, in the braided section of the river, I captured a sandhill crane lifting off a sandbar.

Spotting Endemic Plants

William River island campsite

William River island campsite (photo: canoeski.com)

I spent our last evening on the William River dunes searching for as many of the endemic plants as possible. This was a fascinating task. The most abundant species seems to be the felt-leaved willow. No problem finding this one; the furry leaves are unmistakable. Not so for the other three varieties of willow, whose similar features make them difficult to discern. In spite of identification challenges, I was able to spot eight of the ten endemics inhabiting the Athabasca Sand Dunes.

Other rare plants also inject spurts of color into the monochrome sandscape. We found moss campion, a small, purple-petalled alpine cushion plant, on an expansive gravel plain. Here the little pimples of purple perched on the plain were slowly building up their “pincushion” mounds by trapping windblown sand.

About 20 kilometres from the mouth of the William, after a rush through a maze of gigantic boulders, the river flattens out and turns into a braided stream with intertwining channels and shifting sandbars. At water level, this final portion of the river is not spectacular, but from the air it is absolutely dazzling. The rust-tinted water reflects hues of gold and copper of varying intensity off the changing sand bottom. Saskatoon photographer Courtney Milne eloquently records his impression of this aerial abstraction in his photoessay “Witness to the William,” in the March 1993 issue of Photo Digest: “When I did witness the William from above, the evergreens that bordered the water were still identifiable, yet the sand pattern took on the quality of another world – just for an instant – then to be plucked back into the reality of the moment. The result was the outrageous condition of simultaneous belief and disbelief, while gazing at the best of nature’s art.”

We skirted the broad, expansive delta at the mouth of the William where the river drops its load of 3000 tons of sand a day into Lake Athabasca. We were able to slip down a side stream that quickly shot us out to the lake. Our trip continued for 100 kilometres eastward along the south shore of Lake Athabasca to the mouth of the MacFarlane River. Upstream, the river opens into a picturesque lake. We camped here to await our floatplane pickup.

The William is a special place whose attractions can’t be duplicated anywhere else in the world.

It deserves special respect from visitors: respect for its wild and remote character; respect for its unparalleled beauty; respect for its unique, surreal charm; and above all, a deep respect for its fragile environment.