On the western shores of Lake Athabasca, and reachable by road only in winter, when vehicles can pass over the vast wetlands of the Athabasca delta without sinking into a muskeg, Fort Chipewyan is a true northern outpost, more wild than not. Located 277km (168 miles) north of Fort McMurray, it boasts of being the first settlement in the entire province, established by the North West Company (a fur-trading company based in Montreal) in 1788.
The fort was named for the Chipewyan First Nation who were living there at the time; the Chipewyan people, of the Dene nation, along with Mikisew Cree and Métis people, make up the vast majority of the town's population of about 900 people.
As you can imagine, there's not much to Fort Chipewyan, the town. But Fort Chip, as it's known, offers a look at a time and lifestyle far removed from modernity. They may have satellite TV, but the wilderness is just an arm's length away. Fort Chip is the gateway to Wood Buffalo National Park, which can be reached only by water; it also sits at the western end of Lake Athabasca, where the Athabasca River ends, and the sense is of being on the edge of the planet itself.
Attractions and amenities here are few, but for a taste of Fort Chip's fur-trading past you can visit the Fort Chipewyan Bicentennial Museum (P.O. Box 203, Fort Chipewyan, T0P 1B0; tel. 780/697-3844; open 9am-5pm Mon-Fri year round and weekends by appointment; admission by donation). Modeled after an 18th-century Hudson's Bay Company store, it provides a time-warp experience of life more than two centuries ago in the outer reaches of the Canadian wild.
Another point of interest is the surprisingly ornate Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Roman Catholic Church, by the water's edge. The most recent building, built in 1909, is in typical Northern French Canadian Oblate Mission style (Catholic missionaries to the north were typically French). Inside, the soaring vaulted ceiling is painted a deep celestial blue, speckled with gold stars and angelic medallions. To make deep red and purple "paint," the priests and nuns crushed cranberries and blueberries, then mixed the juice with fish oil. It's a testament of cross-cultural fermentation; Cree and Chipewyan syllabics frame the painting of the Crucifixion; it's observed by many that the Virgin Mary has distinct First Nations features. Tours can be arranged by contacting the church at tel. 780/697-3555.
The "Emporium of the North" -- One of the principal draws for Europeans to Canada was the fur trade; fortunes could be made trapping animals and exporting their pelts back to be sold to wealthy Europeans, and two companies in Canada, the Hudson's Bay Company and the North West Company, were in stiff competition. By the 1770s, the HBC raised the stakes, pushing farther westward and establishing a trading post at Cumberland House in what is now northeastern Saskatchewan; explorer Peter Pond pushed even farther west to establish a presence from Saskachewan into what is now northern Alberta.
In 1778, native guides showed Pond the Methy Portage, which connected Hudson's Bay to the Arctic water systems and could carry traders to the rich, and then untapped, Athabasca region.
Pond had amazing success there, and other trappers quickly followed. In 1788, the North West Company set up a post called Fort Chipewyan; the post was moved to Fort Chip's current location in 1796. In the ensuing years, Fort Chip quickly became the fur trade's central hub in the Athabasca region, and one of the most important such posts in all of Canada. Fur traders came to call Fort Chip "the emporium of the north," given its size and scale; the Hudson's Bay Company also built forts in the region, but with nowhere near the same success as Fort Chip.