Simply put, this is not something you can do by yourself. The lake stretches out in front of you, but remember: This is a wild land, where all but the most experienced outdoor adventurer will need at least some guidance.
Fort Chip, of course, is where you go to access Wood Buffalo National Park, the largest expanse of protected wilderness in North America, and among the largest in the world. Largely a reserve of high boreal plain, Wood Buffalo is completely wild, and destined to stay that way: The only road in Wood Buffalo is at park headquarters at its northern boundary at Fort Smith, in the Northwest Territories. There is no road access from Alberta at all, and the road from Fort Smith only skirts its edge. Access is largely by boat or float plane.
For experienced wilderness travelers, water access by boat or canoe is possible. Motorboat access is allowed along the major river corridors: Athabasca River, Rivière des Rochers, Quatre Fourches River, Peace River, and Slave River. Parks Canada offers a Guide to Waterways In and Around Wood Buffalo National Park for further information about the river corridors.
Park-use permits are required for any overnight stays in the backcountry; one night is C$9.80, or C$68.70 for the full season. The one major campground, at Pine Lake -- classified "primitive" by the parks authority, meaning nothing like running water, toilets, or showers are available -- is the only one accessible by road (from Fort Smith), at a cost of C$15.70 per night. Pine Lake features the only cabin in the park, a rustic log structure with a fireplace that sleeps up to 8 people. It's available for C$39.20 per night. Meanwhile, the Rainbow Lakes backcountry campsite, a 6km (4-mile) hike from Pine Lake Road, offers the comfort of a tent pad and outhouse only. All campgrounds are open from late May to Labor Day only.
Needless to say, Wood Buffalo isn't for greenhorns. A handful of guides can be hired for long- or short-term excursions into the park; be careful to only hire those licensed by the park authority itself. The availability of licensed guides and outfitters changes from year to year -- the Visitor Reception Centre in Fort Smith (tel. 867/872-7960) or Fort Chipewyan (tel. 780/697-3662) will be able to provide a current list of licensed park guides.
So, for all the hardship involved in a jaunt through Wood Buffalo, what do you get in return? Just a wilderness experience that's near-impossible to be rivaled anywhere. This is the anti-Banff: no tourist buses, throngs of shoppers, overpriced hotels and restaurants, or wildlife feasting on scattered Pringles that tourists should know better than to entice them with. Most of the animals here could easily live their entire lives without knowing humanity exists.
If you're up for a backcountry adventure, the park recommends a handful of destinations: Sweetgrass Station, south of the Peace River on the broad plains of the delta, sits in the middle of a vast wetland, on the shores of Lake Claire. It's prime nesting and feeding ground for many species of wetland birds, but it's also home to the park's namesake wild bison herd -- the last of their kind in the world.
Naturally, a bison presence means predators as well, so be on the lookout for wolves. If you're lucky ("lucky" depends on your level of squeamishness), you might catch a glimpse of the predator/prey relationship in the unfettered wild.
Getting to Sweetgrass Station is no picnic; you can drive in with your canoe to Peace Point and paddle your way downstream. The trip takes up to 12 hours, requiring an overnight stay somewhere along the river. Also, don't plan to paddle back to where you launched, as the current makes that virtually impossible. Plan instead to get picked up at either Hay Camp or Fort Fitzgerald, on the Peace or Slave rivers, respectively.
Or, for a quick in-and-out, you can look into hiring a float plane to drop you off and pick you up at Sweetgrass Station; the parks information center in either Fort Smith or Fort Chipewyan can connect you with a reputable pilot. Prices fluctuate with demand and oil prices; but, because most airlines fly out of Fort McMurray or Yellowknife (in the Northwest Territories), it's not cheap. Out of Fort McMurray, Air Mikisew would charge roughly C$5,000 for a six-seat plane round trip.
For the less adventure-inclined, the park also offers a small selection of front-country hiking trails just off the road from Fort Smith. The Salt River Trail system offers hikes from 750m (about half a mile) to 9km (5.5 miles) long; the Lakeside Trail, at 6.4km (4 miles), departs from the Pine Lake campground down into Pine Lake, where there's a sandy beach and good swimming; the South Loop, at 9km (5.5 miles), starts at the Salt River, on the east side of the road, and leads along a salty creek to Grosbeak Lake, a prime viewing area for waterfowl. There's also the curious natural phenomenon of the salt plains, littered with glacial erratics -- large boulders left behind when the ice receded at the end of the last ice age.
A list of backcountry trails that range from a few days to two weeks to traverse is available from the parks office for the more intrepid wilderness explorer.
The Horses Have Left the Barn -- Depending how far you range in the park, you might come across some abandoned corrals -- anomalous here, in the midst of the wilderness. They were used up to the 1960s for annual round-ups of the wild bison herd, to vaccinate them from anthrax. With the threat from the disease long dead, the corrals were abandoned and fell into disrepair, reclaimed by the wilderness. They're found just a short hike from Sweetgrass Landing.
Missionaries -- Fort Chip's current Catholic Church was built in 1909, but it's far from the first to be found here. When Fort Chip took flight in the mid-1790s as an active fur-trading post, it drew a significant complement of French Canadians from Quebec (and more than a few hardy Scots, mostly from the far-northern Orkney Islands); soon to follow were Roman Catholic missionaries, intent on providing spiritual guidance in the hinterlands -- and to convert the savage races, as they saw First Nations peoples, to the path of righteousness.
Fort Chip, being the center of commerce that it was, was targeted by the Roman Catholic Church as the ideal place to spread its brand of enlightenment; a mission was established in 1847. Priests would travel with Métis buffalo hunters and trappers, conducting services at their winter camps. No hardship was too great for the calling; Fort Chip's current Catholic Church, surprisingly grand for its remote location, is testament to the commitment of these missionaries in the hardscrabble north.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.