Stretching north of Edmonton and comprising a rugged landscape of muskegs and fens -- the wetlands that provide the cradle for the area's remarkable biodiversity -- the northern part of the province is a vast, sparsely populated hinterland. In summer, it is ruled by millions of insects, plenty of them flesh-eating (and voraciously so); in winter, Northern Alberta routinely experiences extreme, arctic-like temperatures of -40°F (-40°C) or worse.

If this already sounds like not a place you might want to take a vacation, consider this: The Canadian north is also one of the most rugged, untouched wilderness areas in the world. Wildlife abounds; roads are few. Not long after leaving Edmonton, the high prairie gives way to the rocky, rugged, and thickly forested terrain of the Canadian Shield, which arcs westward from Northern Ontario through the high prairies, bestowing much of Northern Alberta with hardy boreal forest. This forest is home to hundreds of species of birds and mammals large and small, from muskrats to moose.

While the north might not be the right place for the urbane among us, it can, for the nature lover, be a paradise. Far from the well-worn trails of Banff and Jasper, for example, Wood Buffalo National Park, the country's largest, is virtually untouched by humanity; this has as much to do with its location as the fact that, from Alberta, it's utterly inaccessible by road -- access is only by water or by air, via helicopter or float plane; there's a rough road skirting its edge farther north, from the Northwest Territories. The result is much like being in a time machine: traveling back thousands of years for a glimpse at a world without us. Few such places exist on earth.

In addition, adventurous sport fishers can find plenty of opportunities to drop in on any one of hundreds of remote northern lakes, via fishing charters on float planes; those inclined toward water sports will find the mighty Athabasca River, which empties at its northern end into Lake Athabasca, to be a spirited waterway lined, for the most part, with pristine wilderness.

It's that "most part," though, that contains the most intrigue; equal parts fascinating and appalling, the Athabasca runs right through the middle of Alberta's oil sands developments, where thousands of tons of mucky sand, laden with oil, are dug up daily by hundreds of machines twice the size of the average suburban house; the oil is then separated using cataclysmic volumes of river water. Just north of Fort McMurray, the oil sands are a sight to behold -- for sheer scale, if nothing else. They're both an impressive engineering feat and disturbing testament to mankind's ability to alter the planet as it suits us.