BY MARTY KLINKENBERG, EDMONTON JOURNAL
EDMONTON – An American researcher recently became the first explorer to set foot on the world’s largest known beaver dam — an 850-metre-long fortress built painstakingly over decades in Wood Buffalo National Park.
After four years of planning and nine days of bushwhacking through swampland and dense boreal forest, Rob Mark reached the structure in the northeast corner of Alberta on July 20.
The location is so remote the only previous sightings of it have been made by trappers, satellite and fixed-wing aircraft.
“I had a great sense of accomplishment,” Mark said by phone from Maplewood, N.J. “When it comes to being the first to go somewhere, besides the poles and some mountain ranges, there is not much left you can do.”
With help from local natives, it took Mark nine days to reach the dam, about 200 inhospitable kilometres from Fort Chipewyan. It took him nearly five hours to cover the last 1.6 km as he fought through a bog, often grabbing tree branches to keep from sinking into the muck.
Upon reaching the dam, he was greeted by one solitary beaver displeased by his presence.
“It was incredibly angry I was there,” Mark said. “It kept slapping its tail against the water.”
Publicly identified in 2007 by an Ottawa researcher using Google Earth, the dam easily exceeds the largest known previously, a 652-metre structure in Three Forks, Mont. Elders from native bands in Fort Chipewyan were aware of the dam and visited it while trapping.
Mark reached the lodge in his second attempt, after turning back during an expedition two years ago because of bad weather. The trip entails crossing open water in Lake Claire and then navigating through forest, swamp and muskeg.
Draped in bug netting, Mark slept at night in a hammock strung between trees.
“I spent a month in the jungle in the Amazon once, and the mosquitoes are worse getting to the dam,” he said. “I have never encountered bugs that bad.
“They bit through my clothes. I had to wear my rain jacket the whole time. They sounded like helicopters.”
In the midst of thick foliage, the dam was impossible for Mark to see from less than 18 metres away. The route he had mapped was accurate, however, and he achieved what nobody else has ever tried.
“It’s undoubtedly a first,” said Tim Gauthier, a spokesman for Wood Buffalo National Park, a UNESCO heritage site that encompasses portions of Alberta and the Northwest Territories. “That’s one heck of an odyssey through incredibly inhospitable territory.”
An amateur explorer who pays for his adventure trips by working as an IT professional, Mark is working on a paper detailing his trip.
Generations of industrious beavers have done an excellent construction job, Mark said. Barely able to walk through the wetlands, he was able to climb atop the dam, which is covered by grass and plants.
“I walked up and down,” he said. “It was very solid.”