This park is an island, elk and deer walking in woods of aspen and grazing on native prairie grasses. The park rises about 180 feet out of the surrounding plains in a type topography known as knobs and kettles, remnants of the retreat of glaciers from the last ice age. It is part of the Beaver Hills-Cooking Lake Moraine. Viewed in the early morning fog, it looks like an island rising out of a sea of grass.
It is a park dedicated to the preservation of wild life. In an era of national parks as corporate entertainment centers, this is a park dedicated to allowing people to see animals in their native habitat. There are no hotels, no inns, and no fancy restaurants. There are places to park your car and walk the trails through areas where these animals actually live. Walking through an Aspen Grove and coming upon a woods bison in a clearing, it is easy to believe that you are on an island. Elk walk across the paths tread by visitors. Every day people have a chance to see wild life in their every day lives.
The retreating glaciers left their mark in the almost 200 lakes, ponds and wetlands that dot the park. These are the kettles of the topography. The largest of these, Astotin Lake, is at the north end of the park. It is here that you will find normal islands in the lake. And, once again you can see how much this park is like an island. Elk Island National Park does not rent boats; you must bring your own, non-motorized boat to get to these smaller island getaways. There is a boat ramp at the north end of the lake.
The main purpose of the park is to be an animal sanctuary, an animal island. Elk, bison, and 42 other species of mammals, down to the size of the pygmy shrew can be found with the fences of the park. By the 1890s the wood bison was down to about 300 animals in all of North America. Today the park maintains a heard of about 350 animals. Every year it reduces the heard to that number (a sustainable number for this size habitat) by sending excess animals to other parks. Excess populations of elk, moose and plains bison are similarly moved every year.
In addition to the impressive large mammal population there is also a significant number of birds found within the confines of the park. Over 200 species of birds either nest in the park or transit the park during their annual migration. Large numbers of various species of ducks and other water fowl, including the Black-Crowned Night Herron, can be found in and around the various lakes, ponds and wetlands.
While the main purpose of the park is to preserve these native species, it also serves to educate the public about the wild life. There are numerous displays through out the park about the natural population, and the eleven self-guided trails allow first hand study of the habitats of the animals living in the park. There is an educational out-reach program conducted with the Alberta schools to give students a hands on education in environmental sciences and field biology.
The park is an educational tool and a life preserving island. Elk Island National Park is a safe home for its natural citizens and a place where over 350,000 visitors a year get a chance to examine some of the great North American large mammals in their natural environment. All of this within an hours drive of Edmonton, Alberta.