Grasslands National Park and Cypress Hills
Virgin Prairie and Rolling Hills in Saskatchewan
Reminiscing about his youth as a child of homesteaders in the harsh circumstances of the 1930s, the author visits several parks in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan: Grasslands National Park, Cypress Hills Park and Fort Walsh National Park. The region is rich in both history and natural beauty.
As we drove westward from Regina, a city of some 200,000 and the province of Saskatchewan's capital, my thoughts went back to my youth - the time I grew up in this part of Canada. The prairie land through which we were driving, the small villages strung along railway tracts and the farmhouses dotting the countryside in that period formed my world. I knew nothing beyond.
At that time, during the Depression years in the 1930s, it was a landscape of drifting sands and blowing winds driving Russian thistle and tumbleweeds to float across the arid countryside. It was a harsh world in which one had to truly struggle to survive.
“One who cooks with heated stones”
Our goal this day was the Grasslands National Park, a piece of Saskatchewan where the prairie land had been returned to its original state - before farmers and their ploughs had destroyed the work of nature, turning the countryside into a prairie desert. I wanted to see what had been achieved with the land that our family had a hand in destroying when they, like other immigrants, as homesteaders ploughed the virgin prairie soil.
Now some three quarter century later, as I looked around, the countryside looked much different than the days of my childhood. Rich looking cultivated fields stretched as far as the eye could see. People driving by looked prosperous and the countryside oozed hints of affluence. Paved highways criss-crossed the flat plains and modern machinery could be seen everywhere. As if by magic, my harsh vision of the landscape during the Depression years had evaporated as if it had never been.
After driving for three quarters of an hour we turned southward at the city of Moose Jaw. Passing the Wakamow Valley we drove on highway No. 2 through rolling fields: some cultivated; others ranch land.
Some 110 km (68 mi) from Moose Jaw we entered Assiniboia - a small town of some 2,305 souls with neat well-maintained homes enhanced by planted trees and shrubs. The town, fair-sized by Saskatchewan standards, was named after the Assiniboine indigenous peoples - its name in their language, Plains Ojibwa, meaning ‘One who cooks with heated stones’.
Soon we were driving on the wide main street edged by a great variety of shops and other businesses, which cater to a large farm population in the surrounding countryside. We then made our way to the Shurniak Art Gallery, which features a fine collection of paintings and diverse works of art by Southern Saskatchewan artists.
After a light lunch in the Gallery’s Marita’s Tearoom we left, driving westward on Highway 13 that follows the route known as the ‘Red Coat Trail’. It is a part of a 1,300 km (807 mi) route that began near Winnipeg and ended near the Alberta border. It was the route taken in 1874 by the North-West Red Coat Mounted Police in their journey to bring law and order to the Canadian West – hence its name.
Only a plaque remains
The cool and invigorating prairie air, flowing through the open window, put us in an upbeat mood as we drove through a landscape of cultivated fields. My enthusiastic colleague, surveying the scene, motioned with her hand, asking, "Look! It’s beautiful! In what other place in the world can one look for 30 miles and see nothing but fields?"
Passing Ponteix, noted for its fine church, we came to where the town of Governeur once stood. It was the village my parents first came to as immigrants in the early 1920s but during the Depression it slowly faded away and now only a plaque stands to remind the passer-by that here the town of Governeur once stood.
Turning southward on Highway 4 at the town of Cadillac we drove for some 15 minutes when I turned to my driver: “Three miles south of here was the land on which our family homesteaded. It’s like a dream thinking back to those harsh days! Our ploughing the soil and picking the rocks all came to naught. Look! It’s all pastureland now.”
Grasslands National Park
Canada’s only virgin prairie
Driving for half an hour more, we reached Val Marie, which acts as the gate to the Grassland National Park - Canada's only virgin prairie, encompassing prehistoric badlands, lush coulees, rolling grasslands, weathered cliffs and wide river valleys stretching to the far horizon.
As we entered the small village of 137 inhabitants some 50 km (30 mi) from the US border I had a feeling of remembrance. During my youth it was the huge city of which I would dream of when I thought what was beyond our isolated farm.
Soon we were at Grasslands National Park Visitor Reception Centre discussing with Colette Schmidt, Communications Services Officer, the history and future of the park.
In describing the Park she said that Grasslands National Park, was now only about 500 sq km (200 sq mi) in two unattached sections: the Western Section following the Frenchman River Valley; and the Eastern Section of mountain uplands and badlands.
The Park will eventually cover 900 sq km (350 sq mi) as the federal government purchases the land on a willing-seller/willing buyer basis. Appropriation of land is not in the works.
We began our exploration of Grasslands National Park, where Saskatchewan greets Montana, by strolling through a grass landscape covering most parts of the broad Frenchman River Valley. Unlike the vast majority of the prairie lands today, here the rolling terrain with its untouched original grassland flora, emphasized by such plants as cactus flowers, creeping juniper, blue grama grass, lichens, mosses and sage, appears today much like it did when the first settlers trod the land. The Park offers some 40 different types of grasses and innumerable native wildflowers and other plant species.
Commonly seen animals in the park are the mule and the white-tailed deer, and the pronghorn antelope, but more importantly, also to be found in the park is a good number of rare and endangered animal species. Some of these include the Baird’s sparrow, burrowing owl, eastern short-horned lizard, ferruginous hawk, the loggerhead strike, peregrine falcon, sage grouse-burrowing owl and the yellow-bellied blue racer.
Once the area was the home of thousands of bison but they disappeared when these animals were totally decimated by the white hunters. However, in 2005 bison began to be released in the park and today 111 of them again can be seen roaming the park, thriving on the same natural grasses and other plants on which their ancestors fed.
The wind blowing through the wild grasses caressing our bodies carried a pleasant scent giving the pristine prairie land an aroma seemingly of magic allurement. Oozing with contentment I thought to myself, “No wonder this part of the prairies was one of the favourite bison hunting areas of the indigenous peoples.”
From their times there are to be found in the park today many arrowheads and other weapons, bison jump cliffs, medicine wheels, pottery, rubbing stones, sacred sites, 13,000 tepee rings and ancient village ruins. After the battle of the Little Bighorn, Sitting Bull took refuge in the area in 1876.
Prairie dog colonies
Back from almost complete extinction
Our first stop that afternoon was at a prairie dog colony - one of the 14 huge, densely populated towns in the park. Grassland is the only place on the prairies where the black tailed prairie dogs still live in colonies in their native habitat.
A critical species in the natural prairie ecosystem, its existence supports the survival of the coyote, fox, and badger as well as numerous other endangered species. The elimination of these colonies also almost wiped out the animal species that depend on them for survival.
I remember as a child, when no one worried about endangered species, trapping gophers, brothers to the prairie dogs, for their tails. The farmers were always worrying about gophers destroying their fields with their endless burrows and they would pay us children 1 cent a tail for every gopher we trapped. For us it was the only pocket money we ever earned; but for the prairie dogs and the animals that depended on them for survival it was almost total elimination.
That day we explored a good part of the park glorying in a land that remains as it was, thousands of years ago – some like to call it ‘Land of Living Skies’ while others label it ‘Where Heaven meets the Earth’. It was a fine example of how man cannot only destroy nature, but return it to its natural state, that is, if there is a will.
Cypress Hills Inter-Provincial Park
The heart of Saskatchewan ranching country
The morning air blowing through our open car window was clear and crisp as we left the T. rex Discovery Centre, a world class facility overlooking the town of Eastend housing the fossil record in the area. A short distance further on, we began climbing upward through a rolling prairie landscape.
Soon shrubs began to appear in this heart of Saskatchewan's ranching country, as we made our way to Cypress Hills Inter-Provincial Park- a highland oasis created in 1989 by an agreement between the Alberta and Saskatchewan governments.
Labelled the ‘oasis of the prairies’, 75% of these flat-topped uplands straddle the south western corner of Saskatchewan and the remainder are spread across the south eastern corner of Alberta, with a small part in northern Montana. The plateau encompasses an area 130 km (80 mi) long and 32 km (20 mi) wide and forms a divide between the waters that flow south to the Missouri and the rivers that make their way northward.
Rising to about 1,468 m (4,816 ft) above sea level, Cypress Hills are the highest elevation of land between the Rocky Mountains and Labrador. In prehistoric times they were an extension of the Rockies and one of the few places in Canada that escaped the effects of the last Ice Age some 15,000 years ago. Fossilized remains of huge bison, caribou, mammoth and other giant mammals that populated the area after the era of the dinosaurs have been uncovered.
Called Mun-a-tuk-gaw (beautiful highlands) by the Cree, these hills, the First Nations’ hunting and wintering grounds for many centuries, are today one of Saskatchewan's most fascinating provincial parks - a year-round resort.
The park incorporates an area known as the West Block that has been left in its natural state. On its southern edge is located the Fort Walsh National Park, a historic site under federal control. It is bordered to the east by the ‘Gap’, an area of grasslands leading to the most visited part, the Centre Block, containing modern facilities and lying in the central segment of the plateau.
The park sprawls over the tree-filled highlands - mostly lodge-pole pines, unique to Saskatchewan. Mistaking them for Cypress trees, Peter Fiddler's voyageurs, the first white men to visit the hills in the early 1800s, named the area Cypress Hills.
These rare prairie trees along with the white spruce and aspen defuse their subtle aromas into the park's clean cool air and create, both in summer and winter, an invigorating atmosphere. In spring and autumn, the colours of the natural vegetation come alive. During the spring months, newborn fawns, spring bird migrations and the sweet smell of rain all come in one great package for visitors to enjoy.
Amid the trout-filled streams, trees and exotic plants, there are 21 species of orchids, and animal life is abundant. Where the now extinct bears, bison, mountain lions and wolves once roamed are to be found the big game animals: antelope, elk, moose and both mule and white-tailed deer; as well as the beaver, bobcat, coyote, lynx, red fox and a host of other smaller animals.
As well as 220 species of birds. Surrounded by a panorama of greenery, trickling springs and lush coulees, the some 500,000 annual visitors are often thrilled at sunset by the bugle of an elk intermixed with the howling of the coyotes.
A few feet past the administrative offices, we drove past a large swimming pool, edged by a new interpretive centre, then around the trout-filled idyllic Lake Loch Leven. Nestled in a forest, in the core of the park, this small body of water, edged by a beach and all types of cabins, offers many water recreational activities.
Back on the main road, we turned and slowly made our way under towering trees to the Cypress Park Resort Inn - a deluxe modern inn set amid the tall slender lodge-pole pines. An employee who I talked to was in love with his prairie oasis. He waxed poetic about its attributes - from among these that mosquitoes came only in spring and disappeared in summer. There were no mosquitoes that day, but all summer? I was leery of his words.
Exploring the park we drove past an amphitheatre, seating about 260 people, a 9-hole golf course, riding and hiking trails; and a horse rental site before reaching Lookout Point - a high spot overlooking the countryside below. The panoramic scene of the a forest island tumbling down to a patchwork quilt of farmland below made it appear that we were standing on a green landscape in the sky. In winter the slopes before us, leading to the prairies below, are the playground of skiers and toboggan (traditional Inuit sleds) lovers.
Fort Walsh National Park
Law and order for the “Whoop-Up” country
From the Centre Block we took a dirt road through the ‘Gap' to a paved road that led southward to Fort Walsh National Park and northward to the Cypress Hills Vineyard & Winery. We turned northward and drove for about 10 minutes to the Winery - the only winemaking establishment in the Prairie Provinces.
After touring the facility, we tried a number of its fine wines, which put us in a good mood for the exploration of Fort Walsh, a 20-minute drive away.
James Walsh, the first commander of the North West Mounted Police in South Western Saskatchewan established Fort Walsh in 1875 - once the largest town between Winnipeg and Vancouver. Whiskey drinking had resulted in the massacre of 20 Assinniboin Indians around the Abe Farwell and Moses Solomon Trading Posts and this bloody event hastened the dispatch of the North West Mounted Police (RCMP) to the area.
However, the fort was abandoned in 1883, but during its six years of existence, law and order was extended to the lawless so-called ‘Whoop-Up’ country on the prairies. They dealt with the local tribes, the thousands of Sioux who sought refuge in Canada after the defeat of Custer in Montana, the settlers and the whiskey traders.
At the Visitor's Reception Centre, we examined displays highlighting the history of the region then took a bus for the 2.4 km (1.5 mi) bus ride to the restored and refurnished Farwell Trading Post. On the way back to the Centre, we stopped at the reconstructed Fort Walsh, reminding one of the colourful and compelling past - when men crossed the frontier on horseback and millions of bison roamed freely on the plains. Here we lived awhile in the re-created atmosphere of the 1870's frontier town, brought alive by costumed guides.
Amid this aura, it was easy to go back to the time of the ‘Whoop-Up’ country when the area was peopled by a fascinating assortment of characters - the time when there was a saying ‘A man's life is worth a horse, and a horse is worth a pint of whiskey.’
As the day began to wane, we made our way to the Reesor Ranch, located in the lush-forested plateau where we intended to stay the night. That day, amid the greenery of Saskatchewan's most unique provincial park we had gloried for a while in its cool breezes and marvelled at its beauty. It was truly a fulfilling experience, our shot journey through Cypress Hills - one of the most visited spots on the southern prairies.