Archive for October, 2009
This is my second post of the day – to follow the previous piece on Grasslands National Park. As I attempt to get these posts up, I’ve already traveled through two more provinces and four states, so my writings are greatly lagging my journey. No matter. One thing I’ve found during these travels is that it’s difficult to keep up some kind of steady net presence while on the road. Between time spent moving from place to place, and then the everyday routine of camp life – setting up and breaking camp, cooking our meals over a camp stove, hiking, caring for the dogs, mapping out the next leg of our route — it all takes time. Writing posts and finding net connections isn’t always that easy to work into our schedule.
So far, most of these posts have been about our visits to specific places. However, there’s a lot more to life on the road than camping and hiking around. There’s the getting from one place to the next along networks of roads over which I’ve never been before. Sometimes, a road will lead off into a direction that will take us many miles out of our way. Other times, it will become so bad that I have to stop and decide whether to push on or backtrack and take a different route. Weather often dictates whether to continue down a dirt road, or try to drive through a mountain pass.
Then there are mundane things such as making sure that the van has enough gas to make it from a town, into a remote place, and back again, or whether we have enough drinking water onboard to camp somewhere in the back country for several days. A lot of these considerations are easy enough to figure out when you’re familiar to an area, or have been over a certain road before. Let me just say that traveling through new territory is not so easy, especially when you’re alone with your two dogs and there’s no one else with whom you can brainstorm as you plan a route. Occasionally, I get feeling a little overwhelmed and wondering what the hell I’m doing out here, especially during one of those (fortunately) rare times when it’s growing dark and I’m driving along, hoping that there really *is* an open campground at the end of this winding road. I try very hard not to make stupid mistakes when they can be avoided. I call ahead for park information, carefully plan distances using a big sack of maps, keep as up to date as possible on the weather forecasts for the areas ahead of me, and try to carry extra supplies of water, propane for the stove, food for all of us, and keep the blackberry and a bunch of other gear fully charged off of a power inverter that runs off the van’s DC system. The same unit can be used to boost the van’s battery in the event of problems. Doing all of this stuff would keep two people well-occupied, but it’s almost too much for one person. I make this admission for those people who are contemplating similar journeys — and I know there are a few among those who read my blog or who have written to me to ask for details about this or that. All I can say is to plan ahead, work out as many details as possible before setting out, and be prepared to change how you do things, make additions to your gear as you go along, etc…
However, when all is said and done, there will be mistakes made. Some are minor and you just shrug them off. Some can be more than annoying — like the day that I stopped at Cranbrook to do laundry at a coin wash, then traveled on through the Kootenays, thinking that I’d be able to find a certain campground open. Time and distance miscalculations left us with no other choice than to check in to a motel around dark. With two dogs in tow, the motel bill for one night was close to a hundred and fifty bucks – which, on my budget, is a bit of an ouch. I try to ignore such glitches and find something positive in them. Let’s see… that night, I turned on the tv to drown out some noise from a nearby room and watched a reasonably decent movie on Darwin that I wouldn’t have otherwise seen. Also, I had a good hot shower — something that is also difficult to come upon when camping your way across a continent in the late season when park facilities are pretty much shut down.
Is all of this hassle worth it? Yes. To me, I regard last and this year’s journeys as essential — perhaps life saving. Just the five months spent back at the farm getting it sold was enough to convince me of that. At the moment, the only place that I feel comfortable and able to function is out here, far from the madding crowd. I no longer feel part of the world as it once seemed. This is my world now. One of searching for out-of-the way campsites where I can spend time studying the natural world. Towns and cities hold little or no interest to me — in fact, most of what goes on there seems meaningless now, if it ever did, that is. Those that I pass through have become a blur along the highway – the fast-food restaurants, big box stores, gas bars, strip malls, and casinos. Was that Moose Jaw or Medicine Hat that I passed through yesterday? The more one travels, the more that towns and cities become faceless entities along the road. What once seemed to exist only in more-heavily populated parts of the U.S., may be found many times along the TransCanada highway, and all down the Pacific Northwest. I have a difficult time relating to the world that has been taking shape around us.
Well, enough for these ramblings. A little about the photos in this post. After leaving Grasslands, I intended to camp in the Cypress HIlls Interprovincial Park which spans the border of Saskatchewan and Alberta. Unfortunately, the high winds and rain that developed just as I left Grasslands was to dog me for the next couple of hours as I traveled west along secondary highways. The wind became so strong that it was only with great difficulty that I could keep the van tracking straight. Within a couple of hours, my right shoulder and arm felt as though I’d been manning the helm on a sailing ship during a raging gale. I didn’t think I could go on for much longer and stopped at a couple of small Saskatchewan towns to see if their campgrounds were open – but no, they were gated shut for the season. Biting the bullet, I decided to drive on to Medicine Hat and then on down to Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park which lies just north of the border with Montana. Along the way, I saw several homesteads with houses such as the above examples. I find it amazing that some of these structures remain standing, especially in the winds that seem to prevail through this part of the prairies.
As I drew closer to Writing-on-Stone, I watched for Pronghorn along the way. This area is so like some of the regions where I’ve seen Pronghorn on the high plains of southern Oregon. I was not to be disappointed. By the time I reached the park gates, I’d spotted two small and one large band – each consisting of a buck with several does. The band in this photo had raced out of a grain field and across the road almost right in front of the van, at breakneck speed as the buck chased a particular doe while the rest followed. Writing-on-Stone proved to be a safe refuge from the weather and grind of several difficult days on the road, but more about it in my next post.
Back in August, a few weeks before leaving the farm for the last time, I made use of any spare moments to map out stopping points for the Canadian part of the trip. When I started to compile a list of possibilities, it soon became apparent that many of them were places that Don and I had always planned to hike or canoe sometime in the future after he retired. One of the places on my list was Grasslands National Park which lies south of Swift Current, Saskatchewan, just a stone’s throw from the U.S. border.
Leaving Buffalo Pound Provincial Park, I drove westward to Swift Current, hoping to lose the strong winds that rocked my van so violently from the park to around Moose Jaw. They seemed to ease up by late morning, so I made the decision to carry on straight south to Val Marie, the town where the park headquarters is located. The 120 km (70 mile) road down to the town and park starts out like just about any other secondary highway, but after passing the town of Cadillac, the pavement narrowed became increasingly rough and broken. Farms were now more scattered, and the land became rolling and with soil that looked poorer and less productive than what I’d seen further north along the TransCanada highway. Just before reaching Val Marie, a badger scrambled across the road and up an embankment.
I entered the visitor center, taking note of the dimness of the interpretive displays. It occurred to me that they were a little darker than even the moodiest of museum exhibits. One of the park staff appeared from the office area to see what they could do for me and apologized for the power outage. Some line work up near Swift Current had left the whole town without electricity for the entire day, shutting down the town’s only food store where I had intended to restock my water supply. Kindly, the park staff refilled my water jugs so that I could venture on.
Before leaving home, I had been in touch with one of the park staff regarding car camping and had learned that this was possible in one location in each of the two major blocks of the park. Armed with a map, I set out for the park entrance – a distance of several kilometers. Not long after passing through a cattle gate, I began to see evidence the park’s most conspicuous residents – large colonies of Black-tailed prairie dogs. Where they congregate, the land looks a bit like a moonscape of mounds and craters, upon which at least one or often two of the little creatures was perched.
They don’t seem to be too nervous of human activity as many of the mounds are located just a few feet from the road. I was able to sit on the roadside and observe them nibbling at plants, scampering from mound to mound, grooming, and socializing with occupants on neighbouring mounds. I had hoped to see Burrowing owls as well as they are found in the same areas of the park where they hunt among the prairie dog colonies. However, I missed seeing any on this visit. One of the park staff told me that the best time to see them is in summer when the young owls are learning to hunt.
After driving the main park road from the entrance to the boundary with private ranchlands, I returned to the area designated for car camping and day use. It’s the site of an old farmstead known as Belza’s ranch. The old house stands on the edge of a coulee through which the Frenchman River flows. The prairie grasslands stretch off in every direction, broken only by rolling hills and a buttes on the skyline. I parked the van on the mown area and we got out to wander around to explore the area.
Aside from the house, there are a few reminders of human occupation at the site – and old clothesline and a little of the gardens. The view from the farmhouse must have been spectacular, but it would have been a windy spot.
Down below the edge of the coulee, the Frenchman River could be seen, tracing a narrow, winding green ribbon across the landscape. Earlier in the day, I had watched mule deer browsing and Northern Harriers coursing over the leafy brush along he little river.
Fires are not allowed within the park, so the dogs and I sat around the van our mats and pillows and shared sandwiches and oatmeal cookies. I set up a spotting scope to scan the landscape looking for deer and antelope. Just before sunset, I heard the unmistakable call of Sandhill cranes and quickly searched the sky. Soon, a small flock of about a dozen came into view, wheeling in circles, then reforming into a line to carry on their southward migration. It gave me quite a charge to think that, several weeks from now, this same small flock will perhaps join the many thousands of others down in the southeast corner of Arizona where we too will seek refuge from the winter cold.
The dogs and I had a good and peaceful sleep. By dawn, the winds that had rocked the van up at Buffalo Pound Provincial Park had found their way to Grasslands. The clear sky of the previous day was now overcast and looking as though it would rain before long. Park staff had warned me to head back to the paved access road immediately if it began to rain as the dirt roads within the park can quickly become impassable due to the type of soil. We began making our way back towards the entrance, but did stop to check out the new interpretive signage that staff had been installing the previous day as I drove through. One of the sites was near the remains of an old corral of posts and barbed wire — one of several similar enclosures throughout the park — reminders of the land’s former use as part of several working ranches.
The three of us walked to a spot along the river’s edge. Now the wind was growing much stronger, bending the sage and grasses. Within minutes, it actually became difficult to walk in a straight line. As we passed the prairie dog colonies, I made note that there was not even one animal to be seen. How lucky to have arrived the day before such winds and to have a chance to see the creatures actively moving about.
My last stop before leaving the park was to read one of the new signs which described a large buffalo stone – a glacial erratic with edges worn smooth by countless generations of buffalo scratching and rubbing against it.
As I returned to the van, the first drops of rain splashed on my windshield. After studying the crackled clay soil sprinkled with small stones, I could well imagine how slick the driving could become if one were to venture off the main gravel access road. Soon, we were back on pavement — just in time as the wind picked up speed and rain began to fall in earnest. We passed well-fed black beef cattle grazing through the golden stubble of recently harvested grain fields. At Val Marie, I stopped at a gas pump on the edge of town – a single pump located out near a fuel storage tank, to fill the van before continuing on our way in the next leg of our journey. I hope to return to Grasslands again — perhaps in the spring on my way through. There is a growing herd of bison there – I did not attempt to see them on this trip, but perhaps next time through. Also, it would be nice to see young Burrowing owls learning to hunt. A couple of days after my visit, Grasslands staff were planning to reintroduce Black-footed Ferrets to the park. It is hoped that these captive-bred animals will prosper and once more populate their former habitat. As I drove onwards, I contemplated how there is so much to see in this world, and not just once, but throughout the seasons.