Grasslands National Park   7 comments

Posted at 11:57 am in Uncategorized

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.

Written by bev on October 27th, 2009