Barren and beige; that’s how LIZ FLEMING remembers Saskatchewan being portrayed in her elementary school geography textbook. With a visit to Grasslands National Park, she re-writes what those authors failed to see.
THE ONLY WAY TO BE SURE OF WHAT you’ve found,” said Brenda, our über knowledgeable Parks Canada guide, “is to lick your finger and tap. If your finger doesn’t stick, it’s a rock. If it does, it’s bone.”
In this case, our fingers stuck—to a dinosaur bone. Hiking through Saskatchewan’s Grasslands National Park, we’d found part of the leg of a Triceratops lying in the middle of a well-travelled path. Why wasn’t it behind glass in a museum? Apparently, some Saskatchewan paleontologists take a different approach to fossil finds than their counterparts in other provinces.
“Our scientists seem to leave a lot of fossils where they’re found, thinking more of the same creature might be nearby,” Brenda explained, pointing to a very dinosaur-ish looking hill beside us. “One day, they’ll excavate and maybe find the rest of this guy.”
LICKING AND STICKING YOUR finger to a random Triceratops leg is just one of the many surprises Saskatchewan has in store. Thanks to my grade four geography textbook, I’d been expecting nothing but wheat. With its cracked and much-masking-taped spine, From Sea to Sea had a chapter for each province and territory but didn’t give equal treatment. Thrilling photos of towering icebergs, salmon leaping up sparkling rivers, a schooner heading into crashing waves… the West, the East and the North got all the love. Poor Saskatchewan was prairie—flat and beige.
A summertime girlfriends’ camping trip to Grasslands National Park, one of the country’s most beautiful nature preserves, changed all those misconceptions. Saskatchewan is anything but flat… or beige. In fact, the expansive Grasslands park is a collection of contrasting landscapes and adventure opportunities so numerous, you’d have to stay for a month to explore them all. Though there are driving tours that will show you the park, we started with a guided horseback trail ride instead.
A group of hapless city girls who knew nothing about riding, we were relieved to find our well-trained horses were in total control of us. They knew just how to navigate through the sagebrush, over the dry hummocks and through the waving grasses. So with the sun on our shoulders, a breeze on our faces and our guide pointing out wildflowers, lichens and grasses, we happily relaxed into a rolling, confident rhythm that didn’t hint at the stiff muscles that lay ahead. After a few hours, we knew why cowboys walk the way they do, but there was no rest for the witless. Our Grasslands guide had the perfect cure—a hike up a butte.
The well-worn path we took wasn’t very difficult—just challenging enough to work out all those saddle kinks while creating new ones. Along the way we spied rattlesnake holes and black widow spider webs, all from a respectful distance, and the view across a sweeping expanse of prairie, dotted with smaller rock outcroppings, was a photographer’s dream. That might have been enough excitement for one day, but Saskatchewan’s next big surprise was waiting at the bottom of the butte.
“Ever seen quicksand?” our guide asked.
I’d seen it only in an old TV cartoon featuring a big mass of bubbling goop into which Bugs Bunny sank, leaving nothing but his ears poking out. This quicksand was anything but cartoonish. Not sand at all, but rather a dry, thick, black muck. It looked innocuous—until we probed it with a big stick. Fascinated, we watched as that stick was slowly sucked out of sight, and we all moved a few prudent steps back from the edge.
GRASSLANDS NATIONAL PARK is divided into two enormous sections—the East and West Block—with each boasting outstanding features. One of my favourites was the East Block prairie dog “town.” There, dozens of small, black-tailed prairie dogs had built their burrows in hard-packed dirt, creating a complex little community. The best way to watch and photograph them, we found, was to stand stock-still and let them scurry past, collect small bits of this and that, then rush madly back to their burrows. The best moments came when we saw the prairie dog alert system swing into action. It didn’t take much—an unintended scuff of a boot against the dry soil could make enough noise to send the whole colony into high alert. The prairie dog closest to the offending sound would stand tall and start a chattering alarm. Like a furry relay squad, the message would race from burrow to burrow until suddenly, an army of tiny heads would pop down below the surface.
If the tiniest creatures of the Grasslands park were entertaining, the largest were positively breathtaking. Plains bison, a species once pushed nearly to extinction, are repopulating their natural habitat, thanks to Grasslands National Park’s efforts. You’ll find them wandering in various parts of the park, and each time you do, their size and majesty will stun you. We met one handsome but glum male, sitting alone at the base of a cliff, in the East Block’s badlands: The Valley of 1,000 Devils. Our guide explained that when bison mate, the older, stronger males court females and they shut their young counterparts out of the action. Since the hookup happens just once a year, a male who doesn’t get lucky is left to pout until next season.
PERHAPS THAT LONE MALE was on our minds later that night as we gathered around the campfire, full of barbecued steak and berry pie. Quintessential camp counsellor Brenda and some of the ever-present Parks Canada team gathered all the campers in the area, pulled out guitars and sang old country songs; the ones about loving and losing, and aching hearts.
Far from big city lights, Grasslands National Park is one of Canada’s most stunning nature preserves and a designated Dark-Sky Preserve. As the campfire singalong ended, I took one last upward look at a jet black sky exploding with stars and thought this was not only the perfect place for a lovesick bison to wait for better luck in next year’s mating dance, but also for an Ontario girl to fall in love with a Saskatchewan that is anything but flat or beige.
PS. This article originally appeared in our Summer/Fall 2020 print issue
Not a subscriber? Sign up here for the new issue of Canadian Traveller!