Written by Andy Goodson
Photography by Andy Goodson and Sean Hootz
"The hot spot in the province this evening is Maple Creek, sitting at—degrees..."
These scratchy words have beamed over the AM radio nearly every morning leading up to Easter weekend. While most of the province is hit with the predictable, and somehow always "unexpected" springtime snowfall, it's hard not to dream of casting a fishing line under the sunny skies of south-western Saskatchewan.
About Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park
The park lies in the south-west corner of Saskatchewan, extending past the Alberta boundary. It is separated into two areas roughly 30 kilometres apart, the West Block wilderness area, and Centre Block - the main resort destination for campers.
Cypress is a significant departure from the northern forest and parkland we usually visit. The hills are the highest point between the Rockies and the Laurentian mountains. The surrounding area is arid and dry, but the elevation of the Cypress Upland and increased moisture allows the proper conditions for forests to thrive. It is an anomaly in Saskatchewan and the only place where lodgepole pine grow - a tree that is more familiar in the montane regions of Alberta and Montana.
To find out more about the area's ecology, visit The Saskatchewan Conservation Data Centre.
Part One: Bye-bye Battle Creek Road
March 25, 2016 - "Can you pass me the wrench?" Sean asks, kneeling down to an empty wheel well. A brake pad had fallen out and now there's fluid spewing all over the ground too. It's been a rough morning, but at least we haven't left Regina yet.
"Will it be okay if we take your car?" he asks me with a defeated squint in his eyes. I don't think my four-door sedan can handle much more abuse. But it's not our style to give up on a trip.
I reluctantly volunteer my car for the mission, and solidarity I suppose. Our friends, Matt, Nate and Gill, along with the two pups, Jean-Paul and Oaty, have just arrived - all crammed into one car and ready for another four-hour drive.
After hobbling his vehicle into its final resting place, we load up my car and make one last stop at the drive through before leaving town. I'm amused by Sean's order: a double Big Mac, two double cheeseburgers, fries and a coke. Watching him crush the greasy meal in under seven minutes is only more impressive.
We finally merge into Good Friday highway traffic. With nothing but the endless plains on the horizon, we venture further away from our familiar forest. Only after passing through Moose Jaw does the landscape give way to the barren, rolling hills that characterize much of Saskatchewan's south-west.
The lifeless landscape reminds me that we haven't left winter far behind. With over two hours of seeing nothing but fences, trucks and the odd pumpjack, I have plenty of time to question how well we have thought through our camping plans.
"Your friend said we shouldn't have any problem getting into the West Block, right?" I ask Sean. "Oh yeah, he says it's been warm and dry for weeks. We'll be fine," he replies. "Besides, it's just car-camping."
The city of Swift Current comes into view. "It's going to be great. The site is right by a trout stream, there'll be lots of trees and some of the darkest skies we'll ever see," I say. We drive down the final stretch of highway for one more eternity before turning in to Maple Creek and onto a backroad that should lead us into the north side of the West Block wilderness area.
While the Centre Block is arguably the more popular side of Cypress, we find the West Block more intriguing. It is home to the beautiful Conglomerate Cliffs and Battle Creek— a stream that offers anglers the chance for a hat-trick: brook trout, brown trout and rainbow trout. A few sources have informed me that access will be easy, as long as it hasn't rained in a while.
We ride through the pastures on narrow rocky roads. I wince at the clunk of each tiny boulder, chipping off one more piece of my car's undercarriage. Just hold on for one last trip. "Why on Earth do you not have CAA," Sean says.
There is a light frost on the trees, but after hours of driving through open space, the forest is a warm and welcome invitation. Sean is leaning outside of the passenger window, snapping photos of the scenery every eight seconds. We've finally made it!
The road leads us around a steep curve and into the forest. Then, the excitement is wiped from our faces.
"...What the f..." I mutter. "I think we might have made a mistake." Our cars pull up to a dead-end as the gravel road tapers into grass... and through private property. It's already 7 p.m. and we don't have time to be lost.
A quick look at the topographic map reveals that we've been following a cart trail. We have to go all the way back to Maple Creek and try getting into the West Block from the main entrance near Fort Walsh National Historic Site.
Another half-hour later, we find ourselves back on the highway heading south. We waste no time getting back to the hills - racing against the falling sun. A quick right turn and zigzag up the steep asphalt slopes brings us all the way to the elevated plateau.
At the peak we find our last rays of daylight fading away, along with our last chance of getting to our destination.
"You've got to be kidding me," Sean says. "Just drive around it." We park the car and step outside to consult with the rest of the group. What are our options?
"No. There's no way in hell my car is making it around that," Nate says, quite bluntly. But Sean and I remain focused on the gate with contempt.
"What do you think is going to happen if someone finds us down there? We'll end up in the drunk tank with a five-hundred dollar tow charge," Nate says. He's entirely right, but I don't want to give up. In the background, Matt sings in a low voice: "You gotta know when to hold 'em...know when to fold 'em..."
It's dark by the time we finish arguing. We decide to take a drive and find some public pasture land near the park boundary. We quickly set up our tent in a discreet location and warm our hands around a small fire - using our own firewood and doing our absolute best not to leave a significant footprint.
The skies of Cypress provide our midnight entertainment. The landscape appears dipped in black until a bright light shines over the horizon. Like a distant mushroom cloud, the full moon makes its grand reveal - rising faster than I've ever seen before.
Part Two: Reclaiming the Trip
"How'd you sleep?"
"Like I slept on cow shit."
I've been awake for hours now. Constant wind gusts crawl beneath the tent walls, keeping me awake with a brisk chill. Matt is thrashing around in his sleeping bag across from me. We've set the tent pole too high, and I overestimated the comfort my thermal sleeping bag liner can provide at below zero.
I wait for the rest of the group to wake up. Oaty licking the frost off the tent next to my head keeps me in good company.
I slip outside the tent. The sun has been up for a while. With no energy to prepare a complicated breakfast, I devour an entire loaf of challah bread to myself with a few scraps of jerky for dessert.
The rest of the group soon follows and we hastily pack up our tent and clean up the area. I'm proud to say there is virtually no evidence that we have stayed the night - save a few crumpled cow patties.
We make our way back to Maple Creek for the third time this trip. After a quick lunch and regathering our morale, we take to the Centre Block of Cypress Hills in hopes of finding a less sketchy place to spend the night. A park that is usually full of life, families and friends appears deserted this time of year.
Our driving tour ends at the trail-head to a lookout point named Bald Butte. It's a short walk, only 200 metres up a steep hill. When we reach the peak, we find what sets Cypress apart from anywhere else we've been in Saskatchewan.
Standing high above the rolling grasslands - it's a view not to be taken for granted. The cold wind makes it difficult to appreciate, but we all agree that it is an undeniably beautiful place.
"You know what, last night's camp-out was actually pretty sweet. We should try to find another spot like that outside of the park," Sean suggests. But our tired and wind-burned group lacks the nerve required to motivate each other. We're just not familiar with the area. Besides, all of the signs, fences and gates carry a heavy implication that we would be unwelcome.
After browsing through the campgrounds, we find a nicely sheltered site in Deer Hollows, nestled under a canopy of towering lodgepole pines.
With the better part of the afternoon ahead, Sean and I set up our rods and reels then leave the hills once again to check out the streams south of the park. The evergreen ceiling and amber floors break away into gray pastures once again as we descend through the hills.
In a place that looks so dry, it's hard to imagine any streams. But eventually, we see a fence post with a mounted sign: 'Angler Parking.' We open the barbed wire fence and follow a path down into a deep river valley. Only a mass of bare, tangled bush give away that there is something resembling a stream.
"They call it Sucker Creek."
I lose my new Mepps spinner on the first cast... Those things are like six bucks. I need a change of plan... There are far too many dead branches and the stream is shallow, but I can see several little brook trout darting beneath fallen logs. I set up a small bubble float and tie on the smallest spider fly I have in my box.
There's only one spot with enough room to cast. But this time... it hits. Now, I'm not saying I wrangled in a blue marlin, but damn if I didn't pull in the feistiest little trooper in the creek. I say that confidently because this is about as big as they get in this particular stream.
I tangle a few more pickle trout before feeling guilty for bothering them. It's still nice to fit in one last catch before the season closes though.
We head back to our site, completely lethargic from constant exposure to the wind. Another silent night in Saskatchewan's 'busiest' provincial park.
Settling in around 1 a.m., I look forward to a good night's sleep. The tent is set up just right, there's no wind and no excuse for why I can't sleep. I'm so tired and sore. But I barely touched my camera all day, so I have nothing to show for this trip - a trip that was way harder than I thought it would be. Man, we should have gone past that gate—good god I'm sick of gates and eating cheese puffs for dinner my mouth is so dry where the hell is my water I can't wait to sleep in my bed...
I turn on my phone for a second...4:30 a.m. Why is it that whenever you least want to be taking photos, it's always the time you absolutely should be taking photos?
I get into my car and explore early-morning Cypress alone.
I return to the campsite around 7 a.m. to start on breakfast. Nobody is up yet. I enjoy some crispy duck fat-fried potatoes, garlic sausage, eggs and a pot of coffee all to myself.
It's been a good Easter morning. Maybe it's the time alone, or just the sun finally shining through the trees, but whatever has been missing from this trip doesn't seem to matter any more. Besides, it's the attitude that makes or breaks a trip.
The rest of the group emerges from the tent and we begin to clean up camp. Sean looks particularly dishevelled.
"Yeah, I'm pretty much ready to leave," he says with a stretch. "At least it's just the first trip of the season." He pulls up a log to the fire pit, watching the last smouldering pieces of ash. "It's like you're eating a burger. You take a bite, and it's awesome... But then it's over and you're still excited because you've got more burgers left."