Story and photography by Andy Goodson
When someone asks me what my big plans are for the summer holidays, my answer is usually disappointing. Long lines at the grocery store, horrible traffic, crowded campgrounds...The 'big' weekends in summer are better suited for watching cartoons in a dank basement as far as I'm concerned.
But then there's some places that just aren't busy even in the most hectic of seasons. Grasslands National Park is one of those places.
Why does the park remain mostly empty? Allow me to make a few sweeping generalizations:
- Most people assume they've already seen the grasslands while driving on the Trans-Canada Highway.
- Access isn't...great. Many routes require driving on thin-membrane surfaces and gravel roads.
- It makes you thirsty just looking at it.
Like most of Saskatchewan's natural attractions, Grasslands National Park gets snubbed by tourists for not being located near a major highway. It also lacks the amenities associated with more popular national parks such as luxury hotels, boutiques and restaurants. Instead, you 900 square kilometres of wild prairie to discover at your own pace.
While the rest of the country makes its annual pilgrimage to the lake, it's hard to resist the quiet dignity of the south—but the absence of forests doesn't make nature any less wild.
About the Killdeer Badlands and Grasslands National Park
The Killdeer Badlands straddle the Montana border in the southeastern extremity of Grasslands National Park, Saskatchewan. The badlands are part of the Wood Mountain Plateau—one of few Canadian regions that escaped the ice during the Wisconsin glaciation. While the rest of the province was covered under a kilometre-thick sheet of ice, much of the Wood Mountain uplands stood above resulting in a remarkable preservation of sand and stones dating back to the last great extinction event. In 1874, Canada's first documented Cretaceous fossils were found in the Killdeer Badlands by George Mercer Dawson.
Grasslands National Park protects one of the rarest ecosystems in North America. In Saskatchewan, only 25% of native mixed prairie grasslands remains intact. Due to the susceptible nature of its topsoil (exacerbated by agricultural practices) restoring native prairie can take centuries. Parks Canada continues to expand Grasslands National Park by purchasing adjacent pasture and farm land, beginning a long rehabilitation process that will help preserve habitats for rare and endangered species.
The East Block of Grasslands National Park permits backcountry camping by self-registration with a few stipulations:
- No open fires. Fire bans may extend to camp stoves.
- You must set up camp at least one kilometre away from roads and trails.
- Pack out what you pack in.
JULY 2, 2016 - SOMEWHERE SOUTH OF REGINA, SASKATCHEWAN
Teisha flips through the Parks Canada visitor's guide I had slily placed on the passenger seat before she tosses it on the dash. "It'll be nice, trust me," I try to convince myself as much as her. The AM radio crackles as we shoot down a highway past the flattest plains we've ever seen.
I've wanted to revisit the south ever since my first trip to the Big Muddly Badlands over two years ago, but it's hard to convince my friends to join me let alone my significant other. Teisha hails from Calgary, so naturally when I speak of great hills and vistas, she rolls her eyes and pats my head.
My decision to head south is more for myself rather than to convince anyone that topography exists in this province. The forest is too unpredictable this season and I don't feel like spending Canada day weekend on a crowded beach. I'm not about to drag my girlfriend into mosquito-hell on our only backpacking trip of the year either. I'm done with flooded rivers and flipped canoes. This trip needs to go well for my own sanity.
We pull over on the side of the Ghost Town Trail junction to double-check the map and take a quick stretch. I step outside and slam the car door jetting out a cloud of warm dust. I take in a deep breath. Even in Saskatchewan's flattest regions, there's at least a patch of trees, a barn, a fence or something to break up the landscape. Interruptions are sparse here.
It must take a special kind of person to live in this place - the abiding pastoral type - a rare breed of which I am not. I find that only seconds after staring into the plains, silence becomes a high-pitched ringing. Depth perception fails as land and sky merge into one vast and endless painting in every direction. Even the most distant horizon feels like something you can reach out and touch. The walls start closing in.
"Are you feeling alright?" Teisha asks as I flop back into my seat in a nervous sweat. I exhale. "I think...I think I'm a city slicker."
The engine rumbles back to life as we continue our drive westward into the Missouri Coteau. The long highway soon transforms into an undulating string of ups and downs over barren hills.
In no hurry, we decide to take the scenic route through Willow Bunch and Sylvan Valley, making stops at the St. Victor Petroglyphs and a small regional park—both of which are deserted. I'm not sure why the petroglyphs aren't drawing guests on the busiest weekend of the year, but the park doesn't leave much to be questioned; it's pretty much biker territory. Besides a memorial questionably placed at a First Nations historic site, there are some heavy-handed giveaways like Harley Davidson billboards and firewood provided in the form of wood pallets.
We take off pretty quickly not wanting to be around if a biker jamboree were to suddenly break out. Extra time for the likelihood of getting lost on our way to Grasslands would be helpful anyway.
Teisha turns the radio dial searching for a local station when we catch the end of an announcement: "...possibility of severe thunderstorms affecting the Moose Jaw area..."
Good thing we'll be far away from that! ...I turn the radio off.
The highways are peaceful. The sun is out. Traffic is practically non-existent. This is exactly what we're looking for.
A few more kilometres over winding dirt roads brings us to the ranch at Poverty Ridge. Inconspicuously enough, the road continues through the property and over one last plateau before the landscape erupts into deep valleys of sculpted sandstone and velvety grasslands.
"Shit yeah, I told you I know where the hills are at," I yell and wheeze after inhaling a tiny bug. Teisha is totally impressed and most definitely not comparing everything to Banff National Park.
We relax for a long while in the trademark red Adirondack chairs perched above a deep valley. A couple of cyclists ride by. A family takes pictures on the ridge. This is about as action-packed as it gets here I guess.
Around 5 pm, we decide it's time to gear up and do what we've come here to do.
Parked at the Zahursky Ridge trailhead, we tie our hiking shoes and strap on our backpacks. We watch as the only remaining visitors exit the parking area in their truck. The quietness of the area suddenly takes on a different character.
The trunk door slams. Are we ready?
We walk north, searching for a slope gentle enough to descend the ridge without rolling 80 feet into a cactus patch. After stepping off the trail and making our way through steep coulees, the prehistoric qualities of the landscape begin to illuminate.
In the midst of exploring a new and exciting world, a warm wind picks up and daylight fades with rain clouds filling the western horizon. My nerves begin to crawl. There's no such thing as carefree backpacking is there?
"We have nothing to shelter from wind or rain except our tent. We'll need to avoid the coulees and low areas that could turn into shitty mudslides if there's a torrential downpour...It never rains here. Why would it now?...But plateaus will make us susceptible to lightning strikes. We need to find some kind of bi-level valley or something. I miss trees so god damn much."
Teisha looks at me like I need to chill out. I'm fine.
We find an ideal location to set up our tent while keeping an eye on the storm clouds moving northeast. The campsite isn't the most spectacular considering the abundance of high viewpoints, but at least it's practical.
We unpack the rest of our gear and make ourselves at home. Having never camped in the grasslands before, I'm excited for the experience. Stars, silence and maybe a sunrise—that's all I want. Looks like the storm is going to pass over too.
Teisha and I break away from camp to explore the hills until suppertime. In the right place, one can avoid the wind and find deafening silence. I've experienced it many times in the woods, but out in the wide-open grasslands it scrambles the senses. The sound of your own thoughts can be overbearing while the unmoving landscape appears too serene to be real, like watching a nature documentary on mute.
Thunder grumbles in the distance, shaking me out of a mild delirium.
I dare myself to the hill's peak and see bigger storm clouds accumulating in the west once again. Only now I notice bolts of lightning - the kind infamously known to start prairie wildfires - striking ground in the far-off distance.
I promptly scud down the hill and find Teisha sitting alone. She spots the look of uncertainty on my face immediately.
"Did you hear that? What's it looking like from up there?" she asks. I hesitate. She's not the type to complain and her trust isn't something I take for granted. On the other hand, I've promised an adventure and I won't give that up.
"I think we're good for now. Let's just keep an eye on it."
We make our way back down to the tent tucked in between two hills. Teisha lights the camp stove and throws on a frying pan filled with halved Brussels sprouts. I can't seem to find my appetite, even after scaling a few kilometres of terrain. The sound of sizzle fills the air as we stand in rapidly dimming daylight, unsure if the sun is setting or the clouds are just getting thicker.
I pace back and forth rearranging gear, removing metal objects from the tent and placing them away from camp. A person can still be electrocuted and killed by lightning from several kilometres away. But I need to do something. There's a famous saying about storms, "When thunder roars, go indoors." I hate that saying so much.
Teisha looks wide-eyed at the clouds and shifts her focus back to the sprouts. She asks if I need help with anything. I stutter an intelligible response.
"I'm not sure about this weather" I confess.
Teisha pauses. "Well, I've never done this before. I think that whatever you want to do, we'll do." I don't know how she remains so sedate while I'm clearly freaking out. Maybe she just hides it better.
Decisions. I remember when I first started wilderness backpacking and was far more cavalier. Those were good times. It was easy to be confident when I didn't know what warning signs to look for. But after several encounters with nature's indifference, successes now seem more attributable to luck than skill. This year has been nothing but shit-luck.
Maybe it won't be so bad? We could spend the night listening to rain speckling the tent before we wake up in a grassy utopia shimmering in morning dew. Yeah—that'd be nice. But there's a line between confidence and hubris. In one of the highest elevated and most open places in the entire province, lightning is a real concern. Don't ignore it.
Wind combs through the grass with a soft hiss. I walk to the peak of the ridge one last time before I settle my decision.
I move slowly back to our camp where Teisha sits next to our cooking dinner.
"I think we need to pack up..."
"Okay," she nods.
The air booms with a rumbling thunder and we start to move a little faster.
The clock is ticking. I turn off the camp stove and dump our supper into a plastic bag. Teisha starts emptying our tent of sleeping bags, mats and liners. I start stuffing everything I can find into my backpack. We dismantle the tent. The thunder continues.
Teisha scours the area for anything we might have left behind. I strap my last remaining gear to the outside of my backpack—a hot metal frying pan and aluminium plates. I am the Tin Man in a lightning storm.
As I kneel to tie my hiking boots, Teisha paces waiting for me to finish. I feel like she might be putting confidence in me without merit.
We throw on our backpacks and start walking immediately. It only takes a few steps before the sudden realization that every landmark appears completely identical. Now is not the time to get lost. We file through the moving grasses like soldiers deployed on a mission, deceiving ourselves into believing we know the route back to the car by memory alone.
White flashes are now a regular occurrence—at least once every twenty seconds. I've decided to ignore the thunder. No matter where I look in the distance, rain is falling and lightning striking. It's only a matter of time before our sanctuary is no more.
Usually storm fronts bring a bout of colder air, but the heat of the day still lingers in the sand. I stare at the ground as the first drop of sweat curls off the tip of my nose, leaving a small dark spot on the tip of my boot.
Left foot, right foot. We march uphill as the thunder cracks. Don't think of the metal strapped to your back.
"Do you know where we are?" Teisha yells as she falls behind. "Yes, we just have to keep going." I don't want to lie, but the truth is that we're going to get to the top of this hill and there's a good chance that it will be too steep to descend on the other side. If I am indeed mistaken, there's nothing we can do except go back and try another way—another way that could take twice as long.
A flash of light and crackling thunder sends a shiver through my entire nervous system. There is nothing else here for lightning to strike but us. I feel naked - blindfolded - like there's some psychopath firing a billion-volt rifle in the room and it's only a matter of time before I'm hit. I turn around and see Teisha climbing with a limp in her left leg.
"How are you doing, Teish? Are you okay?"
"I'm fine, but my ankle hurts. I think I might have rolled it..." She trudges another two steps as the clouds rumble again. Her eyes look weary, but there's no time to slow down. "Let me know if it gets to be too much." I keep walking forward. You did this to her.
The top of the hill doesn't bring any assurance as to where the vehicle might be. Only a sliver of sunlight remains as our guide. The car is somewhere southeast, but what if we get turned the wrong way? What if we're already lost? Going with your gut is not a great position to make life-threatening decisions.
We're granted some luck as the other side of the hill descends gradually into another valley, but I still have no idea how far we have left to go. The air feels heavy and humid. Rain is on its way.
With minds on auto-pilot, we make our way through the ancient corridors, stirring up a cloud of mosquitoes in the process. It ends with nowhere to go but up.
We finally reach the top of the valley and gasp trying to find our breaths while dripping sweat. Teisha opens her jacket to cool down, but the mosquitoes attack almost instantly. We give ourselves fifteen seconds to take a break as the spectacle in our periphery takes over our undivided attention.
Light-green hills, now darkened by the evening shadows, seem alien and unfamiliar. The last shred of sunlight peeks through a narrow slit between clouds and virga, casting a deep orange hue over the entire valley. We stand on Earth's peak in the heart of the apocalypse, lightning raining down all around us - growling and rumbling - in every single direction.
"This is bloody incredible," I laugh with that maniacal inflection one gets when rationality has long flown out the window. Teisha smiles for a second before turning her attention back to her leg and the thought of walking on it again.
We make haste along the valley ridge. For the first time since we left camp, I see a mundane - yet somehow memorable - patch of grass. We've been here before. I nearly miss the outline of my car in the distance as a flash breaks the near-complete darkness. The pans and plates clack and clank on my backpack as we rush through the last stretch of stirring grass on our way to the extraction point.
There isn't a single second to spare. I fumble with my backpack in the dark, using the lightning flashes to find wherever the hell I stored my keys... "You didn't." Sheets of rain begin to pour down my back. "Come on... you didn't..."
My fingers trace a clump of plastic and jagged metal. "Yes!" I hit the unlock button. "Teish! Take off your backpack and get inside." She jumps in as I throw the last of our gear into the backseat and slam the door.
I take one last look at the sheer chaos unfolding around us before getting in the car and strapping in.
"We made it." We take a few seconds to stare at rainfall smothering the windshield before a blinding flash of white and violet floods the vehicle interior and a crash of thunder rattles the dashboard. I twist the keys in the ignition as fast as I can, then pull out of the parking area and exit the gate.
The torrential downpour has already made the dirt roads a colossal mess, but we manage to find pavement. The highway winds through darkness broken by a constant strobe behind shadowy clouds—almost tranquil when viewed from the relative safety of an air-conditioned vehicle.
There's always a level of risk and pure, dumb luck whenever you put yourself against elements out of your control. While experience brings wisdom to help understand the warnings (sometimes as blunt as a radio weather forecast), nature remains indifferent. In a world of luxuries and comforts, this confrontation of one's own vulnerability is a needed reminder. Besides, the best memories aren't made while looking through a pane of glass.
Our trip to Grasslands might not have gone as expected, but it is no failure. We can still order pizza.