October 28, 2016, Swift Current, Saskatchewan: Day One
"Just tell them we had to pull over in Moose Jaw. You had diarrhea or something," says Sean, spinning the steering wheel toward a gaggle of four degenerate youths standing in a liquor store parking lot, chumming-it-up and minding their own business. Before he has the chance to fully stop the vehicle, I spill onto the pavement and run to greet my friends like an overexcited Bichon Frise.
They turn their backs in unison with arms crossed and shoulders cold as a northern front. I give my regrets: "We're only behind by an hour, what's the rush? It's a national park campground." No response. This must be Jason's work; the guy is an atomic clock with the unsympathetic discipline of a Siberian trapper. Thankfully, the rest of the group accepts my delivery of Sean's canned excuse without a grain of salt at the expense of my self-respect, I guess.
We pile back into our vehicles a short while later and head south down Highway 4 to Val Marie for another hour and a half of pastureland, dry ravines, and potholes of both terrain and asphalt.
Excitement for our first trip to the West Block of Grasslands National Park is mixed: Jason, Adam and Andrew have studied an extent of local geology and ecology and are anxious to witness the physical manifestation of dry textbook writings; Matt and Kyle are happy to be along for the ride without much faith in seeing anything of interest; and Sean flat-out denies there's anything worth seeing beyond the north-eastern forests. I've visited the East Block of the park for the first time this year, but the trip had been cut short by a severe lightning storm. I remain cautiously optimistic that late-October is a more gentle time to explore the slopes of native prairie.
Sean pulls-over just outside Val Marie to give time for the others to catch up before we make our way to the park boundary. He looks outside the window with a twitch of discomfort in his face. "Can you imagine what it would be like to live here?" Overcast skies tend to accentuate the bleak and dreary, especially in a region early surveyors damned as "unfit for habitation." But I shouldn't pretend to know the details of its local history. I only know what I've been told by a few travellers, artists and storytellers who've found inspiration in the plains: there's more to the prairie than what meets the eye. I don't own this opinion as a dweller of the parkland and forests, but I want to understand the kind of person who does.
Kyle and Andrew pull up beside. Sean rolls down his window. "It's been like fifteen minutes. What were you guys doing?" Kyle swings his head back, faking concern. "Oh, now you're in a big hurry to see some grass."
The gates to the park are by no means monumental. There is no climactic reveal, grand presentation or dramatic change in topography, just a cattle guard and endless acres of brown and grey. Matt is the first to point out a lone Plains bison in the distance, and the war-torn battlefield where black-tailed prairie dogs live. The gravel road winds through the Frenchman River Valley, a view soured by rain clouds and thoughts of setting up our tent.
"We must be getting close," Sean mutters to himself. I wonder how we might escape to Cypress Hills, and whether it would be worthwhile to drive there today or tomorrow.
Just past the bridge crossing, the Frenchman River Campground sits in beige camouflage, enclosed by fences like pastureland for grazing tourists. There's a small building for visitor information — closed for the season. The campsites are flat, gravelled parking spaces void of privacy. We pull into an empty lot and step outside.
Adam looks out into the treeless plain and smiles. "There's nothing here, hey? Like, really nothing. Oh my God." He sulks wide-eyed, as if he just paid seventy dollars for an unplayable video game.
We haven't brought enough tent pegs, so we build stakes from what little firewood we have. Matt spills pop all over his fresh blue jeans. I try using the outhouse, but the toilet paper is coarse. Please have mercy on us, Parks Canada.
Our tent setup is sloppy at best. Jason waits for an instant when group-work succumbs to idle chitchat and asks if we're all ready to go, knowing damn-well that I've just opened a fresh can of Pilsner. "Where do we go, Dear Leader?" he asks. I have no idea.
Jason, Matt, Kyle and I dogpile into Sean's vehicle, taking to the 'Ecotour Scenic Drive' – a route that the visitor's guide says will 'impress your friends' – while Andrew and Adam follow behind in their over-packed coupe.
The scenic part of the drive ends as soon as the road climbs out of the Frenchman River Valley and into the realm of private property once again. We traverse a sparse and featureless plain – save a few rocks, fences and telephone lines – as my own boredom triggers brief disappointment. I nod off at some point while listening to Kyle make the same jokes about "the Three Sisters" in a gap-toothed accent, and watching Jason's face gradually lose patience in the side-view mirror.
"Two Trees access. Let's go there," Jason commands Sean, reminding me that we've almost completed the tour without so much as a stop to urinate in the Great Wide-open.
We pull into the day-use area at the head of the Riverwalk Trail, a pale and barren land – starkly 'Old Testament.' The sharp rise in terrain on the opposite side of the valley contrasts with the flat multi-level plateaus near the muddy Frenchman River. A short trail skirts the washed-out riverbanks, crossing an expanse of grass prairie that reveals covered scars of a prairie wildfire.
Exercise and fresh air lifts the mood, along with our surrender to the grassland and its limitations, as the sound of heavy machinery at work in the near distance provides the background music for our departure. We joke about our dashed expectations as we drive to the final 'must-see' so we can get a quick peek just to say we did.
I want to say that standing at the foot of the iconic 70 Mile Butte trail is intimidating. But not wanting to oversell the feature, I call it: "The perfect destination for mountain climbers who hate mountains." The slopes are curt but frequent and the banks are impressive without being vertiginous. The trail-length is enough to test one's stamina without being prohibitively challenging for most novice hikers. We decide to give it the 'halfway-test' to see if it's worth spending the calories.
"Do we have to stick to the trail?" asks Matt, indirectly calling attention to the fact that, without trees, the trails are pretty much arbitrary. With no interpretive signage, we're left to guess whether we're seeing the cherry-picked scenery of someone who knows something we don't, or the path of least resistance taken by a trail grader.
The path leads us up and around the first knoll whose slopes are dressed with a mixed bag of scattered glacial rocks, most of which are irregular in shape, round and smooth around the edges. At higher elevations, eroded banks reveal deeper ravines and walls of sandstone. The true scale of these features becomes more apparent as we veer farther uphill and take notice of the expansive, model-like farmland unveiling itself behind our backs.
We arrive at an intersection. One path goes in the direction of the parking area, and the other, appearing far more travelled, heads to the final crest. The last stretch is a switchback pathway up the face of a hillside that carves out the letter 'Z', a penultimate viewpoint that looks somewhat like the set where the crucifixion scene in Jesus Christ Superstar was filmed.
Kyle slouches his shoulders, pale and red-faced all at once. "Please, remember those of us who aren't in shape," he wheezes, followed by Matt displaying similar colours, a combination of sunlight deficiency and windburn. The rest of us aren't doing much better, but the peaks are far too tempting and we've moved faster than anticipated.
Most of us skip the zigzagging pathway and take an off-trail shortcut to the peak. Within seconds I note the blades of grass brushing against my boots inducing some odd satisfaction that dusty footsteps on a flattened pathway haven't yet managed to provide. At the summit we take our prize in a cold, triumphant sweat: the centrepiece of 70 Mile Butte, a lookout point from one of the highest points in Grasslands National Park:
The plowed trail dissolves into lightly tramped desire paths, signalling the freedom to explore and wander in whichever direction feels most magnetic. A stunning vantage point of the uninterrupted Frenchman River Valley exposes an alien landscape that confuses my recent memory of standing at the bottom of the plain a little over an hour ago.
"Hey, come take a picture of this," Kyle yells at me. I'm skeptical considering his passion for photography is about as deep as the roots we're standing on. Expecting to turn his direction and see his pasty-white ass hanging out of his pants, I'm relieved to find him pointing his finger at a metal object that looks like a landmine embedded in the ground.
Kyle explains that the object is the top of a large spike known as a geodetic reference marker, one of a larger network of control stations that measures elevation changes in respect to sea level. Some of these stations are over a century old and the data collected is used to track the three-dimensional movement of continental crust. Kyle rolls on the grass, posing for a photo with his discovery. "They're, like, all across Canada and most of 'em 'er only a few hundred metres apart. Imagine walking across the country pounding metal posts for a living, ya pencil-pushing f—"
I snap the photo just as the splotchy terrain on the distant valley floor reclaims my attention. On the other side of a hundred-foot drop, Sean and Jason sit in their own respective worlds, appearing hypnotized by brown monochrome nothingness as the sun sets behind a celestial curtain of dead-cat grey. This is not a scene that would make its way into a visitor's guide, but I can't shake the feeling that standing here overlooking the cold, empty sprawl of an ecosystem that makes no grand gestures – one that refuses to squander its quiet dignity or give up its secrets all too easily – it is exactly how it is meant to be seen.
"I'm cool if we want to stick it out this weekend," Adam says, remarking the fact we had nearly past this over while judging from the parking lot. "We wasted so much time trying to experience grasslands by car. I'm starting to think the trails are no better." I agree that escaping to Cypress would be a cowardly move, just as Matt shouts from across the ravine that we best start hiking before dark.
October 29, Grasslands National Park - West Block: Day Two
I lift the canvas on the corner of the tent and peek my head outside where the morning light pierces my corneas and sends a dull ache through my eye sockets. Still cloudy. Retreating back into the dark shell, I roll on my back, head bursting and brain fried by the orchestra of snoring that is my daybreak chorus. I've been listening for hours, unable to sleep, tracking the different tempos of laboured breathing, waiting for the moment when all instruments synchronize in a perfect wave of sound as I imagine myself conducting the overture like a maestro of violent sleep apnea.
Memories from the night before are distracting, thankfully. We had stayed around the campfire as long as the wind would permit and not without a midnight hike to the hills east side of the campground. I recall thinking it would be too far to walk, but, as I'm beginning to understand, distance doesn't really matter here as much as it does in the forests. On the way back we had found a discarded pack of gum and a few torn pieces of foil on the grass. I'm a hypocrite for not feeling the same duty to haul out the acres of beer cans we come across while in the woods; but in the grasslands, litter sticks out like a pimple on prom night. I picture the forests I've visited if they were magically converted to shortgrass prairie — the amount of garbage revealed would be a national embarrassment.
"Kyle... I'm going to kill you," Matt whispers amid the pig pen. Finally, a sign of life.
I roll out of the tent and greet the empty campground with fresh appreciation for the lifeless off-season, the ghosts that barbecue spectral hotdogs over grated fire pits, and the wind that rattles the vinyl siding on Parks Canada's lux tent-cabin accommodations just down the road from where us plebs are waking up for breakfast. Jason is already pacing around the picnic table with his green backpack strapped over both shoulders. Time is of the essence while I waste several more minutes in a losing battle against the wind that steals heat required to accomplish instant coffee. Without a concrete destination for the day, we've let more than an hour slip by while I imagine Jason choking back the urge to strangle us all.
Returning to the Ecotour Drive, we make a quick stop at one of the roadside prairie dog colonies before making our way east of the park boundary. Black-tailed prairie dogs are a rare sight in Canada, exclusive to the Frenchman RIver Valley in Grasslands National Park where they are a federally protected species. These cute and pudgy prairie basement-dwellers are prone to cannibalism and are known carriers of sylvatic plague; yet they are an essential component of the grasslands ecosystem as the sole food source for the endangered black-footed ferret, and the builders of homes for other subterranean residents such as the burrowing owl.
The colonies are distinguished by protruding mounds which the prairie dogs use to survey their territory for threats and alarm the community using a complex language of audible chatter. I use the opportunity to record what must be the distress call for a five-foot-ten ape-creature dressed in red flannel intruding the colony:
I take the hint and leave the prairie dogs to assume their daily business. In a land where there's no place to hide, it's no surprise that some creatures have adapted to life underground. Even so, the prairie dogs are well aware of their surroundings, using the slightest elevation to their advantage and scanning horizons, all from the presiding view of a 12-inch mound.
East of the park, the rutted dirt road meanders through the valley past grazing cattle and lone homesteads occupying inconsequential plots among a vast expanse of open pasture. I imagine the residents being used to us tourist-types wandering off the Ecotour in search of more grasslands-by-car experiences. The excuse that we are only naive trespassers is not as comforting as I've hoped, confining us to the road as we search for something vaguely resembling public land.
"If the road gets much worse than this, I don't think my car can make it," Andrew confesses, jolting the steering wheel from side to side as we ride rough seas of dirt and gravel. I'm surprised it's taken this long for him to say something. "Let's just find a spot that looks half-decent and go for a hike," he says.
We park our rattled vehicles at a fork in the road where I unclench from the turbulent ride and prepare for a long walk uphill. "Why not that one?" Sean point to a prominent butte, not overly distinct. Sure, why not. He leads the group across a stagnant creek and to the foot of the hill, then up the ridged hillside where bright orange lichens blanket the rocks and wild juniper bushes stretch varicose roots over dry ground.
Some of us fall behind while others rush. Some of us march together and some on their own. Not to rip off too many Bowie lyrics, but, hiking in the grasslands? It's a sweet thing. Sean says it best: "Trees have been bossing me around my entire life."
There's freedom to move at one's own pace that is rarely the case in forests. I'm used to relying on rivers and established trails to navigate — where the decision to bushwhack is met with not only frustration, but the constant risk of being turned around and lost over a simple miscalculation. In the prairie, if it takes twenty minutes to scale a land feature a half-kilometre away, you can be reasonably sure it'll take just as long to reach the next one; while kilometres in the forest are a measurement of anticipated pain, effort and mental fatigue, the chief factor here is time.
We take our first break halfway up the valley wall, watching bare earth vanishing behind a veil of rain clouds in a minimalist playground. Unobstructed views have one major perk: the reduction of detail, an enabling constraint that gives weight to simplicity, shape and colour. There's no competition for your visual focus, only a vastness that releases a lifetime of ocular tension.
"Auuughh... Get a picture of this," Kyle says, standing triumphantly on the pointed hilltop overlooking the extra-terrestrial landscape, airing out his gut in the open wind above endless majesty — the Canadian dream, strong and free. A higher peak garners my attention. I ask the group whether I should check it out and become conscious of the fact I've already run a quarter of the way there.
The next summit is another level plateau that falls off sharply on the opposite side. Walking backwards, I watch the parallax motion of toy-size human beings scattering across their colossal mounds before tripping on a rock in an awe-drunk stumble. I shout at the top of my lungs over the steep ravine, calling for the rest of the group to come and see what they're missing: the fact that we're not on a valley wall, but a single peak in a series of deep-cut badlands.
We spend an hour watching clouds and mist forming and dissipating abroad the hillsides mottled with grasses donning suede-like vermiculation of hazel and copper, and spotting pairs of mule deer strutting across exposed ridges. Wildlife is never so forward in the woods. The majority of our encounters are tracks left in mud and noises in the bush, and any confrontation tends to be brief or accidental.
I leave the group to walk down from the summit in one of the damper coulees which I hear Jason ecstatically describe from uphill as having "slopes like ice cream scoops." There's fall-coloured juniper and a patch of tallgrass that reaches far over my head. I'm not sure I make the same connection, but perspective changes when comparing abstract broad-strokes as seen from the hillcrest to the ornate details at ground-level.
At the end of our afternoon hike, we return to the campground for lunch and coffee inside the tent while we recover from windburn. Jason remarks that we have time for one more hike before dark, however, a few minutes of inactivity is like throwing acid on burning muscles. Andrew, Sean, Jason and I are the only ones masochistic enough to leave the tent, forfeiting the vehicles and wandering as far as possible from the campground by foot.
In the fashion we've become accustomed, we follow the lead of aimless interest that takes us down to the river, over the bridge, then up and down the sine wave formation of deep undulating coulees. We eventually merge paths with what I assume to be the Broken Hills trail and hike for however long it takes to feel detached — another fifteen minutes, tops. One particular spot stands out, where we can see the savanna-like floodplain at the valley floor.
Sean squints his eyes, peering through the wind with a half-smirk, visibly fumbling through his thoughts and painfully sipping on an ice-cold can of beer.
"Everything I thought I loved about the forests is just crashing down. It's like I've been hit with a sack of bricks... You know, the good kind," he says in a tone verging on repentance. His voice stands alone as if speaking to himself, backed by a modest chorus of grass tussled and brushed by the low-drifting atmosphere. "It's been hiding in plain sight." He sips his beer, wincing.
I roll my neck, a bit done-in and absentminded while listening to Sean unwrap his golden gift of prairie catharsis. A weekend does not make a spiritual pilgrimage.
"Man, you were knocking this place pretty hard just a few weeks ago," I remind Sean, figuring if I poke a few holes in his logic, he'll come down to my level. I feel cheap as soon as I say it. Sean shrugs and simply responds: "I didn't know."
I lay my head on a bed of thistles. "It's something else alright," I backpedal. "I always thought prairie was just pixel-bound quarter sections of farmland. Made this pretty easy to pass over."
Jason, who's hardly offered himself the luxury of taking a seat, grabs his backpack off the ground and chides: "We could have had time to finish this hike if half the group wasn't so god-damned lazy." Not everyone in the group shares the same urgency. Though, as we turn away from the uninvestigated Broken Hills, I can't deny that he might be onto something.
We spend the hike back watching a herd of bison moving across a faraway plateau, mule deer running up and down the adjacent coulee, and the sun setting with barely a shred of colour. Native prairie almost gives the impression that it goes on forever just over the hills. I suppose that suspense of disbelief is what makes this enjoyable, like a tract of roadside forest that hides a logging operation on the other side. Unlike forests, however, there's regrettably little grasslands left to explore.
By the time we reach camp, night has fallen completely. Matt sips beer around the last few store-bought logs burning in the fire pit. "You guys didn't come across Adam out there? he asks. "He left an hour ago to look for you guys." We wait and wonder what he might be experiencing on his own, so long as he isn't lost in the maze of coulees and walking a half-dozen miles unheeded in the wrong direction. There's almost a morbid excitement for the impending night-rescue, just moments before a headlamp flashes over the southern hills.
OCTOBER 30, GRASSLANDS NATIONAL PARK - WEST BLOCK: LEAVING DAY
I tighten the straps on the large canvas tent bag as Kyle empties a half-eaten can of soup into a Jack-o'-lantern filled with cigarette butts.
"Shame we didn't get to see the stars. Guess we'll have to come back sometime," Andrew says, throwing the last of his ill-packed grocery bags into the backseat. Sean slams his trunk door, "You have no idea how badly I don't want to leave."
After scouring the campsite for any minuscule piece of trash, we take our leave back on the road we came and depart Val Marie with a powerful taste for Chinese food in Swift Current. The thick sheet of clouds that's been our weekend backdrop finally begins to break apart as we make our way back north.
"I checked real estate listings when we stopped for gas. Two-bedroom homes going for under a hundred thousand in Val Marie," Sean tells me.
I smile for his reverence, "Man, the grasslands really got under your skin, hey?"
"What? They didn't for you?"
"No, they absolutely did. I just need time to process what just happened — rose-coloured glasses and the like... I feel as if I just got back from another planet."
"No doubt," Sean says, turning off the radio blabber about a newly re-opened investigation on one of the US presidential candidates. Savour the afterglow now; anxiety can wait.
Thoughts manifest of valleys and hills, lichens and rocks, grasses and shrubs, most of which remain nameless in my mind, but now occupy an important space. Like many before us, we've fallen under the grasslands' spell. Unlike Sean, however, I'm not under the impression that we've spent the weekend cheating on the forests. If anything, we've opened a door to an entirely new world that can only shed more light on the wilderness we love and know so little about. As much as I've enjoyed myself in the grasslands, I'm stunned by the fact that, after a single weekend, I may never see the prairies, or forests, the same again.