Cross Canada Chronicles – III
An ancient land
June 9: This isn’t the Saskatchewan you know. This isn’t the Saskatchewan of endless wheat fields and grain elevators and long freight trains.
This is the original Saskatchewan. This is the ancient prairie before settlers and machines moved in and transformed the land.
This is Grasslands National Park. Where bison roam. And prairie dogs play. The way they used to. It’s one of the few remaining places on the planet where the original prairie habitat still exists.
The untrained eye misses, at first, the extraordinary diversity here. But walk this land for a bit. There are surprises and fascinations at every step. The colour and the cadence and the texture of the land shift minute by minute with the angle of the sun and the passing shadows of the clouds. Because you can see kilometres in every direction, everything is laid in front of you—birds and animals, plants and flowers, rivers, and plains—all at once, and all competing for your focus.
Life in the burrows
As the original prairie vanished, many of the animals and plants that called it home became endangered or at risk. The prairie dog is one of these. These rodents are highly social and live in ‘towns’—collections of burrows interconnected by extensive underground tunnels.
There’s endless whimsy to these animals. At places in the park I could see dozens of them and would often see two or three romping in play, or several all bunched up together.
A few ‘sentries’ guard the colonies by standing upright on hind legs and emitting short, sharp yips if danger approaches. The ‘yip’ is how they came to be known as prairie dogs. But to my ears, the sound isn’t even close to that of a dog.
Yip or Yap. You decide.
Roaming the prairie
After Grasslands National Park had been created in 1962, bison were re-introduced. A hundred and fifty years ago, millions would have roamed the prairies. Today, I saw three.
Bison. Watch the pronunciation.
The locals say the word as if the ‘s’ were a ‘z’.
Bison use these, whenever they can find them,
to run up against and give themselves a good scratch.
The deer are wary of humans, but here,
even if 100s of meters away, easily spotted.
Horses, of course, aren’t native to the old prairie,
but you’ll see some, cattle as well, in the park as the few existing ranchers on what is now parkland
were allowed to maintain their operations under a legacy arrangement.
Park officials warn about rattlesnakes, and apparently their numbers are high this year, but I didn’t see or hear any. Of course, the warning alone was enough to keep me on the trails and not wander off into the tall grasses, and to keep my jeans tucked into my socks.
Birds of the region
Walking along a trail toward the French River, a deep-gullied streamlet, a Greater Sage Grouse whirred up from the undergrowth barely a meter away. I don’t know which of us was more startled. Suffice it to say, he disappeared before I could even raise my trusty telephoto. Other birds weren’t as able to escape ‘the lens’.
Wilson’s Phalarope. There is plenty of water in the prairies, in the form of rivers, small lakes, marshes and streams. And any body of water of any size attracts ducks, geese and, as above, other water birds.
Reclamation as an exercise in hope
This morning, in the tiny town of Val Marie next to the park where I was staying, I happened to fall into conversation with Joseph, a Cree native, and he began to talk about the difficulty of regaining his culture, which had all but disappeared in the 20th century. So much of what was known is harboured within the memory of a few elders, he said, and there was a sense of urgency in his voice as he described the need for young natives to learn and take up their traditions before they disappear altogether.
“Sort of like what they’re trying to do in the park, saving and reclaiming what’s left of something that was in danger of disappearing?” I said.
His eyes took on a far away look, and he was silent for several moments before responding.
“Yes,” he said, finally. “Sort of.”
Tepees at Two Tree trail, Grasslands National Park
Prairie flower and pollinator
Late spring brings a riot of colour to the land
Song of the prairie
As much as I would have liked to have come up with the title for this post myself, credit goes to Tom Lips, an Ottawa folksinger who wrote an achingly evocative song about the spirit of pioneer Saskatchewan. The chorus:
And you’ll understand why my thoughts still fly
When half the world is made of sky
And you’ll understand why I dream upon
The far Saskatchewan, the far Saskatchewan.
And the rest of it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jMemFsH8Reg .