A Paradise of a Different Kind
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN CANADA
STANDING on the upper slopes of the coulee and scanning the valley floor below, you are awed by the breathtaking landscape—rolling hills and steep ravines. Before you is what seems to be an unending sea of grass. A gust of wind swirls past, filled with the smell of heavily scented sage, the fragrance of the prairie.
Imagine, only two hundred years ago, you could have traveled for days without losing sight of the vast buffalo herds that darkened the great grasslands of Canada and could have felt the ground beneath you shake with the rumble of millions of hooves. Even the famous animal migrations of Africa could not rival those of the buffalo that roamed this great sea of grass.
Now, some of the only remaining signs that they were ever here are the large buffalo rubbing stones. You can feel the smoothed corners and see the trenches made around the stones by the thousands of buffalo that rubbed their itchy hides against them. It is not just the strong wind blowing out of the west that brings a tear to your eye but an overwhelming sense of awe at the marvels of creation that surround you and fill your senses. Where are you? You are visiting a paradise of a different kind.
A Park With a Difference
Welcome to Grasslands National Park, in southwestern Saskatchewan, Canada—the only park in North America dedicated to preserving undisturbed mixed-grass prairie. The park is actually composed of an east block and a west block, separated by 14 miles [22.5 km]. It will eventually include 350 square miles [900 sq km].
The terrain is rugged and filled with many challenging obstacles. Exploration is best done on foot or horseback. Spending several nights camping under the stars is for those with a spirit of adventure, but be prepared to bring sufficient water and other necessary provisions. (See the box “Park Exploration.”) During your trek through the park, you will see no modern buildings, no paved or graveled roads, no power lines, no landfill sites, and no parking lots. You may not even encounter another human. Truly, it is a paradise of a different kind! Once you enter the park, you are entering a world of unique beauty.
The Great Plains of North America make up one of the most drastically altered ecosystems in the world. Less than two hundred years ago, this was 100-percent wild, untouched land. Today, for example, less than 25 percent of the mixed-grass prairie in Canada remains undeveloped. The idea of protecting this prairie grassland by making it a park emerged in the 1830’s. Over one hundred years later, in 1957, the Saskatchewan Natural History Society started to work on establishing a national park.
However, it was not until 1988 that a federal-provincial agreement created Grasslands National Park. This park along with others in the Canadian prairies now protects 22 plants, mammals, and birds that are on Canada’s official endangered species list. Additionally, many others are preserved, some of which are found nowhere else in the world.
The Grasslands park is a land of climate extremes. Situated in the center of the continent, it is unaffected by the moderating effects of any ocean. Thus, temperatures in winter can reach -60 degrees Fahrenheit [-50°C.], and in summer, temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit [40°C.] are not uncommon. With exceedingly little rain and a constant wind, the climate is harsh.
Nevertheless, although not readily apparent at first, there is an abundance of wildlife. With patience and persistence, especially around dawn and dusk, you may be rewarded with the opportunity to photograph deer, coyotes, bobcats, jackrabbits, sage grouse, rattlesnakes, burrowing owls, ferruginous hawks, golden eagles, exotic pronghorn antelope (described as probably the fastest large animals of North America), or the only remaining colony of black-tailed prairie dogs in Canada. You will also see many other birds as well as insects and plants that are indigenous to this locality.
Colorful History of the Region
Should you decide to visit this unique park, we encourage you to do some research about the area. You will find it rich in history. For instance, markers still exist tracing the historic North West Mounted Police Red Coat Trail. In 1874, on hearing rumors of native unrest, the Canadian government sent a detachment of three hundred Mounted Police to the West to establish law and order. This move also calmed the fears of many that Canada’s West was about to be swallowed up by the United States. Wearing bright scarlet tunics and riding on finely groomed horses, the detachment created such a striking image that to this day their path is known as the Red Coat Highway.
Interestingly, in 1878 this area became host to one of the most feared Indian warriors in North America—the great Sioux chief Sitting Bull. After the Sioux victory over Custer’s forces at Little Bighorn, thousands of American Sioux fled to this part of Canada to seek refuge from the American cavalry.
There are about 1,800 archaeologically significant sites in the park that go even further back in time. On many ridges, hilltops, and buttes can be found large rocks arranged in circles known as tepee, or tipi, rings. These rocks once held down the skirts of buffalo-hide tepees (tents) to prevent them from blowing away in the wind. There are also several complexes of ancient buffalo drive lanes used by the Plains Indians. Many centuries ago, the area was a rich hunting ground for the Gros Ventre, Cree, Assiniboin, Blackfoot, and Sioux tribes.
Reaching yet further back in time, in the park’s east block, dinosaur remains have been found amid the wildly eroded dobe hills of the Killdeer Badlands.
A Panorama of Beauty
If the diversity and abundance of the flora and fauna or the fascinating history of this land are not enough to amaze you, the magnificent and dramatic scope of the land itself will accomplish the task. There are the sounds of a myriad of bird species, the smell of sage, and the feel of the hot sun and the wind on your skin. The taste of food prepared over a portable gas stove is enhanced by the panoramic view, which is a constant feast for your eyes. Above all, you have an unobstructed, 360-degree view of the horizon, especially along the Two Trees Interpretive Trail, located in the park’s west block. The vast clear blue sky above is decorated with an occasional fluffy white cloud that hangs over you like a floating mountain. The dramatic landscape gives you an overwhelming sense of freedom and, at the same time, makes you feel very small and awestruck.
When it comes to the prairies, it is not only what you see but also what you feel that is important. It is your feeling for this place that will draw you back to this paradise of a different kind. The experience fills your heart with gratitude. Your thoughts become filled with praise for the Grand Creator, Jehovah, who put it all here. Soon the longed-for day will be here when the entire earth will become a paradise and display its natural beauty to the full.
[Box on page 26]
1. Register with park staff and obtain an information package before entering the park.
2. Carry an adequate supply of drinking water with you. Drinking water is available only at the Park Information Centre.
3. Wear a sun hat and also sturdy, comfortable shoes that cover your ankles for protection from the prickly cactus.
4. Carry a stick to sweep in front of you when you walk through tall grass and brush.
5. Take a camera and binoculars along if you have them. The best times to observe animals are at dawn and at dusk.
CAUTIONS: Avoid putting your hands or feet in places you cannot see. Rattlesnakes may strike when cornered or surprised. It is illegal to harass or hunt wildlife in a national park.
[Picture Credit Line on page 25]
All pictures: Parks Canada