2015: Snake in the Grass – Grasslands National Park, West Block – July 2-4

So, just as I was feeling pretty pleased and cocky about the fact that South Saskatchewan doesn’t have bears to worry about, I discovered what they do have: rattlesnakes. Grasslands National Park is chockablock with rattlesnakes.

After I arrived at the equestrian campsite at Grasslands’ East block…

OK, wait a minute. Let me describe the drive from Cypress Hills to Grasslands: Nothingness. There you go. Nothingness. Three hours or so of absolute lunar (OK, lunar plus grass) nothingness, broken only by the towns of Eastend and Shaunavon. It was like the Northern Highway of Despair that goes through Kapuskasing, only with no trees. I met two cars in the space of 100 km. And 50 km of that was on gravel road. Not a car in sight, not a house, not a cow, not a fence, not a tree.If my GPS had had her way with me, she’d have had me stay on The Empty Roads of the Apocalypse for the entire drive; fortunately, my friend David Gogo, who’d played a gig in Shaunavon not long ago, had insisted that if I were driving through the area, I stop at Harvest Eatery in Shaunavon for what he promised would be a meal that was so good that I would [impolite sexual reference]. And – oh. my. god. I am so glad I took his advice and had a leisurely lunch on the patio there, with a view of my horse in her opened-up trailer: the sandwich and salad I had were, in fact, orgasmic. I almost licked the plate. But the drive the GPS took me on was like this:

Road to Grasslands

And then, because I’d dragged my heels in Shaunavon (trying not to lick the plate), I got to the National Park visitor centre in Val Marie well past closing time (unlike a few other parks, the visitor centre at Grasslands closes shop at 5 pm). Meh, I thought. How bad can that be? I’ll be fine. The lady I’d spoken to on the phone a few days prior had made the equestrian campground sound easy to find.

Yeah. Not so much. I found myself in the middle of yet another (grassy) lunar wasteland, on a one-and-a-half lane gravel road, wondering where the hell I was going to be able to turn my trailer around to go back to semi-civilization and find some advice. Thankfully, right around then, a truck came barreling down the road towards me, and pointed me in the right direction (back the way I’d come – thank goodness he also gave me a heads-up as to where up ahead I’d be able to turn my rig around).

When I found the completely un-signed equestrian campsite, the place was mine, and mine alone. It was kind of eerie, setting up camp there in the haze from the forest fires that were burning up north, with the setting sun a red ball sinking behind the hills.

Grasslands camp, downsized

And then Rattlesnake Guy came by.

I’d let Spy out to run around for a bit, and then tethered him while I was doing other things. A fella pulled in to the equestrian site, which is contiguous with the Belza Day Use Area, and wandered over to ask if I might happen to have any wood blocks he could drive his car onto so he could get under it to fix his muffler. (He must have known that people with trailers always carry hunks of wood with them). A few minutes later, he came back to let me know that there was a rattlesnake hanging out about thirty feet away (strategically lying in wait near the children’s swing set).

Excellent. Poisonous snakes are so much better than bears.

(Actually, when I think about it, they are. But still. A rattlesnake in the immediate area of your camp site is a little unnerving. Mr Snake rattled at me as I passed by a few minutes later. Thereafter, Spy remained tethered for the duration of our visit).

Oh, and PS – I should have used the plural. Rattlesnakes. These dudes were sunning themselves on the grass on day 3:

Grasslands rattlesnakes

Grasslands National Park is known for its expansive, panoramic views over rolling prairie. Because of the current pervasive haze, which hung over the landscape like fog, it was hard to fully appreciate the massive distances that rolled on into the horizon. Still. Our first ride across the hills was pretty sweet. Our three and a half hour ride got us home just after noon, before the temperatures soared.

One of my missions on this trip has been to visit Prince Albert National Park, where lives the last free-ranging herd of bison still living in their historic rangeland. With the forest fires raging in Northern Saskatchewan, and having a horse with COPD ( = asthma), it has been seeming like not such a great idea to go up there. When I discovered that bison have been re-introduced to Grasslands, I made it my goal to find me some here. I saw one on the drive in, and two more on our first ride, and a few more on our second ride.

grasslands bison, downsizedgrasslands bison x 2, downsizedgrasslands bison x 2, day one, downsized

Saw a coyote, too.

The terrain in the West Block is not unlike the terrain of Cypress Hills, but without the trees. On the one hand, said treelessness gives it a less interesting and varied terrain, but, on the other hand, it gives you an entirely different, desert-like feel, with big, big, BIG sky and unbroken views that go on and on and on. And on.

Grasslands skull, downsized black and white

I swear they put this skull on the trail just for tourists. And the photo totally called for black and white.

Grasslands vista day 1 downsized

Amazing vista, pity about the haze.

Our second ride was a short haul away from the campsite, on our way out of towards Wood Mountain and the East Block. The wind came up halfway through the ride, to the extent that at one point, it was pushing Pai towards the edge of a drop-off. Yikes.

The scenery in South Saskatchewan is worlds apart from the flat landscape you see driving the TransCanada. It is breathtaking, and unlike anywhere else I’ve been in Canada.

grasslands grazing, downsized

Camp and trail notes for horsey folk:

The East Block equestrian campsite is adjacent to the Balza day use area, which is just over the hill from the regular French River campground. There are six smallish pipe corrals with no shade, and a water cistern for horses. You can also corral, tether, or hobble your horses. There is no “people” water at the site – you have to drive around to the other campground, or make the 1.5 km return trip hike on foot, or carry enough with you. There’s a super-clean pit toilet, and picnic tables. Grasslands has no day user fee; camping is $15.70/night.

grasslands corrals, downsized

Pai in her private hotel.

Oh, and there are rattlesnakes.

You can ride wherever you want over the grasslands, and while it’s probably not all that easy to get lost, I followed the hiking trails, which are very, very well-marked. The footing is mostly good, but in the draws, there are areas that are fairly treacherous with sucking mud.


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