Bison, prairie dogs and pronghorn antelope

“I feel like a cowboy”, said Fanny, a young Belgian who has been travelling for several months across Canada with her partner Jay. They think the prairies are “awesome” and in fact, love almost everything they’ve seen since arriving in Montreal eight months ago.  They are here because they heard great things about Canada and they wanted to open up and explore life before careers and family took over. Part of the attraction for them was our huge and varied landscape.

It is essential to get off the Trans-Canada Highway to see the best of the country. While some of the secondary roads are patchy and rough, others are well-maintained and practically empty. We sailed merrily along at 110 and 120 (and higher) for much of the time.

We were keen to visit Grasslands National Park in southern Saskatchewan to get up close to that deceptively passive terrain. Just look at this photo. Hidden in those hills and valleys are dozens of birds, rattlesnakes, bison, prairie dogs, Richardson ground squirrels, coyotes, and burrowing owls. You’d never know it, and that is the defining quality of the prairies – you need to get out of your car and travel on foot to appreciate what is there, right in front of your face.

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As we were heading toward Grasslands we got a sneak preview of the abundant animal life. We stopped by a marsh to view the hundreds of birds that were either in the water or flitting about stalks of grass. This area was just teeming with life –  so many native birds we had never seen. It was an astounding sight, but before we could attempt to take any photos we were driven back to our car by swarms of biting insects. We were actually swatting and running, like something out of a comic strip.  A serious bird-watcher or photographer might want bee-keeper style headgear and a bottle of Deet.

There are also many deer and antelope and I now have “Oh give me a home, where the buffalo roam” stuck in my head.  This little pronghorn antelope bounced across the road and stopped for a photo.

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The prairies are just like everything you’ve seen from photos.  Ribbon roads, railway trestles and fence posts figure prominently.

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So do grain elevators. Most town have one, right beside the railway tracks. Grain elevators, trains and the big sky –  iconic elements of the prairies.

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The fields are dotted with abandoned and crumbling  structures.  These weathered old homes aren’t going anywhere – at some point, the roof will cave in and no-one will even notice. They bear witness to a pioneer past.

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Saskatchewan is a province that constantly reminds you of the disproportionate person-to-land ratio. While the cities and larger towns prosper, a lot of small “towns” are actually crossroads – there are no stores, gas stations or hotels.  Success  is a tiny hamlet with a couple of dozen homes. The signpost is pocked with bullet-holes – target practice or frustration?

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Grasslands National Park is about 35 km. north of Montana, and Val Marie is the closest small town in Canada – again, about 35 km. to the campground. Our original plan was to stay one night in Val Marie to reorganize our car, power up our devices, buy some food and get set for 3 days of rustic (no showers) camping. It did not turn out that way. The one bed and breakfast (Convent Inn) was closed for the long weekend (?!?) and our other option, the Val Marie Hotel, was horrifying filthy. It was a shabby building with a Beverage Room Entrance, but we were willing to overlook the externals until we saw the shared bathroom. Off to the campground we went (minus groceries, since the grocery store also closed for Holiday Monday).

Our first sight of the campground saved our sagging spirits – this would be a great adventure. Our first night we sat in front of a campfire, watched the night sky and listened to coyotes howl.

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Grasslands is relatively new (4-5 years old), and infrastructure is still a work in progress. This campground has 24 sites, as well as 4 cabins and an overflow site, with spotlessly clean pit toilet buildings, potable water taps, dump pits for grey water and animal-proof garbage and recycle bins. The main building to the right is the Parks Canada office/wifi centre, and there are plans for showers at some point.

It is also populated with dozens of Richardson ground squirrels, who have an impressive system of tunnels. They seem willing to share their home with us and while they run and chase each other and pop in and out of their tunnels, they do not come close to people (or their dogs). They are also impressively car-smart.

There is an 80-km. Ecotour drive that runs the periphery of the park, providing a comprehensive and scenic overview of the lay of the land, as well as several lookout stations. We stopped at the black-tailed prairie dog colony. Grasslands is the only place in Canada where they exist in the wild.  They are often confused with ground squirrels, but these little characters are much larger and way more sociable. They bark and chat and chase each other, and have created a fascinating inter-connected community of big mounds and tunnels.

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And of course the big draw are the bison herds. They were brought into the park in 2006 from Elk Island National Park and today the herd stands at about 350. We were given a dangerous animals brochure (bison and rattlesnakes) and advised to remain at least a football field away from bison, particularly at this time of year when they are calving and more aggressive. These are majestic creatures – woolly and shaggy and huge.

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This one was right at the main gate, but we stayed in the car for photos – he was stomping and shaking his big head – clearly he was not on welcome committee detail.

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As for rattlesnakes – we had no luck with sightings. They advised us to wear boots and long pants tucked into socks, and we could have borrowed snake garters, but we ventured out and kept a close eye on the ground cover.

We headed out on an 11-km. trail, which was well marked and great for the hamstrings (described modestly as undulating prairie). No animal sightings on that hike, but lots of panoramic vistas.

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Very happy to be heading back to the barn – we had hiked out to the far range of hills and back.

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Unfortunately, the weather turned suddenly, as is often the case in the Prairies. We experienced significant howling winds on our last night, with our tent snapping and falling in on us – a long night and terrible sleep. We woke up to a changed forecast – really strong winds (up to 90 km.), followed by rain, so we reluctantly made the decision to leave.

On our way out of the park, we stopped to chat with a couple from Victoria who are also travelling across Canada, but doing it with a lot more comfort. They are pulling a bright yellow trailer emblazoned with Big Canadian Stuff and will be on the road until October. They have definitely made the case for having a warm, dry home-away-from-home, especially for travelling long distances through North America in three seasons.

We’re rethinking…

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We drove east on Hwy, 13, part of the historic Red Coat Trail. This is the trail taken by the North-West Mounted Police to bring law and order to the wild west; now indicated with distinctive route markers.

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We are hanging out for a couple of days in Weyburn, home of Tommy Douglas. We’re in  a Canalta hotel (a Western chain of hotels) and decided to stay an extra day to regroup.

This is a hotel that caters to work crews and once a week they leave out dinner for them. Last night it was cabbage rolls and potato salad. We rolled in with a filthy, bug-splattered car packed to the rafters with smoky camp gear. We hadn’t had showers for three days. Within minutes, we were checked in and sitting down to an unexpected and delicious meal. We were taken care of by very kind Prairie folks who made us want to stay a little longer. Another hidden charm –  the people. When Steve commented this morning how much he enjoyed the cabbage rolls the night before, they arrived over to our breakfast table with two plates of leftovers – “You can heat them up later.”

14 thoughts on “Bison, prairie dogs and pronghorn antelope

  1. Donna May 25, 2017 / 10:59 am

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and especially the photos of Saskatchewan…brings back memories of growing up on the prairies. Nice to hear about the friendly folks (plates of cabbage rolls to warm up later!) and the prairie dogs 🙂
    xo

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    • leavingourselvesbehind May 25, 2017 / 2:22 pm

      Donna – the people here remind us of Maritimers – such a calm and matter-of-fact approach to life and so hospitable. I love the prairie dogs – they’re so comical to watch. I did have a close encounter with a ground squirrel at the Tyrrell Museum though – we were sitting outside with a coffee and it ran right up to me. Much screaming ensued.

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  2. Linda & Gary May 25, 2017 / 12:27 pm

    Anothet great post! Oh yes….the bugs! You will see plenty more in Manitoba, better stock up on that big bottle of deet! The bison herds..
    such amazing creatures. We saw literally hundreds and hundreds plus every other wild animal you could name on our drive up north near Liard and the communities in NWT and northern Alberta. We lucked out with the bugs…late September and the colours were breath taking. Keep the posts and pics coming. Enjoy the cabbage rolls…mmmm…got me craving now.

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    • leavingourselvesbehind May 25, 2017 / 2:26 pm

      Oh the bugs haven’t even started yet. I think that experience was because we were beside a marsh and it was sunny and warm. We had no bugs at the campsite – probably too cool and windy. I’m hauling in the big guns – bugs love me.

      We can’t wait to go north next year – we’ve heard so much about the animals. I still have never seen northern lights. so much to see…

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  3. Elisabeth Charlotte Dieryckx May 25, 2017 / 7:55 pm

    The very close up photo of the Bison is simply fantastic ! wonderful and useful animal…..
    happy travels ! Lis

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    • leavingourselvesbehind May 25, 2017 / 9:10 pm

      They are amazing animals! I wish I could have gotten up much closer to them. But…I’m the visitor!

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  4. Deb shore May 26, 2017 / 7:41 am

    If you get a chance to go to cypress hills interprovincial park, do it! They have orchids the size of your fingernail and a fantastic interpretive/reenactment tour at fort Walsh. There are gorgeous hiking trails and a designated light free area where you can watch the stars without light pollution. A huge highlight for us.

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    • leavingourselvesbehind May 26, 2017 / 8:44 am

      We are so sorry we missed Cypress Hills – that is another one of those decisions – choose one park over another due to proximity. Next year we hope to go to Waterton park and we could swing down to Cypress then.

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  5. Heather Scott May 26, 2017 / 9:26 am

    I had a chuckle as I read your post – when Alanna and Alex were here in Feb., we drove out to Elk Island National Park, hoping to see some bison. We had a delightful time, walking one of the trails but we did not see one bison the entire time we were there. Now here I am, looking at your pictures and see what the four of us hoped to see in Scott’s own backyard practically!

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    • leavingourselvesbehind May 26, 2017 / 2:26 pm

      Isn’t that always the way! We saw bison the whole time we were there, but considering the size of the park, I guess we were lucky. The Park ranger comes to the campground every day from 3:00 – 9:00 pm, and the second day we were there, she saw 13 of them, right out on the road.

      I often wonder, when we’re hiking in the woods, what creatures have just passed by us, or are just ahead. How many times have we missed seeing a bear or moose or fox by 30 seconds?

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  6. Shelley and Tom May 28, 2017 / 4:11 am

    Hi Ginny and Steve – Great to get back on the trail with you! I’ll also add a plug for Cypress Hills and hope you get to see it next time. The historical background and special beauty of the place make it definitely worth the trip. Also the Qu’Appelle Valley if you haven’t been there – a surprising step out of the prairies. How lucky to see so many impressive animals – even shrieking squirrels – little guys with big attitude!
    We look forward to your posts!

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    • leavingourselvesbehind May 28, 2017 / 9:50 am

      Hi Shelley and Tom – great to hear from you! I think the ongoing theme to our travels is our realization that we continue to miss really great sites for every one that we get to see. There are so many interesting and worthwhile places…2 hours north or back 100 kms. or down a side road for 30 km., then turn right for another 10, etc. We could easily spend a month or more in each province and still not see it all.
      The prairies have been such an eye-opener for us, as we’ve never really travelled through them before, and there is so much history here, as well as a different type of landscape that really demands slow travel. Another trip…
      Hope you’re enjoying your lovely Gabriola life.

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  7. Alex May 30, 2017 / 4:06 pm

    I bet Pops was just stoked about the cabbage rolls – the man loves his leftovers!

    So cool you got to see a pronghorn. Fun fact – they are North America’s fastest land mammal – apparently evolved as such so as to outrun predators like the now-extinct American cheetah.

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    • leavingourselvesbehind May 30, 2017 / 9:02 pm

      It’s the small things, Alex. Sometimes, a plate of cabbage rolls can make all the difference. But yes, since we are now away from the handy reach of fridges and their contents, Dad was stoked.

      We saw a few pronghorn antelopes from the highway – just hanging out in fields. As we drove by and registered that they were not deer, we began to watch for them. This little guy literally bounced in front of our car and then stopped. I did not know they were so speedy – I’ll have to read up more about them.

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