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.

IMG_1726

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.

IMG_1671

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

IMG_1680

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.

IMG_1688
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.

IMG_1679
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?

IMG_1694

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.

IMG_1732

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.

IMG_1703
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.

IMG_1738
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.

IMG_1696
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.

IMG_1720
Very happy to be heading back to the barn – we had hiked out to the far range of hills and back.

IMG_1728
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…

IMG_1733
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.

IMG_0414
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.”

On the road again…

After a wonderful, whirlwind month visiting friends and family on Gabriola, Vancouver Island and Vancouver, our final destination was Kamloops to visit more family. This is a shot taken of the Kamloops valley; our last memory of  “home” before we hit the highway to drive east.

IMG_1398
Our original plan was to drive coast to coast to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday. We wanted to visit as many National Parks as possible, since entrance fees are free this year (with a pass) in honour of that event and we have time on our side.

We drove across the country from Halifax twelve years ago, but that involved reluctantly leaving our youngest son behind, driving 8-10 hours a day for 5 days to meet the movers on the west coast (who were then two weeks late), anxiety over the unknowns of one new job (Stephen), and having to find a job (Ginny). We were moving to a small island of 4000 people after a lifetime of living in cities. Plus we were travelling with our cat, who remained annoyed the entire time. Our stress levels were through the roof and we remember very little of the landscape that blurred by our car window.

This time we have no pets, our sons are self-sufficient adults and we have allotted three-and-a-half months to see as much of the country as possible.

Our first reality check: we are about one month too early to visit the mountain parks.  Many of the upper trails are still snow-covered and the parking lots are closed to cars. It is quite cold at night for tent camping. There is SO much to see – we could easily devote three months just travelling through British Columbia and Alberta. We decided we will save those provinces for next summer and concentrate on all points east.

The road trip…  our three favourite words.   It is so exciting and energizing to watch the landscape unfold and the weather patterns shift. We left the rolling ranch country and desert landscape of Kamloops and soon were heading towards mountain peaks.

IMG_1422

Everything changes in the mountains. The air is clean and sweet, signs for wildlife start to appear and the creeks and rivers look cold and slightly unforgiving.

IMG_1426

We stopped at Craigellachie to see the site of The Last Spike – the joining of the east and west railway line, commemorated in this overwrought plaque:

IMG_1417

Just as we arrived, The Rocky Mountaineer pulled through, symbolically uniting east and west. We soon joined the hordes of photo-snapping German tourists, which felt like a good luck charm. If there are Germans we must be on holiday!

IMG_1411

Mountain roads are twisty, beautifully engineered and fun to drive. It’s never boring – every turn in the road brings a fresh adventure.
IMG_0240

We drove past a sign that said, “Road Closure from 2 pm to 5 pm” and thought it meant “single lane” or “slow going”. Imagine our surprise when we came to a complete halt at 3:00 pm and stayed put for another 2 hours. We were just 27 km. from our destination, Revelstoke. But, early in the trip and still in “go-with-the-flow” mode, we amused ourselves by going for walks, talking to other drivers and reading our books.  Soon enough, the work trucks started to file past us in the opposite direction and our wait was over.

We stayed in Revelstoke for two nights because we have fond memories of this town and wanted to revisit some of the trails we had hiked before.  In 2010, our son Alex Burr was one of 32 students chosen by the Parks Canada-sponsored “Canada’s Greatest Summer Job”, and spent that summer interviewing and taking videos in Revelstoke and Glacier National Park to celebrate the Park Canada’s 125th anniversary. We visited him for a few days in July, which meant the roads were clear to drive right up to the Meadows in the Sky Parkway (closed to us this time). We hiked and biked in town and drove out to other hiking spots, so this time around, we chose two areas we felt might be available. In fact, neither of them were officially open, (they open tomorrow), but we parked our car and with the tacit (you didn’t hear it from me) approval from one of the workers, we ventured in to the Skunk Cabbage Boardwalk Trail. I’m not sure if these jazzy red Adirondack (Muskoka?) chairs are part of this years celebrations, but they look shiny and new.

IMG_1433

The Skunk Cabbage Boardwalk Trail is delightful this time of year as the flowers are just coming out, so we were able to walk without being treated to their distinctive odiferous scent. The flowers attract bears and while there was evidence of recent visits we had no encounters. This area is also home to a huge number of migrating birds and we were serenaded all the way through.

IMG_1443

On to the Giant Cedars Boardwalk Trail, just a couple of kilometres down the road. We didn’t see any giant trees like we have seen in Cathedral Grove or the California Redwoods, but they were impressively large nonetheless, and we indulged in a half hour of “forest-bathing.”

IMG_1451

After lunch at the fabulous Modern Cafe back in Revelstoke, we drove to Begbie Falls for a 6-km. round-trip hike. The bridge over the Columbia River enroute to Begbie.

IMG_1460

This area is a hot spot for mountain biking as well as hiking and there were a number of challenging bike trails with ominous signs,” Extremely difficult. Use at your own risk.”

We were happy to plod along on the road, our (my) only concern the cougar or grizzly that might be lying in wait.

We walked out of the forest into a clearing to be treated to a view of the ski hills that are slowly shedding their snow cover.

IMG_1473

The path to the falls is steep but well-maintained and the view was worth the scramble down. The falls are much bigger than they look in this photo.

IMG_1471

The town of Revelstoke is just on the brink. It will never become Banff and the locals are anxious to keep it that way. They want to balance progress and economic prosperity with sustainable growth and retention of character. The older homes and civic buildings are beautifully maintained and the shops and cafes downtown have character and quality. We were here just before the season begins; these streets will soon be packed.

IMG_1454

As we travel across the country, we will camp, stay with friends and family and try to find affordable hotels/hostels that are not party-central. When we read about The Cube Hotel in Revelstoke we  thought we would give it a try. If only all hostels were like this one.

IMG_1429

This old warehouse was bought by owner Louis-Marc Simard and his partner and completed gutted.  Spotlessly clean and decorated with original art, the lobby and communal areas are inviting, comfortable and fully equipped. A full, delicious hot breakfast is included. Our room – comfy bed, sink and toilet in the room, immaculate showers down the hall, waffle-weave dressing gowns, flat-screen TV and decent reading lights. All this for $68 a night.

We could easily stay another day or two in Revelstoke. As I write this, I am listening to a train wind its way through town, the sound of the wheels on the tracks echoing through the valley. If I had to choose between living by the ocean or right in the mountains, it would be difficult.

We’re heading for Drumheller and the badlands tomorrow – we’ll be there for a few days of hiking and hoodoos. And camping – an activity I thought I had left behind.

My friend Nicola sent me this graffiti she snapped on a hike in Mexico. She thought we might relate.

unnamed