I first read something about the endangered Sage Grouse in Grasslands NP a few years ago… and then I read about the Black Footed Ferrets which had become extinct in the wild, until recently when they were successfully reintroduced into Grasslands NP from captive populations. Then I read about the Golden Eagles that nest in areas of the park, and the Burrowing owls and Prairie Dogs (not to be confused with common ground squirrels) that make their home there. While all of these caught my interest, the truth is I had never been to Saskatchewan and I live too close to have never visited our neighboring province. At about 650 kilometres from Calgary it is a long drive to the park, and I couldn’t really justify the distance until I got a super-telephoto lens, as most of the wildlife in the park are birds or small mammals, and I figured it would pretty much be a waste of time with anything shorter than a 300 or 400mm lens.
Not only is it a long drive, but it’s an extremely uneventful one. I only stopped once on the drive there, and that was 600 km in and I only stopped to get gas and dinner (knowing it was the last place to fill up the tank before the park). Toward the end of the drive I turned east onto a rather rundown and potholed but still somewhat paved farm road with ponds and sloughs along the ditches that where filled with ducks and waterfowl of all different kinds. I’ve never before seen such abundance, everywhere I looked there were birds in the ponds, and the skies, and the fields, on every tree branch and fence post, it was pretty unbelievable.
The motto of Saskatchewan is “The land of living skies” I always thought that was in reference to the clouds and big blue wide open skies. But I was wrong, it’s the birds, and although my experience of the province in very limited, I can say its a very suitable motto.
The village at the edge of the park is tiny (there isn’t even a gas station), with little more than a visitor centre (which was closed) and a ‘hotel’ that was nothing more than a house with rooms to rent, and after a quick glance decided tenting in the park was a better option.
The park itself consists of little more than a gravel road running though the open grasslands with a treeless campground on a hilltop in the middle. There were free roaming bison wandering throughout, and the birds were so active that I was stopping every 10 metres to take pictures. I saw my first burrowing owls, the large prairie dog towns, a lone pronghorn, and young bison butting heads and chasing each other around, as well as more small bird than I could count or identify. kingbirds, and mourning doves, and meadowlarks, sparrows of all different design. I almost hit a harrier hawk with my car but it flew off before I could get a decent photo.
Eventually I made it to the campground just as darkness was setting in, and found it completely empty, to say it was a bit eerie is an understatement, but thankfully there was a box of firewood so at least I was able to have a fire.
I was really hoping to try taking some pictures of the night sky and saw the faint glow of northern lights dancing around overhead, but the stars never came out, thick fog and a light dusting of dry snow began to blanketed the campground so I headed off to bed.
I was woken in the middle of the night by the ear piercing yips and howls of coyotes coming from every direction there must have been at least a dozen of them and I was completely surrounded. They were so close that the volumn of there voices hurt my ears and I could hear their footsteps in the tall grass as they circled around my tent. Coyotes don’t frighten me much but it did occur to me that a large pack could become a serious problem. Then I had an idea, and hit the panic button on my car remote, and literally laughed to myself as I heard them scatter, their yips and noises moving quickly away over the side of the hill, before they joined together in a choirs of howls now at a distance.
I woke at sunrise and packed up camp quickly, not sure what my plan was I figured I shouldn’t leave my tent behind just in case. I drove back and forth all morning taking pictures hoping to spot a Sage Grouse or Ferret or Fox, but wasn’t that lucky.
I did spot what I later learned was an American Bittern feeding on insects in a roadside ditch and spent a half hour or so watching the funny looking bird.
Grasslands NP consists of two different areas and I was hoping to visit the second one as well. So when I found a road heading off in that direction I thought I would see where it led. The gravel road quickly turned to a dirt track, and then left the park behind, after a while I started to get nervous, but there was no where to turn around so I kept going, and going, and going.
Two hours later… yes… two extremely nerve-wrecking hours later I finally popped out onto a real gravel road with no idea were I was. Grabbing my gps out of the trunk I turned it on to find out I was literally in the middle of nowhere (If you look at the gps track at the bottom of the page you can see where I was when I turned it on… and how far I now was from the entrance in the southwest corner of the park and access to the campground). I briefly debated continuing on to the eastern park but it was still a long way and with no campground and no Idea what is actually there I was too tired and frustrated to keep exploring, and headed home instead.
Grasslands National Park is an amazing place. Although in all reality I was only in the park for about 12 or 13 hours much of it spent sleeping, I left with a feeling of awe at the place and can’t wait to go back. Next time I will definitely have to plan things a bit better, and probably go later in the year and not alone. Because frankly having an entire National Park to yourself may sound pretty cool (I didn’t see one single other person the whole time in the park), but in all reality it’s kind of creepy.
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