Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Grasslands National Park--finding your "prairie eye"

Grasslands NP in October, image by Andy Goodson
What do you see when you head out on the prairie?

Bill Holm, the great poet of Minnesota prairies, wrote about the “horizontal grandeur” of prairie, that it “unfolds gradually, reveals itself a mile at a time, and only when you finish crossing it do you have any idea of what you’ve seen. Americans don’t like prairies as scenery or for national parks and preserves because they require patience and effort. We want instant gratification in scenic splendor as in most things, and simply will not look at them seriously.  . . .There are two eyes in the human head – the eye of mystery, and the eye of harsh truth – the hidden and the open – the woods eye and the prairie eye. The prairie eye looks for distance, clarity, and light; the woods eye for closeness, complexity, and darkness. . . . One eye is not superior to the other, but they are different. To some degree, like male and female, darkness and light, they exist in all human heads, but one or the other seems dominant.”[i]

[i] Bill Holm, The Music of Failure, Prairie Grass Press, 1990

If you have a minute and want to exercise your "prairie eye," take a look at this photo essay, with photos by Andy Goodson and Sean Hootz and story by Goodson. At the end of last October, the two of them visited the West Block of Grasslands National Park with some friends and then posted a photo essay on a beautiful website they maintain, featuring landscapes and wildness in Saskatchewan--Saskborder.com.

These guys have a feel for how to photograph big landscapes. There are several terrific images of the bleak beauty and grandeur of the park as it settles in for winter.

Part of the charm of the story is Goodson's candour in relating their apprehension as they arrived at the park and got their first look at the landscapes and campground. People like Goodson, who have seen a wide range of native prairie landscapes in Saskatchewan, know that the west block of GNP does not have the immediate postcard appeal of some other places--Jones Peak, the Matador, Swift Current Creek, Wood Mountain, the Cypress Hills, and the Killdeer Badlands of the East Block, but, as the story attests, once you get away from the Ecotour and wander over a few buttes and coulees, the scale and sweep of the land, the sense of liberty it inspires, just overtakes you.

The secret is to spend at least two or three days. A three-hour tour won't do it. Luckily, their group stumbled on the North Gillespie range east and north of the campground where there are miles and miles of native grass and a powerful sense of prairie wildness.

If you plan to go to the West Block, that is the section with the best hiking and feel for prairie solitude and wildness. Here is a map with the best areas circled in RED.

Map from GNP West Block Brochure, showing in red some of the wildest landscapes (click to enlarge)

But do check in at the Park Centre in Val Marie to get access and road condition details and a good map--you'll need it. (Park Brochure here.)

An October ramble through the North Gillespie range at GNP, image by Sean Hootz

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