Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Best grassland hikes for this summer

an ephemeral wetland (image courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood)

“We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.”
From Wallace Stegner’s “Wilderness Letter” submitted to California’s “Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission” in 1960.

Summer is a good time to head out and find an expansive piece of native grassland where you can go for a long walk. If you live in places like Alberta or Montana or North Dakota (look at this web page) it is fairly easy. There are established trails on state and federal grasslands where you are welcome to hike and in some cases camp overnight.

In Saskatchewan, however, there are very few places where you are allowed to hike and camp on our publicly-owned native grassland.

On leased Crown grassland or community pastures in the province, you have to track down the manager or leaseholder to ask for permission. In most cases, they will grant the permission and let you know where you can go and where you cannot go, and how to behave while you are there.

In the case of the federal PFRA community pastures still run by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, you are supposed to apply for a permit with the head office in Regina and then get the pasture manager’s signature approving your plan to enter the pasture. Once you have that, then your permit will be processed. This can take some time, but it is worth doing to get a chance to walk through these remote and often breath-taking landscapes.

image courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood

As for the former-PFRA pastures now passing into the hands of private groups of cattle producers who are leasing the land for grazing, there is no formal process for gaining access and it remains to be seen how each pasture corporation and their managers handle public requests for recreation access or research or traditional medicine gathering.

Fortunately, and thanks to the foresight of Nature Saskatchewan and the great and wise George Ledingham, Saskatchewan does have one big and beautiful piece of publicly-owned grassland where you don’t need to ask permission to go for a walk--Grasslands National Park (GNP).

Most GNP visitors restrict themselves to the shorter trails in the West Block, which have their appeal but cannot compare to the grandeur of the landscapes you will encounter in the East Block. One of the longer and most rewarding East Block hikes is the "Butte Creek/Red Buttes Trail," which departs from the Rock Creek Campground and day use area. Here is a pdf of a pamphlet showing the campground and the start of the trail, the red trail marked "4".

(click on the image to see a larger version) the red trail marked "4" heading off in the top right corner of this image is the "Butte Creek/Red Buttes Trail"
The total distance of the hike from Rock Creek Campground is 16 km round trip. As you move through a mixture of habitats, from native grasslands to creek valleys to badlands there will be birds and a mix of native grasses and wildflowers all the way. You could well see a long billed curlew, or a prairie falcon pass overhead; ferruginous hawks and golden eagles nest in the area. If you go in June or July the characteristic prairie songbirds will sing all around you and overhead: in open grasslands you will hear Sprague's pipit, chestnut-collared longspur, Baird's sparrows, and grasshopper sparrows. As you move through the badlands, you may hear the rock wren’s improvised song echoing from butte to butte.

And when the day is over, you may know something of what Stegner was talking about: that we need such wild country, need to know it is there, and that we can travel to its edges and restore ourselves with the reassurance that comes from a “geography of hope.”

Buttes in the mist, image courtesy of Hamilton Greenwood

1 comment:

  1. Hello Trevor
    I was sad to read your post about access to “wild country” and look at the map of trails in the East Block of GNP. When we originally developed a day use plan for the East Block, the idea was to keep this area as “wilderness” and contain motorized access to the West Block. The area west of the Poverty Ridge station was supposed to have a limited access to motorized vehicles – there would be a designated parking area right along the fence (as soon as you cross the park border line) and visitors were expected to reach Dawson Viewpoints on foot only. I see that instead of one parking lot we now have four, with picnic tables and outhouses right in the middle of “wild country”. In the Environmental Impact Assessment documents for development of infrastructure in the East Block (now declared “un-necessary” and therefore cancelled) Parks Canada expressed interest in building parking lots with gravel surfaces. Right in the area with beautiful, healthy native prairie. You might count the Grasslands NP as a shiny star in our system of publicly-owned grasslands, but it is under ever-increasing pressure to be developed, even by organizations that were entrusted to protect it.


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