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Grasslands National Park "solitude".

Val Marie, Saskatchewan is much like many of the towns and villages dotting the Canadian prairie landscape. Situated about 30 kilometres north of the Saskatchewan / Montana border and directly south of Swift Current, Val Marie is a peaceful and friendly community serving a large ranch and farmland area. Val Marie's significance to this story lies in the fact that it is the gateway to one of Canada's unique national parks, Grasslands National Park.

On first hearing about Grasslands my immediate reaction was, "What could be the significance of a large expanse of prairie grass that would warrant creating a national park?" Imagine my surprise on my first visit in finding not a large prairie pasture, but one of nature's truly natural gardens on an immense scale--it was beautiful!

Grasslands is comprised of two separate geographic areas: the East Bloc with the incredibly rugged "Killdeer Badlands" at its heart and the West Bloc with the Frenchman River winding its way slowly through valleys, plateaus and rolling hills. Both blocs are unserviced and are being preserved in their natural state. They are separated by about 15 kilometers of privately owned land.

The East Bloc has one road leading up to it, but not through it. A good deal of hiking is required to explore its many delights. The West Bloc has a gravel road running through it, which can become almost impassible in wet weather.

The two blocs together encompass approximately 900 square kilometres--current and proposed space--and are home to a wide assortment of wildlife: from one of Canada's largest black-tailed prairie dog colonies to prairie rattlesnakes, pronghorn antelope, swift fox and a large variety of birds, including the peregrine falcon, sage grouse and burrowing owls.

Probably one of the best ways of describing the beauty and solitude of the Grasslands is to take you on a short journey through some of the fond memories I have collected from my numerous visits to the park.

* Entering the West Bloc from the north for the first time and seeing the vast valley suddenly spread out below me with its rolling hills, coulees and canyons, and the Frenchman River with green shrubs lining its banks, winding its way lazily along the valley bottom was a sight that took my breath away.

* Hiking up the sometimes quite steep slopes of the "70-mile butte" I was rewarded by an incredible panoramic view. To the north and west as far as the eye can see, are ranch and farmlands with distant barns and silos dotting the landscape. To the south and east, the Frenchman river winds its way slowly along the valley floor surrounded by immense rolling hills.

* The stark and rugged beauty of the East Bloc Killdeer Badlands has marvelously multi-coloured rock formations and outcroppings. Small streams flowing through the area have cut deep gullies into the rock and soil, creating valleys, buttes and plateaus. Hiking here can be quite challenging.

* A summer thunderstorm can appear suddenly on the horizon across a wide valley. Lightning flashing brilliantly against almost black clouds. I hoped the storm would miss me. It did, rumbling slowly away into the distance leaving behind a clear blue sky.

* The unforgettable pungent aroma of sagebrush on a hot afternoon; dried up tumbleweeds caught up against some brush or boulders.

* The site of an old homestead in the valley bottom not far from the river. Nothing remained but the crumbling foundation, old weathered boards and a broken down corral. The yard was overgrown with tall grass. Seeing all this conjured up images of some brave pioneers settling here with all their hopes and dreams for the future, and trying to imagine what their life must have been like. Whatever became of them?

* I recall the time when I was hiking up a long gravelly slope because I had seen what appeared to be a sign post up on the top in the distance and wondered what a sign was doing way up there in the middle of nowhere. Sure enough, there was a sign and it was pointing to the way I had come up, cautioning hikers to be aware of rattlesnakes. This was a rattlesnakenesting site. Fortunately for me, it was late in the season and too cold for rattlesnakes to be in the open.

* On another occasion, sitting on a rock on a low hill, I was eating my lunch and watching the black-tailed prairie dog (gopher) colony down below when I suddenly had that strange feeling that I was being watched. Turning my head slowly I saw three pronghorn antelopes about 25 meters away solemnly watching me eat my lunch. The irony of this was that just a few hours before I had met a film crew who were on assignment to film antelope for a documentary, but had been unable to find any. I had suggested to them that they leave their vehicle and wander into the hills quietly and they would surely find some. They didn't have the patience for that and kept driving up and down the gravel road hoping to see some.

* Prickly pear cactus in bloom in the spring with their delicate formed purplish blossoms catching the rays of the sun.

* Quartz crystals on a faraway hillside sparking in the sun after a recent shower.

* A few lone trees standing out starkly against the sky, while I am roaming the valleys, coulees and up long hills to plateaus. The only trails, the occasional wildlife game trails. A pleasure just to walk wherever I wished with no boundaries to the eye or to the mind.

* Lying back on a lonely hillside in peaceful solitude with the warm grass waving gently in the breeze, a lone eagle circling lazily overhead. White puffy clouds drifting gently in the sky above me and just soaking up the beauty of this marvelous creation. Feeling the tensions of a hectic life slowly draining away. This has become for me a truly spiritual experience, a place where I feel especially close to nay Creator.

* The harmony of nature untainted and unspoiled by human hands. This is music of a special kind. Music to lift the spirits and quiet the soul.

I invite you to come and see for yourself and enjoy these marvels of God's creation. It is truly a place of solitude and the perfect setting for reflection.

Some areas within the East and West Blocs are still privately owned, but are expected to be incorporated into the park in the future. The Grasslands, as of this writing, has no entrance fees, however camping fees are required for visitors staying in the park overnight. The park office in Val Marie will be quite happy to accept contributions for the improvement and maintenance of the park. An excellent web site can be found at: E.asp.

Neil Klassen loves nature and the outdoors, affording him the opportunity to use his refined photographic skills. While now retired, he continues to be involved in the field of audio engineering.
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Author:Klassen, Neil
Publication:Prairie Garden
Date:Jan 1, 2004
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