Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The geography of my heart: Welcome southwestern Saskatchewan

Yours truly, atop 'Bob"
The Grasslands National Park was spectacular. I wasn't sure what to expect, overall, about finding magic in Saskatchewan. Let me revise - I anticipated connecting with family and finding beauty in relationships. I didn't expect to be repeatedly breath-taken by Saskatchewan's natural and pastoral scenes.

We left Regina and took the highway past Moose Jaw (Al Capone, tunnels, prohibition) and Chaplin (2nd largest inland salt water lake in SK). We stopped in Mortlach (sistered with a village in Scotland, says the cafe owner proudly). We ate a pretty mediocre meal at the rose garden cafe (nary a rose in sight) and went for a walk to the end of the gravel road where we found a cafe recently opened by a woman who left Vancouver to start something new: Little Red Market Cafe. It's got Commercial Drive/Main Street written all over it. Wood benches, chalkboards, long wood front counter and a mouth watering menu. It's been open all of 4 weeks and it's already made the top 10 list on the CBC Sask places to eat on the road. I ate a bacon maple ice-cream sandwich.

This is an example of the hidden gems that we just kept stumbling into. The park, as we drove into it, was all crests and coulees. Val Marie, its welcoming town, was dirt road and scraping by. We later learned that of the 40 or so students in the school there, 21 of their parents are Park's employees. The region was buffalo ground, and traditional first nations territory. The Buffalo were annihilated through over hunting, and though there is ample evidence of first nations (Cree & Sioux) presence, there was little talk of what happened when the land became ranchland. The cowboy that took me on a horseback ride said that most folks down there have some Cree blood in them.
Brian and Otis on our hike up to the 70 Mile Butte

So the Park has reintroduced Buffalo (or Bison), and has set up a new campground within the boundaries. It is so liberating to be told by Park's staff that you are free to walk anywhere - there aren't enough visitors to make free-reign harmful to the ecology. We hiked up 70 Mile Butte, the second highest peak (!) in Saskatchewan, and we tromped through the grasses along the Frenchman River Valley. We camped two nights, borrowing the Flamont's tent & gear. We nearly got blown over the first night, and the second night brought thunderstorm & showers. The mosquitoes were abominable. By the third day I was sent around the bend by the mosquitoes so we decided to spend the next two nights in B&Bs. We stayed in a restored convent in Val Marie, and our hopes of a warm meal and bath were dashed as the power went out in the region that evening. It was a really cool place to stop in, though.

What I had especially been looking forward to was a horseback riding adventure, and I got it! Riding with Dennis Lamotte, a born and bred rancher. He rode with a lasso and a cowboy hat. It was just me and him for 4 hours on our horses. I was initially a little worried about how I would survive a tete-a-tete with a taciturn cowboy. When I called that morning to confirm timing, he said '9 o'clock's fine. I don't care'. That lack of enthusiasm was a little worrisome to me. But when it came to it, we had a great time. My horse, Bob, was 20 years old and farted and grunted just like an old guy. Dennis is a grandfather, and when I asked him how many grandkids he has he said 'shit, I don't know...a dozen?'. We talked about the relationship between the ranchers and the Park, and about the history and lifestyle. Dennis' spotting skills were unparalleled. We saw Antelope, Coyote, and Mule Deer, and we crested hills with heart soaring vistas.
Dennis Lamotte and "Shorty", or as his wife calls her, "Snowflake"

The long straight roads give me lots of opportunity for digesting this experience. This land has nestled into my heart. The meta and the micro: you look down and see the ground teeming with biodiversity, you look towards the horizon and see vast open space. Being here in person has reminded me that building a relationship with our natural world is imperative. I feel way more connected to this ecosystem than I ever knew I could, and am just that much more committed to its well-being. And to the well-being of the people living there. I am so interested to know what the rest of our trip will bring. Today is Saskatoon and Craik.
Otis in the grass

Until next time!

1 comment:

Joan B said...

Hi Hill family! I was teary-eyed hearing about Thelo - so sorry for your loss. I love your blog and thanks for sharing so much with us Leanna - your adventures, your feelings and your awesome heart! Have a great time & see you in a few weeks - gotta get some Otis hugs in! Love, Joan