It was a bold idea – preserve a portion of Saskatchewan’s native prairie. At first, not many people understood the need. Why, when there is so much of it? they asked.
The fact was, native grassland was rapidly disappearing under the plough, even though much of it was appropriate only for ranching, not farming – poor soil, little rain, rough topography. The few farms established in the far southwest of the province struggled and often failed (read Wallace Stegner’s Wolf Willow for a first-hand account).
The idea of a national park was proposed in 1956 by the Saskatchewan Natural History Society (now Nature Saskatchewan). Nine years later, a study identified the region from Val Marie to Killdeer as the ideal location. In 1975, the provincial and federal governments formalized an agreement to create the park, and held a series of meetings with residents to discuss it.
Not everyone was in favour. There is a long-standing suspicion of government’s intent in that part of the province. But slowly, people were won over, especially when they learned that the government would not expropriate land (their biggest concern) but rather purchase it on a willing-seller, willing-buyer approach.
Welcome to Grasslands National Park. A place sculpted by ice and water. A place of grass and wind. Of hills and ravines and wide open spaces. Of prairie dogs, rattlesnakes, burrowing owls and black-footed ferrets. Of bison and coyotes. Of badlands and dinosaurs. Of history, both Indigenous and European. Of pitch black night skies strewn with countless stars.
Its centre is the Frenchman River valley, a broad gash across the landscape through which the little Frenchman River lazily meanders. The river wasn’t always small. Fourteen thousand years ago, it was a raging torrent, draining the meltwater from nearby glaciers southward into the Missouri River, gouging a broad deep valley that only later, after the glaciers retreated far to the north, filled in with silt to reach its current depth.
People have lived on the hills overlooking the Frenchman River valley from the beginning of time. Parks Canada archaeologists recorded hundred of Indigenous sites – tipi rings, bison kill sites, and numerous enigmatic features – strung out almost continuously over the north bank of the valley. Ranchers moved in beginning in the 1860s and established the huge and fabled ranches that stretched across most of southwestern Saskatchewan: the N–N, the 76, and the Turkey Track. The disastrous winter of 1906-07 – a winter of many blizzards and no chinooks – killed most of the herds and put an end to those ranches. (Again, read Wallace Stegner’s Wolf Willow to learn how bad it was.)
Now, it is a place to come and contemplate how small we really are in this huge landscape. As you walk among tipi rings, or watch prairie dogs gambol about in their “towns,” or camp under the darkest of skies filled with the most brilliant of stars, often times all you can hear is the wind sighing through the grass, or the “skree” of a hawk flying overhead, or perhaps only the blood pulsing through your head.
It’s how the grasslands used to be.
Note: if you want to learn more about the ranching history of Grasslands National Park, I suggest you read The Grasslanders: Ranch Stories from Grasslands National Park, by Thelma Poirier.
Note #2: The masthead photograph is taken at Grasslands National Park.
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