Cypress Hills to Grasslands NP, Saskatchewan

As we left behind the prairie on our way to Maple Creek, we felt more like we had took a wrong turn and left Canada for a different continent. Surrounded by flat fields one minute, then descending into an Okanagan river valley the next. (Hey, there’s even a winery in the area.) Left turn onto some gravel roads, then here’s what looks like a bunch of desert shrubs. Now right turn aaaaand we’re in the Sahara.

Formed by the sediment of the receding Laurentide glacier 13,000 years ago along with a whole lot of wind, it’s not exactly a desert here so much as a few very tall dunes of soft, cool sand that feels like a beach. Look everywhere around you from atop a dune, and you’ll see pastures and cows. Lest you forget where you truly are, there’s a cowboy boot-laden memorial to a local rancher.

Our next stop? The highest point in Canada between the Rockies and Labrador. Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park (shared with Alberta) is so named because of all the cypress-like pine trees, and the hills are a remnant of a plateau not swallowed up by the same glacier from before. So much for the flat and treeless province! Already used to pine trees and hills ourselves, we opted out of hikes and settled for the Conglomerate Cliffs viewpoint. On a day without wildfire smoke, you’d probably see pretty far. More intriguing though was the conglomerate itself: the cliffs looked like they were made of pebbly concrete.

But again: this is still whatever the Canadian equivalent of the Wild West is: cowboy country.

For one, within the park bounds, we stayed at the Reesor Ranch (on a property bisected by the provincial border) for two nights. Run continuously by the Reesor family since 1904 when both Alberta and Saskatchewan were still part of the then-capital-W North-West Territories, we leaned into the vibe: meals in the old stable, nights in the beautiful old farm house, walks around the property with animals, a horse ride into the hills (much easier than my last two) with our guides rounding up the loose cattle by the end, and of course an incredible steak dinner. In between lovely chats with other guests (oh I’ve missed socialising with strangers!) and mountains of food and alcohol, Scott Reesor, dressed to the nines in his cowboy garb, regaled us with dry humour and readings of his own poetry.

A few decades before the ranch came into being, the settlers were only beginning to move west into what still is traditional Nakoda territory. At the forefront were the Métis and traders, but also American wolf hunters and whiskey smugglers taking advantage of no enforcement and a porous border. A few dozen kilometres down the road in 1873, when some drunkenly racist hunters accused local Nakoda of stealing their horses, they terrorized the population and killed what official records say is 28 Nakoda people in what’s now known as the Cypress Hills Massacre.

News of this didn’t reach Ottawa until two months later, Prime Minister John A. MacDonald (whose own legacy, mind you, is currently going through a major re-evaluation due to his creation of Canada’s racist residential schools) used the incident as an impetus to create the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP, later amalgamated into the current-day RCMP), sending 300 men on a long, arduous 1400 km march west to set it up and enforce the laws of the country. As the story goes, at least according to Parks Canada, they set up an impartial investigation, interviewing Nakoda witnesses and trying several people, though ultimately without leading to any prosecution. The process of investigating an injustice on the Nakoda people led them to put trust in the Canadian government. (Interestingly enough, the Parks Canada video had an addendum tacked on with a statement from the Nakoda describing their enduring ambivalence, and claiming over 300 dead instead of just 28.)

The NWMP established Fort Walsh in the process, which is now a national historic site. Initially there to deal with the illegal whisky trade, police duties grew vastly in scope and eventually included mail delivery, customs inspections, surgery, marriage ceremonies, funerals, and basically every other public service you can think of. For a time, they also facilitated Lakota people fleeing an attack by American forces and enforced the border. The fort now is a reconstruction, along with reconstructions of a Métis trading post and some bare tipis, several kilometres from the old massacre site (which we didn’t have time to visit).

Moving onwards from Cypress Hills, we had another history lesson in store.. Well, more of the prehistoric kind! The landscape transitions suddenly into the Frenchman River Valley, where the town of Eastend holds the T.rex Discovery Centre and the remains of “Scotty”, the largest discovered fossil of a T.rex in the world! Of course, what’s on display is just a cast, but hey, gotta love those life-sized T.rex arms. Fossils are still frequently discovered in the region today. Crazy to think that this region used to be a subtropical lush forest with crocodiles and palm trees, prior to continental drift. That’s what the fossils tell. Now? A short drive up to the spectacular Jones Peak says it all: dry plains and badlands.

That was but a preview of our next two days visiting the two blocks of Grasslands National Park, spaced 200 km apart. And hey, the scenery here only points to the history: The layers of the badlands show a telltale sign of the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs. There are remnants of old settler homesteads within the park, hinting at the poor farming conditions that gave the “badlands” their name. There are tipi rings around. And there’s the last bit of original short grass prairie that just doesn’t exist anymore with the mass conversion to farmland. But hey, I’m here for the animals! We weren’t lucky with the bison — just a couple far in the distance — but beyond the common gophers, deer, and hawks, the park hosts coyotes and rare prairie dog colonies, all of which we saw from the comfort of our car. And I never thought there’d be wild cacti growing anywhere in Canada.

On our way to from Cypress Hills to the last of the badlands, we stopped or drove through countless small towns, all generally agricultural, populations between 100 and the low 1000s, and in various states of repair, many feeling far emptier than others. Yet we kept running into surprises: entirely francophone towns and francophone visitors, a number of diners converted to Chinese restaurants (whose owners were often or likely the only Chinese residents for hundreds of kilometres, and who appreciated having a conversation in their own language for once), Indian restaurants and accommodations… Best of all though, an unforgettable meal (including bison carpaccio!) at a hip farm-to-table restaurant that could kick it in Vancouver or Toronto or New York, yet chose to stay in their little town of Shaunavon. There’s a lot more diversity to modern rural life than I expected.

The scenery surprises too. Just when we thought we had seen it all, we had our last hurrah at Castle Butte in the Big Muddy Badlands, arguably the best of the scenery with a slippery, precarious climb to the very top.

From here on out, it’s back to big civilisation. (Well, big for Saskatchewan.) Hard to leave behind the remote, but a break from dilapidated roadside motels and killing thousands of grasshoppers with the windshield is much needed!

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