Technology doesn't have to be something that divides us from nature. It can be a tool through which we can explore the natural world...

Friday, 28 March 2014

My Sacred Places - Part Six

Great Sand Hills

The sound of the wind and the song of the meadowlark
are constant accompaniments during the prairie springtime
I grew up in Calgary and I got used to seeing the fronts of the Rocky Mountains along the western horizon, beckoning me. On the eastern horizon there were no mountains just empty skies. I suppose it was no wonder that I focused most of my energy (as a young man) exploring the Rockies, never giving a thought to the vast prairie region to the east. There was a year however that my family had lived near the Alberta-Saskatchewan border. I was a boy of 7 and we were new immigrants to Canada. In two years we had moved from London, England to Calgary, Alberta to Burstall, Saskatchewan. That was my only experience of living on the prairies. I remembered little of it, but I know that my parents had fond memories of our time spent in that surprisingly interesting part of Canada.

"Boot Hill" - one rancher's tribute to the Great Sand Hills
Fast forward 37 years to my journey along the length of the Red Deer River. I had a pretty good idea what to expect for the first three quarters of that expedition, but the last part of the trip into the “Palliser Triangle” was a mystery to me. It was the “Undiscovered Country”. That section of the river and the land around it made such a mark on me that I decide to return there the following autumn. I have been back to this part of the prairies many times in the ten years since.
Kangaroo Rat skull
I usually camp at Sandy Point campground – a spot on Alberta’s Highway 41, where it crosses the South Saskatchewan River.  This provides me with a central place from which I can explore the large area that surrounds the Great Sand Hills. From there it is a quick drive across the border into Saskatchewan and east to the sand dunes. The Great Sand Hills is very large in area, but only a small percent of the sand hills are actual exposed dunes. Most visitors go to the dunes east of Burstall and south of Sceptre, which is the most accessible spot to visit. One can wander the dunes looking for signs of the resident, but nocturnal kangaroo rats (which are at the northern limit of their range). I have never actually seen one, but their trails and holes are everywhere.

Snowy owl along Old Millie Road
There are many other less visited places in the sand hills of course and I have some much-loved ones of my own. My favorite drives is via the “Old Millie Road” which (along with the New Millie Road) traverses the sand hills and leads to other roads which branch out in different directions to hidden gems – dunes, small lakes and quiet, secluded places miles from anywhere, where ferruginous hawks soar above you and deer and pronghorn run free. There are even moose in the sand hills, or so I am told. I have seen them in the area, but not actually in the sand hills themselves. In the spring and fall, tundra swans can be found along with numerous other waterfowl in the few lakes and ponds that can be found near the heart of the region. Sandhill cranes migrate through the area in the spring and fall in large numbers as well as Canada, snow and greater white fronted geese. In the fall one can find thousands of migratory waterfowl around ponds and in the fields. Seeing them suddenly all take off at once is one of the great natural spectacles that you will ever see.

The scent of sage is in the air and the ground cover mostly consists of fescue and juniper. There are sheltered stands of aspen and balsam poplar in places that we sometimes like to stop and have lunch. In spring we look for the prairie crocus (anemone) peering out of the otherwise drab-looking turf.
The Great Sand Hills is a massive area and exploring its reaches is not something that can be treated lightly. It involves lots of driving and hours and hours of exploration, map reading and speculation. Days can go by quickly and I have to be careful not to run out of daylight, especially in the shorter days of late autumn around Thanksgiving .
Standing rock - a large glacial erratic near Hazlett

The larger area around the sand hills also includes the valleys of the South Saskatchewan and Red Deer Rivers, which both include some magnificent vistas of their own. The forks of the two rivers is a place that I return to often, because of its natural beauty and its personal significance. One of my favorite places is the "Bulls Forehead", a high grassy hill opposite the confluence of the two mighty rivers. I will often sit up there for hours, while remembering my journeys on the two rivers and taking in the ambience of the surrounding valleys, poplar groves and grassland. If you're a birdwatcher this is a spot that you must visit in the summer. Bluebirds, king birds, thrashers, towhees and many types of sparrows can be found in the grasslands and river-side thickets. Along the river's edge there are ducks, geese and wading birds (such as the ever present willet) along with flocks of white pelicans on the sandbars. A pair of bald eagles nest on one of the islands and there is a great blue heron rookery. Prairie falcons and swallows nest along an area of sandstone cliffs.
The South Saskatchewan River

A wandering garter at Sandy Point
There are also four types of snakes common to the region; bull snakes, wandering and western garters and the prairie rattlesnakes, which radiate from some large hibernacula near the two rivers. I understand that there are no snakes in the actual sand hills themselves, which may be a comfort to some. On wet years the evening chorus of frogs on the highlands is almost deafening.

There is a great deal of historical significance to this region of  Western Canada. The river valleys and forks were important to the tribes of the plains. The Blackfoot people believed that the souls of the dead wandered the Sand Hills. Around 1800, Peter Fidler established the Hudson Bay Company's ill-fated Chesterfield House at the forks. I once climbed the hill (on the tongue of high land) between the two rivers and stood in the spot where explorer John Palliser had been a hundred and fifty years earlier. In later times, there was a M├ętis settlement near the forks. Paddle wheelers once plied the tricky waters of the South Saskatchewan as far as Medicine Hat. There are old cemeteries and stones that mark the places that once held long forgotten settlements and towns. Some of them were abandoned when their young men failed to return from horrors of the Great War.
Memorial to local war dead at a lonely crossroads east of the sand hills
So why the Sand Hills? Or why the prairies at all for that matter? I have lived in the parkland region of Central Alberta (at the edge of the great plains) for almost twenty years now and I remember a conversation with my old neighbor and Cowboy Hall-of-Famer, Bill Greenwood. He had noticed that we were away for a few days and enquired about where we had gone. I told him enthusiastically that we had been up to the Ghost River country and had hiked to the summit of Blackrock Mountain. He just snorted and said, "why would you want to go up there? There's nothing but rocks..." Bill was a man that had grown up on and learned to love the open country of the prairie. He said the mountains made him feel claustrophobic.I have come around to his way of thinking over the years. Though I will never apologize for my love of the mountains, I can see what he was talking about on our drives and in our many conversations. Among the Great Sand Hills and the breath-taking open country around them, I can get a glimpse of what the prairies must have been like before the arrival of the European settlers. There is a certain light and aura about that whole part of the country. I am sure that it is an acquired taste, but the prairies have become a part of who I am.
Sunset at Freefight Lake, in the heart of the Great Sand Hills

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Sacred Places - Part Five

St. Paul's Cathedral, London

Churches, cathedrals and graveyards - no holiday would be complete without a visit to at least one of these. As I said in my introduction to this series, I am not a religious man. That being said, I do often find myself  on hallowed ground when I'm on vacation. Questions of an almighty aside, I am interested in the story of mankind. Throughout history, religious buildings offer the best of what we are as human beings. I want to tell you about one that filled my heart with wonder.

The New River in my home town of Enfield
I am an immigrant to Canada. My family came to Alberta when I was just five years old. Anybody that meets me would immediately peg me as a Canadian. In fact I was born in North London and it wasn't until I was 38 years old that I ever returned to my homeland. It was an eye opening experience and it didn't take long for me to be totally enthralled by London. I think some people who know me are a bit mystified by the fact that I love London so much. Yes, I am the same person who goes to such great lengths to find solitude in natural settings. The only way I can really explain it is that I like  the "real" thing and London is definitely a real city. You can feel the buzz of the place before you even get off the plane. You clear customs and then the race is on. My father told me that his dad would always tell him "get ready to start running" whenever they took the tube into Central London and the pace hasn't slowed.

Westminster Cathedral
I have visited many English holy places. St. Mary's Church in Warwick (resting place of the Earls of Warwick and Robert Dudley) was the first. I have visited the Cathedral and Abbey Church of St. Alban's, which is said to be the oldest site of Christian worship in Britain. The Cathedrals of Westminster and Canterbury are probably the two "no-brainers"  if you're looking for history and I have been to them both. St. George's Chapel in Windsor (where I found myself standing over the grave of Henry VIII), King's College Chapel, Cambridge and Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford  (it once laid claim to being the smallest cathedral in England) are some notable ones.  I think that's a pretty good list for an agnostic.

So why St. Paul's? It is different than the rest. Its high domed ceiling and climb upward to the upper galleries was an experience not unlike ascending a mountain. It is the closest thing I have ever experienced, that approached nature in its grandeur.

I must admit that I have only been to St. Paul's once and at a sad time in my life. I was in England for the funeral of an Uncle who was particularly dear to me. I had two weeks in London, which I would normally relish, but I wasn't in the mood to sight-see. One day my sister suggested that we visit the cathedral and I agreed. It exceeded all of my expectations. Standing beneath the dome I looked up and wondered at its design. There was a choir there (from Florida) that sang beneath the dome. Their voices sang out a mix of Southern Gospel and more traditional choral songs which reverberated from the dome. It was one of the most amazing aural experiences I have ever encountered.

Under the dome
I wandered the floor of the cathedral and found the American Memorial Chapel, which is dedicated to the U.S. servicemen based in the UK that lost their lives in the Second World War. It was created in a section that was rebuilt after being destroyed by Nazi bombs during the blitz. Downstairs in the crypt were heroes Lord Nelson, the Duke of Wellington, and Florence Nightingale. Also lying beneath his masterpiece is the body of Sir Christopher Wren. Wren created the modern incarnation of St. Paul's after Old St. Paul's was destroyed in the Fire of London in 1666. The new cathedral was officially completed in 1711.
The City from Stone Gallery
It was when we began our ascent up a series of narrow stairways that I truly began to embrace this man-made wonder. The first gallery we encountered on the way up was the Whispering Gallery, 30 metres up from the Cathedral floor.  A whisper spoken against the wall can be heard 32 metres away on the opposite side of the dome. I am not sure exactly how this works, but I understand it was discovered after the gallery was built. Then we ascended to the Stone Gallery on the outside at the bottom of the exterior dome. The interior dome is built within the exterior one and does not conform to it at all. We climbed higher to a point at the very top of the interior dome. My sister directed me to  a small glass portal that looked straight down to the Cathedral floor, where I had stood minutes before staring up in wonderment. We continued up to the Golden Gallery which is 85 metres above the floor and looks out over London. I could see the Old Bailey, the Thames of course and the Millennium Bridge, Parliament and the London Eye. Across the river on the South bank was a pub which beckoned me with its fine ale and plowman's sandwich. Soon I was back down on the streets of London and across the bridge to a waiting pint...
Looking down at the Millennium Bridge from Golden Gallery
At the highest point of The City there has been a church or cathedral for some 1400 years. The latest version is certainly the most magnificent one to grace this hallowed spot. I have often wondered if  I might be a more religious person if I was raised among the churches and traditions of the Old World. My only experience at St. Paul's Cathedral seems to lend some degree of credence to my speculation. Sir Christopher Wren's tribute to Almighty God's creation is quite simply the most inspirational man-made structure that I have ever encountered.
After our climb to the top of the cathedral, a pub beckons from across the Thames