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


  1. I love going back every year, as long as it isn't during the hot summer months.

  2. I'm with you all the way. i just don't get out to the really interesting places. When I was a kid there was still much of the prairie the was undeveloped. I'll never for get it.

  3. The few times I've poked around the edges of the GSH region made me realize just how big and isolated it is. It takes a lot of time and determination to explore it. Thanks for your excellent account.