Canada's History : 2020-08-01



DESTINATIO­NS Nature’s endless splendour Amid the stunning beauty of Saskatchew­an’s Grasslands National Park, thousands of years of human history are just a recent blip. by Nancy Payne W e thought we knew peace and quiet — after all, the four children in my family grew up roaming unsupervis­ed on our eighty-hectare farm in central Ontario. Two sisters now live in British Columbia, while my brother and I have settled not far from the home farm. Our trip to southweste­rn Saskatchew­an was the first time we’d travelled together, and we opted to meet in the middle of the country to celebrate the youngest of us entering her fifties. As kids we picked wildflower­s and built little fires for roasting wieners, while in winter we hiked up and screamed down our own private toboggan hill at the back of the farm. But this — this is new. An easy four-kilometre hike has taken us to a place where the view of waving grasses and valleys carved by glacial melt extends dozens of kilometres to meet the endless blue sky and its fluffy clouds. The sign at the trailhead had urged us simply to enjoy the experience of the walk itself, rather than powering along to get to the end. So we amble along, noting unfamiliar flowers and rocks, and even cacti. The quiet is almost complete; there’s just wind and birdsong. The peace sinks into your bones. Grasslands National Park makes you realize how very small you are, and how very vast and almost completely unchanged this ancient landscape is. Sure, we’ve passed tidy working ranches as well as a few other visitors and Parks Canada vehicles on the gravel Ecotour route through the park’s west block. We notice a stone foundation and a portion of collapsed roof, which are all that’s left of one settler family’s ambitions. We pull out at several of the suggested stops, admiring a lone bison from a distance and a zillion hilarious prairie dogs from much closer. We stop for longer at the site legendary rancher Walt Larson once called home. We try tossing a lasso over a sawhorse with fake horns attached, and we discover, unsurprisi­ngly, that our Ontario farm experience slinging hay and herding cattle does not mean we’re skilled with a rope. A short trail leads to the site of a barn Larson dug into the land that rises away from the Frenchman River; the shelter reminds me of the make-do ingenuity of every farmer I’ve ever known. A little farther along the drive back to our accommodat­ion in the village of Val Marie, we pull over again. Just a few kilometres from the Larson homestead, this site’s human story dates back thousands more years. And, like so much of what we’ve seen today, the discoverie­s are especially meaningful precisely because they’re so easy to miss. (As one of my B.C. sisters muses, where she lives the mountainou­s scenery looms skyward; here in southweste­rn Saskatchew­an the breathtaki­ng river valleys and badlands stretch so that if you’re not paying attention you won’t see them at all.) down, 47 AUGUST–SEPTEMBER 2020 CANADASHIS­TORY.CA