Canada's History : 2020-08-01

DESTINATIO­NS : 48 : 48

DESTINATIO­NS

DESTINATIO­NS IF YOU GO GETTING THERE: The west block of Grasslands National Park is a threeand-a-half-hour drive southwest from Regina, or an hour and a half south from Swift Current, Saskatchew­an. WHEN TO VISIT: The park’s visitor centres are typically open from May 1 through the Thanksgivi­ng Day long weekend. (But check for possible closures due to COVID-19.) WHERE TO STAY: Services in the area are limited, so plan ahead. The village of Val Marie, Saskatchew­an, just northwest of the park’s west block and home to the main park office, offers a handful of accommodat­ion options along with a grocery store and a good Chinese-Canadian restaurant. Camping options within the park include sites with electricit­y, oTENTik cabins, and backcountr­y tenting. We scare some deer out of a coulee as we meander across the grassy plateau. Down around my feet I finally see what I’ve been searching for: partially buried stones curving into a circle, one of the park’s more than twelve thousand tipi rings. Indeed, Grasslands is considered one of the most important sites of undisturbe­d pre-contact Indigenous heritage: First the Gros Ventre followed the bison here, and then the Assiniboin­e, Cree, Blackfoot, and Sioux. After the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876, Sitting Bull brought about four thousand Lakota here from what is now Montana. The area was also valuable to the Metis, who conducted their last-ever bison hunt near Val Marie in 1885. The next day, we head to the park’s east block, which is a good two-hour drive from Val Marie. I’m preoccupie­d by the fact that the park’s website describes the alarmingly named Valley of 1000 Devils Route we’re planning to hike as “very difficult.” I mean, my sisters are from British Columbia, so they’re used to strenuous climbs, and my brother has always been game for any challenge. I love a good hike, but I’m not what you’d call hardcore, and the website worries me a little: “This route is a remote wilderness experience that requires preparedne­ss, selfrelian­ce and orienteeri­ng skills.” By the time we enter the small park office to ask some questions, I’ve already realized that my siblings know enough — and are kind enough — that I needn’t be concerned. I relax immediatel­y when friendly Parks Canada staff members assure us that we’ll be fine as long as we have water; the trail is beaten down, and it’s easy to turn back when we’ve had enough. It turns out that a remote wilderness experience, like so much else in Grasslands, is not at all what we’re used to. A non-strenuous hike takes us up and over a series of ridges to (and this area sure does tax the thesaurus listings for “vast”) a panoramic view of badlands in various shades of grey, black, rusty red, and white. The landscape stretches beyond human history into primordial upheaval. I feel an actual shock of excitement when I see a set of black “stones” arranged in such a neat line that they just have to be the backbone of something ancient. My younger sister makes agreeable noises, although I sense good-natured skepticism from my two older siblings. Whatever. We’re in the middle of a spectacula­rly rich fossil bed; the first recorded discovery of dinosaur remains in Canada took place right here in these badlands in 1874. I’m sticking to my story. We say goodbye to Grasslands on a final driving tour of the Badlands Parkway, a rare paved stretch of road that makes it easy for everyone to enjoy gorgeous views while protecting habitat and archaeolog­ical sites. We know we’ve experience­d something profound, and not just because of the precious time spent together. Ten thousand years of human presence here is just a faint scratch on the timeless surface of a place that has been home to bison hunters, dinosaurs, and glaciers. In both time and space, it feels about as close as we’ll get in this lifetime to touching infinity. 48 AUGUST–SEPTEMBER 2020 CANADASHIS­TORY.CA