Frame To Frame – Bob and Jean
Exploring the Great Sand Hills in Saskatchewan
The first day of summer in Saskatchewan broke rainy and cool with the mercury sitting at 9° Celsius at 10 a.m. Despite the bleak morning, our spirits were lifted by a candlelit breakfast since the power had been knocked out in Val Marie. Although we were sad to leave Grasslands National Park, our next destination, Great Sand Hills Ecological Reserve, promised to deliver a unique experience.
The dirt road leading to the Great Sand Hills was rimmed with low bushes on either side, and a light layer of dust muted the lively shades of fresh green growth. Bob and I were lucky that we left the rains behind because this road turns into a quagmire during extreme downpours. In the olden days, straw was laid to make the road passable for farmers’ wagons. It became known as the “straw road”.
It was exciting when we caught sight of a humongous dune where it rose above the landscape to fill the horizon.
An information kiosk at the parking lot gave mention of nearby Boot Hill. Curiosity got the best of us, so we scaled a fairly steep grassy slope to the site of the structure.
The humble wooden arch was erected as a memorial to John Booth, a local rancher who had lived in the area his whole life.
Cowboy boots of all sizes and ilks are nailed to the memorial in recognition of John’s love for and appreciation of the land. He served as caretaker of the Sand Hills Stockman’s Association from 1950 to 2007.
Atop the ridge, the true expanse of the Great Sand Hills was revealed, and we set off to explore and appreciate the beauty.
Though the Great Sand Hills Ecological Reserve covers an area of 1,900-square kilometres, the 15-35-metre high dunes actually make up only 5 percent of the protected area.
From Boot Hill, a variety of trails cross the sandy terrain where stunted grass, trees and bushes eke out an existence on the arid plains.
Fragrant Sagebrush and Wild Roses scented the air, while Aspen and Willow made up the larger part of the vegetation.
As we strolled toward sand dune central, a mere 10 minutes from Boot Hill, Bob and I let our imaginations run wild. Knowing that this area had been the hunting grounds for prehistoric humans, we wondered if a Mule Deer or Pronghorn Antelope might make an appearance.
We had to be content with a Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrel. This delightful little creature amused us for several minutes.
The Great Sand Hills on the southern Prairies of Saskatchewan are a geographical anomaly.
They were created by retreating glaciers some 12,000 years ago. As the Laurentide Ice Sheet receded, melt water from the 2-kilometre thick ice sheet created massive lakes and deposited significant amounts of sand.
Over time, as some lakes disappeared and rivers changed course, massive accumulations of sand were left high and dry. The Great Sand Hills are the result of such changes in the South Saskatchewan River and River valley.
The Great Sand Hills Ecological Reserve protects the largest collection of active sand dunes in Canada.
Being active means that the sand dunes are constantly shifting and changing owing to persistent winds. As we walked the tops of the dunes, a constant flow of sand came at us, airborne on the stiff breezes.
It was easy to see how the landscape can take on a dramatically different appearance from one day to the next.
Sometimes, a change in the sunlight or the time of day is all that is needed to affect the appearance of the dunes.
I was fascinated by the intricate and interesting patterns etched into the sand.
To get a different perspective on the dramatic sand dunes, Bob and I descended into a basin where tenacious vegetation had gained a hold.
It was a riot walking up and down the sides of the dunes leaving our footsteps where no one had trod before…at least not on that day. We were able to appreciate the solitude sheltered by the cresting dunes above us.
Hoof prints from Pronghorn Antelopes and cattle that roam the sand hills created random patterns across the sand. On the upward slope of one sand dune, Bob spotted some bleached bones. He had to investigate!
Far from being the remains of some prehistoric animal, we believe the weather-worn bones likely belonged to an unfortunate cow that met its demise there in the recent past.
Bob and I felt lucky that we had decided to explore Great Sand Hills Ecological Reserve where the land has been allowed to remain essentially in its natural state.
It serves to illustrate the diversity of the Prairie landscape beyond the expected broad sweep of flat agricultural lands.
As Bob and I prepared to leave the Reserve, we caught sight of a Loggerhead Shrike. Perched in a leafless tree, the Shrike had prey in its beak, so we reckoned there was a nest nearby.
Although we remained in our car, the Loggerhead Shrike was keenly aware of our proximity and hesitated to return to its nest.
By making close observations, Bob and I finally espied another Loggerhead Shrike hunkered down on its nest. We wondered if it was brooding and its mate was bringing food as sustenance until the eggs hatch.
Bob and I spent 2.5 hours exploring the sweeping curves of the dunes for a distance of about 5 kilometers. It started to sprinkle as we made our way to Leader to look into accommodation for the night. Although little of the moisture would be retained by the sandy soil, it would give a little boost to the vegetation that manages to eke out an existence there on the arid plains.
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