It’s a sweltering 33 degrees in Saskatchewan’s Grasslands National Park. The old glass thermometer outside the window of my mother’s house would’ve shattered.
Swift Current, the small city where I grew up, is only an hour and a half away, but there’s no one left for me to visit. My mother died eight years ago.
All the same, whenever I have a chance to return to the landscape of my birth—rolling grasslands and a low stretch of hills the clouds lean into—I jump at the chance. A traveller passing through this horizon-hinged terrain might call it empty, but it reveals its riches to anyone who looks with open eyes.
In the heat of the park, the ranger at the interpretive centre radios our guide every 20 minutes to ask if the six of us hikers, including my husband, Patrick, are okay. Hey, five of our group are prairie people (Patrick’s from B.C.); we’re tough.
Pounded by the sun, we’re hiking a three-hour loop in the park’s West Block, across the clay basin of what used to be the Bearpaw Sea.
Our destination is a hibernaculum, an eroded cliff where five snake species, including rattlers, sleep away the winter. In my pocket I’ve tucked a brochure about these slithery residents. The harmless bull snake, it says, resembles the rattler. You can tell these reptiles apart by looking closely at their eyes. The pupils of the bulls are round like a dog’s. A rattler’s are vertical like a cat’s.
Which one of us will volunteer to get close enough to note the difference? Turns out neither snake shows up—it’s August, after all, not October when they return to their dens. But this sere and beautiful park doesn’t disappoint.
If you don’t see something at your feet—that is, if you’re not counting the 70 species of grass (spear, wheat, blue gramma, to name a few)—look up.
Along the coulee’s ridge a dark stream of creatures is moving fast. Not cattle, not horses, but something that thrills us to the bones—a herd of buffalo running along the horizon with the wind.
You don’t need a machine to time travel here. Where the scent of sage overpowers the smell of sweat, and wild buffalo river the grasslands—it’s 1,000 years ago. Later, on a rise, I stub my toe on a rock in one of the park’s 12,000 tipi rings.
The re-introduction of North America’s largest grazing animal is the park’s greatest success story. Eight years ago, 71 buffalo, properly called Plains Bison, were set free where they traditionally used to roam. Now, they number over 400.
Our guide, who grew up on a nearby ranch, explains how these animals enrich the ecosystem. “Its manure,” she says, “does more than fertilize.” The endangered Burrowing Owl drags a chunk of it into its hole to attract insects. An added bonus: the smell scares predators away.
I didn’t expect to see this rare and inventive owl, but the next day, it runs and then hops ahead of me on the trail to the highest butte. Small bird on a pogo-stick, it disappears before I reach the top where the sky whirls all around me.
This has to be light’s birthplace. The sky is bigger than anywhere else and more inviting. There’s nothing to compete: no tall forests to block out the sun, no mountains casting shadows.
Here, when the world began, there was room enough for light to push through the darkness and thrive.
This openness above our heads and all around us affects other aspects of the Grasslands. Is this the only national park that encourages visitors to wander off the trails? We walk where we please, including through one of the colonies of prairie dogs that exist nowhere else in Canada.
Fat-bummed gophers on steroids, they chirp to warn their kin, standing upright on burrows that rise from the flatlands like small volcanoes burping dirt. They’re curious and fearless yet they pop underground when the prodigal buffalo shoulder their way into town.
It’s a good thing the rodents vanish. One morning from our car we watch dozens of buffalo fall to their sides as if a wind knocked them flat. Rolling on top of the burrows, they sweep their huge heads like muscled mops to raise the dust.
Before and after our hikes, we take refuge in The Crossing Resort, a beautifully designed, big-windowed B&B right on the border of the park. It’s run by a retired librarian and his wife. I imagine him saying “Shhhh,” and every human noise disappears.
The park is a sanctuary of silence, one of the last on the planet. Under the wind, under our heartbeats, we hear the earth breathing.
This doesn’t mean there aren’t other sounds, it’s just that they’re not man-made. Dawn begins with meadowlarks gargling the light, then vesper sparrows, robins, pipits, red-winged blackbirds and swallows chattering as they swoop above the water-filled dugout below our deck.
The park’s also a dark-sky preserve but while we’re here, a Strong Moon, as golden-orange as a mango, hides the sharpness of the stars. We don’t complain. Seven nighthawks dip from the sky into the water for a drink.
I swing between elation and sadness. As much as I love my current home in Sidney, B.C., this starkly beautiful land and sky strike every note of homesickness resonant inside me.
On what used to be my maternal grandparents’ farm, a half-hour drive from Swift Current, a granite erratic sits tall in the pasture, its edges polished by thousands of buffalo scratching their backs. My mother as a child slid down its slope every time she was sent to get the cows. When I was a kid, she’d lift me up so I could run my fingers over its glassy rim.
On our last day in the park, we stop at a huge boulder hunched in the grass. It, too, has been buffed by woolly backs for hundreds of years. Now, the new kids on the plains use it for the same reason.
I stroke strands of buffalo hair caught on the lichen and follow the fresh tracks deepening the wallow around it. If stones can feel, if they can remember, this rubbing stone must be thrilled. Finally, the ancient ones have come home.
Just outside the park’s boundary, I pick some sage leaves and stuff them in the pocket of my backpack. When I’m home on Vancouver Island and we walk along the ocean, I’ll rub them between my fingers and inhale the scent of Saskatchewan—then both places I love will be with me.
*Editor’s note: Many thanks to Lorna Crozier—author of A Poet in The Great Rainforest and Sidney, B.C. by the Salish Sea—for this story, to Tourism Saskatchewan for supporting Lorna’s visit and to photographer Lori Andrews @theoriginal10cent on Instagram (worth a follow if you ask us!) for her images.