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  • Writer's pictureKarl Koerber

Saskatchewan Road Trip – Part 2: Dogtowns and the Frenchman River

Day Two: Another foray into the west block of Grasslands Park. Birds posed for us on fence posts along the way: a horned lark and a western meadowlark. Both are birds that can be found in the Kootenays, but I rarely see them anymore, even though meadowlarks were relatively abundant some decades ago. It was a joy to find so many of them here.

We followed the park’s “ecotour scenic drive,” a road that traverses the west block from north to south and has over a dozen interpretive stops. One of the first points of interest is the Top Dogtown colony of black-tailed prairie dogs. This is the only place they can be found in Canada, as it is on the northern end of their range. The colonies can be huge, many hectares in size, with the largest prairie dog colony on record, found in Texas circa 1900, at 100 miles wide and 250 miles long, containing an estimated 400 million animals, according to the US Parks Service. Wow!

Colonies consist of social units called coteries, comprised of one male, 3 to 4 females and their young up to one year of age. Members of the coterie identify each other by muzzling or 'kissing'. They also groom and play as a means of communicating.

Unfortunately, prairie dogs are susceptible to plague, called sylvatic plague when it infects these rodents, and there are a couple of infestations in the park. We passed a crew of parks staff decked out in full hazmat suits working in one of the colonies.

Again, the rocks, richly adorned with colourful lichens, caught my eye.

A key feature of the west block is the Frenchman River, meandering a leisurely path through the park. I was thrilled to find an abundance of northern leopard frogs here, a species that has practically been extirpated in the Kootenays.

Today it's a small stream by most standards, but, according to Parks information, the Frenchman River rivaled the Amazon during the great melting at the end of the last ice age.

Some of the structures of early homesteaders remain standing. This was the Larson farm, situated along the banks of the river.

The park has undertaken a process of converting some of the old fields by planting native species to replace the agricultural grains and grasses that were grown here by settlers. In one former pasture along the road we stopped to watch a pair of coyotes hunting for rodents.

A few killdeer were active along the river near another old homesteading site, where nothing remained except for some foundations and the rusted remnants of a wood cook stove.

The topography changes at the southern end of the drive, with more “badlands” type of landforms replacing the wide plains of the river valley.

This sharp-tailed grouse didn't seem too concerned when we stopped along the roadside to watch it slowly amble into the verge to blend in with the fall vegetation.

We concluded our scenic drive on a gravel road that led us back to Val Marie from the southeast, passing a few more remnants of early settler life in the beautiful Frenchman River Valley.

And, as a bonus, we were gifted a lovely prairie sunset at the end of the day.

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Stunningly good shots, Karl. You've captured some of the best of the Canadian Prairies. Thank you again for sharing your thoughtful observations. Ron

Karl Koerber
Karl Koerber

Thanks again, Ron!

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