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  • Writer's pictureKarl Koerber

Saskatchewan Road Trip: Part One – Hiking with the Bison

Updated: Mar 21

I became entranced with the beauty of the prairie landscapes and wildlife during a trip with my partner through the southern parts of Alberta and Saskatchewan during in 2019. After spending a few days in the Cypress Hills, we poked into Grasslands National Park on our way to see friends and family in Regina and Saskatoon, and we were so taken with the area that we pledged to come back, a pledge we fulfilled this fall.

For the first part of our visit, we made forays into the park and surrounding areas from our base in the village of Val Marie. On day one, I hiked the Timbergulch Trail, a 15-kilometre loop through the coulees in the west block of the park. The short drive from Val Marie to the park yielded its own beauty, with a coyote hunting in the fields and some lovely early morning prairie landscapes.

The trail descends from the access road into the first of what the parks trail guide describes as “…three prominent, glacially-created coulee bottoms…” which make inviting habitat for bison.

The massive North American grasslands biome has been decimated over the past centuries, with only fragments remaining in anything resembling a natural state. Introduced species such as this crested wheatgrass are now firmly established and difficult to eradicate. The park has a program to reestablish native grasses and other species over time.

I chose this trail because I was likely to find bison here. Bison were reintroduced to the park in 2005, and the herd has grown from 71 animals to around 400-500 today. They are enclosed in a 181-square kilometre area, encircled by a 70-kilometre fence. I had only hiked a few kilometres before I spotted a group of about 40 bison in the distance.

I left the trail and climbed to the upland between the Timmons Coulee and the Police Coulee, in hopes of getting a closer look. One is advised to keep a minimum of 100 metres away from bison, as they can become aggressive, especially during the rut and calving season.

I was probably around that distance away when the alpha male began keeping a wary eye on me. Eventually, the herd moved on, out of sight, into a side coulee.

Making my way back to the trail, I was impressed by the variety and colour of the lichens on the rocks and boulders—“erratics” from the last ice age—that littered the landscape. Apparently, there are at least 194 species of lichen in the park.

I had no idea that there were cacti in the prairies, but three species make their home in Saskatchewan. This is brittle prickly pear, I believe.

I also noticed a few solitary bison grazing away from the groups. I assume they are bulls that, perhaps, have been ostracised for some reason, maybe vanquished by the dominant male of the herd. This old veteran looks like he's seen a few battles in his day.

I encountered only three other humans over the course of the day: one individual and a couple. Otherwise, I could easily believe that I’d been transported back to a time when only Indigenous people walked this land.

As I reconnected with the trail and started the descent into Police Coulee I ran into the same herd, this time blocking my way on the path.

They were raising clouds of dust and I realized some of them were dust-bathing. I found a couple of dust wallows along the trail as well.

I made a wide detour around the herd to get back on the trail and continued on toward Timbergulch Coulee, the last of the three broad valleys on this route. From a high point on the ridge I could view the convergence of the coulee with the Frenchman River valley, where another group of about 50 bison was grazing.

The area is rich in bird life, and I flushed several sharp-tailed grouse as I walked, along with numerous songbirds. Western meadowlarks are ubiquitous here, and I think this might be a juvenile. The endangered greater sage grouse can also be found in the park.

The landscapes here are fascinating, with surprises around every corner, like these smaller coulees where there is still enough moisture to create little wetland areas supporting green vegetation.

I was pretty tired when I finally got to the end of the trail, but filled with gratitude for the wonder of walking among the bison in the vast, open grasslands of this amazing park. It's a gift that I will carry with me for a long time.

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4 commenti

12 ott 2023

Thanks for the visuals of my home landscape Karl. I'm not entirely sure, but I think I prefer to see the bison on the other side of a fence... But I'm glad they are there.

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Karl Koerber
Karl Koerber
17 ott 2023
Risposta a

Thanks Sam!

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12 ott 2023

More great shots, Karl. Thank you. It's been a long while since i've seen bison and then it was probably in an old western. Regards to both. Ron

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Karl Koerber
Karl Koerber
17 ott 2023
Risposta a

Thanks, Ron!

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