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  Douglas Park

by Dave Yanko

Kids are racing down a school hallway, waving anything handy and sharing their excitement by hollering 'Victoria Day Long Weekend!'

It's one of images that runs through my head as we prepare for our second Victoria Day camping trip. Another is my wife and I draining a lake from the top of our tent last May at Greenwater Lake Provincial Park. At 4 a.m.

A long way to the water.
A long way to the water.

Douglas Provincial Park, as it turned out, delivered decent weather and two pleasantly unusual experiences. One of them involves what the park calls its 'best kept secret'.

First, a touch of background.

Douglas, located 100 kms northwest of Moose Jaw, is named after the premier who presided over Saskatchewan's proudest moment. Tommy Douglas in the early '60s created the first publicly-funded, health-care system in North America, the one all of Canada now cherishes. Well, in principle anyway.

Another time, a higher shore line at the main beach.
- courtesy Alan Mills & Tourism Saskatchewan
Another time, a higher shore line at the main beach.

He's revered in Saskatchewan. While growing up in Regina, I went to Douglas Park School, located on Douglas Avenue, about a half a block from my home in Douglas Park, which is nowhere near the majestic step-pyramid known as the T.C. Douglas Building over on Albert Street.

Tommy's park on this Victoria Day Long Weekend was long on campers and short on lake water. Apparently it's not uncommon for the reservoir called Lake Diefenbaker to drop by as much as 10 metres before it's replenished in June by a Rocky Mountain melt-off that feeds the South Saskatchewan River from Alberta.

Lake Diefenbaker, meanwhile, is named after the late John G. Diefenbaker, the only prime minister to come from this province and the man who gave Canada its first bill of rights. The lake was created in the 1960s when the province constructed the largest earth-filled dam in the world on the South Saskatchewan.

Visitors can view a video of this mammoth construction project and tour the hydroelectric generating station at the north end of the lake, a 220-km-long body of water (130 m) with endless sandy beaches.

The 12-km (7m) section of the Trans Canada Trail running through the park hugs a shoreline of grassland and poplar bluffs offering pleasant vistas of the lake. With the water so low, we walked the sandy lake bottom south from the main beach towards the boat launch, where the dock stood high and dry a long way from water's edge. It was like low tide on the ocean.

May is too early for swimming in Saskatchewan. But this vast exposure of smooth sand made clear one of the reasons Douglas is such a popular park. Visitors can congregate on the main beach and be near the playground, change rooms and fast-food outlet, or they can pack a lunch and hike down to their own 'private' beach two blocks or two kilometres away.

Or further. The entire 20 kms of park shore line is a natural sand beach. And we can vouch for the fact the bottom's universally smooth and sandy as far as the eye can see.

The sand isn't confined to beach.

When the last of the glaciers retreated they deposited sand throughout the area now encompassed by the park which, at 6,300 hectares, is small by Saskatchewan standards. The result is a strange and diverse landscape that's home to 15 endangered species - including the western spiderwort plant and the piping plover shorebird - as well as more than 170 bird species. Lake Diefenbaker is arguably the best fishing lake in the southern portion of the province, featuring walleye, pike, lake and rainbow trout (see Fishing Guide).

The park's 'best-kept secret' is a huge sand dune in the northeast sector that rises 30 metres (100 feet) above the surrounding prairie and stretches more than a kilometre (2/3 of a mile) in length.

Even at the top of the big dune, a few trees cling to life.
Even at the top of the big dune, a few trees cling to life.

Our party of five (dog included) set off for the dune around 10 a.m. on a warm, mostly-clear and breezy Sunday. The trailhead is located beside an interpretive centre that's a recommended stop (20 minutes) for those who want to learn more about the dynamics of sand dunes, and the flora and fauna in the region, before encountering them.

The first half of the 5-kms hike follows existing trails through a rolling landscape of windblown grasslands and stunted aspen groves, where juniper ferns fight for subsistence against other low dwellers like prickly pear cacti, ball cacti and poison ivy. Our Gordon Setter cross uttered not one yelp as she nose-plowed through the bush and grass beside the trail. But any setter owner knows this is worthless information; if a setter is enjoying herself, nothing will stop her. The message for humans: Don't wear sandals.

And take lots of water.

During the second half of the hike to the dune we were on our own, trailblazing across arid hills whose sparse vegetation concealed the stabilized dunes under our feet. From a height of land, we could the see the giant dune in the distance. We used the radio tower near the campground to fix our bearings. And then we trekked eastward across country, avoiding the astonishingly plentiful evidence we were in mule deer heaven.

The dune's height is deceiving because its windward base supports vegetation. But after we hiked up through the thinning plant life to the top of the active dune, the view was impressive.

Unlike the virtually barren dunes in Great Sand Hills about 250 kms to the southwest, the giant dune at Douglas supports a few trees. Even at the top, a few stubborn ones stand upright, tenaciously mining the sand for nutrients. Others on the west side lean leeward, their bared roots clinging to long-claimed territory as the sand around them moves east.

We found shelter from the wind behind one of these mounds, but not from the sun. We dug into the backpack for cool drinks and sandwiches, and marveled at how hot it was on the lip of the giant sand bowl where we were sitting. Our son, then 11, began launching himself off small cliffs into the soft sand below while the rest of us spent an hour and a half exploring this fascinating little desert. Then we struck off for home using the radio tower as our beacon.

I strongly recommend chatting with a park staffer before hiking to the big dune. With no formal trails through the dune area, it is possible to get lost. In fact, the park encourages dune hikers to report their departure and arrival for just this reason. If you're looking for a less challenging alternative, a free brochure and map of all park trails is available at the entry gate.

I must confess I'm partial to Saskatchewan's northern parks, where the boreal forest and numerous clear lakes provide dramatic contrast to our prairie home in Saskatoon. But we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves at Douglas. We plan to return in July or August to spend a day at that magnificent beach. When the tub's full.

For more information about Douglas Provincial Park or to book a campsite using the online reservation system, click here.

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