by Dave Yanko
NARROW HILLS PROVINCIAL PARK — Near the geographical centre of Saskatchewan lies a group of small, deep and beautiful lakes named after precious stones.
Jade, Diamond, Opal, Sapphire and Pearl—the Gem Lakes—sparkle in summer sunshine and reflect their lush green surroundings. It's one of the prettiest spots in Saskatchewan and a great area for an afternoon hike. But timing and preparation are key to enjoying this semi-wilderness area.
|A little breeze flits down one of the Gem Lakes.
The Gem Lakes sit at the northwest edge of Narrow Hills Provincial Park, about 90 minutes northeast of Prince Albert. The park gets its name from a set of hills and ridges that cut through it diagonally. Glacial movement thousands of years ago created this "rippled carpet" terrain, including the large push moraine featured near park's central campground at Lower Fishing Lake. Ice created the hummocky topography here at the Gem Lakes, as well.
As the glaciers retreated around 10,000 years ago, melt water flowing beneath the glacial ice eroded bedrock and sediments deposited by earlier glaciers. The result was a steep-sided channel called a tunnel valley. Here, the valley was filled with sand that contained large blocks of glacial ice that gradually melted, leaving depressions called kettles. Later, these kettles filled with water and the Gems were born.
The tiny water bodies are surprisingly deep—up to 25 metres (~ 80 feet) in some places—and clear, too. Clear enough, judging by what we observed from our hillside perch high above Jade Lake, to attract scuba divers. Perhaps they were hunting for dinner among the big trout lurking in the cool depths.
To reach Gem Lakes from the central park area, take Highway 106 (which evolves into the storied Hanson Lake Road) north to the junction of Grid #913. Proceed west on 913 for approximately 20 km, where you'll see the small sign on the north side of the road. If you're approaching from the Candle Lake district on 913, the Gem Lakes sign follows soon after the one marking the park's western perimeter. Note that the sandy road and pathway that lead to the parking area can be messy in the rain and nearly washed out by autumn.
As regards preparation: It's a good idea to wear footwear with good ankle support. Walking across the faces of hills on paths not always well trodden can be a little taxing on the lower legs. The trail network is not well maintained, nor should anyone expect it be; it's semi-wilderness. That said, it's better marked than it was several years ago and the most obstructive deadfall gets cleared.
Further on the timing of your visit and perhaps most importantly: Spring, summer and early autumn at Gem Lakes can be alive with winged insects, including biters and suckers. Severity varies from year to year. To avoid problems in this regard, you can visit in early spring (although mud could be a problem) or after a couple of autumn frosts have dispatched most of the bothersome critters.
Because the lakes reflect their surrounding foliage, autumn would be a beautiful time to hike around the Gem Lakes. However, most of the park's visitors come in the summer time. And it would be a pity for those interested to rule out the Gem Lakes hike because they felt the insects might be unmanageable. They are not.
Just use a good, DEET- or eucalyptus-based bug spray and you should be fine. In fact, in early summer, as we discovered, the prairie lilies (western red lilies) and wild roses are everywhere. Don't let the flies frighten you off.
It's approximately 100 metres from the parking area (and the one and only primitive washroom in the vicinity) to the trailhead map. You can choose a number of routes, depending on your time and inclination, but the main one tracks through the hills above the east side of Jade Lake.
The most significant option occurs on the return trip, when hikers encounter three choices as they come back towards Jade. They can return to the trailhead using the same east-side path they departed on, take a lower path that follows the eastern shoreline of Jade, or hike the clearly less-used trail around the west side of the lake.
We chose the path less travelled. Just because. And while it's much more up and down than the alternative routes (it also threatens to vanish now and then), it offers a nice, high view from the opposite side of Jade. It will add, perhaps, 15 to 20 minutes to the two- to three-hour (leisurely) hike.
The Gem Lakes is one of those beautiful spots most people have never heard of. But it's well worth a visit. It's a true gem.
Check here for the fee schedule for provincial parks and here for the province's parks pages. You can phone Narrow Hills Provincial Park at 306-426-2622 (May to September), or 306-426-2611 (year 'round). Check out our Narrow Hills park story, as well as our article on nearby Clarence-Steepbank Lakes Provincial Wilderness Park.
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