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  Lodgepole Legacy

by Dave Yanko
Loch Leven, a scenic little lake surrounded by the park's trademark lodgepole pines.

Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park is a unique patch in the colorful quilt of outdoor experience that is the Saskatchewan parks system.

Rising 600 metres (1,950 feet) above the surrounding ranch land, the Cypress Hills are the highest point of land between Labrador and the Rockies. The majestic lodgepole pines crowning the hills and the lower-lying aspen stands are home to elk, pronghorn antelope, white-tailed deer, fox, coyote and bobcat. Signs posted in the campgrounds warn visitors about getting too close to normally-timid moose, many of which have lost their fear of humans and are regularly seen browsing near roads and campgrounds.

Cypress Hills has always been a lush retreat, rich in wildlife. For at least 7,000 years, nomadic Plains Indians wintered here because the hills were an excellent source of food, fuel, furs and building materials Ė lodgepole pines made excellent travois, teepee poles and, as their name implies, lodges. An additional attraction for the Indians was the Chinook breeze from the west, which made for a much milder winter than the one experienced on the Great Plains below.

The parkís physical and climatic features continue to attract campers, hikers, bikers and photographers in the summer months, and cross-country and downhill skiers in winter.

Cypress Hills park, Canadaís first interprovincial park, is divided into two sections: the centre block, where the amenities and most of the campgrounds are located; and the west block, an undeveloped wilderness area adjacent to Fort Walsh National Historic Site (for information on camping in all provincial parks or to access Saskatchewan's online campsite reservation system see here).

Browsing by the pool.

Saskatchewanís three dozen parks fall into four categories: wilderness, natural environment, recreation and historic – Cypress Hills park is a natural environment facility. Wilderness parks remain virtually undeveloped, while natural environment parks allow limited development (like fixed-roof accommodations) in a carefully preserved and natural setting. Recreation parks normally are located close to urban centres and allow for more intensive recreational use.

Due to its centralized camping area and many physical amenities, the core area in the centre block of Cypress Hills resembles a recreation park. Itís a busy area where campers can easily ride by rented bicycle to the store, interpretive centre, fast-food stand or the beautiful outdoor leisure pool.

A stroll around the small and idyllic Loch Leven lake might take an hour if you stop for a few minutes to admire the work of the artists, who frequently station their easels at the north end of the serene, oblong lake. Thereís a small beach on Loch Leven, although most preferred the leisure pool on the late-August weekend when we visited the park. The lake is stocked with trout, and motorboats with engines up to 5 hp are allowed. However, rented paddle boats and canoes appear to be the popular choice for most visitors.

An unusual vista for southern Saskatchewan.

Thereís good trout fishing (see Fishing Guide) in park streams, as well. If you're looking for pike and walleye, however, there are better venues in the province than Cypress Hills. The parkís features are its unusual, undulating beauty, its abundant and varied wildlife Ė including 200 species of birds Ė and its many recreational opportunities.

About 10 interlocking nature trails snake in and around the centre block Ė some moonlight as cross-country-ski trails in the winter. We took a leisurely two-hour stroll along The Valley of the Windfalls trail, where we were amazed to learn each of the towering lodgepole pines surrounding us sprang to life after 1885, when a fire leveled the entire Cypress Hills forest. Charred stumps can still be seen in a few places. We saw several white-tailed deer at the trailhead and were amused by a Great Horned Owl who caught our rear approach by smoothly rotating his head 180 degrees before swooping down from his perch and propelling himself into the lowlands with one economical wing stroke.

Elsewhere in the area we spotted about a dozen deer, a coyote, two golden eagles and numerous smaller critters (there are no bears in the park, but the squirrels in the campsites are delightfully rapacious). Near the leisure pool I photographed a cow moose foraging the greenery at the edge of a road. With the posted cautions in mind, I carefully squeezed off about a half-dozen shots from distances as close as seven metres (about 20 feet). Fortunately, she paid little attention to me, although Iím sure I didnít go unnoticed.

An extensive series of interlocking trails is used by hikers in the summer and cross-country skiers in the winter.

Horse riding, for pleasure and work, is a common activity throughout the ranch land of southwestern Saskatchewan. Itís no different in the park, where resource officers patrol the campgrounds on horseback (watch your step) and visitors roam the uninhabited areas on steeds hired at the "riding academy" located at the south perimeter of the core area. Guided trail rides are a wonderful way to experience the Cypress Hills and learn a bit about the fascinating history of the region.

During the last century, the hills were part of Canadaís "wild west", filled with "whiskey traders", outlaws, Indians and gunpowder. The infamous Cypress Hills Massacre, in which several dozen Assiniboia men, women and children were slaughtered by a group of "wolfers" who wrongly suspected the Indians of stealing ponies, occurred in whatís now the west block of the park. Law and order came to the area when the Canadian government established the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, or the North-West Mounted Police as they were then named. The Mounties set up headquarters at Fort Walsh, adjacent to the scene of the massacre.

Fort Walsh, where Sitting Bull met with representatives of the American government to discuss terms of his return to the U.S., is about an hourís drive from the centre block. Thereís a seemingly shorter, more direct route through "The Gap". But itís a stony, gravel road thatís not recommended if itís raining. We abandoned our attempt to navigate "The Gap" because it was too rough on our small sedan. If youíve got plenty of time (or a larger vehicle), itís a more scenic route than the alternative one.

Cypress Hills park features much of the same flora and fauna found in the Canadian Rockies, located 250 km (160 miles) to the west. Its character and atmosphere are similar to that of a mountain park, as well. Thatís not simply because of the panoramic vistas or the "switchbacks" in the road leading to Fort Walsh, but it is related to the parkís altitude.

In the denser stands of lodgepole pines that thrive in these highlands, the trees become top-heavy in foliage as they compete for sunlight. The airy atmosphere on the forest floor is accentuated by a dearth of underbrush, the result of acidic pine needles that limit growth there. In contrast, the less-conspicuous aspen stands often feature lush undergrowth.

And while Chinooks act as a moderating force during winter, the altitude of the Cypress Hills can mean cooler air on summer evenings. If an evening breeze comes up while youíre camping on a knoll in a lodgepole stand, youíll certainly notice it. And youíll want to make sure youíre not sitting downwind of the elevated fire box.

Many before us spent their evenings gazing into a fire.

Cypress Hills Provincial Park can be enjoyed not only for what it is, a vibrant and verdant oasis that beckons exploration and recreation, but also for what it was.

People have gathered here for thousands of years. A little knowledge of their habits and lifestyle can add depth and color to the experience of the trail and enrich the evening campfire.

For more information about Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park or to book a campsite using the online reservation system, click here.

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