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  Narrow Hills Provincial Parks

by Dave Yanko

Narrow Hills Provincial Park is contradiction and surprise:

  • Over the last several decades approximately 70 per cent of the park has been hit by forest fires. Yet it still boasts some of the most beautiful and curious landscapes in all of Saskatchewan.

  • Government brochures promote this natural environment park as a "near-wilderness" experience, and there appears to be more minimal-service and pack-out-what-you-pack-in camping areas here than in any other provincial park I've visited. On the other hand, the main campground at Lower Fishing Lake sports some of the most modern facilities of any campground in the province, including sensor-activated showers for the able-bodied and the disabled.

  • Narrow Hills is situated in the northeast-central portion of the province, well known among anglers for some of the best pike and walleye fishing in North America. In this park, however, trout is king. There are seven species of trout available in the well-stocked lakes, as well as pike and walleye. You can even try for a kokanee salmon, of all critters, if you're feeling lucky.

  • The core area of the park was alive with brown bush rabbits during my visit. It's simply high cycle for hares, I'm told. In a couple of years it will be fox.

  • You could almost throw a stone across pretty little Jade Lake, one of five small bodies of water comprising the geologically significant Gem Lakes area of the park. But that stone would sink 25 metres (80 feet) before hitting bottom.

  • While there's an expansive network of hiking/cross-country-skiing trails in the park, I seemed to be the only one using them during the three days in early July when I visited Narrow Hills. I suspect other campers had better ways of losing weight than being hauled away in hunks by hungry hordes of horseflies.

Yes, there were good surprises and bad at Narrow Hills. But hey, it's camping. And besides, the good outweighed the flies.

Follow the step path down to scenic Grace Lake.
Follow the step path down to scenic Grace Lake.

Just off the main road near the park office at Lower Fishing Lake, for instance, Esker Road twists south towards one of the crests that define the park. Twenty minutes up the gravel road there's a fork offering two options: left, to the fire tower and little museum (a ranger cabin circa 1938); or right, to the Narrow Hills trail. I decided the tower and museum could wait, and I brought the old sedan to bear on the rugged trail to my right.

Now, Esker Road is a misnomer. The trail I was travelling follows the narrow, rippled back of a large push moraine, an unstratified accumulation of till created when glaciers bulldozed their way through the region thousands of years ago. Much of the two-lane path is a rough aggregate of sand, stones and rocks, tough on a little car and quite susceptible to blockage by washouts and deadfall.

The ups and downs of the otherwise straight pathway deliver a net gain in altitude that becomes apparent only after the route nears the western edge of the moraine, where breaks in the jack pine and aspen forest reveal a surprisingly broad view encompassing picturesque little lakes amid old-growth forest. In the distance, a carpet of bright green saplings is evidence of one of the fires that ravaged, and renewed, this portion of the provincial forest.

The museum reflects the life of a forest ranger in the 1930s. Climb the fire tower at your own risk.
The museum reflects the life of a forest ranger in the 1930s. Climb the fire tower at your own risk.

Further up the Narrow Hills trail are several clearings created as scenic picnic areas (no camping), with tables, fire pits and outhouses. More than a half-dozen hiking/cross-country skiing trails begin along this portion of trail, which apparently leads all the way to the town of Love, some 40 to 50 km (30 miles) to the south. The hiking trails range in length from a very short jaunt down to placid, water-lily-framed Grace Lake, located about 100 metres (300 feet) below the main trail, to the 9.5-kilometre Island Lake Trail (which connects to several other trails), where the next day I served as food for flies.

The main trail on top of the moraine offers some of most beautiful forest vistas in the province. But I suggest using a sturdy, high-clearance vehicle. And if the skies turn grey, run away. You don't want to be caught in a downpour on this trail.

Glacial dynamics also account for the unusual and beautiful geography seen in the Gem Lakes area of the park. Jade, Opal, Sapphire, Diamond and Pearl lakes were formed when a passing glacier deposited large chunks of ice into the ground. The result is what geologists refer to as a "knob and kettle" formation of tight, round hills punctuated by small lakes that, like Jade, can be surprisingly deep.

For anglers, hikers and backwoods campers, Gem Lakes appears to be a very attractive spot (I walked only a small portion of the trail by Jade Lake). In fact, if you're a backwoodsy type who enjoys trout fishing, this place was made for you. The lakes are stocked with splake, brook, brown, rainbow and tiger trout (see Fishing Guide). And Jade, because of its depth, supports lake trout.

Fires are permitted only at the primitive campsites along the seven-kilometre (four-mile) hiking trail that weaves around the lakes, and campers are expected to haul out everything they haul in. Autumn, I'm told, is the best season to visit Gem Lakes. By then, the trees are splashed with color, the wolf howls carry further on cool air, and overnight frosts have dispatched most of the winged insects.

Speaking of insects. . . . The horseflies (big guys that deliver a sharp bite) were particularly bad in the backwoods. In the jack pine campground on Lower Fishing Lake, they were much less bothersome. And in spite of the amount of exposed flesh available at the campground beach, I saw only the odd one there. The elevated, breezy, minimal-service campsite at McDougal Creek, where I camped the first night, was free of the flies.

Good kids' beach - the water's shallow for 100 metres.
Good kids' beach - the water's shallow for 100 metres.

The rule of thumb for avoiding horseflies, whose numbers and "pestiness" vary from year to year and even week to week, is "stay in the breeze". Repellent, which works fine for mosquitoes, is just gravy to horseflies.

Of course, winter sports aficionados need not worry about such irritants. Much of the same trail system used in the summertime by hikers and all-terrain vehicles serves cross-country skiers in the winter. The hilly, wooded terrain throughout much of the park seems made to order for cross-country skiers who enjoy a challenging outing.

At 53,610 hectares in area (250 square miles), Narrow Hills Provincial Park is among the larger parks in the province. Established in the 1930s and known as Nipawin Provincial Park for many years, Narrow Hills is a natural environment park. Development in such parks is limited to fixed-roof accommodation and some man-made attractions. But the focus is to preserve the land in its natural setting while accommodating recreational use. Wilderness parks, like the adjacent Clarence-Steepbank Lakes, remain virtually undeveloped.

However, Saskatchewan's natural environment parks vary considerably in the amount of development and commercial enterprise they exhibit. Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park, in the southwest corner of the province, has a far more developed "core area" than the one at Lower Fishing Lake campground at Narrow Hills. There's no mini-golf, paved bicycle paths or riding stables at Narrow Hills, although park officials report efforts are underway to create the latter. The general feel of Narrow Hills is rugged wilderness (unless you're standing under a sensor-activated shower at Lower Fishing Lake). There are few paved roads. And the dry climate is reflected both in the large tracts of stunted jack pine eking an existence out of sandy soil, and the occasional charred branch visible at the foot of a young sapling.

Rugged beauty waiting to be explored.
Rugged beauty waiting to be explored.

Narrow Hills park provides for – it doesn't just offer – two very different summer experiences. Lower Fishing Lake is a handsome, no-frills, family campground with a nice beach and grocery store situated no more than a block way from the approximately 80 campsites. There's boat and canoe rental at the campground, as well as good water and wood supplies. One hundred or so privately-owned cabins in a nearby subdivision contribute to the activity level on the lake and shoreline, as well as to the playmate pool for camping kids.

And for those seeking a higher level of creature comfort, a lodge located on Upper Fishing Lake, just five-kilometres north of the lower one, offers cabins and motel rooms for rent. The lodge, open year-around, includes a grocery store, automobile garage with a licensed mechanic, as well as a restaurant featuring home-cooked meals and fast food.

Outside the main campground, however, the park accommodates the adult adventurer, eco-tourist and sports person. Right now, it's primarily anglers taking advantage of this area.

"There's no better area in the province for trout," a Narrow Hills conservations officer told me. "I don't care what anybody says. Shannon Lake is one of the best brown trout areas of the province, and they pull 30-pound lakers (lake trout) out of Little Bear (Lake)."

Regarding the kokanee salmon, however, the officer said they're scarce.

"If you catch a kokanee, buy a lottery ticket."

Given its extensive trail system, unusual terrain, many lakes and streams, and the primitive campsites established throughout the park, Narrow Hills seems poised to benefit from an increasing interest in backpacking and eco-tourism. Meantime, it's anglers' heaven.

Click here for more information about Narrow Hills Provincial Park or to use the online campsite reservation system. And check out our story on Gem Lakes, located at the west edge of the park, as well as our article on nearby Clarence-Steepbank Lakes Provincial Wilderness Park.

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